Notes From Underground
Two months is a long time to wait. Especially when you're waiting to find out whether or not you'll get blackballed by a self-described "anarchist" bike collective. Dylan Alverson, a member of the collective for more than a year, cracks open a can of Sparks, takes a swig, and lets out a dramatic ahhhhh. "I've discovered I have one thing in common with a frat boy," he says, stretching out his legs and swigging his third alcohol-loaded energy drink of the day. "These are all the rage with frat boys." Alverson's mop of brown hair pokes through a trucker's hat; he wears a black T-shirt so threadbare you can see his skin.
Alverson has something else in common with a frat boy: The 24-year-old is part of an elite, members-only society, except in Alverson's case it's the collective that runs the Grease Pit bike shop on the West Bank. On the shop's wall, a handwritten note lists the numerous rules of the collective, one being to use discretion when drinking alcohol (this is anarchy, baby). Another states that all prospects get voted on, in their absence, after two months of volunteering at the Grease Pit. The reward? Keys. And more time volunteering at the Grease Pit.
The shop sits on Cedar Avenue below the Bedlam Theater, in a dingy basement of concrete slabs and bike-frame graveyards. Wheels hang from every inch of the rafters, and donated bike parts are stashed in metal filing cabinets that rattle on the uneven flooring. The white cement walls are spray-painted with images of red and blue bicycles, like miniature graffiti tags. The clamor of clanking wrenches fills the room as Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" plays on a donated radio.
A handful of black-clad twentysomethings are hunched over wheels and spokes, their heads anchored to instruction booklets. "I look at it as a valuable learning resource for the community," Alverson says of the shop. "We don't have the time to teach actual courses, but we can help kids put a bike together. There's another place that has courses, it's mostly for at-risk youth," he says, referring to the Express Bike Shop in St. Paul. "We're mostly at-risk adults here," he adds with a laugh.
Araby Williams jumps up to turn down the radio, mini-skirt flaring, big black boots clomping on the concrete. "I look at it as part of the way our community can have our own little anarchist civilization," she says. "We have our restaurant [the Hard Times Café, another co-op], we have our bike shop, and we have all these places so we can all maintain our low-paying lifestyles."
Some of the volunteers also are part of the Minneapolis Black Rebel Bike Club, whose members troll through the Twin Cities on those pimped-out tall bikes and mutant bikes made from discarded parts. Perhaps the connection to the underground Black Rebels explains why some members are reluctant to speak, shrouding themselves in secrecy and refusing to offer their names. "This place can be kind of unwelcoming if you don't know what to expect," says 27-year-old Mark Finn, who has been a member for more than two years. Even so, Finn says the shop sometimes is filled with Somali kids from the neighborhood: "We normally charge for all the parts, but sometimes they can do work trade. There's an endless amount of stuff that needs to be cleaned up around here."
There's also an endless amount of stuff that gets stolen from the bike shop, such as donated parts. Recently, there were three robberies in two weeks, Alverson says, though he doesn't suspect any of the members. "One time, someone stole our bolt cutters and then used those to break in," he says.
In the basement of the Hard Times, with the men's toilet threatening to overflow onto our heads, eight members of the collective hold a meeting to discuss needs, scheduling, and other members. Nineteen-year-old Nate Lee has been volunteering off and on for a while now, and says he can fill in for a key-holder. The members exchange glances. Should we vote? Should he leave the room? Finn shakes his head, "It doesn't make sense. You're leaving for school soon." It's unanimous. Blackballed, dude.
They move onto other issues, such as a volunteer who seems to have disappeared ("He thinks we don't like him," someone offers) and whether the Bedlam will sell the shop's space, forcing the co-op to move or shut down. Everyone agrees that they need to focus on raising more money for the co-op.
"We should build some things," suggests a squeaky-voiced member.
Alverson has a better idea: "What about parts for Sparks?"
His suggestion is shot down in favor of a discussion about the best place to pee while working (the boiler room, of course). But the inner frat boy in Alverson can't be contained.
"Man, I feel nothing from those Sparks," he says, pulling off his cap and scratching his head. After splitting a six-pack with Williams, they're both uncomfortably booze-free, and suddenly the concept of parts for Sparks doesn't sound bad to Williams either.
"If you want to be really honest about it, it's about us getting alcohol," Williams jokes. "You can call it anarchy, but really it's all about alcohol."
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