"Goddammit Leo, we're gonna get a system here."
If Ken has a system, he keeps it well hidden under a free-form stack of wheels, frames, and sundry bicycle parts at his shop on Broadway.
I had stopped by to get my $20 Maxwell Street special oiled.
"Three-fifty? For what? I just want a couple of squirts of oil here and here."
"You think we steal it? We have to pay for oil."
"No. But I was thinking more like a dollar."
"You can't get fuck for a buck anymore, can you?"
"No, you can't."
"Your brakes are out of line. And they need tightening. Did you know bad brakes are the biggest cause of accidents?"
"But I don't ride that fast."
"You will when you see some girl passing you. Lift your bike up here."
I lift my old Huffy up on his second hoist and soon he has both brake clamps off. I sit in the sun on a big red stool that matches his.
"Leo, I'm not going to have any more of that back talk, like yesterday."
A mumble comes from inside the shop.
"Respect? Why do you think people are always mistreating you, Leo?"
"I mean it. I am not putting up with any more of that back talk."
Leo comes to the front. He is a thin man in his late 30s or so with a good Saturday-morning stubble on his face.
"I can walk out of here."
"No. I give you your walking papers. Get out of here. Because that is the kind of day it is, a walking-papers day."
Leo begins stacking some tubes and wheels near the front.
Next it was Vern's turn.
"Goddammit Vern. Would you get in there and finish that bike? What are you working on?"
"I am putting the front tire on this one."
"They're not coming for that blue one until Tuesday. They only got it in here late last night."
"I can't get in there. Leo's there."
Vern is nearing retirement age. He approaches the world with a calm expression.
Ken is a big guy with a belt around a pair of work pants with no belt loops in the back. The belt rides high up his back when he bends over to pick up a spray can of WD-40.
Another customer rides up. His brown T-shirt and black shorts have been spattered with white paint.
Ken leaves my bike on his hoist and deals with the newcomer.
"I need another chain."
"Aren't you the carpenter-painter?"
"Vern there is a carpenter too. He might have work."
"We got lots of work. Are you insured?" says Vern.
The newcomer does not try to bluff.
"There is something out in Brookfield. But you have to have insurance. People will sue you for anything these days," Vern says.
Ken has both my brakes set and working perfectly. He sprays WD-40 over everything. He starts fiddling with my shifter wire.
"What do you have this old belt for? You afraid you will lose your pants?"
"Sometimes I strap stuff to my handlebars," I explain.
"Why don't you get a basket?"
"I only have a couple of dollars."
"Leo. Show him the baskets in the middle of the window."
The baskets are mixed in the middle of a huge heap of parts piled in the back of the shop.
"I don't like baskets. I use a backpack when I want to carry something. I got one from the Army," Leo says.
Leo leans over and imitates riding with a backpack. I suspect we think alike: grown men don't ride around with front baskets.
An old Chevy showing the effects of too many Chicago winters pulls to a stop along Broadway.
A woman leans out the window and yells at Ken, who yells back a generic "hiya honey."
"What?" asks Ken.
Vern, Leo, and I report, "She said her German shepherd died."
Ken launches into a grisly tale about a dog he knew that had died a horrible death. Sometimes several tough dogs guard his shop at night.
After a few more minutes of yelling back and forth about dogs, she drives off smiling.
An older couple rounds the corner from Balmoral on their way to Wendy's. They try to make a berth around the sprawling enterprise on the corner sidewalk, but it's not wide enough.
"You got five fingers? Well, give them to me," Ken calls out to them.
"Don't shake too hard. I have arthritis," cautions the old man.
Ken whispers confidentially, "Those old people have it tough. Their lives are boring. So I try to say 'Hiya youngster' or something and notice them."
Ken's mellow mood has not gone unnoticed by Leo and Vern, and they retire for a smoke break. I want a cigarette myself, but I left mine at home: I did not expect to spend two hours getting a squirt of oil.
A young kid rides up.
"I used to work for you," he says.
"Yeah, but that was a year ago," says Ken.
"No it wasn't. It was August 5."
Soon the kid is working on a training bike. Leo has found a replacement for the missing training wheel, and the kid is putting it on.
Another customer, on a mountain bike, rides up to buy a tube for his girlfriend's old 26-inch bike, which, as he points out, is like mine. Ken again leaves my bike in order to deal with the new guy.
He asks about the warranty on the mountain bike. He tells the guy to get his brakes adjusted when the bike goes in for a 30-day checkup.
I wander over to check out the kid's work. He is one of those people born to handle tools. He moves on to a ten-speed that needs gear work. He takes the assembly apart and tugs and pulls at it.
Vern goes off and digs another stool out from the shop and sets it by the kid.
"But get it out of the middle of the sidewalk. People don't like it if we work on the sidewalk."
A family of four comes up and looks in the windows. The bigger girl is pulling her little sister in a red wagon. Vern wanders over to see what they need.
The older girl is getting her first bike.
Her smile makes me glad to be alive on a sunny Saturday morning.
Ken goes over to work a tag team with Vern when the sale nears the final stages.
The kid looks up from the ten-speed gear assembly and asks Leo why Ken is so cranky today. Leo points in one ear and out the other, then shrugs.
Ken comes back to finish my bike, while Vern continues dickering.
He shows me the play in my spokes and how to unscrew the shifter wire and pull out the shifter bolt.
"Bring it in some Saturday and we will work on getting that right."
The bike finally comes off the hoist.
"Let's see: two brakes at $3.50 each, that would be $7. Then I oiled the bike and adjusted the shifter."
We haggle a bit and I part with a few singles.
He goes off again to finish the sale.
Riding home, I can't resist pulling off at Glenwood and unscrewing the shifter wire to fiddle with it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Al kawano.