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Photo by Genghis

MABEL'S ALTERNATOR: Last job at the laundry bike shop.


"A fellow with a scarred cheek and eager eyes 'John John' the Chinese laundry man, was the laughingstock of Weaverville, California. For months during he had been washing the Anglo miners' clothes and never had charged even a penny for his services. The Anglos thought he was stupid, and intentionally took advantage of him. But a year later, according to prospector John Hoffman, who followed gold and silver trails through the Sierras for nearly three decades, one of the white miners came across John John wearing fine clothes in Sacramento. The Chinese laundry man had washed enough gold dust out of pants cuffs and shirttails to set himself up for life! John John (the name was one commonly given to Chinese by whites during the California Gold Rush) may have been the same entrepreneur who contracted for a number of his countrymen to work on a construction project near Coulterville, in the Sierra foothills. Taking advantage of his employer's discriminatory 'All Chinamen look alike' he hired 10 men but listed 18 on the payroll. John John kept his employees so busy, his Anglo overseers never noticed the manpower shortage. The Chinese entrepreneur pocketed the extra earnings, then he charged each of the 10 laborers a fee equal to half their wages for the privilege of working for him!"


I used to have a bike shop.

I bet you didn't know that. More on this later. I just recently read this information about the early history of Chinese laundries, and this may explain why my maternal grandfather was born in Stockton, California. It was always a mystery to me because my mother (who was his daughter) Jane, was born in China. I knew that Grandpa went back to China to find a wife, with whom he sired eight children. I knew this was why my mother was born in China and emigrated to America with Grandma around 1915. All of Jane's other siblings, my aunts and uncles, were born in the United States. This excerpt about John John (please, no jokes about Dead Kennedys) was entertaining, but did not reflect the harsh realities about the lack of employment opportunities for Chinese in the early 1900s.

The fact of the matter was, Chinese at that time either worked in laundries or Chinese restaurants. My father did both, with a stint as a truck driver for a Chinese-owned company. One memory comes to mind, when Pop drove the '64 Vette with its four speed which I bought used in 1966. Pop said, "This thing drives like a truck!" as he went sailing around a 30 mile an hour curve on the Cross Island Parkway in New York at fifty. Pop hadn't driven a stick shift since his truck driving days. Because of that car's stiff front and rear independent suspension, she cornered like she was on rails. I don't think Pop even noticed that he was 20 over the limit in that slow-speed curve. Then when he hit the straight near Francis Lewis Boulevard, he shifted into third and stomped on the accelerator, with the Vette's straight-through glass packs bellowing. He was havin' a ball.

The laundry I grew up in, wasn't my parents' first. They had another in Flushing before they bought the building that housed our laundry. This building that held our laundry, was a three story structure adjacent to an empty lot, in which my father installed the laundry at street level. The second floor consisted of our real home, which was a three bedroom railroad apartment, with a separate living room, a dining room and the kitchen. I loved this apartment. The living room, dining room and kitchen at the front, were lined up contiguously, and there was a long, thirty foot hallway linking the front rooms with the three bedrooms in the back. The bathroom was midway in this hallway. When I was a child, I had the most posterior bedroom whose window faced an alleyway that ran the length of this block. I remember sweating my ass off in this room, with only the help of a small fan in the summertime, because in the '50s, air conditioning wasn't a common consumer-level convenience. I remember hearing the garbage trucks in the morning, fulfilling their sanitation duties in the long alley.

As I entered my adolescent years, I moved into the living room at the front to sleep. I'd converted one of the bedrooms in the back, into a weightlifting room. At the age of 13, I rode the F Train into Manhattan to buy a bench for bench presses at a store called Paragon. It's a good thing I had this bench on the subway ride back to Queens, because in rush hour, no seats were available. So I sat on the bench in the middle of the subway car. I still have this bench, as well as the original barbell plates I had at age 13. The living room where I slept at this juncture, faced Northern Boulevard, a four lane thoroughfare (it's actually a state highway) that runs almost the entire length of Long Island, terminating at Calverton in Suffolk County. If I wanted to, I could ride Mabel on this route, known as Route 25A, all the way to Andrew Rosa's shop in Huntington. Traffic on Northern Boulevard was busy 24/7, and I used to lie there at night, listening to the "Whooooosh" of traffic, as it ran down the street in front of the house. Note: In New York, "house" is a colloquial idiom for any home, whether it is an apartment, or actual house.

Our building was located between 87th and 88th Streets on Northern Boulevard, in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Also on the block was a hairdresser's, owned by my childhood friend Jackie Seaman's mother. His mother was a sweet woman, but Jackie's father was a mean son of a bitch who might've been violently abusive to 'em. At least, that's the impression I had. Next door to our laundry was the Krugers' grocery store. I remember that the Italian kids on the block taunted the Krugers as "Nazis." This was the era not long after World War II. The Biondos, my best friends, lived above Kruger's grocery store.

At the end of the block was Feldherr's Hardware store, owned by Ruth Feldherr, whose daughter Barbara, went to elementary school with me. Ruth had a loyal employee named Herb, a quiet man with glasses and a tiny mustache. In retrospect, I realize what a close knit-family all the shopkeepers in the neighborhood were, and this was particularly true of our block. On the corner of the next block, was Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro's candy store, a true neighborhood institution. This was the store where I bought all my comics during my childhood. The Shapiro's son Jackie, was my older brother Don's best friend when he grew up. Two blocks further east, was Brite Pharmacy, my family's drug store. I have fond memories of taking my films there for developing.

Many people don't realize that New York City is actually a patchwork of neigborhoods sewn togther, really a series of small towns, linked together in a haphazard way. The "small towns" in Queens like Jackson Heights, are like any small towns across America, except that they are physically connected to other small towns, which we referred to as "neighborhoods." Like any small town, Jackson Heights had its own peculiar characteristics. Ethnically, Jackson Heights had some diversity. Jackson Heights in the '40s and '50s was mostly Italian, with some Irish, a smattering of Jews, a few Germans, a miniscule number of hispanics, and even fewer asians. My family was only one of two Chinese families in Jackson Heights. Now you can understand why most my friends growing up, were Italian, some Irish, with some Jews, a Puerto Rican, a Greek and another Chinese thrown in there for good measure. Incidentally, the other Chinese friend named Willie Ng, came from only one of the only two Chinese families in Jackson Heights in the '50s: My family and his family. Willie's brother had a laundry on the same block as Pizza Sam's, a frequent hangout for us. Pizza Sam's was a block away from another hangout of ours, the White Castle that was catty-corner from my house.

This was the backdrop against which my father established our laundry. The laundry was a storefront, with an reception area at the front. It had one of these cool antique tin ceilings, with ornate patterned squares decorating it. Along both walls were shelves holding customers' packages, and midway through the store were large ironing areas. At the back of the store, were large steam presses run by compressors in the basement. This also doubled as a kitchen and dining room, which led to a back yard. The back yard faced the alleyway I referenced earlier. In the middle of the store, connecting the ironing area and the back of the store, was a fifteen by nine area. It was this 15 X 9 area, where I worked on my bikes.

This was the Chinese Laundry Bike Shop. Now, I've never professed to be a great mechanic. But when I had this area available to me, I did my own work. I customized my '68 XLCH Sally The Bitch in this shop, although I did the painting of her in the basement. But it was in this shop in the middle of the laundry, where I disassembled and then reassembled Sally after I molded her frame and did the painting. It was the shop where I would later work on my Harley 74, Mabel. Having a private shop in NYC is a Godsend, where one can store one's tools and tinker in complete privacy. This is a privilege that I am denied now.

In 1986, a year after I bought my '71 Super Glide Mabel, Mabel's kick-only battery died. Being somewhat anal about these things, and not being equipped or smart enough to test the charging system, I decided that just replacing the battery would not be enough for my peace of mind. So, I decided to change out the alternator and the (Andrew Rosa said to me once, "It's actually a rectifier, not a regulator, Scott.") voltage rectifer---I've referred to it that way ever since. I'm funny this way: I believe in overkill. I felt that it couldn't hurt to have all new parts in the charging system, right? I call this the shotgun method of diagnosis and treatment. When in doubt, change it all out, baby! My wife Patty and I did this repair together.

Sometimes the incremental and meticulous methodology of diagnosing component fault in a problem, has been known to come back and bite smart bikers in the ass like an unrepentant viper, when the faulted part wasn't entirely at fault. To those out there that this happened to, you know who you are! Anyway, my "shotgun method" of problem solving served me well, rewarding me with an entirely new charging system. Since I had no experience in working with the 74's alternator, I bought the "Haynes Owners Workshop Manual For Harley-Davidson FX and FL Models 1970 thru 1983." I'm thankful that I had my Chinese Laundry Bike Shop to work in. I wouldn't be able to do this job today, with my current lack of facilties.

Mabel's original alternator stator was a 16 amp job. I decided to upgrade to a 22 amp stator, which I bought from Nostalgia Cycle. I think I also bought the new rectifier from them too. I had to remove the compensating sprocket bolt to get to the stator. Either someone told me or I read, that it's difficult to loosen the bolt with just a wrench, so I bought an Ingersoll Rand electric impact wrench, just for this job. Turns out, this was the only job I used this tool for, but it's a wonderful tool and made the job easy. This was a good solution, because an air impact wrench for my small operation was out of the question.

The Haynes manual was pretty good, but not perfect, but I figured that any details that were not covered in the manual, I could figure out by eyeballing it. I removed the primaries, and got to the compensating sprocket bolt. The Haynes manual said, "The crankshaft must be locked in place in order to loosen the compenating sprocket nut." Okay, that was easy enough. I just put 'er into gear. Okay, here was the fun part: Using my Brand New Electric Impact Wrench! "Whir...bak..bak.." Loose, just like that, man. Ain't power tools wonderful? As they say on New Year's Eve, out with the old and in with the new. I pulled the old 16 amp stator and installed the new 22 amp stator. I'm glad that I decided to replace the entire system, since I didn't know what the average lifespan of an alternator stator is. Mabel's original alternator was 15 years old. Mabel's old voltage regulator sat on a little ledge thingee which was part of the shifter bracket. I installed the new rectifier on a custom bracket held by the front motor mounts. There! I finished the job! Now to start Mabel up, and enjoy the fruits of the labor I expended, in my Chinese Laundry Bike Shop.

I pushed Mabel out of the laundry, and parked her on the sidewalk in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken (the empty lot next to our building first became a Carvel's, then a Normie's and finally a KFC. Progress never stops!) parking lot. Ignition off and gas on, lift the enrichener on Mabel's S & S Super B. Two prime kicks. Ignition on. I pushed myself gracefully up in the air above the kicker, and launched my bodyweight straight down onto the kick pedal. Trouble was, the kickstarter did not budge. I was stuck in midair, like a parachutist who got his belt caught in the plane's door. My first thought was that the motor had seized, but that made no sense since Mabel was running fine before the battery died. I pushed Mabel back into my Chinese Laundry Bike Shop, and disassembled her primaries again. When I removed the compensating sprocket bolt, I found out what the problem was.

I had installed a flanged spacer backwards, leaving no clearance.

See, I told you I wasn't a great mechanic. After reassembling things the way that God and The Firm had intended, Mabel's motor turned over fine. I really should have tested everything before reinstalling the primaries, by turning the motor over with a wrench before I put the primaries back on. Ah, the beauty of hindsight. I did do this, this second time around, by turning the motor over with a wrench on the compensating sprocket bolt, before reinstalling everything else downstream of the bolt.

Changing the charging system on my Harley 74 was the last job I did in my Chinese Laundry Bike Shop. It wasn't long after that, that my mother developed Alzheimer's disease, forcing us to sell the building and moving Mom into an apartment. By that time, she was incapabale of running the business. Needless to say, I couldn't do an alternator change these days, without a space like my Chinese Laundry Bike Shop. In Manhattan, where small private garages are as rare as intelligent beings in the Obama White House, working on a motorcycle on the streets has severe limitations, eliminating all but the most perfunctory of tasks. It's okay for changing plugs or tightening stuff, but not for jobs like swapping out the a alternator stator. It has now been a good twenty-five years that the 22 amp stator and voltage rectifier I installed, has given unfailing service. The charging system has stayed reliable, even after Andrew Rosa converted Mabel to electric start, with its bigger battery. I am grateful to have had the Chinese Laundry Bike Shop for the years that I had it. I sure wish I still had it. Later!