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Unfamiliar Things

An excerpt from the memoir, SMIDGE AND SPACE GO WEST

By Maureen Foley

Brakes that fail. Identical twins are human clones. Forks, knots, balloons, openings, treetops. The word depth reflected in a pool upside down. Aging. Diagnosing a broken rib. Selecting a list of people for valentines. How our brains make no noise when they’re running. A man with cancer all over has a hard time dying. Identifying the beginning at the end. A flat tire on a bicycle, late for work. These are all unfamiliar things. As a bike courier, the two most unsettling things are a broken bike and no messenger bag. For both, I came to rely on Holland Zo and his Velo City bike shop.

Holland Zo. Old school San Francisco bike mechanic, voice deepened from smoke, crafty bright blue eyes, and wiry. A crusty old timer from the lost days of San Francisco and the man behind the Velo City bike shop. Usually wearing loose wool bike leggings, a t-shirt, and a sporty wool cycing cap, the little brim and primary colors reminiscent of a jockey. But Van, a younger mechanic who played good cop and actually remembered my name, made up for Holland’s cantankerous vibe.

After falling out with Malcolm and his free repairs and services at the Bike Shack, Velo City became my bike shop of choice, chosen from dozens in the area. Catering to messengers, Zo gave the professionals priority on repairs and kept his prices the lowest in town. And the catch? Holland Zo is cranky, bordering on downright mean. I watched him scare away yuppies and other innocents in half a breath.

Like most bike shops, Velo City kept a small inventory of dilapidated bikes locked to racks on the pavement in front of the store. But there was an unspoken rule about these bikes. They weren’t really for sale.

In theory, a person could buy them. But I never saw one actually leave the store with a new owner and they didn’t have prices on them, and they looked like scrap heap finds, metal lacquer now faded and pin stripes dull. Eventually, I saw them as permanent exhibits in Holland’s vintage bicycle museum. If a genuine gearhead expressed interest in them, Holland would ramble on about their provenance, where they were hand made, why they held vast personal meaning, how they were significant examples of a particular type of bike or rare specimens crafted by long-gone bicycle artisans. The bike museum acted as barometer of cool and a booby trap for monied idiots who lacked true bicycle aesthetic. It was as if Holland despised anyone who just wanted to own a cool-looking bike, without having any investment in two-wheeled culture.

I remember once this thirty-something man, all brown hair perfectly askew and delicately oiled skin, stumbled into Holland’s clutches. I watched him on the sidewalk, from inside the store’s plate glass windows, while I waited on a repair. Carrying the ubiquitous white, paper coffee cup in one hand, he stared at the old bikes, leaned sadly in the racks. At one point, he squatted down to look closely at the chain ring on one red bike. To the undiscerning eye, they looked like perfect San Francisco junkers, bikes that could be ridden to bars late at night. And if they were stolen or rained on? Who cares. By the time the man walked inside the store, he’d been browsing outside for five minutes.

As soon as he heard the sound of the man’s fine, brown loafers slap the floor, Holland smelled blood.

“Hello,” Holland yelled, not moving out from the repair area in the back of the store.

“Hi,” the man said, “I was interested in that bike out there.”

“Which one?” said Holland, barking.

“The red one,” said the man, gesturing with his latte.

“It’s not for sale,” Holland said, turning away from the man.

The man wandered toward Holland, still intent purchasing a bargain cruiser.

“Oh. Well, what about the brown one?”


“Are any of them for sale?” he asked.

“No. Not for you.”

Stunned, the man stormed out the door. After a few months and hours spent at the store, I could predict these little tempests. They always involved middle-aged men with an air of privilege. It was as if Holland was taking out all his gentrification angst on these men for all the new big box stores, the recent incursion of money, the commodification of the city that he’d love even at its dirty, gritty worst. Instead of the usual model of embracing any and all customers, Holland seemed set on testing his customers for their true nature and weeding out the dross. As a result, his clients were a strange breed of low-end messenger