To begin, a confession: I do not take very good care of my bicycle. I tend to let problems go on way too long, figuring that as long as the thing still rolls, I might as well not get my hands dirty. As a result, my old beater has gotten more and more beaten.
But last weekend, I could not ignore my back tire any longer. The thing was totally bald, and totally coming apart on the sidewalls. There was no doubt that it would soon fail me, and possibly in a very dangerous way. I decided it was finally time to check out the Sacramento Bike Kitchen.
I’ve known about this volunteer-run bike shop for a while now, and have been waiting for the right moment when I remember to go visit during their somewhat limited hours.
The kitchen’s goals ” include providing low-cost transportation, self-sufficiency through bicycle maintenance, and safety through education.” The kitchen is volunteer run, uses pretty much all used parts cannibalized from donated bikes. These are mosly stored in a huge old library card catalog with drawers labeled “front fork axles” and “bearings” and “rear suspension” and so on. They also have some new items, like patches, lubes, and bearings.
I have to say there was a bit of chaotic magic going on.
I arrived on a hot Saturday afternoon, and there were about 20 people there, some of whom had name tags and/or t-shirts with the kitchen’s logo. I lurked by the cash register until someone made eye contact, paid my $5 “tool fee” and quickly discovered that the line between volunteer and everyone else was really blurry. It took a little while to get through the awkwardness of not really knowing who to ask about things, but once I did, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long while.
A new donation of tires had just come in, so I picked one that looked good and got to work. All the work stations were full and this was a basic swap. So I just flipped my bike over in the alley and got to it. But while I was at it, and there was all this bike-fixing energy swirling around, I figured I should ask someone about why my back wheel was a bit wiggly.
To make a long story short, my bearings were trashed. One thing led to another, and I wound up spending about three hours dissecting and cleaning out my axles, replacing the bearings, and learning a ton from my hero Ron, who spent at least an hour helping me just because I was there. He even re-did the thing when it turned out the first replacement axle was a little bent. We sort of jerry-rigged the whole thing together, but my old beater is noticeably better now. Who knew that having my bearings fixed would make such a difference?
But the real beauty of the experience was that I also got to help a couple of people. A woman was trying to remove a stuck nut, and asked for help because she didn’t have the wrist strength. An elderly man with a cane strapped to his bike frame somehow assumed that I knew what I was doing, and recruited me to help him attach his cargo rack. In the process, I noticed that his brake cable was on wrong, so I fixed that for him too. The organic flow of assistance and information was a beautiful glimpse into what mutual aid can accomplish.
I don’t know how many sisters the Bike Kitchen has. It looks like there are a bunch, scattered from San Francisco to Bakersfield. I also know of the Davis Bike Collective (formerly Bike Church) But it’s a great idea, and it seems to be a movement, with echoes of the Depression-era self help cooperative movement. So far these DIY repair shops are only for bikes. But they have cousins in computer-repair shops like FreeGeek and there’s no real reason why it couldn’t be applied to appliances, clothing, camping gear, or whatever else hasn’t yet been computerized to the point that mere peasants can’t fix it.
Rather than sitting around without money to fix things, we can potentially recreate the old barter networks. It’s been done before, and we can do it again.