Jahmir Bey-Johnson, 14, and Bing Bicycle Co. owner Rob Gassie work together on repairing Jahmir's bike. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
Outside, the temperature is dropping as leaves swirl in the frigid wind, but it’s cozy in Rob Gassie’s compact workshop behind his house off Brookland Park Boulevard. He offers a stool and takes a seat himself as we wait for a neighborhood kid who’s part student, part volunteer to come by.
Soon, Jahmir Bey-Johnson is there with a bicycle he uses to do BMX stunts. One of the spokes is broken, so he and “Mr. Rob” decide to make a new one. They hang the bike on a rack, take off a wheel and remove the tire. Using a spoke threader, they shape the replacement piece and lace it back in.
“I have to make sure I put it in correctly, or I’ll have to do it all over again,” says Jahmir, an eighth-grader, while 1940s big band music plays softly in the background. He laughs when I ask what he thinks of Mr. Rob’s choice of music.
“They never like my music,” Gassie says. “I usually have the old radio shows going.”
The two may differ in age, race, background and musical preferences, but they have bonded over bicycles. It’s clear that Jahmir feels at home with Gassie, and that’s important for someone who has lacked a stable home environment for much of his life.
Besides the task at hand, the conversation turns to BMX riding, Jahmir’s interest in girls, people who call in to the radio station where he has an internship, the meaning of the term “ratched” (something ugly or gross) and his upcoming visit to see family in Philadelphia.
“I still want to make that snow bike,” Jahmir says, and Gassie explains that they’ve been talking about attaching skis to an old bike. Jahmir persuades Gassie to demonstrate his welding torch and makes him promise to teach him how to weld.
Rob Gassie (right) shows Jahmir Bey-Johnson how his welding torch works. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
Jahmir had turned 14 just two days earlier. Born in Philadelphia, he moved to Richmond when he was about 4, he says, but his family split apart, and he lived in foster homes and a group home before being adopted two years ago by foster parent W.R. “Bill” Johnson Jr., a former Richmond City Council member who provided a foster home for Jahmir’s older brother, too, until he aged out of the system.
He doesn’t like to talk about the past, or even think about it much.
“I don’t try to remember,” he says. “It’s not something I’d want to tell my kids.” He does recall feeling alone in the group home. “There were other kids there, but I felt like I was the only one going through what I was.”
Johnson says he adopted Jahmir so that he’d have some stability, but emphasizes the importance of maintaining contact with the teenager’s birth mother, who lives in Georgia, and Jahmir's father, who’s in Philadelphia.
“Like a lot of families, they had trouble,” Johnson says. But that was then. “He’s going to grow up, and he needs to be able to connect the dots.”
Johnson, whom Jahmir calls “Pops,” noticed his adopted son seemed to be mechanically inclined. Friends would bring bikes over, and Jahmir would work on fixing them. Johnson met Gassie after Jahmir brought home a discarded bike that his football coach had said he could take.
“It was sitting behind a dumpster at the Battery Park stone house,” Jahmir says. “It was missing a whole bunch of parts. It didn’t have a chain. The coach said, ‘If you want it, you can have it. Or it could go in the trash.’ “
It was a Hummer bike, and Jahmir didn’t think it should go in the trash, so he pushed it all the way home. After dropping off Jahmir at a football game one day, Johnson took the bike to Gassie to have it repaired. Johnson told Gassie about Jahmir’s interest in working on bikes, and Gassie said to have him come in.
“Rob just opened him up, gave him an opportunity,” Johnson says. “[Jahmir] loves doing stuff like that. He’s got two or three of his friends going up there, too. Rob is absolutely outstanding as far as giving these kids something to do and something to look forward to.”
Gassie, who repairs bikes and builds custom frames, opened Streetcar Cyclery in July 2015 at 8 E. Brookland Park Blvd. in a building owned by the nonprofit Nehemiah Community Development Corp., which also ran the now-closed Streetcar Cafe. Using Phoenix Bikes in Arlington County as a model, Streetcar Cyclery began a program with the “build a bike, get a bike” premise.
Youngsters like Jahmir could come in and learn how to refurbish donated bicycles. Once they completed work on a bike for someone else, they could rebuild a bike to keep for themselves. Any additional hours they put in as volunteers can be used as shop time to work on their own bikes.
Gassie had to leave the Streetcar space at the end of October, but is planning to open a new shop called Bing Bicycle Co. in a renovated building across the street in January. It won’t be a nonprofit like the old place was, but he plans to dedicate Saturdays to continuing his work with kids. A section of the shop will be designated for their use, he says. “They’ll have their own set of tools.”
Jahmir Bey-Johnson attaches a zip tie to his bike to hold a cable in place. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
About 20 kids have been through the program, and some, like Jahmir, keep coming back. He’s built a total of four bikes — two for himself and two for others — and worked on numerous repairs.
“Working with the kids gets me excited about what I’m doing,” Gassie says. He’s enjoyed watching Jahmir become more confident in his work.
“Fixing a bike is like an art,” says Jahmir. He likes it when he looks at a bike and figures out how to fix it — kind of like solving a puzzle.
“When I build a bike and I put my hard work into it and I see a little kid get on the bike and they enjoy the bike, I like that feeling,” he says. “I feel like I did something right.”
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