Andrés Hernández Rojo smiles and greets people outside his garage on Balmy Alley, close to 24th Street, where he spends his day fixing bikes.
When the 53-year-old arrives for work, he opens the garage door and pulls out boxes of tools, spray paint, and tires, and sets up his bike repair stand.
On Thursday, he was preparing to replace the wheels of a child’s bike that belongs to the son of his neighbor across the alleyway.
“He not only fixes bikes,” the father said as he dropped off the bike.
“You might be able to hand him your life, and he’ll fix that too.”
Later on, Dimitri Barton, a friend, and middle school Spanish teacher stopped by to replace the wheels on a couple of his own bikes.
Barton says he was attracted to Hernández Rojo because he explains the process of fixing bikes and allows his customers to learn as he works.
“The idea is to show people what is done, so they can do it and be self-reliant,” said Hernández Rojo.
For Hernández-Rojo, fixing bikes is his way of expressing gratitude toward his community and passing along his skills to others. He tells me about his friend Walter, a middle-aged man without stable housing who hangs around a lot. At first he just let him hang out, but recently, he has put Walter to work as his assistant. “I want him to learn to fix bikes so he can do something with himself if he needs to in the future.”
When Walter has needed a place to sleep, Hernández Rojo has let him stay in his room in Potrero Hill.
Growing up in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, where resources were limited, Hernandez learned that you have to take care of those around you. “It helps a lot to feel a part of your surroundings,” he explained in Spanish.
During our visit, a US Postal Service worker dropped by to return a grinder tool they had borrowed a few weeks back. A woman and her dog both stopped to greet Hernandez-Rojo, and another guy stopped to greet Andre on his way to getting himself a torta.
When he answered his phone, you could hear the excited salutation on the other end of the line: “my friend Andres!”
Although Hernández Rojo lives in Potrero Hill, the garage is where he has spent most of his time since 2012.
Recently, the landlord warned that he might have to leave the garage — its contents are becoming a liability — but negotiations are still underway to see if he can get renter’s insurance, or clean out the garage for an inspection.
His first step will be to say goodbye to the electrical wheelchair from the ’80s that someone gave him. It is taking up way too much space.
There are no set prices at Hernandez-Rojo’s bicycle garage. Instead, people come by with their bikes, and he lets them pay what they can.
But he’s working on saying “no,” something he has a hard time doing. “I want to be known because I do the work well, not for cheap,” he says.
“He’s not a good businessman,” his friend Barton said.
“I’m not here for business, that he can tell you,” affirmed Hernández Rojo.
Andrés Hernández Rojo has a new website that features his portfolio of paintings, as well as other photos. It can be found here.