OIL, WIRE, HEAVY DUTY HAND CLEANER, BLACK SPRAY PAINT, BATTERY ACID, HANDLE BARS, SISSY BARS, BABY APES, DRIVE SHAFTS, GAS TANKS, CLUTCH LEVERS, CARB SYNCS, COILS, BEARDS, TATTOOS, LEATHER JACKETS, LONG HAIR, NAKED WOMEN IN HIGH HEELS TRAPPED IN SNAKING VINES AND ROSE BLOSSOMS...
Motorcycle maintenance has an appeal that ranges from the macho (obvious) to the metaphysical (Zen and the Art of...) to the Mickey Mouse (“I’ll fix it myself; thing can’t be much more than a lawn mower on two wheels!”).
While your car is being repaired — like a toaster, a vacuum cleaner or a VCR — it is “in the shop.” While your bike is being worked on, it is “down,” like an athlete, a racehorse, a soldier. Motorcycle owners spend a proportionately greater time hanging around the repair shop than car owners do. Bike owners will oversee the work, maybe pace, shoot the breeze with the unappreciative mechanic, and inwardly wring their hands like someone visiting a close friend in the hospital with appendicitis.
On a rainy Saturday during January’s storms, no one is in the service department of Cycle Parts West on El Cajon Boulevard, except for 33-year- old Brad Helm, the service manager, who is mounting a tire on the wheel of a 1990 Kawasaki Ninja, an off-road version of what is known as a “Rice Rocket” — a street bike designed to go as fast as 180 miles per hour.
Helm is a heavyset man, about six feet tall, with long, dirty-blond hair in a ponytail and matching beard. He wears gray work pants, a denim jacket, and a black “Cycle Parts West” baseball cap shot with streaks of Day-Glo colors. He peers at the front fork tubes where the wheel will be remounted and says, “One of these is bent pretty bad. Here, you can see where the thing is actually creased.” He holds it up for inspection and indeed there is a perceptible curve to the right front fork tube and a straight mark at the middle point of the curve as if someone had whacked it hard with the edge of a metal ruler. “That’s about $120, right there. Replace both of them and it’s $240. I’m already replacing a tire, that’s $85. And look at this ...” Helm points to the wheel rim that’s been buckled severely in one spot. “Probably from the same accident. Could have just hit a curb at high speed. That would be enough to do it. Oh, well, the guy said he got a good deal on this bike from a guy going into the service. Hope it was pretty good; this is probably going to run over $400.
“How’s your bike running?” he asks me. Helm has worked on various motorcycles of mine for almost five years.
“I haven’t been riding in the rain,” I tell him. “That’s more like surfing. But the bike seems to run fine. Think it’s time I sold it? It’s got over 100,000 miles on it.”
Helm looks up at me and grins knowingly, “If you’re not sinking money into into that one, you’ll be sinkin’ it into another one.”
Helm doesn’t usually allow his customers to hang out in the small service area anymore. At one time, he was more casual about it. I remember killing the heart out of summer afternoons, drinking soda and holding leisurely conversations about riding, helmets, accidents, former Sheriff Duffy, and the mechanical differences and similarities between Harleys and Japanese bikes with other riders waiting for an oil change or a brake adjustment. The service area could get pretty crowded, so recently Helm decided there’s only room for himself and partner Lee Crocker in “the bay.” Still, bikers waiting for service mill around on the sidewalk and curb along Illinois Street, though not today, as torrential rains continue to turn city streets into rushing gullies.
Helm has a pump going constantly as water seeps into the shop from the hillside next to it. It makes conversation difficult, so I just look around the room: three tool storage units the size of china cabinets with thin flat trays, an arc welder sitting in the middle of the floor next to cases of fork and motor oil. The shelves hold coils of wire, cans of Chain-Lube and Tri-Flo Teflon, Contact Cleaner, black spray paint, Marvel Air-Tool Oil, and Heavy Duty Hand Cleaner. One shelf is empty except for a battery charger and mounds of crystallized battery acid.
Above another shelf is a sign that looks like an official San Diego street parking sign. It reads, “Harley Parking Only. All others will be towed away.”
No motorcycle repair operation would be complete without several calendars — usually compliments of tool manufacturers — featuring busty, barely clad babes posing against customized Harley “Fat Boys,” old Indian motorcycles, or a Vincent Black Shadow. Above Helm’s work bench and four vacuum gauges, which are mounted on the wall trailing air hoses, is a huge calendar with an autographed poster girl caressing a Harley Heritage. The autograph is in gold ink with wide, loopy handwriting to either side of a gorgeous woman in a beige, fringed bikini. It reads, “Brad, Kick start my heart!” It’s signed, “Sweetest kisses, Laura Morosan.”
“Wish I did.”
Bill Taylor, the store manager of Cycle Parts West, walks into the back room to speak with Helm. Taylor is a rotund man with short black hair, Oliver Hardy with a Wolfman Jack goatee. He is wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of a long-haired biker racing head-on into the foreground. Behind the rider is an American flag and a Patriot missile. The T-shirt reads, “Not all the patriots are in the Middle East.” His shirt exposes several feet of colorful tattoos on his wrists and forearms: naked women in high heels trapped in snaking vines and rose blossoms.
“You gonna run me down to Chula Vista?” he asks Helm.
“Sure.” Taylor is supposed to pick up a new Gold Wing Honda, the GL1500, he has just purchased. The Honda Gold Wings are those bikes you see on the road that look like speed boats or two- and three-wheeled Cadillac convertibles, usually painted in shades that don’t occur in nature, sometimes with a riot of extra reflectors, brake lights, turn signals, CB radios, bells, whistles — you expect to see beauty salon hair dryers on the back.