March 3, 2014
Bike New Yorker #5: Damian Harris-Hernandez
We talked to the Communications Manager of Recycle-A-Bicycle about his first real bike ride, how he got into bike maintenance, and whether or not he could teach someone how to fix a flat in Turkish.
Interview and photographs by Sam Polcer. You can see more of his bike portraits at Preferred Mode.
How did you first get into bikes?
During my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to go to a record store that was far from my house. I waited and waited for the bus, and it just wouldn’t come. It was a Sunday. I went out to the shed in our backyard, where I had my bike that I had when I was a kid and never really rode. My Mom would always insist that I wear a helmet, and at that time we had these ugly, yellow, egg-yolk shaped helmets, and I wouldn’t wear one. But at that point I didn’t care about fashion—I was into punk or whatever—so I decided I was just going to wear it. So I did, and I rode to the record store… and it was awesome. And when I got there I was like, wow, I can see downtown from here, so I rode downtown, and rode all over that day. After that, I started riding my bike and getting into bike culture.
So it was music that did it, then.
When did you begin fixing bikes?
I started volunteering at a place called Community Cycling Center in Portland. It’s kind of like Recycle-A-Bicycle—it’s a community bike shop. They fix bikes for kids and do other programming.
What happened after high school?
After high school, I went to Europe. My parents kind of bribed me with plane tickets to finish school. When I got back from that, I started traveling: train hopping and hitchhiking all over the country, coming through New York several times. I was like, “I want to live in New York,” so I moved here for a year. Then I moved to Los Angeles because my girlfriend, who is now my wife, was going to go to grad school there. We rode our bikes from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and I moved back to San Francisco. It didn’t work out for her with grad school, so she just moved up to San Francisco. We ended up staying there for three years.
How did the cycling culture there compare to New York’s?
It was similar. All my friends rode bikes as a matter of course. I learned more about bike mechanics by working at a bike shop. There’s this store called Sports Basement there. It’s basically an independent version of REI. I started working in the bike shop, doing retail, worked my way into the shop, and became a mechanic.
And then you took those skills to New York.
Yeah, and I wasn’t going to do bike mechanics here, but then I met Karen Overton, the Executive Director of Recycle-A-Bicycle, at a fundraiser, and I started working here. That was in 2009.
What were you hoping to do instead of working around bikes?
I thought I’d be a journalist. I had an internship at the Brooklyn Paper. It was fine, but it was kind of mundane, and I’m too shy to be an investigative journalist. I’m not pushy enough to do that. Shortly after I started at Recycle-A-Bicycle, I went back to school, though. I had never gone to college. I earned my degree last May, in Middle Eastern studies. I learned Turkish. Now I’m trying to become a translator and a Turkish scholar. The unexpected turns life takes!
No kidding! How did that come about?
The six months before I moved back to New York, I was in Turkey for two months, and I really liked it there. I was hanging out with some cool folks and learned a little Turkish. Years passed, and then I got admitted into Columbia, after I got my associate’s, and I saw that they had Turkish available… one thing led to another, and when you learn a language, you kind of have to learn the culture, too.
I’m assuming people bike in Turkey, too.
Yeah. I was in Turkey the summer before last, on an intensive language scholarship, and through Facebook I found a cycling group. They’re really fun people. They all had mountain bikes, and we would all ride to the beach at night. It was like 20 miles away. We’d start at like 8pm and get back at around 2am after swimming in the sea.
Sounds magical. Think you’ll go back?
Yeah, I’m hoping to go back for a master’s degree.
What’s the best thing about working for Recycle-A-Bicycle?
Recently I’ve been getting into the bike building part of it, because it’s winter. But on the whole, I really like teaching the high school students. Most of the students we get are either from Brooklyn International, Beacon, or Midwood high schools. The Brooklyn International kids are always really fun to work with. They’re pretty enthusiastic about bikes. Probably half of each group that we get ends up getting placed in a bike job somewhere in the city. A couple of them work at Citi Bike, at their Sunset Park workshop; a couple of them have jobs at Bike and Roll; and Recycle-A-Bicycle has hired a few. We have a lot of students from Guinea, in West Africa, and we’ve got guys from Haiti, Panama and Bangladesh, among other places.
Are the kids excited about it, or does it feel mandatory?
I’d say nine out of 10 are excited about it. At first they don’t know what to think, but when they get into the rhythm of working on bikes and learning new things, they really get into it. And my teaching has gotten better over the years. Like, I used to start by doing flat fixes, which seems logical, because it’s easy—but then I started doing hub overhauls first thing. It’s more exciting, you’re messing with grease and bearings and stuff. I get a good response. I start them on wheel truing kind of early. I used to save that for last, because it’s the most complicated, but if they can develop the patience for that, they’re good.
Could you teach someone bike maintenance in Turkish?
Hm, that’s a good question. Yes, if I studied for maybe a day or two to learn the vocabulary. I know a fair number of the names; it’s the technical verbs that would be hard. I’ve been thinking about that lately, because I’ve been teaching these adults at the Bicycle Mechanics Skills Academy run by Recycle-A-Bicycle and Henry Street Settlement. The aim of the program is to place them in apprenticeships in bike shops with the intent that they’ll be hired later. The vocabulary is a big thing—some of them are from China, so I have to think about how I would study if I had to do it in a different language.
Is everyone pleased with how Recycle-A-Bicycle has progressed over the past 20 years or so?
I think so, especially in terms of the range of programming that we have and the projects that we’re involved with, as well as the quality of the bicycles we produce.
Bike shops get a bad rap for snark and elitism, but I’m not getting that from you.
There are a lot bike shops that are rude. We try not to do that at Recycle-A-Bicycle. I just meet people where they’re at. Maybe because I started at a bike shop that was very respectful to me when I showed up with a bike that was really messed up by improper maintenance, misuse and neglect. They were really patient, so I’ve always carried that with me.