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Charmed Life

The Wheel Thing

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 9/12/2001

A friend in Pigtown says, "I've got a Charmed Life for you. There's this guy who lives down here who fixes up old bikes. He's a real character." His name? "Sam Fitzsimmons."

"Sam Fitzsimmons!?"

"What, you know him?"

Maybe. I bumped into a guy by that name 20 years ago and I still have dents in my consciousness. The Fitzsimmons I remember lived outside Annapolis in a house that boasted a stack of 20-some TV sets salvaged from curbsides; the idea was to turn them all on at once, for entertainment. His bathroom displayed a crowd of Fred Flintstone shampoo bottles. The hallway was papered with correspondence between mail-order businesses and fictional persons with names like "Bill Melater."

And Fitzsimmons himself was famous (to me, anyway) as the co-creator, with artist Wes Goodwin, of the Crank Boys comic books, inspired by Fitzsimmons' Annapolis crowd, a small tribe of post-hippie motorheads. The same gang gave rise to several punk-era bands, notably the Oral Fixation, a group that played fake instruments (including a penis-shaped guitar) while vocalizing the music ("neer neer neer" and so forth). I'm pretty sure Fitzsimmons played the penis-shaped guitar.

So I call this bicycle guy, and of course it's the same Sam Fitzsimmons. Turns out he's been living in Southwest Baltimore for a decade or so. I had no idea. My notion of Small Town Baltimore is shattered.

I find him hunkered near the door of his shop in Pigtown, which occupies an old B&O machine shop. The face that I remember has weathered (he's 52 years old); his expression is an alert deadpan behind wire-rimmed glasses. He wants to set me straight: He is not the old guy in the neighborhood who fixes bikes. "It's a pain in the ass to fix bikes," he says--although he's worked in bike shops on and off since 1965 and still does repairs for friends. No, these days, he's mainly a trader. "I live off my stuff," he says. "I'm constantly selling, and constantly improving, the nature of my collection."

Step into his shop, if you can. The entire space, the very air, is thick with glinting metal. Bicycles ancient and modern, whole and fragmentary, stand hub to hub on the floor and on chest-level racks; frames, forks, chains, and sprockets hang on the walls and dangle from the rafters. It appears that there used to be walkways between the rows and racks, but most of these have been jammed up with still more bikes. The only way to get from the door to the rear of Fitzsimmons' shop is to pick your way, almost on tiptoe, between two rows of two-wheelers, easily numbering in the hundreds. These are just part of his collection. He has three more floors full of bikes in storage near Hollins Market.

Yet there's method to this madness. When a fellow bike freak calls from Texas, Fitzsimmons sidles into a dark corner, squints toward the ceiling, wrestles a ladder from a nearby thicket of chrome, and clambers up two rungs to locate the precise item his caller wants. "It's a computer nightmare," Fitzsimmons says, "Thank God our brains are much more complex."

We go upstairs, past several framed examples of original bicycle advertising art and a stack of wooden skateboards from the 1960s. Fitzsimmons' living space, above the shop, is what you'd expect of a pop-culture hunter-gatherer: books, tapes, posters, knickknacks, scraps of anomalous art, literature, and junk. Bikes are his abiding passion, but he has also amassed and sold collections of comic books and records. Does he have any insight into what drives him to collect? "No," he says. He gets some coffee, and we talk about his involvement in rock bands, poetry jams, and the surreal pseudo-cult called the Church of the Subgenius. I know I'm just scratching the surface.

Back downstairs, I keep scratching. Fitzsimmons shrugs indifferently when asked about a bike with a unique hexagonal-tube frame--a gimmick, he explains. A bike with wooden fenders catches my eye. "1894 or '95," he says. "I found it on a farm in upstate New York. It's still got chicken stuff on it."

Then he touches a red bike frame that hangs near the stairs. This, he says, was one of several ridden by Alfred LeTourner, the French champ who was the first bicyclist to break 100 mph, in 1941, riding a specially designed Schwinn racer just like this one. He segues into a brief discourse on the golden age of bicycling. "Up until World War II," he says, "bicycling and baseball battled it out for what would be the No. 1 sport in the country. . . . Top professional bikers made more money than Babe Ruth in his prime."

I keep expressing amazement at the sheer extent of his accumulation, and Fitzsimmons gives me a sharp glance. "I'm not the only person like this, you know," he says. He adds that the bikes jamming the aisles aren't supposed to be there. "All of this is moving out," he says with a wave of one hand. The shop's normal ebb and flow was rudely disrupted last fall when Fitzsimmons was diagnosed with cancer. Although the illness is now in remission, he spent the first half of 2001 preoccupied with therapies. Now there are parts of his own frame that need work. "The worst part about it is I can't ride every day," he says matter-of-factly, although he still does some low-impact biking.

The brush with mortality has also affected Fitzsimmons' perspectives on life and collecting. Poker-faced as ever, he gazes through his hanging gardens of chrome and says, "It's all just stuff." But great stuff nonetheless--stuff with stories. And for a guy who lives off his stuff, that ain't bad.

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