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Helping Out While Wearing Tweed

By Joe Kurmaskie

Sign of the times: the indication for setting my bottles and cans outside for recycling day was three deep when I came out of the house. This being Portland, though, the trio of homeless gents rode brand name bicycles; one was smoking American Spirit cigarettes. They had evidently worked out a system to divvy the spoils. It brought to mind the advice of an Episcopalian minister just before he was transferred to Montana by the uptight Florida congregation of my childhood - his downfall had something to do with bringing a bad element to the doorstep of our WASPy enclave in the name of charity.

“The difference between heaven and hell? It’s the same place, only the way people act is different.” With that, he went west. As did I when I was legal and able.

The remnants of my upbringing must have traveled with me, though, because I stood in my driveway wondering if the bikes the gentlemen rode were stolen. My fear had some basis in experience. A neighbor, Tom Knipe, related the time he spotted his missing Burley trailer filled with cans and making its way through Columbia Park.

He called out to the man in question, “Hey, that’s my trailer!” Rather sporting, in my opinion. A foot race ensued. It’s worth noting that Tom is 6’5” and farm boy big. When he gets a good head of steam behind him, the impact is substantial; as his racquetball partner, I know firsthand.

After a lackluster attempt to argue the ownership of the trailer, the man gave up, but pleaded his case for keeping the cans. His plan involved going to the recycling center, dropping off the load, and then returning the trailer to Tom’s house. To no one’s surprise, he said he knew where Tom lived. In Florida, this type of negotiation would have been met with a beat down, or worse. Tom paid the man who ripped off his trailer from his garage $10, including its sticky cargo, and wheeled it home, rickshaw-style. That’s how we roll in Portland.

Another neighbor, Jake, faced bolder antics when a woman rolled by his house balancing a hefty bag of cans on a bike stolen from his porch days earlier. She stopped to pick through his recycling when Jake saw his opening.

“That’s my bike!” he declared. Again, rather sporting.

Her story involved buying it from someone else because her own bike had a flat tire. “I’d never steal from you, you give me cans.” Again, she asked if she could use the stolen bike to deliver her load, then bring it right back. Again, no beat down. Instead, Jake, working against conventional wisdom and his “Spidey senses” agreed. As she was about to roll away, perhaps forever, he had another idea.

“Bring your bike back to me. I’ll repair the tire and you can take the recyclables on it,” he offered. So she set off on foot. Jake did not expect to see her again, but this being Portland, she returned with the flat tire bike. Jake went to work on it, not only putting capital into the wheel but also tuning and adjusting other parts of the ride. The following week she came back with another bike, this one with a broken chain. She demanded service! At some point, Jake had to shutter his “Shady Tree” bike repair collective. Operating at a loss was not as big a deal as possibly repairing stolen bikes.

My guys saw me eyeing their bikes.

“We got these from the Community Cycling Center,” one stated. “I can show you the serial numbers.” Shame reddened my cheeks, but he just waved it off, offering me an American Spirit. I declined but asked him where he had acquired his snappy tweed jacket.

“The Goodwill on Lombard.”

I told him how, with the annual tweed ride coming up, that material was getting hard to come by. I wanted to know if he’d sell it to me. Clearly, mentioning that it was a seller’s market did not put me in a place of strength, but then again, I wasn’t sure if I was a customer yet.

“I paid five dollars for it,” he finally answered. We turned my front yard into a public changing room. It fit perfectly and only offered a hint of second hand smoke in its fabric.

“I’ll give you $20.”

I was then ready for the upcoming tweed ride. I plan to put the boys in corduroy and sweaters and pedal like it’s 1899.

A Guide To Falling Down In Public: Stories of Finding Balance On A Bicycle by Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie will be available soon.

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