My Yoga Before It Was Yoga: Art, Motorcycles, and the Metal Shop

reposted from 2012

Jim cleaned up pretty good. After I parked my truck on the dirt alongside his building, and climbed the stairs to the second floor to his apartment, I saw he’d put on a clean rugby shirt, and showed a noticeable absence of black grime in his creases and pores. “I used Ajax,” he said. “Yeh,” he said. “One day I forgot to replace the soap, and I was in the shower, and no soap, and … I used the Ajax instead! Works good!”

We went out for sushi. “They always remember me here,” he said, when we were seated in the restaurant, “because once the ceiling started leaking water, and I happened to be here, and I fixed it.” Besides that, I thought: who wouldn’t remember Jim? He was huge, with calves the size of my thighs, a head the size of a melon, and had tattoos all over his arms, and a big silver ring in his nose. Plus, he had this cockney accent. I’d never heard an accent quite like his, except in movies that involved thick ladies, and old men in pubs, and priests and petty crime. He called feta cheese “FEH-UH”.

Actually there was something under-the-radar, and possibly criminal with Jim. He was in the country illegally, and he did his business in cash: metal fabrication for cheap. He undercut the legitimate working artists, and they complained about it, but didn’t confront him, so far as I know. Jim rented a small industrial building where he lived upstairs, and worked in the downstairs garage on European motocross bikes and motorcycles. He also worked in a metalworking studio that I shared, along with four other artists. He made steel furniture and stair railings and metalwork for restaurants and bars, which paid him in trade. I’d picked him up at his place because he had lost, or couldn’t get, a drivers’ license. He mentioned he’d seen a man shot in the head in Spain.

At the sushi restaurant, Jim told stories that were better just because of his accent and style of speaking. He paid for my dinner, increasing my suspicion (which had begun with his cleanliness) that he considered this to be a date. We went to see a movie: not our first. We had gotten into the habit of seeing what he called, “hard man films”. We both liked Hong Kong directors, and Action films. In the theater, he would suck from a massive cup of soda, straw in his mouth and his eyes delightedly on the screen. He would turn towards me and nod enthusiastically after explosions, and chase scenes. The night of the Japanese dinner, after I drove him back home, he popped out of the truck without hesitation, making me think maybe it wasn’t a date, after all. The next day he was at the studio as usual, obliviously blasting an old Pogues cassette tape while grinding through several abrasive wheels, creating an incessant din and shower of sparks and metal particles.

Sometimes we’d take a break and sit outside the studio on an old bench, and have a paper cup of coffee from a stand down the street. “What’re you doing with your life,” he’d say. “You Americans. Twenty-seven years old and fooling around with this and that. Not me. I was making a man’s wages at the age of eighteen! In the shipyards!” He pointed out that my metal sculpture could easily be converted into a more marketable lamps, or side tables. Jim was practical.

Jim was trying to interest me in motorcycles. He said he’d teach me to ride one. “I have a nice little Italian bike at the shop,” he said. “It’s like you: little with big parts.” Here he was referring to my big arm muscles; big for a 115-pound girl. He was sitting in the office/entryway area of the shop, one tennis shod foot on the desk, pushing his bulk back into a creaking, tilting office chair. Two kids, boys about ten years old, walked up and paused in the open doorway. They came by about once each week, looking for work. Jim would hand them brooms and metal dustpans, and send them out under the tables and behind the welders to clean up the sandy black piles of dirt that collected there from our grinding and cutting. It was a task I wouldn’t do without a respirator mask, but I didn’t intervene as these children blackened their baby-pink lungs in Dickensian fashion. Jim handed me a stack of eight quarters. “Give these to the boys when they finish,” he said. “And stop by the shop on your way home. I’ll show you the bike.”

I did stop by that night. It was dark by then, and the big garage door was open, light glowing out in an otherwise dark and silent row of warehouses and industrial buildings. When I went inside Emma, Jim’s dog, was lying on the floor, a bike was up on a table, and he was doing something with grease and bolts, nearby. Another English guy was lounging in a plastic chair, smoking a cigarette. Gina, a girl who rented a room in the building, was cleaning a leather suit she wore for side-car motocross, which is a sport where a team of two riders are on a motorcycle, one of them hanging off \of the side. The one who hangs off the side does a lot more of the physical work of the ride, and is known as “the monkey.” She was little, but I was a bit in awe of the whole thing, and I mumbled a shy hello. Jim directed me to the bike he’d wanted to show me. It was made by whatever Italian company puts a big star on the body, between the handlebars and the seat. I sat on it and pretended I was riding, as the three of them looked on. Then they stopped paying attention and went back to their various occupations. I got off the bike, and settled into a chair near the dog, who went on sleeping.

“There’s chicken, if you’re hungry,” said Jim. He gestured to some half eaten chicken, lying on paper, which was, in turn, lying on the seat of a motorcycle. I wrinkled my nose.
“Where did you get it?” I asked.
“Texaco.” He said. “Only place open around here.”
“Texaco!” I said. I studied the chicken, as if he’d procured it from the moon, noting the greasy flesh and brownish bone; crumbles of fried batter on the skin.
“Want some juice?” asked Jim, after taking a swig from a plastic bottle full of bright blue liquid. It was the kind of “juice” sold in convenience stores. Or Texaco gas stations.
“Nah,” I said. “I don’t drink that kind of stuff.”
“Why not?” he asked. “It’s good.”
“I just don’t,” I said.
“Try it,” said Jim “Try it and decide again.”

Nothing of this world has stuck with me. I have lost touch with all five of my steel-working studio mates. My welding skills are…rusty. I have no idea what happened to Jim, and the warehouse where this took place is long gone. The truck I was driving is gone. My twenties and thirties are gone. This was all years ago, and years ago. But the one thing that has stuck with me is that phrase: “Try it and decide again.”

Isn’t that the nature of yoga, to loosen our grip on who we think we are and what we think we believe? To feel what it is in the present moment, to see where we are and see clearly what we are now, not what we were yesterday, or who we believe ourselves to be?
Our egos cling to every notion of what we like, and what we don’t like, and who we are. Slowly we solidify into that idea of ourselves, and our options become smaller and fewer. That night in the garage, with the European motorcycles and gas station chicken, Jim offered me his blue juice, and he offered me a little freedom, where anything was possible. Where I might decide I liked blue gas station soda. Where I might decide to ride a motorcycle and live above a garage. Where I might decide I wasn’t a metalworker after all, I was going to travel around the world and study yoga. At any moment, even now, especially now, you can say to yourself: Try it, and decide again. Even if you embrace the same choices and things you’ve embraced before, if you truly try it, see things anew, and decide again, it will all be that much more alive and real.

Try it and decide again!

property of Lita Batho-please don’t copy without permission

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