Editor’s note: This feature story was written by University of Arizona Journalism student Nick Scala.
Every half hour a train rumbles through the railroad crossing at Sixth Street and Ninth Avenue, quaking the earth below and projecting a wall of sound throughout downtown Tucson.
Just north, and eight feet below ground, the people of Bicycle Inter Community Action & Salvage (BICAS) continue to develop, construct, reconstruct, assemble and build bikes — unaffected by the trembling walls and loud horns and bells.
After two minutes the railroad crossing gates lift and music, tools cranking and tightening, grunts and chatter, fill the room again.
“How much for this bike?” asks a shaggy brown-haired boy with no shoes who is holding an old rusty mountain bike frame.
“For you I can do $500 and no less,” says a BICAS mechanic trying to refrain from laughing.
Lucky for the boy, BICAS is a nonprofit organization that is funded by used bike and money donations. It charges very little for parts and labor.
In the 1980’s, the organization started employing Tucson’s homeless to repairing bicycles sent to developing countries, a branch of the international Bikes Not Bombs movement, according to their website.
Since 1996, they have worked to teach the community about bike safety and maintenance, supplying a garage, tools and mechanics to watch over and assist customers.
With a paid staff of five or six mechanics per shift, assistance can also be given by volunteers who frequently roam the underground warehouse.
Vietnam War veteran Harry Ingmire, 60, has been volunteering at BICAS just about every day for the last five years.
Ingmire strolls through the shop with his cowboy boots and army cap on, looking for a distressed customer to help.
Having been a prisoner of war for six months, life hasn’t been easy for Ingmire but he says “bikes are one of the few things that make sense to me and even when they do break down, they’re not hard to fix.”
Ingmire doesn’t respond to the name Harry anymore. Everyone knows him as Goose because of his expertise putting the gear shifters on the gooseneck, which is on the handlebar stem.
He’s been called Goose ever since he owned his own bike shop in Ohio and retained it through the war. “When I got in the army I told the sergeants to call me Goose because it was easier to pronounce than my last name, and they did,” he says.
Diversity flourishes below ground, welcoming people from all different backgrounds.
“You never know who will walk down here or what frequency their brain will be on, but the crew still treats everyone with the same respect,” says volunteer electrician Stephen Smith.
Smith is a retired electrician from Seattle who came to Tucson looking to volunteer and found the staff at BICAS very easy to work with.
Their grease-stained smocks and fingers differentiate the staff members from the customers. Their smiles and eagerness to assist set them apart from other bike mechanics.
As the customers stroll through the basement they are reminded of the staff’s kindness by a sign that reads: “Free helmets. Because we like you.”
“I worked on bikes at a similar type place in North Dakota but wasn’t paid. I really enjoy it and would do it regardless of pay,” says mechanic Casey Woolschlaeger.
Woolschlaeger has been at BICAS since August and was stunned when she said it out loud, amazed by how fast the time has gone.
The workers don’t have any trouble staying busy. Besides offering assistance, they also lend their expertise to classes for bike enthusiasts.
Ignacio Rivera de Rosales teaches up to two bike maintenance classes per week to help the students — ages 10 to 40 — how to take care of their bikes among other things.
“Hey we don’t treat our friends like that,” says Rosales to a 12-year-old student. “You need to go change your attitude before you can work on this bike again.”
BICAS is full of younger customers, and Rosales and the other members of the staff don’t only teach bike safety, but also present themselves as good role models.
“BICAS is a community in its own that stands for more than just bike repair,” says Woolschlaeger.
Don’t be intimidated by the song “You can dance if you want to” playing over the speakers or the dogs drinking out of the water used to check for punctured tubes.
Don’t even let the devil, dragon, angels or smiling monk paintings along the wall distract you.
BICAS welcomes all who stumble down the stairs into their bicycle foxhole — but as you exit, remember: “Yo! Please check your pockets for tools.”
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