Thursday, July 5, 2012

From the Archives - Bike Shop Wheelchair Repair

Introduction

As I’ve mentioned before, I worked at bike shops throughout my teen years. I wrote this little story while working for the Square Wheel in Berkeley during college.


At the Square Wheel - September 16, 1992

Oh no, I’m thinking, not today. Please don’t come in here. Oh, God, he’s trying to get in, all right.

I rush to the front door to open it for a man in an electric wheelchair. A passerby has beaten me to it and holds open the door, smiling. The passerby can afford to smile—he doesn’t have to work on the wheelchair.

I work in a bike shop. My ideal customer is old, non-athletic, wears Oakley sunglasses, and drools with excitement when I describe why the latest Composite Metal Matrix T‑6 aluminum bicycle will help him regain his youth. He will come in regularly to get rid of almost-new, perfectly good equipment in favor of newer, higher-tech brand‑new perfectly good equipment. When his bike needs a tune-up, there’s never much wrong with it. We count on this high-profit customer to subsidize the repairs that go wrong. It’s not that we’re greedy—we’re just trying to stay in business.

The perfect customer never rolls in on a wheelchair. The only wheelchair parts we sell are tubes and tires—and we carry these only as a community service. Many shops don’t even bother.

The moment I saw this guy’s wheelchair I have a flashback of the last one I worked on, a few years ago at Broad Street Bikes. Its occupant must have weighed about two hundred pounds, and her motor‑driven machine weighed even more. She had a flat tire, and, for better or for worse, we carried the weird-sized spare inner tube she needed. I summoned one of the other mechanics, and we slipped a huge wooden plank under the wheelchair and shoved, lifting the whole thing up on two wheels so I could get to the punctured tire. The poor helpless woman was perched precariously up there, grimacing and trying to be a good sport while clutching desperately at the arms of her chair. She was probably terrified of falling out onto the floor. Myself, I feared the wheelchair would fall and crush me—and the worst part would be that I would still have to finish the repair. You can’t just roll a customer and her vehicle into the storage room and write up her work order for your next day off.

Will this be another flat repair? No, this electric wheelchair has good tires. What else could be wrong? Without intending to, I begin to speculate about depth of this guy’s paralysis. He has a complete pair of legs, but I can’t tell how atrophied they are beneath his jeans and running shoes. His feet are slightly pigeon‑toed on the platform of his machine. His movements are fast, jerky, and almost frantically uncoordinated as he gropes around in a huge metal basket mounted to the front of his wheelchair, and eventually comes up with a little bike headlight.

“Hello there. I bought this light here a while ago and it no longer works all the time,” he says. “I was hoping you might have some idea how to fix it.”

This customer is much more polite than our usual ones, who revel in the competitive bike shop landscape and our almost desperate shows of servility as we struggle to keep our customers from leaving us for mail order outfits. Perhaps this guy knows in advance that we’ll lose money on him. I take his light apart and inspect its workings. “Often times you just have to tweak the battery contacts a little bit,” I tell him, hopefully. This doesn’t work. Then I dismantle the bulb assembly. “I can try tweaking the bulb fittings here.”

“Ah, tweak seems to be a versatile word when working on these lights,” he says. I nod and try turning on the light. It seems to work now, but there’s a slight delay between the switch and the connection. I would love to pretend the light is fixed.

“It seems to be behaving itself now,” he says cheerfully. I could do it—I could send him out the door with the seemingly intact light, and he probably wouldn’t ever make it back in. What kind of obstacles does a wheelchair‑bound person face when making a trip across town to a bicycle shop? What kinds of traffic hazards, stairways, and mass‑transit complications? How long did it take him to get here? An hour? I can’t do it. I slap the light around until the short‑circuit returns and the bulb dies again. I open it back up and find a corroded switch contact.

“Yeah, it works a little better, but if you went over a bump the light would go right out,” I tell him. “It just won’t be reliable.”

“I see. Well, would a new light be my best solution?”

“Yeah, they’ve changed the design to a simpler one.” I get a new light from the display case. “This one has a simpler switch, and no wires.”

“Hmmm, that’s nice. But how would I mount it to my basket?”

Exactly the problem. Bike lights are designed for bike handlebars, not wheelchair baskets. The old light, through sheer luck, strapped nicely in place with a nylon strap. The new model simply won’t go on. I could shake my head and say, “Sorry. We don’t have anything. You might check around at other stores in town.” But just can’t do it—I know too much. I know the light he needs isn’t available anymore, and I know we have a whole bunch of old bike crap in the back that I can try to press into service here. And I’ll do it, because this isn’t the kind of customer who can get on the phone and describe his problem to various shops; how could you know what jerry-rigged thing would work without dinking with it in person? I picture this guy tediously wheeling around, rolling into other shops and having every employee groan and roll his eyes. My shop is uniquely suited to helping him: it has a bad location, and business is slow. I have patience and a soft spot. So as much as I want to get rid of this man, I won’t.

My first attempt at a solution is to wind cloth handlebar tape around the top rung of his basket to build a workable mount for the light. Working on the wheelchair is much different from servicing a bicycle because in a sense I’m almost working on the customer himself—he’s only a couple of feet away as I lean over the machine. He is watching me intently from behind the steel basket, as if from within a cage. What relationship does he have with this contraption? Does he have a sentimental attachment for it, like a devoted bicycle racer does for his bike? Does he call it his “baby?” Or is it even more than a vehicle? Has it been his constant companion, like a seeing eye dog, for years?

Before I even finish winding the tape, I know it won’t work. The light is already beginning to rotate on the rung of the basket. I start to remove it, and in the process I drop a tiny screw, which falls to the platform of the wheelchair by the man’s feet. I know he can’t reach it, or perhaps I don’t want to watch him struggle in the attempt, so I go after it myself. I can smell his chow-mein breath as I reach for the screw. The screw has rolled right up to the sole of his shoe, and he strains to move his foot out of the way. Startled, I pause: he has moved his foot a breathtaking quarter of an inch. Life does exist, however faint, in those legs.

I make a few more unsuccessful attempts. I won’t bore you with the details. Finally, searching through drawers of parts in the back of the shop for anything that could possibly be used to mount a light to a steel basket, I spot a potential solution: a seat post that is roughly the diameter of a handlebar. The light could mount to it. Its clamp, designed to grip a saddle rail, could mount to the basket rung.

As I work the guy watches me as a patient watches a doctor dressing a wound. I mount the bracket successfully, and I only hope he approves of my solution. I notice that most of the metal tube is unnecessary; only an inch is needed to mount the light. Again, I ponder the man’s relationship to his wheelchair: will he think the appendage crude? Ugly? Will he be slightly annoyed whenever he sees the chromed steel protrusion—which could be at any moment of the day?

“Do you want me to saw off the extra post here?” I ask.

“Well, I don’t see that it’s hurting anything, if it doesn’t bother you,” he says.

“Oh, no, it won’t hurt anything, I just wondered if it was okay with you, aesthetically.”

“Sure, just as long as it works, that’s all. I kind of like it, it’s like a little battering ram up here.”

I secure the end of the post with a little plastic zip‑tie to keep the fixture from rattling, and try to wiggle it on the basket. It is rock‑solid: the basket itself wiggles before the light.

“You sure are good at what you do,” says the man.

“Oh, thank you,” I blush. I show him how to take the light on and off of the bracket. What is simple for my practiced fingers is almost impossible for his. He leans forward, his teeth clenched in determination, but I can see where his finger is missing a tiny plastic tab. Feeling abashedly unqualified to work with living flesh instead of machined metal, I carefully guide his fingers onto the tab and, finally, he successfully snaps the light on and off. He grins.

I total up the parts and charge him four dollars in labor. After he pays he puts his hand out. I reach over and we shake. I admit it: I had to brace myself for the handshake. What will it feel like, I’d wondered. Lifeless? Bent? It isn’t—he’s got a fine handshake and I’m slightly embarrassed at my uneasiness. “I really want to thank you,” he says. “You’ve been just an incredible help to me today getting this thing working.” I suddenly dread the thought of him calling my boss with praise for me. I’d be in big trouble for wasting forty-five minutes of company time for four dollars in labor. It’s not like the guy’s word of mouth could bring us anything good; what bike shop wants to be known as the go-to place for stupid wheelchair repairs? “Oh, no problem at all,” I reply. “If you have any problems with that, you can drop by anytime.”

“Thank you. And I wish you a beautiful rest of the day.”

He wheels around towards the door, I open it for him, and he leaves. I wait several minutes for my smile to die down before I go back towards the back of the shop. The other mechanic is listening to punk rock and cussing at the bike in his work stand. I grumble about how much money we lose on wheelchair repairs.

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