For Busy Sidewalk Bike Mechanics, the Fix Is In
Heat blazed down from the sky and radiated up from the sidewalk, but Natividad Zirate, hard at work truing a bicycle wheel beneath an oversized umbrella more appropriate to a hot dog cart, seemed not to notice. Business had been good, he said, since he returned from California and started repairing bikes on the northeast corner of Second Avenue and Houston Street in June.
From a small black suitcase stuffed with tools and blackened with chain grease, his sidewalk mechanic shop had expanded — tires, wheels and bikes leaned against a fence or were locked to a nearby signpost, his tools now found a new home in a brushed metal delivery cart with rubber wheels. Mr. Zirate, who goes by Nat and sleeps on the street in the West Village, recently reinvested his earnings in a pair of new box wrenches bought at Sears in the Bronx.
“People didn’t trust me in Venice Beach,” said Mr. Zirate, 63, his hands caked black with grease, his glasses miraculously unsmudged. “But it’s different here. There’s not the same stigma of being homeless.”
Nor is Mr. Zirate’s the only sidewalk shop in the vicinity.
On the south side of Tomkins Square Park, Peter Corbin, a k a the Bike Man, has operated a nearly full-service repair shop — everything from busted spokes and tune ups to mountain bike suspension systems — on and off for several decades.
“I’ve got kids of former customers for customers; it just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” he said as he navigated around piles of wheels and frames in a pushcart and a half-dozen bicycles in various states of repair in search of a tool. The surge of riders downtown hasn’t escaped his notice. “Bikes are going crazy,” he said.
The sight of a rider doing a few sidewalk repairs is a common enough in the summer, but these messy street shops are more like small businesses. And like any small businessmen, there exists a sharp, if veiled, competitive edge.
When asked about the bike man’s shop on Tomkins Square, Mr. Zirate said he was not a fan. And Mr. Corbin? He claimed to be unaware of any rival nearby.
A steady stream of beater bike aficionados and deliverymen provides both with a healthy customer base. The latter are especially drawn to Mr. Zirate, who grew up in Mexico and readily glides between Spanish and English. He said the delivery men have started to recommend him to each other. His corner, quiet for long stretches, can spontaneously erupt into a community hub.
“Hey, Natty!” a friend, Miguel, called out as he rode up on his vintage Schwinn, a 1949 “Black Phantom.”
Mr. Zirate was busy helping a man in a white restaurant shirt with his rusting, one-wheeled mountain bike. “I’ll be right back, I need to get a new wheel,” Mr. Zirate said.
Miguel, who wore a Purple Heart — “from Korea” — on a gold chain around his neck and declined to provide a last name, turned to the man. “Sabe mucho de bicicleta,” he said of his friend. The man nodded.
As Mr. Zirate returned, a young man with curly blond bedhead arrived pushing two beater bikes. “You do repairs?”
Like Mr. Zirate, who has been a bike mechanic in New York intermittently since 1991, Mr. Corbin is also a neighborhood fixture. (He said his sidewalk shop has been featured in the background of two episodes of “NYPD Blue” — “It’s a real New York thing, they said” — and at least one movie, a claim this Spokes reporter could not independently verify.)
“I really like the people, and being outside I can cater more to the people, not to the rent.” The deep tan on his shirtless torso is a testament to many summer days in the sun.
At 51, Mr. Corbin is likewise a lifelong bike tinkerer, a vocation that began with his first bike, which he rode for a delivery job when he was a teenager in Springfield, Mass. Though he is reticent about some aspects of his past, Mr. Corbin is quick to credit his grandfather with teaching him about bikes. “I learned everything from the horses mouth.”
Unlike Mr. Zirate, he is married, not homeless and claimed to be unaware of any rival shop nearby. His wife Charlotte helps him move his substantial number of spare parts, tools and half-completed jobs to and from their $450 a month apartment on Avenue C to his corner on Avenue A. “She works pretty hard,” he said.
Indeed, running a business as complicated as a repair shop on the sidewalk comes with many difficulties, from the weather to securing spare parts against theft to the very legality of their existence.
Both men said they had a friendly relationship with the local police, but the official status of their shops is tenuous to non-existent. A permit from the Department of Consumer Affairs is needed to sell anything besides food on the sidewalk, which neither could produce. The city caps the number of permits at 853 for non-food vendors, and the waiting list for a new permit is so long and turnover is so slow, the department has stopped accepting new names. (Veterans are exempt from the permit cap; there are currently 1,678 licensed veteran vendors, according to the city. There is also a First Amendment exception to the licensing process for selling books, art and other speech-related items.)
The provenance of so many spare parts also raises questions. Mr. Zirate admitted to something more than a passing interest in what he deems to be abandoned bikes — “rusting with lots of stuff missing” — and occasionally mines them for needed material. He said that people also donate or sell him old parts, but dismisses the idea they could be stolen. “Cops have tried to set me up with hot stuff.”
“But they were so obvious,” he added, indicating the pile of used tires and wheels that huddled together against the signpost. “Look at my selection. What I’m trying to do is put bikes on the road. I’m trying to save them from the dump.”