What you might hear if you walked into my shop . . .



Last February I was invited to submit an article to an online motorcycle blog/magazine for a new feature they were trying. This column was to be a simple question posed to a number of folks who are involved with motorcycle building in some way, with the answers compiled and presented later. I was so excited (and honored) to be asked to particate as I'm neither a big-time motorcycle builder nor an established writer of any sort. As is typical for me, I waited until the very last minute to submit it. Old habits die hard. I think I wrote every paper I've ever submitted just minutes before it was due.

So I was on the NJ Transit 6:30am train from Trenton to New York the morning it was due trying to decide what to write. I couldn't begin to come up with an idea or theme for this question that did not seem totally cliche or tired. I was really stumped. Almost every bike shop has sparks flying, tools whirring, loud hard music, grease everywhere, etc. I didn't think I could add anything new or interesting to that angle.

Then it struck me. . . the reason the shop holds my interest so well (in addition to building bikes, obviously) is THE PEOPLE. Duh! Write about the people!

I started writing on the inside margin of a newspaper someone had left on the floor below me. The words started pouring out of my head faster than I could scrawl them. It was a real challenge finding enough white space on the crinkled paper in my lap to get them all down. I sat down at my desk and started transcribing first thing when I got to work. I think I got done and sent it in sometime around 11am, with apologies for being a little late. Whew!

Turns out I overshot the mark a little (as is my nature). I wrote a damned book rather than a paragraph. Luckily, this column was new and the rules had yet to be established. Luckier still that Grail, the editor/owner, like it enough to use it. Thanks Grail.


December, 2008

p.s. - more pictures of the shop are here: Shop Pics


The article below was originally posted here: Knucklebuster - What You'd Hear

The whole of the feature is posted here: Knucklebuster - One Question Interview

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What you'd hear if you walked into my shop. . .

On your way in you'd likely pass by some of Philly's finest stoop dwellers drinking and arguing around a baby carriage while young men with Caesar haircuts and shorts/pants and Iggles jerseys peddle past and in circles as if on watch. Not being from this particular block, or of their tribe, you'd definitely hear nothing addressed to you as you maybe smile or say hello on your way past. No verbal or facial acknowledgement would ensue, and caring about that would get you nowhere.

Skateboard rabble kids would be jumping off the ramp we helped them build, or rail sliding on the train track section Clean Chris welded up for them. 99A wheel rattle and street slide screeching and worn out deck slapping, with constant mumbles of approval in the background. An occasional outburst of guarded laughter, albeit low-key. Thing is, these kids are amazing skaters. With no parents to limit or authority to guide, they have all the time in the world to perfect their craft. And they have. Agile, contextless, street fixtures . . . who would give you a blank stare if asked about Gonzalez or Alva or Gator. The smartest of the bunch, Vinnie, has understanding eyes that betray his detached stance. We do our best to guide his interests towards that which will not later destroy him. I won't take a guess at the probability. Fool's piss in the wind it'd be.

If it were a warm day, although those lately seem long past, you might walk in by the ramp constructed of scrap wood and expanded metal and fiberglass cast offs. It'd buckle and sway underfoot, feeling a bit sketchy if this were your first visit. . . your eyes irretrievably drawn and locked on the motorcycles hanging from the ceiling. From I-beams. By chains. By safety straps. In every corner. On shelves. In lofts, on cars, in trucks, in racks, on blocks, under trash, over parts, near buckets, under foot. over head. With a six foot disco ball in the middle. Sun rays coming in through roof skylights and under the lintel throwing heavenly beams through the metal and paint dusty room like you'd died and gone to central booking for the heaven you believe in. Rust. Grease. Cracked vinyl. Crumbled seat foam. Cloudy lens glass. Dented paint. Sour gas. Musty oil. Hard metal.

For real.

Bonnie, the fourteen year old brindle, would give a good go (and not without real threat) in checking you out and deciding your next move. She knows people. And she knows motorcycles. Her sidecar, connected to an early Bonneville piloted by Adam, has to my knowledge never been inhabited by a two-legger. She knows the city and has seen it all with her eyes squinted and her ears twirling in the wind. Barking at suckers and crackheads as we ride along. She'll jump out at a light or stop sign to clear the path if need be. She'll wander the neighborhood while we're in the bar and somehow be waiting in her seat staring longingly when we come out.

Adam, the owner of this building and the curator/barker of our freak show metal-through-time unadvertised Americana-style roadside jawn, would probably come out to calm the old girl and see what's going on. Assuming he wasn't teaching one of his resident studies, or talking the change out of prospective customers' pockets with big dreams and natural charms and a capable show, he'll tell you that his beautiful young son, Max, will own all these bikes some day. He'll continue matter-of-factly about the endless rows of cuties that will line up to kiss this porcelain faced sweet boy with delicate Japanese features and a sharp charismatic father. The Nortons and Triumphs and Whizzers and AJS' and E-type Jags and Pininfarinas might well bridge father and son in ways we still canít know. Max might as likely run up and ask you to play pirate as shy away and run to be with Clean Chris, his best non-parental pal.

In this middle of this huge room, as you walk past, you'll find Hippie Dave, who has rented an eight-by-eight patch of floor to rebuild his VW van over the winter. He's got an old catering cart with a plywood board screwed on top for an engine stand. He comes by when he's not teaching fourth graders in Camden public elementary schools. He's rebuilding an engine, which he's never done before. He's got a calm approach towards the whole thing almost as if he's not terribly concerned with the outcome. Many of us offer tips and check out his work as we walk past during the day. He just last Sunday told me a about the school play he recently put on with his students. You can tell he is really connected to them, and I'd imagine, them to him. He's a conduit of rich experience and quiet wisdom to these children of a dangerous city.

Believe it or not, you haven't even made it past the front room yet. Two stories high with a big vaulted ceiling, this used to be some type of factory. My friends bought it two years ago for a song and have put their sweat and blood and high times into it every day since. It works and grows, slowly becoming. There is no polish. This is a city and a people of scarce economy. Anything more than just enough might be a waste. Extra efforts are stolen or lost here. Scraps, reused until they become dust, are the building blocks of Philadelphia.

You'll have to find a passage through the draped milky plastic on your way to the back, where you'll find Adam's lair, the bike lifts, and the stairs to the workspace lofts. There is no heat here aside from a lone coal stove in the back corner. If you don't close the gap you made in short order, you'll hear Adam or Hannibal yell that you're wasting heat. This room strikes you too. . . another twenty or thirty motorcycles from sixties psychedelic choppers to pre WWII boxers to salad days Brits are lined peg to peg along every wall and in every corner.

Come on back, you're almost to my shop.

You'll pass bike messengers fabricating bike frames, and another four or five work bays inhabited by most of the people I call friends.

Beer caps fall to the floor and roll under benches as Billy from the neighborhood brewery passes out some of their latest creation.

Following the yellow painted lines that Adam painted in a fueled fit of late night mania, intended to keep crap (and it's his most of the time) from blocking the approach, you'll come to a big red warehouse fire door on a rolling track with a big German Shepherd stencil painted on it. My dog claims territory and swears guardianship over wherever I roam. The stencil is her likeness. This is my shop.

Come on in. . .

When you pull back the heavy door, listening to the metal-clad old wood bang in the tracks and the iron wheels it hangs from jump over rust bumps on the rail like the Cyclone in Coney Island, you might hear. . .

- Alan Jones recounting his latest run-in with the law and declaring a new date for the return of his driver's license. It's been a few years now. He's on his way to work up the block, and might invite you by for beer later. Maybe he'll tell you about the time him and Jeffy-Sue came up to Manhattan to visit. Or he might talk about the time last year when we all took a U-Haul to Brooklyn to pack up my old shop and bring it home. Everyone helped without question and packed it up in a matter of hours before spending the rest of the day at the taco joint drinking beer. He might tell you about life in a truck with Gas Money or playing 'til his fingers bled at the first Hotrod Hoedown. His ironhead sportster and Triumph bits are out in the bay next to mine. He'll have 'em done when his license returns.

- Vin Metal, with erratic and exuberant delivery telling you about last month's Sporting Gentlemen trip upstate. Where two shopping carts of munitions were used in conjunction with one cart full of whiskey to make for a fine outing for all involved. Felt hats and tweed jackets and Jack Daniels and weapons of all manner were in abundance. Remarkably, no one was hurt aside from reports of continued ear ringing and lasting hangovers. Suddenly, in what will appear to the untrained to be a schizophrenic shift in subject, he'll ask your opinion on probabilities and chaos effects in multi-variable environments. Or describe beautiful nature of the mathematical expressions that represent them. Quails to quantum theory. His post industrial laboratory is about a mile up the road where he builds all manner of useful devices, whimsical objects, and functional artworks. You might find his creations in the most unexpected establishments.

- Brent, up from Annapolis, quietly washing parts and gently splashing kerosene in the parts washer in the corner. Unsure whether his ear is bent towards the goings on or not, he generally is pretty quiet. It's a lot to take in.

- Hannibal, who came with the building, telling about hobo-ing across the country with his dog and landing here in Fishtown. He found this building abandoned years ago with a few inviting broken windows. Lately he has become as probably permanent as he has been and lives in the lair Adam built for him behind the main work bay. He and Bonnie are constantly competing and trying to out maneuver each other to claim the mattress on the floor in the corner. She won't give it up easy and some nights he's on the floor next to her. Had you dropped by last Sunday morning you would have heard him cooking a pot of canned stew on the wood stove up in the artists' loft, with sun pouring in through all the big metal-framed factory windows that line the upstairs, him sitting on a milk crate with cinched-down oversized jeans and a worn leather jacket. We have birthday parties for Max every year in the park below. For the last three years at least. Since he's been born. In Hannibal's own version of settling down, perhaps inspired by Adam's tutelage, he now has his own toolbox and has met the Snap-On man. Put down one jones and fall right into the hands of another. No matter. We've all got them.

- Magnum, having just gotten out of prison last night, might tell you how the man fucked him again. Or introduce you to Magnum Jr, growing on the side of his face. In the open. Some people need a little straightening out from time to time, he'll tell you. Skilled with the lineman's pliers, you might hear him installing new runs from the far corner of the warehouse. With real connections this time, taped and all, rather than 4 gauge hand-twisted stripped service wire hanging in plain sight, within easy reach. He'll ask if I need any work before he reports back for his next six month stint in the morning. Matter-of-factly. Reap and sow. Late night copper miner and electrician by day are his yin and yang. Not quite the Karma cycle, but a cycle just the same.

- Bobby and Mark from Kensington. All jokes and smiles, they'll have you rolling on the floor. Their gentle nature just barely conceals the radiant impression that you might not want to ever get into it with them. Their mother killed their father when they were young. I'm not sure if he needed it, and won't tell you I remember exactly how it goes.

- Vincent Salvatore Lopiano, in the bay next door with a cigarette dangling from his lips while doing a carb jet job on a late model Yamaha super bike, listening to Johnny Cash or Reigning Sounds from the 70s stereo console next the "Afroscope" fluorescent velvet flock poster with 12 silhouetted sexual suggestions. Exactly fifty percent of his eight foot by ten foot bay is occupied by a metal bench and fully stocked Snap-On roller box. If you need to use it, he probably has it. If you nee to know how, he can probably tell you. If you'd like to ride somewhere, anywhere, he just might join you. Some days he looks like Elvis. Others he's looked like the ghost of Jim Morrison. He's always got time for doing what we do.

- A deafening rumble from blocks away, approaching then stopping in front of the rolling metal door which is now shaking in its track from the exhaust note. Silence. For just a second, as they reach into their saddle bags and pull out two cases of cold beer, as if we don't keep any around or wouldn't want to share it. Dan and Mighty Whitey (RIP) from S. Jersey have arrived and the plans for the day might just be changing. They amble back through the museum room, under the plastic, and down the lane markers to the chamber in the back. Boxes of beer set on the floor and ripped open rough-shod declaring that there'll be no need to transport them neatly again. Sweat rolls off the cans and soaks through the box into puddles on the kerosene and oil coated floor. Brent might look over his shoulder from time to time in absolute awe of the barrage of stiff staccato coarse tales of S. Jersey life. Eventually he'll learn to distill their meaning and train his ears to comb out the fucking extra fucking words that fucking surround the fucking story.

- Eric the mastermind machinist might be scurrying around up in the storage area, digging through piles of once valuable milling machine and lathe parts. The many old lathes and rotary tables and angle plates scattered around the shop are mostly his. Most of the stuff he's stashed would require a forklift, or at least three people, to pick up and move. Not much use for it these days, but it's still here. His chain link work bay is strung with 20W bulbs on a wire emitting a strange combination of holiday glow and Apocalypse Now delta eeriness. There are no other lights there. He might show you one of his latest creations. . . a 1/25 scale working v-twin engine charm that that he cast and machined from 14K gold. It has a small wire crankpin and rubies for pistons that actually move up and down in the cylinders, which are framed in delicate gold. You can watch the gears turn and the rubies reciprocate as you turn it by hand. You can only imagine how much time he must have spent with magnifying glass goggles and jewelers files and safety pin punches. Turns out he has a few small containers full of spare parts he made that could be used to fix this one, or perhaps, make another.

- Clean Chris, or lately regular Chris since the passing of Chris Reloader, making his first sound since entering god-knows-how-long ago. You might be startled when suddenly over your shoulder you hear him quietly continue a conversation that you don't recall starting, as if from nowhere. It might be about his travels with the Navy, of keeping an old rusty boat a viable means home from far Pacific ports. Like the time the gray water hold rotted through deposited its charge into the fuel tanks. It may be about the customs of six century samurai. It might be commentary to a peculiarity of modern Japanese culture. Chris has his own tempo and his own style which can take some time to connect with. To truly appreciate him you must learn to listen attentively and become attuned to his subtlety. You will be rewarded. He occupies a large corner or the front room, or at least his tools do, making ornamental and structural steel creations for modern antique building rehabilitations and renaissance neighborhood parks and gardens. His style has a rough simplicity at first glance yet flowing lines and ingenious detail upon further pondering.

And so on. And so on. And so on . . . You never know what you'll get. That keeps it fresh.

The common thread? The characters in this story have over 150 years combined experience building every marque of classic bike and scores of eclectic cars.

The soundtrack runs from Monk to Minor Threat, from Merle to Mahalia. Skip James to Studio One. Ry Cooder to the The Roots. PIL to Pigpen.

The undercurrent beneath all the encounters you might have here is the joint creation and development of ideas. From abstract construction of new philosophies to detailed plans for building a street-going ship for the next freak parade. From deconstruction of the normally unexamined to a collaborative plan for repairing fifty year old worn out machines. The conversation has no bounds. Ever.

We build motorcycles here.

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