If each functioning bike speeds along in basically the same way, each broken one has a unique story.
This is a lesson that Alan Kailer, 61, has learned in his first months repairing bikes for the homeless in the parking lot of Open Door on Wednesday mornings. This is the first time in recent memory that bike repairs have been offered at the shelter. Kailer doesn’t see the fancy bike-shop bikes – with expensive parts finely tuned by silver screwdriver – that he rides and was used to fixing.
The nicest bikes he sees now were purchased for maybe $25 at a garage sale. More typically, they were found abandoned on the side of the road, or accepted as a charitable gift years after having originally been pulled off a Wal-Mart shelf.
So when Matt Barley, 52, recently showed up with an unusual braking mechanism, Kailer just squinted and got to work. When Kailer saw that the brakes were tied together with a piece of coat hanger, even he had to laugh.
Barley showed up that day to Open Door – a homeless center in downtown Wichita that provides food and clothing – looking for a better fitting shirt. But as he was biking across the parking lot, he saw Kailer.
“I stopped by Bike X-Change, and they wanted 80 bucks to fix a 10-dollar bike,” Barley said. Barley already had two bikes stolen and didn’t want to pay.
After looking the bike over, Kailer told him that he couldn’t fix the brakes.
“(Barley) could also use new tires,” Kailer said. “But is that the best place to use the tires I have? He’s probably not going to be riding real long on that bike. His best bet would be to find another bike.”
These are the kinds of calculations Kailer has learned to make since he started hauling his bike repair tools and donated spare parts to the shelter in the back of his blue van.
Kailer retired to Wichita last year after 35 years as a corporate lawyer in Dallas, where he was a member of the local bike club. So it was natural for him to join Bike Walk Wichita, the city’s bicycle advocacy organization. When someone asked if anyone would be willing to help repair bikes for the homeless, Kailer volunteered.
Kailer mostly does simple repairs such as fix brake-wires, grease bike chains and tighten spokes. It’s simple work in a T-shirt compared to the sometimes-intense work of a corporate lawyer. Kailer recently started picking up a few replacement pedals and wheels to add to his repertoire of repairs. That is, when they fit.
Richard Hughes, 62, showed up, munching on Cool Ranch Doritos, with a phone in his pocket blasting the hip-hop artist Tech N9ne — hoping to get his brakes fixed. But it turned out that his front wheel was 2 inches smaller than the back wheel and couldn’t be fixed.
That didn’t stop Kailer from greasing the bike’s joints and straightening a wheel out so that it would ride smoother.
Hughes had been riding around town without brakes because, he said, “Old as I am, I don’t ride that fast.”
How does he stop?
“You know the Flintstones?” Hughes said. “That’s what I do.”
Recently, a woman pulled out of her driveway looking one direction and turning another and hit him, he said. He was hoping to get his brakes fixed, so he could feel safe enough to start getting exercise again.
“I have poor circulation in my legs. If I sit around, I’ll end up in a wheelchair,” Hughes said and then, rubbing his belly, added: “Obesity is the No. 1 problem in the U.S. Too much fast food and not enough riding.”
Kailer doesn’t just fix bikes; he shows the riders how to care for them. He does it partly so they’ll learn how do it on their own, and partly just to get more work done, as the line for repairs grows longer.
“Those screws on top, what are those for?” asked Galen Townsend, 62, whose old, bright yellow bike was hanging from Kailer’s work stand, with a sticker that read, ‘Guaranteed World’s Finest Bicycle Precision Mechanism.” Townsend had lent his bike to a friend who crashed it.
“My friend is never getting it back again,” Townsend said. “This is my Cadillac right here.”
Although he’s handy with tools, Kailer said he is more of a biking enthusiast than mechanic. Kailer and his wife started their retirement last year by biking across the country on a tandem bicycle, averaging 50 miles a day for four months. Their bike broke down a fair bit, but he always managed to get it fixed well enough to get them to the next bike repair shop.
Scott Smiley, 39, who had just received his first bike from a worker at the Union Rescue Mission the previous day, said he was able to bike between Open Door, where he goes to eat, and the Mission, where he sleeps in 20 minutes. It takes two hours to walk, he said.
The donated bike was in pretty good repair, except for its half-broken pedals.
It was already noon, the hour when Kailer was supposed to have started heading back to his home in west Wichita, when Jacob Cole, 42, showed up wearing two baseball caps – one on top of the other – and asked if he could borrow a couple of Kailer’s tools.
As Cole ripped off his broken chain guard with Kailer’s pliars, the bells on the First United Methodist Church across the street started to ring. “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord,” Cole sang as he worked, his pitch modulating perfectly with the bells. “I’m a Christian, brother,” Cole said. “That’s my highest calling. God wants me to sing for the people.”
Cole is also a drug addict and a convicted drunken driver, he said, who was sober on the day he wanted to get his bike fixed but not the night before.
Cole’s bike had a lot of problems. “I can’t figure out where to begin,” Kailer said. “I need to triage here and decide what’s most important.”
But Cole had to go, he said. So Kailer gave him his bike back, even though he wasn’t finished. This was par for the course, he said – he fixed bikes as long as they let him. At least he had got the brakes working. “I can only do what I can do,” he said.
Cole popped a wheelie for the first time since he was a kid and shouted back over his shoulder, “God bless you, Mr. Lawyer.”