My first job

In the summer of 1993, I worked as a mechanic for Tom Mowatt Cycles.  The first job I ever had.

I’m pausing here for a moment, thinking about this.  Looking back, that sounds fucking cool, like a natural piece of the puzzle for me.  I guess it really was?  I wish I had better understood that at the time.  All it was to me, at 15, was a job that I really didn’t know how to do.

My experience working with bikes up until that point had been limited to casual maintenance on my own pieces of crap.  Real work on real bikes with real tools, this was something totally different.  And not something I would be permitted to do right away.  I had to earn the right, and as far as my skills were concerned (I didn’t have any), that made sense.
They started me in the absolute pit of existence, in mechanic terms:  kids bikes.  Building kids bikes are probably the worst possible task in any shop.  For one, the bike is something you will personally never aspire to ride.  Nor can you, as it’s too small.  You will finish building it, and reap no reward of a test ride.  You slap on some crappy training wheels, and boom.  Gets inspected, hopefully you didn’t screw it up too much, goes upstairs to the showroom, open the next box.  
Where’s the next box?  Oh, it’s not far.  It’s technically only feet away, directly overhead.  On the third floor of the building.  And you’re in the basement.  I hauled bikes up and down those stairs all summer long.  This was a pretty old building, an old house if you will, so you can picture the kind of steep, narrow staircases we dealt with.  I crashed hard on the road that summer and my arm was in a sling for a week, and I still hauled bikes.  What a hero.

Once I had paid enough dues building tiny bikes, I spent the remainder of the summer building two unforgettable pieces of shit:  the Haro Vector and the Raleigh M50.  I don’t even know how many I put together; too many.  Apparently people bought them.  The monotony was awful.  Sometimes I would just go into the bathroom and hang out for minutes at a time, doing nothing.  The repetition of unbox, unwrap, grease post, toe brakes, wrench pedal, true wheel, check headset, check shift, air tubes, test ride bordered on insanity.  But test ride – at least I got to ride these.  Get out in the parking lot, maybe some side streets, and run through those terrible wishbone shifters with the dials on them.  Get it close enough, and then build another.

The shop was I dunno, ten, twelve miles from our house.  Close enough for me to ride in if I wanted to.  The only time in my life I have ever been able to commute to work by bike.  My mother had bought a black Specialized Crossroads that year and never rode it, so I pirated it.  Not a bad bike to be honest.  It was way too small for me, but the tires were great, it had Rapidfire; I threw on an Avocet gel saddle with the bumpers and a Specialized Speed Zone computer.  I was pretty happy with myself.  I could roll out of bed at 8, presumably eat something, and then find my way to the shop for 9.

At almost every lunch break, I’d ride a few miles out to my grandparents house and make a sandwich with Nana.  I’d sit there at the table with the paper, every day reading about John Olerud’s bid to stay above 400.  Chit chat for a few, probably a root beer, and then head back into town.  I wish I had better understood how special it was to be able to do that.  I hope she enjoyed the company.  I bet she did.

I eventually got into repairs; I remember slaving away over the parts washer.  What a nasty fucking contraption that thing was.  I blamed my acne on it.  They may have given me an entire bike to overhaul at one point, but it was no doubt something so terrible that neither Roger nor Rodney, the two senior mechanics, wanted any part of it.

The one bad thing that ever happened to me I will never forget; it sat in the back of my mind for years every time I inflated a tire.  I had a kid’s bike in the stand and as I was airing it up, the tube exploded.  My head was right next to it at the time.  I was completely shell-shocked.  Through the haze of talc, I did a zombie walk out the back door of the shop, and just sat on a curb for a good long time.  My ear felt screwed up for many years to come.  Let’s just say I developed a very good habit of checking for tube and tire seating for the rest of my life after that.

Roger’s girlfriend at the time, Ginny, was a competitive rider and hooked me up with little things now and then.  She knew I loved bikes.  One thing she gave me was this Serotta catalog.  Somehow after all this time, I still have it.  I would go through that thing with a reverence; it was captivating.  It now hangs on my bike locker, and every time I look at it, I wonder why I never bought a Serotta.  It seems like I should have one.

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