The Zen of Bicycle Maintenance
Can wrenching on bikes and doing good deeds go together?
Published July 1, 2007 by The San Francisco Chronicle
By Tim Holt
Can wrenching on bikes and doing good deeds go together?
Everything at the Bike Hut is in flux, everything, it seems, is awaiting a rebirth, a transformation: The red Centurion, with no seat, dangling from a hook along the front wall; the used bikes lined up outside, awaiting new owners. The Hut itself, a squat little shack on the Embarcadero near Pier 40, is about to undergo its own transformation, to be completely rebuilt in a new location a few yards closer to the bay.
Hut mechanic Greg Spear is in a constant state of nervous agitation, combining manic attacks with wrench and pliers and running monologues on subjects that range from bicycle racing to the eating habits of pandas.
When two cyclists crash right in front of the Hut, on the Embarcadero's esplanade, Spear springs into action, detaching a mangled front wheel, laying it on the pavement and bouncing up and down on it until it's straight. The thin, wiry 41-year-old has the palpable energy, the blast-furnace metabolism of the hardcore cyclist and velodrome racer.
Ted Thomas, also 41, the Hut's other mechanic, is a more sedate presence.
He owns no car, and has chosen cycling, he says, because it suits his deliberately slower pace of life. If he can accomplish one task each day — say, laundry on Thursday, shopping on Friday — that's fine with him.
Since his first days as a volunteer at the Hut, 11 years ago, he's been fascinated with the mechanics of bicycles, with their combination of simplicity and complexity. Now he is in flux, about to move on to a new position as a bike mechanic at the Caltrain bike parking facility down the street.
The Bike Hut has a special niche in the city's bike culture. It has been, since its founding in 1996, a port of entry to the cycling world. It has none of the high-end bikes or fancy gadgetry of other bike shops. On the contrary, it is home to the beater bike, the sturdy old clunker that will get you there. If you're a wannabe cyclist, you can invest in one of the Hut's beaters for as little as $100, or rent one for a day for $20, and find out if two-wheeled travel is right for you. You can start pedaling right out of the shop on one of the longest, flattest, safest bike routes in San Francisco, along the bay all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
"We get calls every day from people who want to know how to get started cycling in San Francisco," says Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "We send them to the Bike Hut."
The Bike Hut was founded when cycling was just starting to experience a resurgence in popularity in this city. In those raw, pre-bike-lane days, the Hut was a place of refuge for beleaguered cyclists. It was also a point of connection, and still is, between the cycling and non-cycling world. New housing was beginning to spring up along that stretch of The Embarcadero, and the Bike Hut was there to introduce South Beach residents "to a new way of thinking about how to get around," as Bike Hut founder Charles Higgins puts it.
There has always been an easy sociability about the place, too. It's a gathering place for cyclists of all types, accessible to the homeless and bike messengers and tourists alike, to the gentry from nearby high-end condos as well as kids from the projects — "a place," as Thomas puts it, "where kids from the Bayview can come by and don't get treated like they're kids from the Bayview."
The Hut buys no new bikes and few new parts. Everything, with the exception of tubes and cables, is recycled, turned into used bikes for sale or as rentals for tourists. Old bikes are constantly being dropped off as donations. Bikes that can't be restored are stripped for their parts.
Crammed into the Hut, along with one repair stand, a battered phone and a grease-coated file cabinet are box after box of parts, piled on top of each other, a virtual library of old bike components. The Bike Hut gets a constant stream of referrals from other bike shops, owners of older bikes needing hard-to-find parts.
Its founding by out-and-out idealist and unabashed do-gooder Charles Higgins accounts for the Hut's unusually altruistic position among Bay Area bike shops. Higgins grew up in San Francisco as a relatively privileged kid among at-risk youths, went to Galileo High, 11 years later bought a house near the Fillmore district and watched new generations toughen into gang members. His inspiration to start the Hut sprang from his own bike trips to and from work through the Western Addition, where he was daily confronted with a desolate social landscape. Higgins was determined to begin a bike operation that had very little to do with making money, that would take in any and all kids willing to learn something about bike mechanics. He started the first one, Bike Traffic, in 1993 on Turk Street, not far from his home.
By 1995 Bike Traffic was overflowing with young apprentices, and Higgins began to lay the groundwork for a similar operation at South Beach, near the site of a new baseball park and where the city's Redevelopment Agency was beginning to replace old warehouses with new housing. Redevelopment had already bulldozed the Fillmore, had wiped out entire neighborhoods and blocks of small commercial establishments. A little naively, as it turned out, Higgins thought he could play on the agency's institutional guilt, allow it to redeem itself in a modest way by providing low-rent space to a bike shop in South Beach that would be dedicated to saving troubled kids.
South Beach is the site of a sizable marina and home to the South Beach Yacht Club, whose members were not enthusiastic about their neighborhood becoming home to a bike shop dedicated to at-risk kids. Carter Strauch, the retired military officer who served as South Beach's harbor master, openly expressed his desire that Higgins practice his social work elsewhere. Nor, despite Higgins' attempt to manipulate the agency, did Redevelopment seem very interested in the project.
But Higgins enlisted the support of then-mayor Willie Brown, bending his ear about the proposed South Beach project during a 1996 Bike To Work Day ride. The mayor's support proved invaluable in bringing Redevelopment on board, and the new Bike Hut would soon be ensconced on The Embarcadero, in a tiny space for which it paid Redevelopment $120 a month.
Higgins had even managed to find a fellow idealist at the agency, Redevelopment architect Alfonso Fillon, who designed a bike shop that was about the size of a large clothes closet. He volunteered to help Higgins build it on a minimal budget, the two of them setting a pattern for the Hut that continues today by using all recycled materials, lumber and corrugated steel.
Higgins scraped together $1,000 to get the Hut going. It lurched along its first two years with a string of volunteer part-time managers that included Thomas, until Higgins recruited a resourceful young musician and bike mechanic, Victor Veysey, to put the Hut on some kind of paying basis, which meant coming up with his own salary. For Veysey, who had an outsized personality, the Hut would provide a stage, a performance space and a venue for expressing his own brand of idealism. During his eight-year-long tenure at the Hut, Veysey would expand its mission well beyond anything Higgins had envisioned.
Veysey was 29 when he came on board, a songwriter, bass guitarist and nonstop talker. He boasted that he had traveled the worldwide bike underground, could find work as a bike mechanic anywhere, had in the course of his travels, "taught every Spanish anarchist in London how to fix bicycles." Veysey was full of outrageous statements like that, often delivered with a wink and a smile. He could talk at length on any subject, and had the innate charm to draw people into whatever yarn he was spinning.
In the summer of 1998 he began to apply his considerable energies to the challenging tasks of keeping the Hut afloat while training 12-to 16-year-old kids from the Mission, Fillmore and the Bayview. He got support in this latter effort from the nearby Delancey Street Foundation. (The Hut now trains high school-age apprentices through a grant from the Mayor's Youth Employment Program.) Income began to trickle in from bike repairs, rentals and occasional sales. To augment this, Veysey sold his own handcrafted "bike jewelry," necklaces and bracelets made from bike cables and odd parts.
Veysey soon became a larger-than-life figure in San Francisco's bike underground. When a cyclist was run over and killed by an enraged truck driver on nearby third Street, Veysey placed a bicycle sprouting wigs, a "bike angel," on top of the Hut. With Veysey's empathetic, outgoing personality, the Hut soon became a gathering place for the area's down-and-outers, and Veysey became, as Higgins puts it, "the Mother Teresa of South Beach," fixing bikes and wheelchairs for free.
In the evenings, after he closed the shop, Veysey ran a kind of outdoor homeless jazz club in back of the Hut. With an amp powered by a long extension cord running from a nearby public restroom, Veysey and his ad hoc homeless band played into the wee hours — or at least late enough for the security guards to go home and let the band members sprawl out along the wharf for a good night's sleep.
Although he was an entrepreneur of sorts, Veysey shared the same altruistic, non-commercial instincts as Higgins. Veysey established the Hut early on as, in his own words, "a place where a lot of people came by and very little of it had to do with commerce," an apt description for the present-day operation. Back then anyone might come through the door: The homeless guy who worked security and slept under the Bay Bridge and had all sorts of quixotic schemes for making his fortune, or the respectable gentleman who was constantly trying to trade exotic merchandise — cherries imported from Israel, all sorts of fine wines — for tires and bike parts. If you've seen William Saroyan's, "The Time Of Your Life," with all the characters who parade through his fictional San Francisco bar, you have a pretty good idea what the Hut was like during Veysey's tenure.
Veysey left the Hut last fall, and is back touring the world. His spirit still infuses the Hut, but the old Hut as he knew it will soon be gone. It will be replaced with a brand-new structure, slightly larger, with fancy new butterfly doors opening toward the marina. But Thomas is quick with assurances that the new place will retain its "essential Hut-ness, nothing too fancy or high-tech."
It's hard to imagine the Hut as anything but a back-to-basics place, dedicated to the stripped-down essence of cycling. The Hut celebrates cycling in its purest form, as an accessible, affordable form of transportation.
Eschewing much of the sport's clutter, the fancy gear and clothing, seems to have left the Hut with more time for the people who ride bicycles, who stop by to share the camaraderie of cycling — whether it's a North Beach poet named Ferlinghetti, or the cycling sidewalk artist with a box of chalk strapped to his belt, or the ex-world class racer forced into retirement after a bad crash, stopping by to spin tales of his former cycling glory.
The little bike shack is an unusual operation, one that's always been dependent on the idealism and energy of a few dedicated people willing to work for little or no pay, an operation that survives on an annual budget of around $80,000 a year. The fact that there is even one Bike Hut in this city, and that it has lasted for more than a decade, is a minor miracle in itself.
Tim Holt is a dedicated long-distance cyclist and the author of "Songs of The Simple Life," a collection of essays.