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Night of Broken Bikes

This is an unusual tale of mechanical mystery, charming chivalry and late-night suspense. Friday night was my last shift as Crew Chief at The Ironworks, a beautiful venue that has been my home at the Jazz Fest for 4 years. Although the Ironworks studio, an artistic space in an actual converted metal-working shop previously known as Burrard Ironworks, is sophisticated and beautiful inside, it is located in the worst part of Vancouver. The neighbourhood is one of the poorest postal codes in Canada and many homeless people wander the streets in company with drug addicts and mentally ill individuals. The area is starting to gentrify, behind security barracades, but the streets are still mean and inhabitants are unpredictable — it is the Downtown Eastside.

I went down to The Ironworks early, as the venue manager had requested that I be there at 6:30pm. I complied and helped organize the other volunteers by orienting and assisting the hospitality volunteer and making sure everyone else knew what they were supposed to be doing. My job as Crew Chief is to keep the volunteers happy, make sure they have water or soft drinks and get a break when they need it. I also keep an eye on the venue and support the venue manager.

While I was changing my boots for shoes, I left a message with Simon that my red+white loaner FJ motorcycle was developing the same clutch problem that my blue+black FJ had last year. I had noticed him leaning it over at angles I cannot achieve without becoming completely horizontal, and pumping the clutch to remove the air from the lines. Somewhere in the clutch system, which is supposed to be full of a pressurized oil, there were air bubbles getting in.

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By 7:30pm almost all of the volunteers had arrived and all of the important tasks had been assigned and everyone was settled. I asked the venue manager if I could ride over to the Art Gallery for an hour to see the opening show of the Javanese gamelan group Madu Sari, “Semar in Lila Maya” and still be back in time to catch the last set of Karin Plato’s quintet featuring Graham Ord on sax. I was looking forward to an entertaining evening.

The red+white FJ raced over to the Vancouver Art Gallery “Fuse” event with me pointing it in the direction I wanted to go in and braking a lot. The clutch was fading noticeably, but I had brought a crescent wrench and was reasonably sure I could bleed the air out. I parked quickly because I was afraid that they had already started at 7:30pm, but when I walked around to the entrance I was told that they didn’t start until 8:45pm. I was early, so I decided to park the bike in a better spot. I turned to go and re-park my bike and ran into my friend Lauren Ollsin, who will be editing my book. We agreed to meet inside and I walked back, started the bike and headed around the Art Gallery building to get closer to the entrance. The clutch started to fade even worse now and I was starting to move even with it pulled completely in. I had to get into neutral at the light. The bike went back into gear and I was trying to go slow in heavy traffic in front of the Art Gallery entrance when a Critical Mass Ride of bicycles started going by on Georgia Street blocking all vehicular progress on the cross street I was on.

That was the last straw, and I pulled into the small driveway that is sometimes barred by a metal gate, just north of the entrance. It is really more than a drveway as it is quite wide and there was a small Honda parked there already. I decided that as I was not going to be long, I would risk a gate closure, besides the traffic was completely stopped while all the bicycles rode by on Georgia St. There was a huge variety of bicycles; a chopper bike, a tall bike that must be similar to being on stilts, several recumbents and other oddities pedalled past as I worked on the clutch.

I still had time before the concert, so decided to bleed the clutch. I have seen Simon do this lots of times as my beautiful bike had a serious clutch/air problem last year. I should have had a set of vice-grips to close off the line to the reservoir or something, because it was not really firming up the lever at all. I gave up for now and found a discarded paper napkin to wipe up the worst of the clutch oil that squirted out. My friend Sylvie then wheeled up to the Gallery in her wheelchair and told me she has composed a soundwalk for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. She had come down to the Gallery for the gamelan and Fuse, so I told her what I was doing and we went in together.

As soon as I checked my motorcycle gear I headed down to the gamelan show. I paid my respects to the wife of the Indonesian Consulate General in Vancouver, Mrs. Bunyan Saptomo, who I had met on several occasions before. She introduced me to the Canadian Ambassador‘s wife and I respectfully bowed before taking a seat on the concrete stairs. I didn’t see my friend Laurin, so I sat where I could see my friends in the musical ensemble. There will be a lot about this group as I am taking a workshop next week everyday with the visiting shadow puppet masters from Indonesia. After the opening ceremonies and the formal presentation of the puppet to the puppeteer by the Indonesian Ambassador to Canada, Djoko Hardono, the show began. I heard my name behind me and it was Laurin, she waved and we kept watching the show. She got up to go behind the screen and I exited. I only stayed until 9:20pm because I wanted to see Graham Ord and I knew this show would be on again in full at the Roundhouse in July.

Back to the bike and another attempt to bleed the clutch. Did I do it? No, with the front brake on full, I gingerly snicked it into gear and she died instantly. Oh, well; I had checked with the staff and the Fuse event was supposed to go all night with the gamelan playing again at 6am. There would be security available anytime to unlock the gate if it was closed and the bike was safe in a parking lot off the street where it would not get a ticket. I left it and started to walk back to the Ironworks in my bike boots and leathers. As I walked I phoned Simon and told him what had happened and that his bike was OK.

As I trudged through trendy, touristy Gastown, I noticed a lot of new venues had opened up and decided to check this out later for possible performance space. They will probably all have DJ’s as it is the fashion now. As I closed in on the Ironworks, still in Gastown on Aleexander St, I noticed another poor biker trying to get his Honda started. I stopped to help him out and told him my mechnic, Simon, might be coming down to pick up his bike. He was cheered up by this news as he lives in Langley and didn’t want to abandon his bike. We got it up on the sidewalk/plaza next to a construction hoarding where it was off the street and not as noticeable. Then we both walked to the Ironworks.

Micheal (Honda rider) and I entered the Ironworks just as the last song was starting and I only got to hear Graham’s playing for a short bit. My friend Edward, the historian and photographer (film!) was standing at the door, so I quickly tried to show him how to operate my digital camera to take a picture, but it was too late. I missed my chance.

In a flash, I changed and resumed my Crew Chief duties, and after everything settled down, I got a progress report from Simon on my cell. He had decided to bring my bike back on the truck, pick up the keys to the red+white bike drive down to the Gallery and repair the clutch. I told Simon about Micheal’s Honda and he said maybe we could work something out.

Micheal bought me a scotch and I sat with him and Edward in the Ironworks and talked about the Live More Lightly Project. I even sang a bit of the song. Edward thought I sounded like Carly Simon, that’s OK. I like her. My cell phone buzzed and it was Simon closing in. As Micheal and I went out front, I noted that I had never seen the Ironworks so quiet on a Friday night. Usually we are the after-hours hang-out for the festival and totally packed. Simon picked up the key and I hatched a plan that he would drop my bike, pick up Micheal’s in the truck. Then take the plate off the Honda, put it on the red +white FJ, fix the clutch and Simon could ride it home while Mark, his assistant and friend, drove the truck back to Simon’s.

It seemed a bit complex, but possible, and Simon proceeded to unload my blue+black FJ down a wooden ramp from the back of the pick-up. It is pure poetry in motion to see him dance with that huge, heavy machine and Micheal was awe-stricken. He is not a small man, but he knew that action was completely beyond his physical capabilities. Simon balanced on the narrow wooden ramp while feathering the front brake and controlling the bike’s steering as it moved backwards down the ramp. He parked my bike across the street and Micheal joined them to load his bike. Now I think of it, it was pretty trusting of him to help us take his bike, he had never seen me before and Simon came out of nowhere. He was pretty desperate though and I guess the fact that everyone knew I was Crew Chief for the Jazz Fest helped inspire confidence.

Simon headed down to the Art Gallery with Mark at the wheel of the truck and I returned to Crew Chief. The second band had already started at 11pm, but the place was quiet. Another volunteer told me everyone was at O’Douls because Wynton Marsalis had played at the open jam the night before and now everyone wanted to see if he would show up again.

During the band’s second set, Simon showed up with my license plate. I was responsible for the door, so I could only run out for a minute. The red+white FJ looked functional, but Simon said the clutch was still fading. Micheal had asked me to send his helmets off with Simon in the truck, but Mark was not there. Simon had no luggage or cargo net and was in a hurry, so I decided to take the helmets and not bother him.

The Ironworks closed early and I was on the street by 1:30am. My own bike looked welcoming and I anticipated a fun ride home. I started her up and turned towards the Georgia viaduct. It is the fastest at night to go over the viaduct, through downtown, over the Cambie or Granville bridge, then turn south for home. Halfway down the block as a I braked for the light at the intersection where the Firehall Theatre stands, I felt a mushy, loose feeling in my front brake. I just had time to remember I thought “Oh yeah, that;s what it felt like right before” … it locked up solidly and I fell down — on my right side this time.

As my bike lay there leaking expensive gas on to the pavement I tried to pick it up as shown on the internet. On a deserted street at 2am in the downtown Eastside.

I would have to get desperate — one more time — then a car pulled up driven by a young girl, with two tall guys in the car. They jumped up and helped me pick it up. They knew nothing about bikes and I had so much gas on my boots it was like the Ice Capades.

They were so nice and helpful they steadied it while I tried to get some of the gas off my boots. I had been almost stopped this time and I wasn’t hurt at all. I was able to get the bike started, then my keys fell out. With no key fob, I had dropped them down beside the tank — it was almost funny. I used my spare key to turn the bike off and fished around until I got them back.

Then I rode home without touching my front brake. I was doing record speeds for an FJ, probably an average of 40 km per hr. Is that a record or what? Anyway, with crafty use of my gears and the back brake combined with not going fast in the first place, I managed to get home.

I’m taking the bus to the Jazz Festival today.

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  1. June 28th, 2008 at 21:33 | #1

    Great post. I will read your posts frequently. Added you to the RSS reader.

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