If you’ve ever eaten at Relish or had a drink at Zebulon, you’ve certainly noticed the motorcycle shop at the corner of North 3rd and Wythe. On summer days, you’d find the proprietor, Slick, sitting out front. Sometimes, he’d even work on a bike, but mostly he was talking about them (and letting Mike do most of the work). In the evening, he’d watch TV on a small black & white set out front. Year round, the line of bikes out front would get moved across the street from time to time in rough accordance with City’s street-cleaning regulations.
Slick, who was well into 70s, passed away a few weeks ago. As best as I could tell from his stories, Slick was originally from Philadelphia, where he got into some sort of trouble that necessitated a move to NYC. That was back in the late 50s. Slick was a hell of a mechanic and also a racer – drag races in the streets and flat tracks in the dirt. For a long time, Slick was a Harley man – he raced them and he fixed them. But as Harley started losing the racing edge to Japanese bikes, Slick became disillusioned with the marque. Eventually he stopped working on Harleys altogether, and switched over to the Japanese bikes (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em). To his dying day, Slick was disgusted with Harley, or at least with what Harley had become since the 60s.
As I said, Slick was a good mechanic, but he worked at his pace, which was usually dictated by his convenience. About 12 or 13 years ago, a friend of mine bought a KZ 200 cafe racer wheelie machine. The bike was in good shape, but the fork seals were shot, and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t pull the seals. We brought the forks down to Slick’s to get him to pull the seals with the proper tool. It was a nice Spring day, and Slick was sitting in front of the shop. He looked at the tubes, looked at the tools around him, and announced it would take him at least three hours to do the job. He didn’t have the tool handy, and wasn’t going to get up to find it. Just as we were leaving, Slick saw something on the ground – the tool he needed to pull the seals – picked it up, popped the seals out in less than a minute and charged us $20 for the effort.
More recently, I was rebuilding a CB 750. I had the bike running well, and was working on the cosmetics. The side covers were painted, but the badges were missing. I stopped by and asked Slick if he had them. “Oh yeah, oh yeah, I got ’em right in here – come back tomorrow night and I’ll have ’em for you.” Tomorrow night, it was the same story, and it continued that way for a good week and a half. Eventually, Slick did look for the badges, and found them exactly where he knew they were all along. A few months later, I sold the bike, and about a year after than, it appeared in the line of bikes in front of Relish. It sat there a while, and then someone bought it off Slick. Six months later, it was back at Slicks a different color, but definitely the same bike. He recognized it and so did I.
Slick was always best when he was hanging out, shooting the shit about motorcycles, the old racing days, and how royally Harley screwed up its racing program. He would talk to anyone about bikes, even me on my European bikes, and even Harley riders. But he wouldn’t work on Harleys – said he sold all his tools and parts years ago. He particularly liked to talk to the kids in the neighborhood, and a lot of kids would take their parents out of their way to see him. He couldn’t always remember kids’ names, but he’d write them down on the side of the store next to usual seat. Even that didn’t help – he never got my son’s name right, but he tried. We’ll both miss him.