Saturday, June 11, 1983
Garage sailing, I find what looks like a BMX bike with extra-strength wheels for $15. It needs paint, padding, a kickstand. Some bolts are loose. Still, it's a $150 bike abandoned by a kid who rode it until he went off to college. Among other items, I also buy a jigsaw puzzle map of the USA.
I call home, mentioning the bike to my wife, and then go to work for Bert.
Before I figured out that working for Bert was on a moral plane with working for the Mafia, he used to send me a steady stream of small jobs. I was inexperienced and inexpensive; Bert was a decorator seeking high profit with low standards. We were a match. Today, he wants me to fix a few things at his own house.
Bert has a mansion in Atherton. Unlike the garbage he sells his clients, his own home combines luxury and good taste. I hang a shelf, unclog a fountain, cut a lock off a slot machine he wants to keep in his den. When I finish, Bert tries to cajole me into giving him a freebie. Or at least a deep discount. He comes on like a father figure. "For cash, for friendship," he says.
We're not friends. He's a referral source, not a father figure. He's asking for a kickback. By this point in our relationship, I've increased my skill set - and my prices. Because of the steady jobs he sent me, I got a chance to practice and improve my craft. I owe him for that. But also he owes me for keeping my mouth shut when I've been caught in disputes between him and his clients, disputes caused by the fact that Bert, as his clients eventually discover, is a con man.
Nothing irritates me quite like when rich people try to chisel me out of a few dollars. For better or worse I quote Bert a straight price, no discount. Politically unwise - and a bad business decision - but it feels good.
Driving home, though, I begin to question myself. I may have lost a steady source of business over a minor matter of personal integrity.
Back home I show Jesse the bike. Right away he says he wants to paint it. He's now six years old. A year ago he restored my old red Raleigh bike when I had wanted to haul it to the dump. He's still too small to ride it, but this BMX is just his size.
My wife tells me he was beside himself with excitement before I got home. In my presence, he controls himself - but clearly he likes it.
Together we cut foam pads, tighten bolts, squirt oil. I now see that it's a highly customized non-BMX bike, so I tell Jesse, "It's a chopper."
We find some old cans of spray paint in the garage, and Jesse blasts the wheels and frame.
It's such a surprise to watch your kids unfold. Jesse, we're discovering, has a genetic love for bicycles, not just the riding but the mechanics, the work of metal and oil, the logic of machines.
In the evening Jesse picks out a puzzle piece from the USA map. Practicing what he's learned in first grade, he sounds out the letters. A. L. A. B... Then looking very serious he says, “Daddy, this is Alabama. At school we heard a story called 'Alabama and the Forty Thieves'.”
Sometimes I forget he's just six.
I did right with Bert.