Sunday, May 17, 2015

Deep Sea Fishing From The Mainland.

Deep Sea Fishing From The Mainland.

Two men entered the bicycle store. I looked up and greeted them from behind the workbench. Their eyes peeked out from behind their tired bodies. They'd been sleeping in the mangroves, maybe for several months now. Key West gets an influx of escapees every winter, which I know because I was one of them. The homeless make-happen population explodes. Some people have been here seasonally for years, and some stay longer. I'm in the former group, wishing my restless mind would allow me to join the latter. I fix bicycles by day and sleep in a van when I'm done with my drinking and wandering.

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. 

Disparate Economies:

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.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Dust Is Far From Settled.

I negotiated the purchase of all of the books going out for recycling from a library in my area. I gave the library $200 for twenty boxes of books. Each box weighs about 40-50lbs. This is hundreds of books. Over a thousand? I don't know yet.

The purchase was an adventure, and I'm still combing through the wreckage to see if my hip-shot will pay off. Or to see how much it will pay off... to see if this is something I want to do more often, never again, or as much as possible

It all began when...

I was in the library's bookstore room, and elderly volunteers wearing gardening gloves were putting books in boxes. Overhearing the conversation was easy in the silent space. They were recycling discards, and mixing them in with rejected donations. They used the word recycling, and my ears perked up. I asked the volunteer-in-charge where these books would be going. I explained simply that "I buy lots of books," and that I'd like to make a better offer.

I asked to be introduced to the decision maker, but she was not there that day. I left my information, and returned the following day when she was scheduled. Before going back to the library, I printed up a flyer, and Kristin made a nice business card, which I stapled to the flyer. We only had yellow paper, but somehow that made it look official and believable that we might actually be experienced in this arena. 

I spoke to the nice lady in charge, simply stating again that "I buy lots of books." I asked what the library did with the discards and rejected donations, and she said the county sent a truck, and the books went to the recycling center. I expressed my interest in purchasing those books for a similar price to what the county was probably getting for a load of "mixed paper." That's about 10 cents per pound. I don't know if that's exactly correct, but I know I'm not far off. 

She said that the library also puts aside somewhat better books to be shipped to a company who happens to be a huge mega-seller competitor of ours, and whose name I'd rather not type. The volunteers put these subjectively-chosen better-than-trash books into boxes provided by that giant company, and the company pays for the books to be shipped to them. "How much do they pay you for the books?" I asked. Nothing. They just pay for the shipping. (!?!)

I explained that we could pay $10 per box for a standard sized 16x12x12 inch box, and I could provide the boxes, and move all the books. A light went on, and she looked more closely at the flyer and our business card. Less work. More money. She was being offered a square deal.

Pretending I know what I'm doing...

I got a call the following Monday afternoon that the library had about "25 cartons of books." I said I'd drive over to take a look. I arrived with boxes, and said I could pay $10 per box, but I would need to sort them into my own boxes. I was trying hard to give the impression that I knew what I was doing. Kristin and I were left alone in the room to begin the sorting process.

I had barely a clue what I was doing. Most of the books looked like junk, but that was no surprise. There were heaps and heaps of yellowed mass-market paperbacks, old dictionaries, and children's books that looked like they'd gone through a thresher. There were also books published by small university presses, and newer books that seemed to be a strange choice for the recycling pile. The bottom line is, the people in charge of throwing away the books have a much different perception of value, so there were bound to be diamonds. Enough diamonds? Quartz? I could only make an educated guess, and I'd already made that guess, and that's why I was standing there in the basement of a library, re-sorting and re-stacking a mountain of beat-up books.

We filled about ten boxes, and said we would come back the next morning to get the rest - it was getting late, and our contact at the library was scheduled to go home. 

We returned the next morning. I'd looked up rental rates and information about car shares with cargo vans. I explored our options, but finally we decided to drive our two shitty little cars over there and hope for the best. Worst case scenario, we'd make a second trip. Probably not a third... probably.

We were let back into the room, and Kristin handed the nice lady $200 cash up front, just to make the whole process more comfortable and legitimate. The nice lady was very happy. A friendly young couple was paying money to the library for something that they had been throwing away for years. It was clear that she thought this was a great deal, and I hoped that it would be a really great deal for us, too.

Riding Dirty...

Books are heavy. I filled my Festiva with boxes. The passenger foot area, and passenger seat were filled first. I scooted up the driver's seat, and put boxes behind it. I filled the cargo area, with the back seat already removed from our adventure during the past winter. The car was riding low. We filled Kristin's car similarly. But... we fit everything. A giant haul. One load.

We drove home, and loaded the boxes into our apartment. It's almost hard to know where to begin. One box at a time. Separate the books with barcodes from the books without. Separate anything too damaged to sell. Make piles. Sort the piles again - look up the value of the books with barcodes, and remove the ones with zero demand. Remove the obsolete books, and anything that nobody would even pay $1 for. Sort again. This time, of the barcoded books of value, we made piles based on condition - Very Good, Good - shows wear, Good - former library book, etc.

It's a week later, and we are still in the midst of this project. I still don't know how many books, or what the projected value will be. I purchased better listing software to help with efficiency. I still think we have a winning idea here, but the dust is far from settled.