Cooking at the bicycle kitchen

by Gautam Raja

It’s with laughing self-awareness that my friend B. and I speak of how the ritual of acquisition is often more the point than need; pride of possession more relevant than regular use.

Though he has three beautiful steel bicycles, it was almost biological inevitability that led him to drive over a 100 miles early one holiday morning, and snatch up a bargain Craigslist offer of a vintage Japanese steel bicycle. It needed to be shipped, so a day later we were in downtown Los Angeles at the Bicycle Kitchen co-operative, with the bicycle on a repair stand, ready to be stripped down.

As much as you hear that America equals the automobile, there’s great dependence on bicycles here. Large cities still use bicycle messengers as couriers, and they form a gritty subculture with its own visual language of minimalist bicycles and large backpacks. Vast numbers of people too poor, or too undocumented, or once too impaired at the wrong time, to drive cars, use bicycles to commute. Visit a restaurant in America and look around at the parking lot railings, peep down the alleyways, or peer over the back wall to see how dining out wouldn’t function without armadas of cheap Mongoose’s, Motobecanes, and Giants.

Bracketing these two co-op using groups are the shiny hipsters on one end, and homeless people on the other. Even car-crazy LA has tribes who choose expensive single-speeders over automobiles. For them, co-ops serve as meeting grounds and even party venues. Many homeless people depend on bicycles to carry their possessions, or to ferry them to and from hidden encampments. The cheap parts and pay-as-you-can co-op is vital to their lives.

The Bicycle Kitchen on a late weekday morning reflected this mix. There was us, the self-admitted “wannabe hipsters” working on what would become the fifth (or was it sixth?) bicycle in a collection. On the repair stand next to ours was semi-crazed man with a homeless air, struggling to remove a stuck seatpost from a cheap mountain bike. A young man asked a volunteer, “Will you be my friend today?” because he needed help setting up his new cycle. A girl with a nice mixte bicycle talked to us about her recent cycling trip to France.

The friendly dog, I realised, belonged to a homeless man who reassembled his bike-based push caravan that featured a little carpeted tent for the dog hanging off the handlebars. In contrast, the co-op owner, with his formal shirt, neat hair and glasses, looked more like a Silicon Valley executive than the tattooed, dreadlocked figure who’d have blended better into the piles of oily cogs, and boxes bristling with handlebars and frames.

Payment at the co-op, if you don’t buy any parts, is a suggested $7 an hour (“This is a generous donation,” said the owner), but they will take anything you want to pay. Or not. There are a few such co-ops around LA, with names such as Bikerowave and Bike Oven.

In my world, bicycling is more about saving grams on multi-thousand-dollar frames, training to within millimetres of your life, and riding in exotic destinations, than about standing next to crazy guy swinging a hammer at his seatpost just inches away from your head. My friend B. has a talent for connecting with cities in surprising and authentic ways. Whether Los Angeles, Bangalore, Hyderabad, or Singapore, I’ve found that his version of the city is always captivating, and we are sometimes too critical of the acquisatory zeal of our hobbies, forgetting how, without them, we would pass through like puppets in front of a backdrop.

First published in Gulf News, April 25, 2017