Sunday, April 29, 2007

Victor's Bike shop; Part II...

Continuing on with my reprinting letters from the time just before my Polish "Being Had" events, today I have a letter written just after yesterday's in which The Pinsk Bike school, my partners and their situation are a bit better described. I am posting these letters to go along with the approaching 5-year anniversary of that May 15th event.

Thu, 11 Apr 2002 01:28:14 -0700 (PDT)
To: "paul lamarca"

The pinsk Bike School clubhouse: From L-R: Kolia, Myself, Victor and Sergei (sitting)
This is just a little amendment to the letter I wrote to you yesterday. I went back to victors place again yesterday to have my wheel repacked, and this time, given a second look at the situation, I got to see a bit more of what the reality of it all was.

First of all, the building he was housed in was not the last apartment building of proletarian heights, but the school that is located at the end of town. And this was not a bike magazine, but the remnants of the bike shop that the schools bike team still uses. I say remnants because there is simply no money to really even have a bike team, but, like everything here, they all just carry on anyway. So it seems that my riding buddies here are simply the guys on the bike team out on their after school runs, and my man Victor is the school mechanic. And so yesterday, when we were working together on my wheel, I met with a few of the coaches and got to talk about the situation there, which, as it is every where here, is somewhat desperate.

Victor was a twenty something year man with the soviet navy, but that job came to an end when the wall came down and the military was restructured. But, as Victor was a bike guy and from Pinsk, he got this job as the mechanic and team massagist for the bike team at this school. He is making something like forty dollars a month here. And that is low, even by Pinsk standards. But when I asked him why he continues, he said what you knew he would say: He stays because he is a bicyclist (velocipedist) and he loves the bikes and the kids. And how was the work he did on my bike? Well, let’s just say that we worked together on it. I am not going to sit here and say he is a bad mechanic. You could say he was...maybe average. I’ve seen worse. But what he would lack, by American standards is that really helpful “fuck you” attitude that would allow him to work through whatever abuse was handed out to him. You know, normal life. But you see, people just don’t say that here. So this is the argument because we say that in order to achieve whatever the level of competence (and he was competent) you need to “compete” against others of various skill levels. And in the case of Americans, we seem to think you have to kill people to do it. But here they don’t work that way. Here it is about position and place. So here, Victor is the mechanic, and that is the way it goes. So maybe he was a little distracted because he really wanted to show that he knew what he was doing. This is normal. But this is my job too, so we worked together on it: I solved some problems, he solved some problems… And there was a mistake or two, but we worked it out and at the end the wheel was as smooth and true as a broken and repaired, mid-to-low level flip-flop hub could be.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Victor had no bags or bottle of bearings to ladle out. We had to find the new balls by visually inspecting and measuring the balls that were scavenged from whatever parts had completely disintegrated over the course of the last few decades. There were no new bearings, or break pads or tires or chains or toe clip straps…or bikes for that matter for the school team. There was nothing new. Or better, there was just nothing but whatever could be scavenged from anywhere and thrown together. Or even better: there was just nothing. They keep maybe three sets of tubeless tires that they throw onto the best bike for the best rider on a race day. There is no synthetic grease or oil, just stuff that probably comes as a gift from the petrol stop. No cones or axles, and very few inner tubes or tires. The school runs a cyclocross team and a road team, but in the pictures, they have these kids banging around in the mud on anything that even seems like a bike. And road bikes are all old steel frame. Steel wheels, cottered cranks and never more then five or six gears…like, you know, really nothing. And that he could produce a working rear wheel for me (the cone was shot and the bearings turned into mathematical shapes other that spheres) was an act of magic more then the work of a bike mechanic.

And he wouldn’t take money from me. It was a gift, he said. And I guess this is pride, or that this really isn’t a bike shop, and these kids I have been riding with are just working out on their after school ride for the bike team. But he wouldn’t take my money. And when I demanded that he at least take 10,000 rubles (about six bucks), as at least a tip, or to pay for the parts, he said OK because he knew how to best use it.

So this is a place where the school has a bike team. And when the kids (who are much smaller then they look when they are riding on the bikes) say that they are VELOCIPDISTS, it is with a pride that only a kid can have over such an endeavor. To be such a thing as a velocipedist, is more their philosophy then a description of the activity. And this is because this philosophy is at the root of what they call “Sport”. And “Sport” is a concept that is in the neighborhood of the word that we have, that is called “sports”, but it is not quite the same. “Sport” here is the interaction between (not the defeat of) people within the realm of an individual discipline. They are still living (trying) together here you know. And “Sport” is just another avenue of the overall concept of making better people who can live together well. And if this is true, then all Andre wants you to know, as he drops you like a bad habit with a pace you wouldn’t think possible on such a bad bike, is exactly what I used to tell the riders back in New York when I was trying not to let anyone (ever) pass me: You can ride with me, or you can ride behind me, but you can not defeat me.

So I got to look around. And next to the bike shop is the antiquated gym, where I saw a couple of girls doing their time on rollers. I met some of the coaches who showed me some of the photos from their racing days. They still remember the equipment they had back in the old days, right down to the shoes because like, they probably figure they will never see such stuff ever again. And at forty dollars a month, they are probably right. And then victor and I went into the back and into his office where we went after another bottle of vodka. I actually brought a bottle for him this time, but he rejected it as being inferior vodka. Like I said, people here like to buy the Breast vodka, the “blue eyed” vodka. It was my mistake, I should have known better, but I guess I kind of underplayed it all. I don’t know, I guess I was just thinking of the money. But it was ok because Victor had taken the 10,000 I gave him and went to the store and bought us some breaded fish and some bacon chunks, some bread and juice, and a bottle of the good stuff, the one with the blue eyes. So we drank to good vodka and good health (Dasterovia!), and we talked as much as my plocha Ruskie would let me.

Victor’s opinion of the lack of money and the end of the Soviet Union seems to be centered on the money spent on Soyuz, and the soviet space agency more then what was spent on the military. And this is an interesting point because if you have ever dabbled in science fiction, the idea of space travel always seems to be about making human colonies in space. However, in a world where people are supposed to be living together, and living together well, this idea could be thought of as kind of egotistical and superfluous because if you can learn to get along here, you just don’t need to go anywhere else. It’s a good point. At any rate, Victor just shrugs his shoulders in a typical “shto delete” (what can I do?), because there is no money really, and this is life and it is reality and this is about all there is. And if all there is hope in relying on our children via dreams of velocipede glory, to bring us a better future, through sport or through good ideas, then that is what we’ll do. At least this is something that can be afforded. So we drank to that too.

And then another of the coaches came in and took down a big flag that was draped over the back wall and pulled a small triangular banner off the wall and gave it to me. He told me that because of how I rode with the kids (hard) and what I knew about bikes and all that I had shown, I was being made a member of the “BRESTSKIE OBLASTNOI SOVET: VDSO-TRUDOVY RESERVIE” (The Breast region councils: “Manpower Reserve” bike team.) a now long defunct soviet era team from this region which had apparently comported themselves with more then a little style and had brought more then a little glory to the area. Nice. The flag is a purple and blue triangle with a TP emblem at the bottom in the middle of a gold sprocket with the emblem of the CCCP in the upper left corner. And this, we certainly drank to.

So, with the bottle empty and with the clock telling us that it would soon be getting dark, I left for my ride up 9W alone, all of the kids having finished their workouts an hour ago. I am going to be in Minsk at the writer’s conference in a week or so, and so I told them I would do what I could to pick up some tools and bearings and brake pads for them at the big shops there. And some helmets. That is what they really wanted, was the helmets for the kids. And like, I can do this. I mean, if a days wage for me is the money for the bike team for the year pochemoo nyet? ( why not?)

And at seven on the dot, and my heart still pumping from the rather smooth ride I just took, I went to the book shop only to find that Tatianna was still more interested in playing games then in getting together. I really don’t think that it was about the vodka this time because, really, she knows better. And she wasn’t really interested in this story very much at all. And at the moment it all just seemed so stupid to argue because if the evening was going to have bad feelings, why bother. And you know, there is one thing that bikers know to be true about their bikes: Sometimes you do like them more then the girls. So I just told her to keep it for the night, and maybe forever. I mean, like Thin Lizzie said: “If that chick don’t wanna know: Forget her.”

And so that’s the story from Pinsk. And you know there was a thought about this that I had a while ago that I think really might be the truth: It wasn’t the sex or the money or the future that worried her, I think Tatianna was more afraid that I might actually put her on a bike and make her ride more then anything.

Go Reservie!