The Pump Guardian
by Ben Arie Swets (July 1997)

Often I pack the mountain bike with my forty pounds of cameras and tripods, but that day I pedaled my luxury lightweight. Its steep geometry makes it turn and accelerate with abrupt joy; its aerodynamic brake levers conceal the cables; its narrow seat is like the snout of a whippet; and its slender aluminum wheels have metric tires and needle thin Presta valves.

The name of the valves seems light and special: Presta. One spandex-clad racer I talked to did not know the name and referred to them as, "the pro kind of valves," because they will not fit under an automobile air hose nozzle without an adapter.

I was eight miles out, halfway to the bulk film warehouse, when my rear tire went flat at 7:15 a.m. I happened to be at a gas station in a neighborhood where a high percentage of the stores were boarded up, houses had dirt for front lawns, and all the cars seemed fifteen-plus years old. One of the refueling cars happened to contain a white passenger. I confess it relieved me that there was at least one other white person in the neighborhood. Have I explored the world so little that I find no other way to feel unity with people than by a grossly visible genetic trait?

I had a pump of my own and a tool kit attached to my bicycle, but I decided to try the automatic air pump. Sitting near it on the step to the convenience store sat an old guy with a cane. The worst that can happen, I thought, will be that he asks me for spare change.

I was entering the grizzled fellow's space, so I uttered a small, "hi," when I arrived and lay my bicycle down. He nodded slightly in acknowledgment while continuing to gaze beyond me toward the busy gas pumps. He was a portly man wearing dungarees spotted with grease, a faded brown sport coat that he might have slept in, and a baseball cap advertising auto parts. His silver beard made his face seem quite long, and, in a way, dear. The duct-taped cane at his side gave him more an appearance of judicial dignity than of infirmity.

From the flow of customers coming to the kiosk, a man leaned down to exchange a forearm grasp after giving the seated gent a wadded up dollar bill and saying, "How you doin'?" I waited to see if the donor also belonged on the stoop and would seat himself. No, he walked back to the gas pump island, got in his old Chevy and drove off. Several more people greeted the seated man as they passed.

As I slid my right index finger slowly around the inside of my tire, checking for small bits of glass, he finally spoke in a voice as scratchy and heavy as a metal barrel being dragged over pebbles. "You look like you done that before." He continued to gaze off toward the distant bustle at the gas pumps. Though low in pitch, his was a cheerful enough tone, as though he were acknowledging that such vehicular maintenance was as bothersome as peeling gum off the bottom of one's shoe.

I politely concurred, "Many times," as I thumbed my fresh inner tube into the tire.

"How far you ride every day?" he said.

"About twenty miles. Today I will pedal thirty. Some days only ten." No sense in saying any more than necessary, I thought. Even if he is not a machine-gun-toting drug dealer, his world is very different from mine. I better not mess with it.

Then he spoke again. "It's like a horse to you. You treat her right, and she'll treat you right."

"True enough," I said. Plenty of car-dependent sorts attempt to humor me in such a way. I would soon be rolling away forever from this one, so I did not pretend he was a pal.

He spoke again. "You get it yet?"

"Almost," I said.

Stooping with the reassembled wheel upright between my knees, I lowered the bike frame onto it. Knowing that my tool kit contained a valve adapter and holding the airhose, I scanned the dented metal housing from which the hose emanated. As soon as I locate the "on" button, in case it's a free pump, I thought, I will try inserting a quarter or two. I doubted that anybody present could tell me reliably whether or not the air pump worked.

The rough voice sounded again: "You can't use that." What did he mean? That he would not allow me? That I had to pay him? If it's not a working air pump, why didn't he just say so? I decided that it was a good thing I had not been too chummy with him.

To give him another chance I asked, "You mean it's broken?" I guessed he had witnessed many people's attempts to use the pump.

"It don't work on Presta valves," he explained genially in his bottom of the gravel pit voice.

"Oh," I said, flabbergasted. "Thanks." That thickset, weathered, apparently sedentary man who appeared never to have pedaled in his life may actually know a lot about bicycles. He probably saw through me the whole time and noticed my assumptions and fears. I was certainly not going to defy him at that point by producing my adapter.

I reached for my manual pump, applied it to my valve, wrapped my palm around the thin tire, and set to thrusting and withdrawing the small plunger. I was still silent, but with awe instead of apprehension. If I were to pass that way every day, maybe I would come to know his story. All I did then was give him my two quarters.

Ben Arie Swets