Attic Salt: "Repairmen driven to fix bicycles"

BY ED CULLEN

Advocate staff writer

Some mechanics who repair bicycles for the homeless and the carless have come up with a good Sunday school question.

If you sweat and bang your knuckles, curse under your breath, spend hours refurbishing some remarkably rusty bicycles and, then, triumphantly step back to admire your work, do you quit and think ill of humans when you learn some recipients of the bicycles try to sell your hard work at the nearest bicycle shop?

The volunteers talk while they work, and this question required about two seconds to answer.

Nope. Makes no difference. The volunteers will keep repairing bicycles for the majority of homeless and carless in Baton Rouge who appreciate the rides.

The bicycle mechanics are a philosophical bunch headed by a pragmatic lawyer named Trippe Hawthorne.

One of the repairpersons was frustrated because he couldn’t get a chain up to the repairperson’s standards.

These people not only repair bicycles, they ride them. The volunteer mechanic would NOT ride a bicycle with a chain like this one.

Every time Hawthorne and his recruits go into a rented ministorage warehouse to steal a part they need from some really rusted bicycles, they are reminded that they must finish fixing more than 100 bicycles before they lose the little warehouse at the end of August.

Weekdays at lunchtime, some of the repair people go to a parking lot at the corner of Florida and 17th streets to work on bicycles for “ride-up” customers.

“It’s not bad,” Hawthorne said of the cranky chain. “If it bothers whoever gets it, he can bring it in Wednesday.”

The other night, a bicycle shop owner stopped in to check out the temporary repair shop on Balis behind Southdowns Shopping Center.

He told the repairmen some of the people who get bicycles come to his shop looking for a quick sale. He said he tells them to get lost. The Sunday school question blossomed right after the shop owner left.

Who cares was the consensus. The volunteers enjoy working on bicycles. They learn from it. They like one another’s company. The conversation is spirited and funny. Some of the recorded music they play is good.

What if everyone who got a bicycle tried to sell it? That would probably make fixing the bicycles less fun, but it still wouldn’t matter.

One of the repairmen had a good idea. Invite the homeless and carless to work on the bicycles themselves. They might be better at it than some of the volunteers.

Some of Baton Rouge’s homeless and carless citizens blow your idea of who the down-on-their luck are. They aren’t all alcoholics or drug users or people who don’t want to work. Some of them lost their jobs through no fault of their own and can’t find work. Some of them have jobs that don’t pay enough to pay for a car and its upkeep.

The repairmen volunteer for an outfit called Open Air Ministries though some of the repair crew don’t go to church indoors or outdoors.

Some of the repairmen have hard-luck stories of their own. They may fix bicycles as a kind of repayment to the Big Mechanic.

But probably not. The volunteers fix bicycles in a tiny room which, thank you Lord, is air-conditioned. They come and go as they wish. They talk about the bicycles they worked on as children and how this brings back those days of discovery and freedom.

If someone gets a ride out of their efforts, great. The repairmen have had their diversion and their thanks before the bicycles are wheeled from the makeshift shop.

Absolute Construction of Louisiana picks up $700 of the $1,100 monthly rental on the ministorage space.

To donate bicycles, preferably ones that aren’t too far gone, or your time as a repairperson, call Hawthorne at (225) 229-2555.