I’ve been in school for 15 years, and I still don’t feel like I know anything. And I definitely don’t know how to do anything useful — I can’t fix a toilet or build a cabinet or even make anything more complex than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
So this week Jordan and I set out to find professionals who make their livings with technical skills. We talked to Hal Ruzal, resident mechanic at the Lafayette Street Bicycle Habitat and New York cycling legend, about growing up in Brooklyn, identity crises and long-distance biking.
Ruzal graduated from Brooklyn College with degrees in music and economics and a pension for playing guitar with his punk band at CBGBs, in a time when the Village was still a grungy artists’ haven. He was a happy camper, but one crucial element was missing: a job.
“I get out of college, and there’s no stupid jobs. It was during a recession, which we’ve had a number of, so I get this gig fixing cars at an automobile collision shop,” he said, blue-gloved hands tapping on the repair counter at Bicycle Habitat, where he’s fixed all sorts of cyclist woes, from standard tire replacements to cockroach-infested bikes.
The bug-ridden bicycle is only one of Ruzal’s most bizarre repair stories; another time, a customer unwittingly brought in a large bag of marijuana with his newly purchased bike – Ruzal discovered the stowed pot only after he removed the seat, to the customer’s shock.
But long before his tenure at the Lafayette Street store Ruzal was a kid growing up poor in Brooklyn. When an appliance broke in his childhood home there wasn’t any money to take it to the shop and pay someone else to take a look.
“We had to fix things ourselves, or else it didn’t get fixed,” he said.
Ruzal’s grandfather, a machinist, taught him the tricks of the trade from a young age.
Ruzal is a long-time friend of Bicycle Habitat owner Charlie McCorkell, and once he tired of the stink and stress of repairing automobiles, moving on to McCorkell’s bike shop was an easy transition. Today, 33 years later, Ruzal still enjoys the work.
“It’s easy, it’s fun,” he said. “I get to meet generally happy people. Bicyclists have gotten some exercise, they have some endorphins going through them, and they’re not pissed off at the world, like say a car driver.”
Most of Ruzal’s repairs are simple: He sees a steady stream of flat tires and brake pad replacements a day. New York City is tough on brake pads, as cyclists who weave in and out of traffic usually spend almost as much time hitting the brakes as they do accelerating, Ruzal said.
Standing behind the shop counter, Ruzal is on his feet continuously, but he doesn’t seem to mind. When there’s a steady stream of customers, he makes small talk and yells an emphatic “Next victim!” when he’s ready to take a look at the following bike.
On Fridays and Saturdays, his days off, Ruzal does long rides to clear his head — 75 miles today, 100 tomorrow — it all adds up to about 10,000 miles a year. He’s been across the country on his bike four times — New York to California in 40 days, sleeping in small town cemeteries on the way to save money.
At the end of our interview, Ruzal asked me what I’m doing after I graduate. I took a deep breath, told him I have no idea, and he laughed, waist-length dreads swinging against his black T-shirt.
The key, I think, from his perspective, is simplification, the exact opposite of the overwhelming complexities college liberal arts curriculums weave into young brains.
“Bikes are very simple objects. That’s why I like them,” he said. “Find something you like, and figure out a way to make money doing what you like.”
Sounds easy enough.
And on making enough to get by — Ruzal said he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about rolling in the green.
“I’m not starving. I have a simple lifestyle. A lot of people are brainwashed into thinking they need to make a lot of money. If you have a roof over your head and you’re happy, you made enough money.”