Work will Set You Free

When you work two jobs as mom did for most of my childhood, something has to suffer. In our case, it was housecleaning. Mom wasn’t a pig in the true sense—she rarely ate table scraps and never rolled in shit—but things like dusting and scrubbing were low on the to-do lists she scribbled on cocktail napkins laying around the house. Because we didn’t own a car, simple errands like laundry and groceries required more time and planning. The net effect of these impositions was a home one might kindly describe as bohemian. Compared to Aunt Dianne’s suburban manse or grandma’s spotless two-bedroom cottage, many of the bungalows and apartments we lived in were dumps.

The best dump ever was a tiny one-bedroom apartment with an attached single-car garage. Situated on an alley behind a laundrymat and a Quickie Mart in Lake Worth, Florida, that first address in our new hometown was minutes away from two places that would define our lives for the next six years: the bus stop on Dixie Highway, and Princeton Cycles.

Jim Daetwyler’s father founded his family’s eponymously-named bike shop in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1948. Migration to the Sunshine State in the early ‘60s brought the Daetwyler brood and their mom-and-pop bike shop to sunnier climes in the sleepy retirement community of Lake Worth. Jim took over the shop from his father and raised a family of his own in those days, living with his wife and young daughter Lisa in a small apartment across the street from his humble Schwinn dealership. When the bike shop hustle proved too demanding, Jim sold Princeton Cycles to a Goodyear franchisee named Robert Nichols in ‘73. After he graduated high school two years later, Mr. Nichols put his 18-year-old son Bobby Jr. in charge of sales and service at his new business. Unfortunately, the silver spoon in Bobby’s mouth sometimes made it difficult for Mr. Nichols’ kid to talk and turn wrenches at the same time. My mom didn’t know any of this in the summer of ‘75. All she knew was that her boy needed a job to finance his growing addiction to BMX. Leaving her pride next to a pack of Marlboros on the typing desk in our living room, mom walked down the alley, through the laundromat and across Dixie Highway into Princeton Cycles.

“May I speak to the owner?”

“He’s not here. I’m Bobby, the owner’s son, Can I help you?”

“I hope so. My son Harold is obsessed with bicycles. Is there ANYTHING he can do around here to earn extra money? He’s a good kid, smart—too goddamn smart, frankly—and he races BMX. It’s expensive.”

“Send him in. We’ll let him assemble some bikes to see if he knows what he’s doing.”

What mom failed to mention was my age. Thirteen. Legal statutes, however, she knew all too well. Palm Beach County, our new place of residence, stretched from the the gilded boutiques on Worth Avenue—the East Coast’s Rodeo Drive—to the cane fields on the shores of Lake Okeechobee—farm country for Florida swamp people and their genetically engineered ranch hands. If you were 13 and maintained a C-average in school, you could get a work permit. Report card and freshly minted Social Security ID in hand, I pedaled my Ashtabula Black Diamond across Dixie Highway and reported for duty at Princeton Cycles.

If Bobby Nichols was surprised by my youth, he didn’t show it. Himself a fresh-faced kid barely out of high school, he seemed to relish the idea of pushing around a teen-aged grease monkey. There was a third man in Princeton’s tune-and-service department, a 60-something semi-retired master mechanic co-workers and friends called Chick. Chick was a wizard with wrenches, the first real mechanic I’d ever met. I stuck to him like glue. After comparing shop hours—seven-thirty to seven Monday through Friday, nine to five weekends—with my commitment to seventh grade, Chick and Bobby agreed to let me work four to seven weekdays and both shifts on the weekend. More importantly, Chick said he would teach me how to build wheels and fine-tune the Shimano coaster brake on my BMX bike when work was slow. On the subject of pay, Mr. Nichols introduced me to the term “piecemeal.”

I’ll tell you what, Harold…”

“Friends call me McGoo, Mr. Nichols…”

“Fair enough, McGoo—employees call me Bob. “I’ll give you one dollar for single-speeds, two dollars for three-speeds, and three dollars for five- and ten-speeds. Pay attention to what Chick shows you and I bet you can make a couple bucks an hour.”

After a quick how-to on using third-hands, fourth-hands, and rapping randonneur bars with vinyl tape, Chick cut me loose on a pallet of Schwinns. Coaster brake bikes were easy—bars in the stem, grips on the bars, stem in the fork, and the pedals in the cranks. Even the seat and seatpost were already assembled—just grease it and go. Chick assessed my work and pointed out flaws.

“Don’t drop the post so far into the frame—the clamp will scratch the zinc plating.”

“Grease the wedge hardware and stem quill—it’ll come out of the steerer with less headache when the next guy works on it.”

“Tighten the chain—those factory workers in Chicago are sloppy bastards, and dumber than hell.”

Even at Chick’s more measured pace, I could assemble three Typhoons, Pixies or Sting-Rays per hour. Clearly, I needed to build some 10-speeds to make real money. Unfortunately, my mentor’s assessment of line workers in The Windy City was correct—Schwinn Varsities and Collegiates were over-priced, under-spec’ed, fillet-brazed piles of shit. Raw handlebars were just the beginning. Stamped steel derailleurs were loosely installed and poorly aligned. Headsets and bottom brackets were dry as a bone. Brake levers and stem-mounted shifters were stuffed in a cardboard box with everything else that mattered: pedals, reflectors, bar tape, saddle and seatpost, owner’s manual, you name it. Of course, these parts kits always exploded in transit. Now I had to dig in the trash to find a seatpost clamp so I could claim my three-dollar bounty for fine-tuning another American-made turd.

It was a dirty job, but I wouldn’t have traded it for all the lawn-mowing money in the world. In less than a month, I was the fastest bike builder Chick, Bobby or anyone else had ever seen. How fast? On my first check I averaged twelve bucks per hour. It didn’t take Bob Sr. long to close that gold mine.

“Damn, McGoo—you’re a whiz! How would you like to get out of the back room and help Chick with high-end service and Bobby with customers?”

“Will I get to wear a uniform shirt with my name over the pocket?”

“Hell yes—everyone at Princeton Cycles gets a week’s worth of shirts and three pair of pants.”

I’m in! How much will I be getting paid?”

“Minimum wage to start, but with the hard work I know you’re capable of, the sky’s the limit.”

Business handled, I thanked Mr. Nichols for the opportunity, gave Bobby my sizes and punched my time card on the company clock.

The year was 1975. The minimum wage was $2.10 per hour. I was the youngest employee at the worst-performing Schwinn franchise on Florida’s East Coast.

It was a great time to be alive.

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