Cole, one of the mechanic volunteers on duty, does an impressive job of not wincing when I lift my bike onto the stand.
“One of the most important maintenance things that you can do,” he says with quiet gravitas, “is to keep your bike clean.”
We both look at my bike : old, steel-framed Raleigh, whole lot of dirt. Goes by the name of Seabiscuit.
“So it’s not just about asthetics,” I say.
“It’s about keeping dirt out of your drive train,” says Cole.
The Bike Kitchen is a nonprofit where anyone can check in, rent a bike workstation, and tinker on their bike. The music is good and loud, and often post-punk. Bicycle tinkering advice is available — though, since all of the mechanics are volunteers, the quality of that advice can vary widely. Cole seems to be one of the good ones.
“Hello?” says a voice behind us. It’s a guy. With a bike.
Cole adopts the grimly polite expression of someone about to explain an unpopular concept. “Every other Friday,” he says, “is women’s, queer, transgender night at the Bike Kitchen. Do you fall into one of those categories?”
The guy stands there, holding his handlebars, mentally running through the options. After a minute he speaks. “What if I said I was transgendered?”
“Wait,” says the guy. “I’m also a volunteer. Can I just put in some volunteer hours?”
“Do yooooou….” says Cole in the manner that in a courtroom would be described as leading the witness, “feel……intimidated? By people who fix bikes normally?”
“Oh, definitely,” says the guy, relieved to find a loophole of oppression.
“Normally we would say no,” says Cole. “But it’s slow here tonight. And there’s some bike parts in the back that you can sort.”
“You,” says Cole, turning back to me, “really need a new shifter cable.”
“That sounds complicated,” I say. “Can’t we just, like, tighten it a little or something?”
“No,” says Cole.
Putting in a new shifter cable turns out to be quite pleasant. Seabiscuit, however, still can’t shift gears on the left side, which is the reason I came in in the first place.
“It’s your derailleur,” says Cole. “It’s not a good fit for this bike.”
“I hate that derailleur,” I say. “But I paid good money for that derailleur. The derailleur stays.”
What follows could best be expressed as a montage of infinitely and fastidiously adjusting the derailleur. From time to time, other women trickle in. A suave girl who looks like she belongs in a French film about bike repair arrives. She puts on her work apron in such a way that her artfully arranged scarf remains perfect, and picks up a wrench. Her bike doesn’t even look like it has problems.
What then follows is another montage of infinitely and fastidiously moving around the limit screws. The gears are shifting now, but not as smoothly as they could.
“Oh, now I see what your problem is,” says Cole. “Your frame is bent. Just a little. We should take off that back wheel and derailleur and hammer it back into place.”
“Oh I love doing that,” says the other volunteer, looking up from a workstation where both she and the person she’s helping have become utterly covered in bike grease. “There’s nothing like the first time you actually bend your own frame.”
I have always felt a bit ambivalent about “one type of person only” spaces, but I am finding that I am enjoying WTF night very much.
We turn to see a grizzled middle-aged man in flannel pushing a bicycle into the workshop.
“Um,” says Cole. “This is ladies’ night. I mean — no — this is gay….lesbian….transgender….and also ladies’ night.”
The man stands there, thinking through these options. “You mean I can’t fix my bike here?”
“Not tonight,” says Cole apologetically. Then, in that leading the witness tone, “Unless…. Do you feel like the Bike Kitchen is normally an oppressive or unwelcoming space for you?”
“Well,” says the man, “usually it’s way crowded.”
“Hm,” says Cole. “Crowded is not the kind of oppressed we’re thinking of.”
The man stands there. “I really want to fix my bike” he says, almost to himself.
He looks up. “What if I’m a bisexual?”
WTF Night is held every other Friday, more or less. There’s one tonight, from 6 to 9 p.m., and it’s open to, as the Bike Kitchen’s website puts it: “All women, transfolks, genderqueer folk, femmes, and other people who’ve had gender bias, homophobia, or transphobia keep them away from the wrenches!” They’re also looking for people who fit the above description to be volunteer mechanics.