Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: Jeff Underwood
Occupation: Owner, Continuum Cycles and Bike Shop, Continuum Coffee.
Location: Avenue B, between 12th and 13th.
Time: 4:30 on Friday, May 3.

I moved here from North Carolina in 1999. I’ve ridden bikes my whole life but more seriously since I moved to New York. I raced BMX when I was a kid and rode mountain bikes in North Carolina.

I worked in social work in harm reduction. I helped start the first syringe exchange in harm reduction in the state of North Carolina in 1993. Harm reduction is based on meeting people where they’re at as drug users. Instead of telling people they have to get clean, it’s more about telling them, “you know what, today you are going to use a little less, or you’re going to actually clean yourself before you inject and you’re going to use a clean, new syringe.” Any positive change.

You meet them where they’re at and eventually work to make themselves better and healthier. The concept is weird for people but it works if you do it right. I had my own problems with drugs and ended up addicted to heroin and cocaine and living on the streets for a few years. I lost everything. This was a year after I got here. I lost my girlfriend, I lost my dog, I lost my job. I was in a new city with no family and I relapsed and lost everything.

I had to figure out a way to make a living so I got a job as a bike messenger and I also had a book stand on Avenue A between 5th and 6th. Bike messengers are people from all walks of life. It’s terrible money and it’s a very dangerous job. And people treat messengers like shit. Everyone does. But I was used to that so the job seemed okay.

Working at the book stand, a lot of people would bring me books and stuff and one day someone brought me a bike and said, “See if you can sell this, I’m going back to my hometown.” I fixed the flats on it, cleaned it up a little bit and made $100 on it immediately. So I made business cards and started putting them on the beat up bikes lying around with my pager number from the messenger service, to page me if they wanted the bike fixed or to sell it. That’s how I started. Then I went to a flea market and started working at a shop.

I then got a job in my field again doing homeless outreach. Actually, I was homeless, sleeping by the river, going to a drop-in center, getting showered, cleaned up, putting on my Bowery Residence Community shirt, and running around in vans picking up homeless people at night. They had no idea I was homeless.

I started seeing the positive parts of not using. And it’s interesting because my girlfriend, now of almost 10 years, was working as the coordinator of the Lower East Side syringe exchange. We applied for the same job and she got it. She was Columbia University educated, knows everybody in the field, harm reduction superstar. I was kind of the blue-collar harm reduction superstar junkie. Then she ended up being my boss because I was working as a stipend worker there and we used to come to Tompkins Square Park together to do outreach and that’s where we started hanging out and fell in love.

We broke up for like 6 months, which is when I opened up the store. She called me and I was like, “What? Here I was thinking that you were freezing on the streets. I’m crying at night thinking you were a junkie on the streets and here you are opening a store.”

For me, when you say how did I get clean or off drugs, basically everyone just told me to go fuck myself and I couldn’t deal with the rejection anymore. That was the worst thing in the world. No trust. And now everyone trusts me. The difference is insane. And it’s in the same neighborhood, which is even crazier. Usually people have to leave.

We sell bikes all over the world. We’re not just a bike shop. Continuum Cycles is a bicycle company, Continuum, a Bicycle Shop is the space that you see, I fix bikes, we sell new and used bikes, and then Continuum Coffee is our coffee shop.

I opened the coffee shop a week before the hurricane. We lost a lot, that’s all I have to say. But it’s Spring, we’re here. We have a lot of locals, families, kids. It was funny because no one came in the first few months. They were just walking by not even knowing that we had a cafe here. So I put up the sign for an after-school special for dollar hot chocolate and boom. It was crazy.

I think [a bike share program] is a great idea. Obviously, I do — I own a bike shop, I love to bike, I tell people they should sell their car and buy a bicycle. I also don’t understand the makings of this program enough. So I’m kind of ignorant when I’m complaining.

My first question was, why did it have to be such a huge corporation, and then they told me, “Because the city was not going to pay for it.” Okay, so why couldn’t they say, “New York Bike, sponsored by Citibike,” and not with all big blue letters.

Who knows ... after one year of people riding these heavy bikes they might think, “I want my own bike.” It might help us. I hope that it’s successful. The only thing we can do is sit and wait and see what happens.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


rob said...

Great profile! A lot of really interesting stuff about him I would never have known. I remember when he was repairing bikes out on the sidewalk across the street from the flea market. He's a really good person to have in the neighborhood -- he's made a lot of friends here and the bike store suppies a useful service too. c u in the park jeff --

Fipper said...

So inspiring... Definitely checking out his shop for a used bike this wknd. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

He makes a great point toward the end about how people might ride those big, heavy Citibikes and realize they want their own, lighter bike. I hope that is the case and that people buy his bikes! ;)

Anonymous said...

Any comment as to why the store has been closed for the last two days, leaving its customers who are waiting for their bikes out in the cold?

glamma said...

Talk about inspiring.
And you gotta love pro-bike people who are anti-citibike. Word up! F that noize.
This was also enlightening bc you think coffee shop in the EV these days, you kinda think yuppie. But this is anything but. Will definitely pop in. A little reminiscent of Alt Cafe (RIP).

Anonymous said...

Believe me, Mr. Underwood, despite the fact -- or perhaps because -- I work in book publishing, I rarely say this. But you should write a book. What a story!

Hey19 said...

I wouldnt call this anti citi bike, rather, someone rightfully keeping an open mind on how this program will go.

Anyway, Continuum is a good shop, they have always been very helpful. Keep it up Jeff et al.

Anonymous said...

It's always good to hear that somebody has been able to quit drugs. Lets keep it at coffee. No more beer and wine.

11:49 am said...

Open mind about bikesharing, leery of Citi or corporate bikesharing.

Inspiring story, still.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I thought this guy was called Fritz. This is my go to bike shop. Hesitated to come here at first because I don't ride fixed gear and I thought they would be bike snobs but I was wrong. Every mechanic I've dealt with here has been cool, and prices are reasonable.

Crazy Eddie said...

I bought my decent recreational Bianchi road bike (Reynolds steel is the real deal!) here for a reoccurring front derailleur issue for my triple granny crank, they were able to diagnose it as a cable issue, not the derailleur itself. They do good there. After riding the Blue Demon Behemoths, I am hoping that people will buy their own and give our local bike stores business, not promotion for Shit Bank.

Anonymous said...

@Anon 11:56

Jeff is the owner (pictured in the article), Fritz is the manager and supercool guy himself.
You'll always see one of them in the shop anytime you stop by.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Wow, what a terrific success story!

Dave- everywhere said...

Very interesting and impressive. must stop by sometime when I'm in the EV and have a cup of java and a look around.

Hey19 said...

@Crazy Eddie
They go nuts for Reynolds Steel Bianchis there.

chris flash said...

Jeff is the BEST bike mechanic I've EVER encountered! He eats, sleeps and shits bicycles!!

Seriously, whatever you need done Jeff can do with surgical precision.

Anonymous said...

I think a fair number of people will try Shitbike, figure out that biking works for them, and then decide they want their own ride and they'll be like, Wow--this thing weighs about half of a Shitbike, I can ride it for longer than 45m, hell I can ride it all frickin day long and then, I can park it wherever the hell I want and oh yeah I don't have to be a rolling corporate advertisement while I'm riding it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, if it ups the bike awareness, if people start to see how fun and efficient and economical they are, and if the increased numbers of riders up the safety (which they should do), then its only a good thing for the local bike shops.

Anonymous said...

The bikes are expensive but he's a good businessman. I like the fact that he has many storefronts and a number of bike racks. I see him at The Juice Press all the time.

Anonymous said...

Jeff is great! If you are looking for a new or used bike head to his shop. He really knows everything about bikes and is a great person.