My life as a pedal pusher

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA year ago I went to work at The Bike Doctor as a humble pedlar of pedals.

I had never worked in the retail end of bikes, and The Bike Doctor is a big store. I was shaky and a little intimidated. There are hundreds of models of bikes and thousands of products I was supposed to know about, and although I’ve done tons of bikey stuff through the years the fact is I didn’t know jack about parts or accessories, or bikes. My abilities as a mechanic didn’t (and still don’t) extend beyond fixing a flat, and half the time I could not even get the damn tire off the rim. I was the only woman on a staff of 26 men. And since I hadn’t worked in a store since I was a teenager, the workings of the modern cash register (remember cash?) were utterly strange to me. I made a lot of mistakes.

The job called for an immediate ego smackdown. Working basic retail isn’t exactly high on the social prestige scale, and a woman my age with a resumé isn’t ‘supposed’ to be mopping greasy floors and making change for inner tubes. The pay barely cleared minimum wage, and my ‘supervisor’ was half my age. My bigass ex-clients would come in and raise amused eyebrows as I tightened their saddle or scrambled to find them a tire, but there I was—humble shop clerk and pedal pusher. Clocking in and clocking out.

I started feeling more steady on my feet after a month or two, and then little by little I started to feel good at my job. The daily grind was good medicine for my body. I was in motion all day, climbing ladders and adjusting handlebars and carrying bikes up and down the stairs. It wasn’t heavy labour but it was physical work and my body responded like a plant to sunlight. Using all my muscles, I stretched and I stooped. When I started the job my legs would be sore by the end of an 8-hr shift but by the end they were strong. I was surprised to see my biceps swell gently from the simple effort of hoisting bicycles all day. Physical work is good for body and soul, be it digging dirt or cleaning houses or stocking shelves. Sitting at a computer all day long is a killer and I just can’t do it any more.

I liked the diversity of the bike shop staff—a motley crew of boyz ‘n’ grrlz, aged 20 to 60. There were family guys and queers, slackers and jocks, transients, students, artists and geeks and freaks. I worked shoulder to shoulder with people from Kosovo, Belarus, Spain, Mexico, the Phillipines. Sometimes it was all i could do not to throw a wrench at one particular windbag salesdude’s head, but non-violence is also part of the practice. I talked it out with salesdude and no toolI ls got flung. We somehow managed to reach a happy balance of gangster rap, latin jazz, and sugar pop on the store sound system. The disgusting bathrooms eventually got cleaned, and for the most part the staff vibe was a supportive fabric, elastically goofy, with humour and respect as the binding threads.

Time spent among sangha is sweet, and working in the bike shop I got to live each day in that rare ease. In the regular car-addicted world we bikesters need to explain our choice of transportation over and over again. It gets tedious. We roll up on our bikes to meet someone who has just stepped out of a car and immediately encounter skepticism and defensiveness, or worse, cloying admiration. Doesn’t it hurt? Isn’t it slow? Difficult? Expensive? Messy? Exhausting? Oh-you’re-such-a-martyr-you-must-be-in-such-great-shape-I-wish-I-was-as-good-as-you. So boring. So stupid. In the bike shop, every single person who walks through the door is already over that hump. They get it; they want to ride bikes. It’s like when I lived at the Zen Center—I never needed to spend energy explaining why anyone would want to sit on a cushion facing the wall. Contrary customers happened but they were few and far between. For the most part every interaction was a little intimate delight because we were both in on the secret.

In moments of explaining to a middle-aged woman how to shift gears and seeing her startled ah-ha!, or sending a young man out for a grinning test-ride on a sweet fixie, or dodging the flying fists of a helmet-enraged toddler, I felt like I was doing my life’s work. It felt subversive, like I was inoculating people with a little pleasure that could maybe just re-shape their world. I would steal the opportunity to drop a little secret dharma into a mundane transaction—a wee discourse on non-attachment to a customer weighing the virtues of various U-locks or a reminder, when riding, to follow the breath. Every customer was a lesson for me in listening, and more practice in patience. More learning and re-learning and starting again.

Bike people span the entire range of humanity, with the bike as the link that connects. Mechanic Jen is on her knees in front of the store, trying to repair the rusted hitch on a binner’s trailer piled high with cans. A gravel-voiced man, exuding stale tobacco and beer, counts pennies from his pocket to buy a new tube. A stylish woman picks out accessories for her new $1,300 Devinci, stepping daintily in Prada heels that cost more than the bike. My job is simply to serve them all.

I am a pedal pusher and I’m ok with it. There is no shame in selling practical, beautiful things that don’t fuck up the planet and can change people’s lives for the so-much-better. I think the Buddha calls this Right Livelihood. I call it a making a living.

<<photo: Lady Jane, The Bike Doctor’s ace wrench>>

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