Monday, April 5, 2010
Bike Series #4 - Bicycle Matchmaker: Woodstock’s Michael Esposito
Michael Esposito is built like a bicycle. Tall, lean, and graceful. He glides, vigilant and stern, his expression softened by a maroon beret. In the morning, you can find him at any one of the town’s cafes. With a hot drink in hand and his bike parked outside, he is greeted with multiple “Good Mornings!” at every swing of the door. He has a separate response to each, as anyone who has spent half a century in this one-street town would.
The town is the legendary Woodstock, New York. A 6,000 person community just like any other according to Michael, only that “we’ve had more famous people per capita.” Michael first came up to record with Happy and Artie Traum. He stayed, leaving behind the whirlwind of New York City.
Forty years later, things have changed. “Now, Woodstock’s just your average tourist town, with that little twinge of being famous a few times in the last hundred years. But, the old feeling of the artists and musicians is still here,” he says. And the town has a stronger hold on him than ever, a bond that Michael decided to preserve by purchasing a plot at the Woodstock Artists’ Cemetery. After all, Woodstock has been his home through all his various incarnations, from landscape painter to Western Orthodox Priest, to local bicycle savior at Old Spokes Home.
Twenty-six years ago, Michael inherited some bike tools. “They sat around for a while and then people started coming to me.” Then, someone offered him a beige, slightly asymmetrical garage, right behind the main street. Ever since that day, Michael has been Woodstock’s most successful matchmaker, pairing up thousands of feet to pedals.
Michael’s own bicycle has a large industrial flashlight strapped to the front, in lieu of a headlight. In the back, he has attached a miniature novelty plate that spells “MICHAEL.” He hasn’t driven a car since ’77, and generally stays within a 10 mile radius of Woodstock, biking, or, when defeated by wind-chill, walking.
The inside of Old Spoke’s Home has the diluted smell of an aired out mechanics shop, a mixture of rubber and whatever magic ointments Michael concocts to bring his old rusty friends back to life. The bicycles hang limply from the ceiling, or sit in piles in corners like shelter pets, trying their best to look appealing.
When one is chosen, Michael carries it outside and goes to work. It may take an hour, or a couple of days, but by the end of the operation the bicycle breathes anew. The vehicle is then appraised and joins the row of other rescues parked proudly in front of the shop. Michael’s favorite moment is when someone brings in a bike they haven’t used in years. He fixes it up and then watches the happy customer ride it about town, every day. “Once you discover the bike again, it’s a lifetime thing. Our councilman is in his 80s and he’s still riding.” His one ulterior motive is sustainability. A biker on the road means, “that much less time that there is pollution in the air.”
What makes Michael’s service truly unique is that he is in the resurrection business. Most places will offer a new bicycle rather than dealing with the old because that is how the world works these days, he says. And, since all parts are donated, it only costs him time, for which he charges so little. Michael would likely go hungry before denying someone a set of wheels.
He almost did, too. He was far behind on his mortgage. Woodstock people, however, quickly wrangled up Michael’s friends and now he is fine. “I was screaming, ‘No, I don’t want a benefit, it’s embarrassing!’ They said, ‘Sorry, it’s already under way.’” John Sebastian, Happy Traum and many other players from all over town showed up to help.
Michael would like painting to be his next livelihood. He does about 20 painting every winter (the bike garage door literally freezes shut till April, so the bike business hibernates). He would also like a nice steady job. When it comes to that, though, Woodstock’s offers are slim. There just isn’t much work, and $7.50 an hour or less isn’t very appealing.
From the coffee shop windows, Michael looks out onto the cyclists passing by the window as a proud grandfather looks at his young flock. He is celebrating seventy this year and is rarely seen without his maroon beret.