Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Reluctant Wrench Episode 2: Ouroboros

He got out of his seat and pedaled up the last hill he had to endure before getting to work. His three best pairs of jeans were too filthy to even wear at the shop, leaving him with some old black denim Levi's that were tight on his thighs, constricting his legs and making his keys feel like a jagged rock in his pocket. Heavier than a rock. A sharp lump of lead, maybe. And the keys seemed to be multiplying. First, it was just his own set of keys and the front door of the shop. Then the key to the shop truck. Then the back gate. As more senior employees walked off to greener grasses, their burdens, angst, and responsibilities had been dropped onto him with the simple clinking sound of another key set upon his work bench.






When he rounded the corner and the shop came into view, his heart sunk. A man in olive drab overalls, pacing back and forth between the planter and an overturned bike, was waiting in front of the shop for a repair. It was Double D. When he rolled up, barely within earshot, Double D started talking about "catching a flat" as if flat tires were some kind of airborne virus. He leaned his bike against the planter. The planter was full of artificial flowers made of spokes and chainrings, and several had been pushed over by Double D using it as an ashtray. Double D always smelled like he ate nothing but tuna sandwiches for a week, then crapped himself.

"I caught a flat," he repeated, moving towards him. He raised his hands to stop the advancement. He still couldn't understand why people on the East Coast had to get so damn close to you to have a conversation. We are not on a crowded subway, he always wanted to yell, there is no reason for two dudes who are not intimate to have their faces so close together!

"OSHA regulations," he belted out instead, "I have to turn all the lights on, music started, and three gulps of coffee before admitting customers into the store." 

"OK, big man," Double D replied.

He turned the key, reciting his daily mantra: "First to enter, last to leave." He shut and locked the door behind him. Turned off the alarm. Turned on the stereo and lights. "Goddamnit," he rants to the rafters, "I get here an hour early to get caught up on work, not take more in!" Niceness being his fatal flaw, he didn't make Double D wait long. Let him in. Argued for ten minutes about how you can't just put in a new tube when there is a giant gash in the sidewall of the tire. Argued another twenty minutes, while doing his first tune up, that he can't do it all for thirty dollars when the tube is six, the tire twenty-seven, the labor ten. Finally settles on doing it all for forty if Double D promises to not come back into the shop for at least three weeks. Double D pays with a C-note, pulled from a roll of bills, of course.

It was one of those weeks, or months, with no real defined beginning or end. So he was really just in the muck of the season. An occassional weekday off, and not knowing what day that will be, can't really define a work week in a shop that is open every day. And he had just done a three week stretch because the other mechanic, Glen, had lost his uncle in Louisville to a car accident. It being Glen's first day back, he was looking forward to just working, not working frantically, not having to work pre-opening to post-closing without a lunch break. It was a relief to hear his key turning in the lock.

"G-dogg," he called. "A sight for sore, bloodshot, aging eyes."

"Yo," Glen replied. He hung his old Trek 520 on a hook. Glen was one of the few legitimate mechanics that managed to stick around more than a few weeks. He was mid-twenties, dressed a bit more hip than the area's usual inhabitants; he had cut his teeth working in NYC with a shop specializing in retro rebuilds. He could do spoke calcs for single wall rims, four cross, perfect every time. He lacked a little in modern mountain bikes, but someone who can build wheels and knows which direction an Italian bottom bracket tightens can learn how to push a little DOT fluid through a brake line.

"Guess who I already dealt with this morning?" he asked, knowing that Glen may need a little levity. "Double D."

"Oh God," Glen said. "The only man to have ever put on aero bars so he had a place to rest his man-boobs."

"They would be nice and bouyant for swimming if he ever entered a triathlon, though." Glen laughed. He looked tired.

"Louisville is pretty nice," he said. "I could see myself living there."

"You have a lot of family there?"

"Some," Glen answered. "Cousins, that kind of thing."

"Your family doing ok?"

"All things considered, yeah."

"You? Need more time or anything?"

"Just getting back to a normal routine, some distraction, will probably help." Glen looked over the work-orders. "Looks like there is plenty of distraction here."

With that, they dove in, and soon enough the sales guys rolled in and opened the shop, each coming back to greet Glen and give an account of their Sunday evening. Then the noon rush, with all the carnage of the past weekend, broken derailleur hangers, cracked carbon and bent rims. They took in enough work to fill the week, putting up with the usual astonishment from the customers that their bikes couldn't be fixed while they wait.

Around two, one of the sales guys called out "He just pulled up." Before the door even opened there was a hesitation, a stillness, a moment when all fun was sucked out of the air in one gasp. The Boss walked in, and with a quick "Hey guys," strode through the sales floor and made his way behind the service desk. He pulled a leg from a box of fried chicken, made a few sucking sounds with his lips, and took a cross-armed stance by Glen's bench.

"So, uh, Glen. You plan on starting another repair?"

"Yeah," Glen replied. "I just put one away. About to pull out another."

"So, how are you going to start the next repair."

He and Glen glanced at each other. It was obvious, when the rhetorical questions with no right answer started flying, The Boss was in a mood.

"I am going to start the next repair," Glen started, "by reading what service is requested on the work order."

"Well, I just don't see how you could start another repair. You know, with all the tools from your last repair strung out all over the place."

"Well, for maximum efficiency," Glen said, falling right into The Boss's trap, "I was going to get as many repairs done as possible, and worry about cleaning once we were caught up."

"I just don't see how you could possibly be efficient with my tools laying everywhere. Where is your chain whip?"

Glen turned around, his eyes scanning his bench. "See," The Boss continued, "you wouldn't have to look for it, then you would be more efficient, if it was back in its place. Tell me, am I paying you to use tools, or to look for them?"

Glen reached his hand to the back of his bench and pulled out his chain whip, holding it up.
"It's right here."

"That's not the point. It doesn't matter if it is the chain whip or a number two screwdriver." He bit a hunk of meat from the chicken leg and talked with his mouth full. "The point is if you needed the tool to fix something for a customer, could you find it?"

"Yes," Glenn said. "It would either be hanging up, or here on my bench."

"But you don't know which, if your bench is messy, so you would have to look. Meanwhile the customer has waited too long for his repair and goes to some other shop. And I lose my house."

While The Boss and Glen verbally sparred, because that was what was going on, he tried to continue on with his repair. He wasn't even on the receiving end this time, but he could feel his face getting hot. This was nothing new. Joining the fight wouldn't help. Just straight up pointing out to The Boss that he was being an ass wouldn't help either. Many had already done so, nothing had changed. They had been cranking out repairs at a good rate. After the barrage, Glen wouldn't have the energy or desire to hustle. Not after being told he was the reason The Boss's kids were going to starve.

It made no sense, of course. His bench was messy too. And The Boss's bench? On any given day, it could be covered in empty soda cans, McDonald's wrappers, and the same half-laced wheels he was perpetually building for himself.

The encounter peaked with Glen asking, "So what do you want me to do? I am trying to get the repairs back to the customers as quickly as possible. Or I can clean my bench every hour."

"Do both," was the answer he got, and just as suddenly as he entered, The Boss walked over to the stereo, turned the station to some crap Top 40, and left the building.

"Jesus," Glen said. Then he spent an hour straightening his bench. Then he pulled out the Pine Sol and cleaned the surface. Then he swept the floor. Then mopped. While Glen cleaned, he just kept turning wrenches, trying to get everything done that was promised for the next day. They had talked about him possibly leaving early, since he had been working so much. Maybe taking the dog to the park with his girlfriend. But he decided not to even try to bring that up. He finished a brake bleed and looked up to see Glen leaning against his immaculate workbench, staring at the floor.

"Dude."

Glen looked up, shook his head."You mind if I leave early?"

"Naw," he said, knowing he was supposed to be the one leaving early, but thinking longterm. "You coming back tomorrow?"

"I honestly don't know," Glen said. "I have to talk to my wife. I mean, he freaking didn't even ask me how I was doing, or how my family was."

"I know."

"How did that interview you had last week go?" Glen asked.

"Sucked. Some girl insisted she give me her number though."

The next hour the sales guys were abuzz with speculation on if Glen would come back, if they had just lost another mechanic, what they would've said if they were Glen. He just wanted to see his dog. They were about to lock the doors when a guy with an ugly Cervelo P3 came rushing in. He was leaving in the morning for an Ironman in Hawaii. He had switched wheels, now it wouldn't shift right. Would he please stay and figure it out?

It really didn't take long, the skewer springs were on backwards and jammed into the dropouts, of course, and the guy changed cassettes at some point without using the right spacer. But it took long enough for the place to empty out. He watched the Ironman pull away, stuffing the five dollar tip he had gotten for giving up another part of his life to save some over-achiever's four thousand dollar race vacation. He set the alarm and turned the key. "First to enter, last to leave," he said to himself.

5 comments:

  1. So much of this hits so very close to home. I know that all professional mechanics have been in some such situation before. And while this story does paint an almost bleak photo of wrench life (and some days it can even be much worse) at the end of the day I know that we would not want to be doing anything else. Plenty of ups come with the downs. Teaching a kid how to ride a bike in a matter of minutes, stoking a guy out by giving him the best tune up ever, or even just getting high praise because you know exactly what that ticking noise is makes it all worth while. Do not forget to look at the highlights too.

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  2. Thanks! I agree, not every job in the world gives you at least one moment a day that causes you to burst out laughing. Don't worry, I am sure a few rays of sun will sneak through the Reluctant Wrench's clouds.

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  3. Thank you. We are totally inspired by all the great feedback.

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  4. Excellent job dude. That fried chicken is an especially visceral detail.

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