Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

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Lubricating your Bicycle Chain

We were all out to lunch on a nice spring day.

“Have you been to ‘Damn Yankee’?” Anna asked.
“What is it?”
“It’s the new bike shop, up the next block.  I thought sure you’d know about it.”

I guess, since I don’t own a car and bike everywhere, people expect me to be up on all things bicycle.  I don’t even follow the Tour de France.  Does a long-haul truck driver, after his days in the cab, go watch cars drive around, for fun?

“Where is it?  I can’t place it.”
“Next door to ‘The Screaming Peach’,” she said.

“That name sounds sort of familiar,” I mused.  Anna is always up on popular culture.  She knows more about Princess Di than I ever will.

“It’s that new waxing studio,” she said.

I chuckled at the clever name.  I cringed at the thought.  Talking to me about hair removal is like talking to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz about fire.

Anna needed to go by “Damn Yankee” to see if her bike were ready.  I went with her, walking my own bike.  She explained the name.  “The guy who owns it is a Yankee, from somewhere in the East.”
We entered a storefront nearly bare of furniture and goods.  A bike stand, the kind you clamp a bicycle in to work on, sprouted sideways out of the wall, rather than rising from the ground as I’d seen before.

Anna talked to the owner, Jimmy.  I looked around the shop.  I glanced at articles pinned up on the wall.  Truly a temple of bicycle worship, being created here.

“I can get anything by next-day delivery,” Jimmy casually remarked, “So I don’t need to carry a lot of fucking inventory.”

Damn!  I thought, He is a Yankee!  I was raised, in the Old South.  There, a guy would never use that kind of language in front of a female.  At least till she did first.  I warmed up to him instantly.

On the shelf I spied bottles of chain lubricant.  My supply at home was getting low.  I picked up one.  “You may never have to clean your chain again!” the label announced.  This was one of those fancy wax lubricants, supposed to flake off when it got dirty.

I had tried them before.  It had not been the end of chain cleaning.  The drive train still accumulated a thick, black layer of grime.  The consistency was different, more like asphalt, compared to the good old grease of yesteryear.  On second thought, it had been the end of chain cleaning.  The mess was so bad I gave up trying.

But I needed some kind of lube.  I may as well support this guy, I thought.  I had one question I was going to ask.  This was a brand I’d tried before.  Of course it claimed to be the eighth wonder of the world, in lubricating ability.  It did all right.  But its relation to wax showed up in an inconvenient way.  I congealed and clogged the nozzle, so you couldn’t get it out of the bottle.  I’m sure it would have been a great lubricant if you could.

I was all set to ask if they’d fixed this problem.  Jimmy cut me off.

“You don’t need that stuff!” he exclaimed, “Just put paraffin on your chain.”
“Uh, How do I do that?” I asked, amazed.  He was turning down a sale?

“This little crock pot,” he indicated the vessel on a side table.  “I just melt Gulfwax and dip in the chain.”  He demonstrated how he spiraled the chain up in a double coil, for a tidy footprint.

I was amazed.  “That’s all there is to it?”
“Yeah,” he said in his Yankee accent, “That’s where the wax lubes came from.  It’s all the racers have used for years.”

He demonstrated, “Let it work a few minutes, for the wax to soak in.  Wait till bubbles rise.”  While it was cooking he showed me assembled bikes treated so.  Their chains, rings, and derailleurs were silver rather than black.  It was incredible.  They looked naked.

I was warming up to the idea.  “I’m so bad about not lubing my chain,” I mused, “But this is interesting enough, I might actually do it.”

Anna had gone on.  Jimmy and I talked longer.  I was completely won over by his business attitude of helping the customer, rather than quick sales.  I was definitely going to patronize him again.

“So if I come to the back parking lot,” we ambled towards the rear door, “What storefronts are you next to?”

“Right with Solmon’s Deli,” he said, “And of course ‘The Screaming Peach’.”  He noticed my cringe.  “You know what I call that place?” he went on, “But I can’t say it in public.”

“Oh, come on.”

He didn’t need much encouragement, “The cunt shavers,” he shook his head, “One guy, they were getting him cleaned up for his wedding.  Waxed his balls.  Took most of the skin off.  Another guy does his forearms so you can see the muscles ripple.”

“If they’re that hard to see, I’d rather have the hair.”  I felt like sharing from my own repertoire of depilatory horrors, though I’d had mere brushes.  Jimmy and I were male bonding, after all.

“Before I bought my house,” I started my anecdote, “I lived in this communal place, owned by a young Sociology professor, Mona Palmer.  She’s very right on, fighting corporate power and all.  But she’s also quite the diva.  One day I came home, and all the male housemates were crowded around her in the bathroom.  She was doing a show-and-tell of waxing.”

At this point, a careful listener to the transcript tapes will hear a slight stumble in my narration.  I had barely met this guy, scarcely knew him.  But I had talked myself into a corner.  If I went on, I was about to come out to him.  Oh, well.  What’s male bonding, if you can’t come out?

I plunged on with my little story.  “Mona painted a layer of the wax on her forearm.  After it congealed, she ripped it off.  Much to my horror.

‘You want to try it?’ she offered.  She smiled innocently to the stricken knot of manhood.

‘Not me!’ I backed away.

‘Oh, you’d do it,’ she coyly chided, ‘For the right boy!’

‘No,’ I assured her, trying to keep my voice level.  I even attempted humor, ‘If he even knew what waxing was, he wouldn’t be the right boy’.”

By now Jimmy and I were in the parking lot.  I rode off on my grease-encrusted drive train.  I wondered later if he’d even noticed I’d told him I was gay.  Things like that used to go right by me too.

To my mind there are three levels of dirty work.

There’s normal dirty.  Like changing a tire.  On a dirt road.  In the rain.  While trying to find a level spot for the jack between the mud puddles.  While dodging the road-spray from passing cars.

There’s nasty dirty.  Like repairing a wastewater discharge pipe.  Which has been leaking for 15 years.  Into the 18-inch crawlspace you have to work in.  That’s festooned with cobwebs.  And laced with desiccated blackberry brambles.  And furnished with the occasional dead cat.

And then there’s working on your bike.

The merest touch, and your hands are contaminated with black grease.  The grease transfers by an unnoticed series of subsequent mere touches to every tool, surface, and article of clothing.  And the exterior of the dish soap bottle when it’s time to finally wash it off.  So it gets back on you when you put the bottle away.

Actually accomplishing work on the bike, that’s a lot worse.

The idea of paraffin-coating my chain held the promise that this would be no more.  A truly life-changing event.  I steeled myself for the ordeal of filth one last time.

The problem with living by yourself is you have to play all the family roles.
I was the unruly teenager, ready to dive into this adventure, devil-may-care.
But I was also the housewife, thinking about grease-stained clothing to launder.
And the middle-aged homeowner, worried that permanent oil dribbles on the flagstones might cut the resale value of the property.

The compromise was to work on a large sheet of butcher paper.  And this on top of a bed of absorbent pine needles.  The clothing solution was to wear as little as possible.  Only a faded pair of cut-off sweat pants, found wadded on a forgotten shelf.
And so we began.

I started the paraffin to melting in a shallow aluminum pie dish.  I floated it in water in one of my frying pans.  For some reason there were no old cans the right size in the recycling.  The pan looked tipsy, but I couldn’t wait.  I might lose my nerve.

I disassembled the bicycle.  I put the gunky rear wheel on the butcher paper.  I set the gunky frame on the long suffering picnic table.  I started to struggle with the gunky chain.

This was one of those chains with a link that would come apart without tools.  The first trick was finding the special link.  I looked.  I couldn’t see it.  I poked at the grease-encrusted spans and rivets.  My fingers were getting grease-encrusted themselves.  I gave up all pretense of elegance and just fed the whole length through the gears, inch by inch.  I had to scrape the grease back from the side of each link to see if it were the special one.  Finally, the link turned up.

I pinched and prodded, but the quick link was clotted with gritty grease.  The release mechanism was blocked.  I went and got pliers.  This delivered smears of black grease to various points of the toolbox.  I went and got solvent, biodegradable citrus of course.  This left more smudges.  I went and got old rags and toothbrushes.  This further anointed the kitchen and back room with dark smears.

Finally the chain came apart.  I dropped it into a jar and poured on citrus solvent.  Next, the rear wheel.  I dribbled citrus on the gear cluster and started brushing.  Chips of gritty black flicked off, and dirty orange-scented oil sprayed with each stroke.  I pulled strips of blackening rag back and forth between the gears.  It was a chill morning.  The cutoff sweat pants weren’t enough.  Fortunately, some of the rags were still wearable.

On the derailleur gears, the black deposits were so thick I literally peeled off the first layer.  As the bike got cleaner, I bore the brunt.  My legs and ankles were freckled by drops of flung spray.  Squatting over the awkward metal, I would sway back and get poked by the pine needles.  I had dirty orange solvent dripping down to my elbows.  Finally it was done.

Yes, the pie pan was too tipsy.  The hot wax spilled on the first try, but I got it back together.  Into that melted paraffin went the oddly silver chain.  I let it cook, then drew it forth.  I carried it outdoors to cool.  There was so much orange solvent splashed around the back yard, it smelled like Florida after a tornado.

I got myself unto the shower, and the gunk would not quit.  Smears of black appeared on the floor of the bathtub.  Of course chips of the tarry buildup had tracked into the bathroom on the soles of my bare feet.  They were now streaking into a craze of Chinese brushstrokes across the once-white porcelain.

Finally the job was done.  I think it’s been worth it.  Now, when I go pick up a rental car, I can shove my bike in the back seat and not leave permanent black stencil marks all over the upholstery.  The job of re-paraffining every couple of weeks is almost fun.  More like a science project now, than an autopsy.

But I’m a little nervous.  I can’t talk about this too much.  Sure, it’s nice to be clean and suave.  But what will people say?  I’m going so mainstream!  I have given in to the allure of waxing!