Saturday, April 15, 2006

The end of the bike club

Kolia Dudenko, Yours truly, Victor and Sergei (Seated). This picture was taken in March of 2002 and at a time when the four of us thought we had a pretty good idea to open a bike ship in Pinsk Belarus.
Right after the elections it seemed as though all of the homeless people all at once were allowed back on the street. I say this facetiously of course, and though I am implying that Lukashenka pulled the homeless off the street as a means of making the world look a little more affluent than it really was, I doubt that the government really is THAT totalitarian. But nevertheless I did get approached about seven times in one day for a handout. Mike Schwirtz may be the sort who doles out charity to grandmothers but I am not. I mean, I do from time to time but as a general rule I simply do not have enough in my pockets to give every time I am asked, so I just say no.

But one specific incident was really a kick in the head for me and got me reeling with a backlash of memories that were really quite enmeshed with the whole of my reasons for even being here. The guy who came to the door was named Sasha and for a while he had been the mechanic at the bicycle school where I had been helping out. This bike club was in fact one of the real reasons I had even decided to try and do something here in Belarus and my heart was completely entrenched in the affairs of the club. Sasha was also responsible for my eventual break with the bike club and I suppose one could extrapolate that he had a lot to do with the end of the bike club itself. But I am getting ahead of myself. I better start from the beginning.

I first came to Belarus in February of 2002. At the end of my one-month visa I made the acquaintance of a lady who worked in the bookstore on Lenin Square and of course I am still here with her to this day. But at this same time, I was also doing a lot of riding around Pinsk on my then set-up-as-a-track-bike Schwinn and on one such ride found the kids from the bike club out on the road doing their training. Well, road riders like other riders and so I went out with them in the afternoons several times on 40 and 50 KM rides. At the time I really didn’t speak much Russian at all and really, I didn’t even know that this was a school bicycle team. But after a couple of times out on the road with them, I was invited back to the shop to meet the trainers. These are the folks in the picture that heads this essay.

Well, for sure Victor had to be the head of this group with his rapid fire way of speaking and seemingly boundless energy. Nikolai a former champion of the USSR was the quiet strength of the group and Sergei was the gentle father figure, a stop watch forever around his neck. Their job was to keep the kids on the road and the command in business and this is exactly what they did even though they had almost zero resources with which to work. There was absolutely no budget for bikes or bike parts, not a one of them took home better than $50 a month, everything they were riding was at least 15 to twenty rears old and even the tools with which they works were outdated and broken. They didn’t even have any new ball bearings or rubber for the wheels. But regardless of what a catastrophe their situation was, they indeed did the job with love and kindness, seemed to exist entirely for the hope and ambition of the kids, and to me, because of this and because it was about biking in general, I was sold. The first thing I did was to put a hundred bucks worth of bearings, brake cables, helmets and rubber and the second thing I did was to propose that we make a business together to help support all of us. This was the big plan that was supposed to also support my relationship with Tatyana.

We started talking about putting together a small bike shop, selling perhaps used road bikes from Europe and doing one and two dollar repairs to get our feet wet and slowly expanding as Pinsk developed. Anyway, this was the plan and their enthusiasm was great. At the end of my visa in April I told them I would go and try to find some start-up money, (If you want to read more about this, click over to the book page when you are done with this) I had their complete trust, I had the trust of the town in general, people are round me were talking bikes and bike, health and opportunity, and I even had a separate group of people working with me to produce a Russian Language play for the dome of culture theatre.

And this of course is when Poland happened.

Fast forward about a year: I have come back but I no longer have any money for the shop, there will be no business and I have become the biggest asshole in the world for lying to everyone. Sergei I learn has died, Victor and Kolia are still in their plugging away and I start hanging out over there from time to time, helping with a fix or a spare part when I can and at least getting everybody drunk when there is enough money for a bottle or two. To their credit, they forgive me but whatever lift I gave them in terms of hope all turned sour when I failed to come through. As for me, all of this simply broke my heart.

But I never stopped going over there and a couple of days out of every week were spent either wrenching or just hanging out. From time to time I was lucky enough to find some donated parts for the bikes, I was welcome there, thought of as a legitimate part of things and the kids liked me. Victor eventually had to quit and take a job at the clock factory which paid more money, there was another trainer for a while and another mechanic who also died, but Kolia was always there, I kept giving what I could and the bike club continued on. And then came Sasha.

Sasha was reported to be an ex-military officer who had been with a missile platoon. He was thin, divorced, had a very soft way of speaking and a genial, smilingly ingratiating way. The school took an immediate liking to him partly because he claimed to be an artist (I never saw the talent) but mostly because he didn’t drink. The drinking of course was a great problem for Victor and even Kolia seemed to be starting on a pretty serious habit. This is not to say that these guys were drunken bums. On the contrary, all of them were over workers when it came to keeping the bikes and the kids going. But they did tend to drink, everyone knew this and I suppose it was hoped that Sasha would be a gentlemanly influence.

All was I suppose well and good except for one fact that seemed to me to be a bit on the surrealist side: Sasha hadn’t a clue how to fix a bicycle. I mean, it wasn’t like he was a mechanic who never had any bike experience; Sasha didn’t even seem to have any mechanical aptitude at all and absolutely didn’t have a clue as to what biking or bike racing was all about. And more, he didn’t ever even seem to want to understand the job that he had been given. I mean, he would hang out in the back office when we would talk about the kids and the upcoming matches, but he was never worth more than a smile. The man was a beggar, and as most glad-handers will do, he immediately settled himself into Kolia’s alcoholic largess and into an extended conversation with me (as I was wrenching) as to the meaning of some English language words.

Why did they hire a guy who didn't know what he was doing? I don't know. Probably the school's director saw what he wanted to see in Sasha. Perhaps he was impressed by the military history. This was the year leading up to the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Second World War so he could have been just doing a "dobry" for a soldier. Or maybe the school director was nothing but a stuffed shirt himself and saw a kindred spirit in the man. In any case, they picked him and gave him a royal welcome. It was a disgusting display.

I looked at Kolia to see what he thought about all of this. As I am sure you all are well aware by now, I don’t take too readily to bullshit and damn sure don’t take top people who bullshit where bikers are concerned. Kolia just shrugged; nobody was saying the guy was an ace and even Sasha himself had confided that he had taken the $40 a month job because the court had demanded that he pay alimony to his ex-wife or go to jail. He was the first to admit that he hadn't a clue what he was doing. But regardless of how stupid all of this seemed to be, the facts were that the school agreed to hire him as mechanic, this was the guy they liked and so, this was the way it was to be.

OK, well enough. But I loved this bike command and even if I hadn’t ever figured out a way to finance them, after a month of serious do-nothingness from Sasha, I took it upon myself to at least teach this guy the job of being a bike mechanic worthy enough of standing in front of a group of serious riders. I started by introducing him to the workbench and illustrated the point that finding the right tool quickly could mean the difference between winning a race and losing. I showed him how the tool system worked and explained how he should go about cleaning the bench so that it was functional. The second thing I did was to introduce him to the art of fixing tires, an amazingly important part of biking especially in clubs who have little or no money for new rubber. He never fought back or claimed to be bored, he just never actually started working. I mean, in all of the time that we were together in there, I could see that he was picking things up, but really, he just never actually BECAME any sort of mechanic. Well, at least he started to keep the place clean.

However, Sasha had that inherent laziness that all obsequious flatterers have and after he had made himself comfortable enough, he developed the habit of showing up for work at 10 in the morning and then, after the early group had come and gone, he would go home for the day instead of coming back and setting up for the afternoon group. Kolia really didn’t mind if Sasha would take some time off because really, at $40 a month, how much could you ask of a person? And also if Kolia was there, Sasha’s absence was no problem because Sasha really never did anything anyway. From time to time though, this would make for a problem because if Kolia was elsewhere, there would be no one to open the shop for the kids. And this was exactly the situation that led to my breaking with the bike school.

I showed up in a Wednesday only to find the door locked and a group of 10 and 11-year-olds standing around waiting for their trainer to show up. Kolia had said that he would be away, but they had thought that Sasha would have been there. Well, you know, I was there and so I directed the kids in a little running and biking, about an hour’s workout. During this workout though, one of the lazier kids, a bespectacled little shit named Tolik had loudly refused to do the last running. I personally didn’t like this kid much because he, another glad-hander type, had befriended our Egor when he was getting started and had given him all of the best ways to screw-off during practice, an influence our little chessmaster did not need. So, I told Tolik the rules: Either do the work or go home. He decided on his own choise that he would rather stay and try to talk the others out of trying their best. So, I took him by the arm and walked him off the field, returned to the others, directed the last of the exercises and then sent everyone home.

However, this set up a remarkable chain of events. Tolik told his mother that he had been sent home. He of course neglected to say that he had been sent home for laziness, but that is not really important. What was important to the school director was that a boy was sent off and after Tolik’s mother’s call, the administration needed to know why a boy had been dismissed and if he was allowed to come back. The reason for the consternation by the way is that school of course receives money from the state for each boy involved in sport lessons. But because the actual number of kids is far smaller than the announced number (getting the picture?), any scandal might also bring some unwanted attention and accounting from the state.

So now the light had finally fallen on our man Sasha. Why wasn’t he at the school? Well, no glad hander would ever let an opportunity to bullshit his way out of things slip away and rather than showing even an ounce of character and saying that the boy had been disciplined for begging out of work and being disrespectful, he decided to say that Adam Goodman was to blame, that I was an alcoholic, a poor influence on the club, was completely to blame for the incident and was even to blame for Nikolai Dudenka’s burgeoning alcoholism.

I found out about all of this about a week later. The school was now dead set against me, they were in favor of Sasha. I had to go. I suppose I could have spoken with the school’s principal, and for sure I should have, but I accepted the decision quickly and on principal: If the bike club thought that success and victory came as a result of empty talk rather than hard work, I for damned sure was not needed. But I mean, I never did come up with that bike shop and so at the bottom line, I also couldn’t really blame Kolia for allowing the end to come without argument in my favor. In any case, I took it for what it was and simply rode off into the sunset.

From time to time I would run into Kolia on the street and he would always invite me back. The command was not the same without me, Sasha was not doing much and an extra pair of hands was needed and this sort of thing. But in general, this was the end of things for me. When I asked Kolia about why he hadn’t backed me in the episode, he could only say that he had to go with Sasha because he had been the one who had said that he liked him and so was responsible for that decision. If he tried to turn around now and say that Sasha was incompetent, he would only be making himself look like a fool. So, except for one brief run at coming back a half year later, this was because of my own staggering economic situation by the way, I was gone. Oh, and when I did come around looking for a position, Sasha made a point of running straight to the principal and telling him I was coming back around and making trouble. Apparently, he had the man’s ear.

Should the story end like this, all of what I have said would be nothing but sour grapes on my part. But unfortunately, the real end of the story came with the real end of the bike team last September. I showed up with some parts I had gotten for the team and found Kolia packed up to leave. He had had enough and had accepted a job at the bike school in Gommel. The school simply closed the door behind him and offered the boys a chance to go to another school ion another town. And of course, Sasha was out on his ass.

Do I want to sit here and say that Sasha was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Pinsk Bike school? Yes. I mean, Kolia was like Atlas with the world on his shoulders keeping a penniless bike command on the road for as long as he did. I mean, you would have to have been a champion of the whole USSR to have done what he did for as long as he did and I do not blame him a bit for walking.

So this was the story until a couple of weeks ago when I got a knock on my door. Figure my surprise just to see Sasha standing there at all, much less with alcohol on his breath. After you live in Belarus for a while, you pretty much know what a bum asking for money looks like and I pretty much had this all measured out in a second or so. It is hard to remember exactly the conversation, but he muttered something about a problem with a woman. I nodded and told him that whatever his problems are that he would be a lot further along for fixing them without being drunk and that he of all people should know that.

I know both that he was asking for money and that I would not in this lifetime give him a penny, but I decided to let him say whatever he thought he needed to say. Ok I was letting him hang, but this is what I did. Yes, Kolia was gone and the bike school closed. Yes, he was out on his ass and yes, he was looking for me to come and drink with him or to at least give him a dollar so that he could buy a bottle of wine. Now it was my turn to speak and when I did, I quoted my rabbi.

The rabbi had told me a story about being held up at the border by an anti-Semitic border guard who had held him up sadistically for hours one time. In the end, the rabbi had phone a high-up, told them what had happened and within an hour the guard’s boss had come in, arrested the guard on the spot and threw him out of the patrol. Later, the guard had come crawling back to the rabbi begging for forgiveness and saying that they he had only a few months before his pension and that being fired meant losing his money. The rabbi though had no particular sympathy saying that obviously the man had hated Jews for years, that he had probably not been the first to be held up by him and that in general, he deserved what he got, thank you very much and good-bye.

And so this is basically what I said to Sasha. I told him that he had been a burden to a bike club that could not bare the weight of any more burdens than it had. I told him that he had stabbed me in the back rather than saying the truth and in doing so, had added yet another fat lump of unnecessary grief onto the command. I pointed out that because he was in a position of authority for the kids, by his actions, he had implied that a bureaucratic swindle was the way to handle things rather than by honesty and hard work and that in my opinion this was absolutely wrong. I told him he should be ashamed of himself until the day he died for having done this to a group of kids who had done nothing but ride themselves onto podium finishes on shitty bikes and had done so on sheer heart and love for the sport. I then named all of the kids on the team, reminded him that almost every single bike had at least one part on it that I had provided, that I had worked for free for them for two years just to help them all along, that I had ridden with them, been to tournaments with them, worked on their bikes and had been involved I their training.

I then quietly told him that I had no interest whatsoever to drink with him, I was not going to invite him into my house and advised that he should never allow the idea to ever come into his head that we had any friendship at all, much less the sort of friendship that would allow for a dollar to spend on cheap wine. I did not point out that he had never drank with Kolia as he was working himself to death trying to train a group of kids to be champion, nor did I point out how not doing so had also put unnecessary pressure on a remarkably underpaid guy who had actually devoted his life to bikes. All I did was to wish him good luck and to ask him not to come around looking for handouts. This was not the right door for that. This door, was for workers and people with heart.

It was an interesting moment to be sure. I guess we all dream of getting our comeuppance and our revenge but this really didn’t do anything for me, per se. I miss the bike school like hell and there is a great, huge hole in my heart that will never be fixed because I could not come up with a few thousand dollars to support those kids and their trainers. I almost did, but, but I didn’t. And now there is absolutely nothing left over there except that you can still see those old XB3’s (Harkovski velocipd zavod) hanging from their hooks on the wall of what used to be the bike command. I mean those guys were my friends. I miss it like hell now that it is gone.

More soon…