Deep Sea Fishing From The Mainland.
Two men entered with assemblages resembling bikes. All three of us lived close to the Earth, but these men were afforded no luxury. I was a vandwelling Key West King and these dirty perps were pure Stock Island. [motto: "One bridge short of the dream."]
The mangroves are a tightly woven matrix and they attract bugs, burger wrappers, and crushed takeout cups. I know you can sleep in there, but I never worked out the specifics on how. There are paths and places, but all of mine are elsewhere.
They stood before me with a need. They were only skeptical because they'd never met me. I'm hard to size up. I have a personal style that reveals something's up, but gives no hint of what or when. They didn't know that I'm a believer. They weren't aware that I wouldn't take their dollar bill. They couldn't see that I was a lonely child on fire. They couldn't sense that I get drunk too.
One bike had a flat tire. I motioned slowly to some ravages on each machine, but was assured quickly that they could fix everything else. They would fix everything, apparently, except for this simple flat. Translated, this is a plea to make it roll again.
There are different levels of need, and one job of the bicycle mechanic is to assess how free you are willing to make a certain number of repairs. Some shops and some mechanics never discount. Most retail stores don't discount based on need, and they see no reason a bicycle store should be different. But the fact is, a bicycle store is much different.
There is a segment of the population that hovers above nothing. They have almost nothing and won't probably get more. Their bike is a key to having anything at all. A bicycle shop plays god with these folks. The mechanic or the manager can decide if these customers will get to work or have a long walk home.
Most of us don't recognize what a dollar bill does in the smallest of numbers: A few crumpled ones is a four pack of talls with change. Five crisp ones is a full day of real food. Four bucks will split you a bottle of wine. More than that is paper, and ought to be wasted before it adds up, gets lost, or spawns responsibility.
To most of us humans, five dollars is a low starting point. We have ones and change to add variety, but it's the crisp twenties that stack nicely, and the smaller bills start to take up space. A bicycle shop's best customers are the ones carrying twenties, and a quick five-dollar repair keeps the lights on and those customers happy. If you eschew the desperate, then five dollars is the perfect minimum charge.
Between these disparate economies must be a meeting of the minds. The shop needs money, but the needy drifters and makers-do need a machine that rolls. A guy with zero dollars can't print bills in his pocket, but the shop can make an exception or a discount and step up to the repair. In my heart, I know the shop has a duty to the public.
A Responsibility to the Public:
As a personal policy, I never refuse a necessary repair. I never will. I will bend and stretch myself to keep the bicycles moving. I've stayed late, loaned tools, patched tubes, and pulled money from my own pocket. With our skillset comes great responsibility. You hold power in your hands. You can add or alleviate an enormous amount of stress. With three minutes of your time, you can prove that humans are inherently good, or you can add to the aggregate suffering on the planet.
The difference between a bicycle shop, and a K-Mart or a coffee shop, is that we as mechanics are peddling a need. A good shop will loan a tire lever and a patch kit, and ask the dollarless customer to do their repairs outside. A better shop will stay after closing to install a system of portage on the delivery bicycle of a drunk man who speaks no English. A good bicycle shop will never make somebody walk home for a lack of money up front.
Some mechanics view pro-bono work as analogous to feeding cats - more cats will come, and their demands will be louder. I don't take this view. I see pro-bono work as an opportunity to decrease suffering. I am not afraid of helping, and the potential increase in needy customers gives me no pause. Paying customers will witness and take note when a mechanic smiles and does the right thing. In spite of what some fear, the needy demands will never out-clamor commerce.
On Stock Island.
All four sets of brakes were splayed wide open; cables frayed like they'd been sawed apart with a claw hammer. The hubs rattled on their axles; loose as if they might contain no bearings at all. Gripless handlebars held functionless levers; bent and pointed in every direction. These were the best ones we'd seen.
I looked at my friend, the manager. There was no need for an expression or nod. These bicycles were bonafide humdingers, and the spectacle enumerated effortlessly; faster and louder than words.
I made a feeble attempt to offer discounted brake repair. Now the men were in a hurry and their schedules started filling up. They don't need brakes, I was told by the first man. "These are deep sea fishing bikes," he explained as a statement of fact. I felt impressed to have witnessed the most absurd possible claim.
"We take them out," offered the second man, moving his hand like a snake.
I needed more information, but I didn't want to frighten these birds. "You ride these on the paths back there?" I asked, pointing vaguely and hoping this conversation was not yet over. "We take them way out" he specified, nodding slowly with gravity.
The transaction ended with a meeting of the minds. I repaired the flat for some uncounted change, and the two men drifted, to fish another day.