For those that don't know him. . .
Slick is 6'4" 300lb black man, probably around 60 years old or so, who has been wrenching bikes long before many of us were born. He has lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for over 40 years. While that area has been hot (and mad$$$) for over ten years now, it wasn't always that way. W'burg is on the waterfront, across from mid/lower Manhattan. It was known as the place to: get hookers, dump bodies, buy drugs, burn down buildings for insurance money. Not a nice neighborhood.
Slick bought a few buildings on Wythe street, a block from the water line. Nothing fancy, just some regular old NYC apartment buildings. He's been living and working there since. The buildings are worth a mint now. But he's just doing what he always did. . . living and fixing bikes on the sidewalk right outside his ground floor shop.
He's got the dryest damn humor I've ever encountered. He doesn't always use so many words, but the ones he does carry some weight if you listen carefully. He'll verbally cut you to ribbons if you're a clown or have in some way discounted him. You won't even know you're bleeding. He's crafty that way. He's got two old dogs (this is starting to sound like Buzz Fledderjohn's yard) that look as old as he does that lay around on the sidewalk and block the entrance to the shop. You see, the shop is on the sidewalk. The inside is a complete mystery to everyone but Slick and his brother. It's dark and full of old parts and catalogs and who-knows-what. The dogs will take you out if he tells them to. Otherwise, they just look at you with their eyes telling you they'd like to be left alone, please. There are forty to fifty bikes parked on the side of the street around the intersection. The cops used to just overlook this as he's been there long before anyone in the area cared about street cleaning and parking rules. Sometimes though, he's got to jockey them all around to avoid getting a rash of tickets.
A stack of old tires sits next to the wall on the sidewalk, and he'll sell you one for a few dollars or the price of a new one depending on how you approach him and how much it looks like you got. An upside down soda bottle full of gasoline hangs from the faded canvas awning for test running the many junker jap bikes that surround him. There's a milk crate and a folding chair next to the door and a few bike part catalogs from LONG ago. The windows are painted black from the inside, but I only know this because I brushed up against one and the dust streaks revealed black paint underneath. The old wood, like shopfronts from the turn of the century, flakes antique green paint onto the sidewalk. You'll often find a few people standing around waiting to speak with him as he dozes on his milkcrate or continues eating from a styrofoam container full of rice and greens from the bodega down the street.
All this in the middle of a now entirely hipster-populated area. Presumptuous skinny kids in stretch jeans and Chuck Taylors, hailing from Ohio or Michigan or Minnesota, come up and take liberties with him like he's some kind of attraction. He lets them. He lets them believe they actually know something that he doesn't. They ask about buying that old street wreck Honda 175, rusted to the core but with a cool purple flake paint job. He says something like "well, you know these bikes can take a lot of work right? But if you want it, I'll sell it to you for $1500 plus whatever labor it takes for me to get it running". A hipster asks about payment plans: "You can pay me cash, now or come back and pay me cash later" is the response. On another occasion he said something like "you're not going to buy a motorcycle, don't waste my time". Cool kids that already own old "vintage" japanese iron pull up and explain their various mechanical woes. Slick (he's not called Slick for nothing) arranges the deal and send them home on the subway. Prices are subject to change based on who and how you are. No matter what you might pay, he DOES know what he's doing. His specialty is rebuilding and tuning all manner of Japanese bike carbs.
All this is not to say he's a rip-off artist. Just a business man. He's sold me gasket kits for pennies and given me mechanical wisdom for free on many occasions. I like to think that it's because I earned his respect. But it might well be that I was just lucky. We've spent more than a few hours over the years sitting on the sidewalk shooting the jaw. I learned to shut the hell up and listen. He's got some amazing stories.
He'll tell you how, back in the sixties, he used to run around on Harleys with his friends. He liked those motorycles, he says. Then one day he got smoked by a Jap 750 four. He said "it was over for me. . . why drive around slow and spend all my time fixing those damned things?" To hear him tell it, he never rode a Harley again. The bikes that line his sidewalk and the few pics from the past that are just inside his door support this claim. I showed up one afternoon on the first Triumph I ever built. I had it running great and was really proud of my work and wanted to show him. I ALMOST got him to take it for a ride. He said to me "I heard a Triumph coming in the neighborhood and thought it might be you. Looks like you got it going pretty good. Still ain't no Jap bike though". He's seen just about every bike I ever built or worked on over the last 15 years. Sometimes he's got something to say. Other times, he just nods. Still others he acts like I just showed up by subway. I say hello and listen. I watch him greet and talk with the various people that come by.
Fixtures of the neighborhood (native characters that have been there all their lives) drop by and talk b.s. with him all afternoon in that special language so unique to old Brooklyn. He knows everybody. He never qualifies or judges people verbally, but you can see it in his eyes.. . and if you listen carefully between the lines, can hear it in the delivery.
I'm sure the various developers and local politicians they own, would like to have him gone so they can build luxury condos there. He isn't having it. "I own these damn buildings and ain't going nowhere."
I'll say hello for you next time I see him.
Jason - August, 2007
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