Just two days after I had visited Max Schaaf's motorcycle shop, I heard a story about one of the last photos taken of Elvis at his funeral. In the chaos of Elvis' death, a picture of him in his coffin (at a funeral where photos were prohibited) was seen as the most coveted score by National Enquirer's tabloid reporters. They had even gone so far as to litter the funeral with handfuls of hard-nosed reporters, each supplied with thousands of dollars in bribe money. Photographers circled Graceland all day in helicopters and had a jet waiting on the runway to get the photo to print in the case that they got it. In the end, they did.
In many ways, the pandemonium around that one photo of Elvis is representative of what tends to happen with all things Americana. A few people get interested in a culture or a movement, because they are surrounded by it. Or, their friend put them on to it and it made sense to them. Then, the momentum builds and people start flocking to itoften for the wrong reasons.
Soon, the initial connection becomes tainted by the misguided interest of the many. Elvis was like this. He's now seen as a sort of iconic deity, which is fine, except that it takes away from what he truly was. Skateboarding, too, falls into the same category. Whether acknowledged or not, it is at least a large blob in that muddled and uncertain culture that is considered Americana. But, it's often misconstrued by popular TV shows, advertisements and contests, which make it into something it's not.
So, when I visited Max Schaaf's brick-front workshop in Oakland, I understood why he seemed conflicted at times. Out front, there's an old 1950s era pick-up truck parked on the curb and when you step in the door, you're suddenly surrounded by pictures of topless women from the 70s, 50s appliances and countertops, signs from the 60s and half-built or re-built vintage bikes.
"I mostly stick with before 1970 generator Harleysknuckle pan and pan shovel," he explains and then points over to Jasin Phares and Tony Miorana. "That's what they're working onthat's a cone shovel," he says. Then, he points the screwdriver at a completely rebuilt bike. "This is when it switched from pan head to shovelhead, it still had a generator on the bottom, so it still has the pretty pan head bottom but with the shovel heads."
The shop is pretty simple and replete with vintage tools. "That thing is a beautiful lathe Jasin found," Max explains, pointing to a complicated metal contraption. "It's for turning down metalmaking it a smaller diameter. We'd be smarter to get a newer one, though," he admits. Then, he turns to a welding machine from the 50s or 60s and says, "But, this thing's pretty f*ckin' sweet."
When I ask him about whether he works on new bikes, he responds, "I'll paint sh*t on a new bike. But, I'm not very savvy with new mechanical sh*t. I work with what I know. I went to school for a couple years to learn to paint while I was skating." He pauses and looks around. "But, that's the thing. I don't really like new sh*t."
The milky white walls of his shop are made whiter by the stained hardwood floors. The building, an old machine shop, is filled with people, which he jokes about. "This place is like a mini ramp. Someone says they're coming over and I expect them to bring someone else," he says.
But, it's clear he would prefer to be alone working on his bikes. It's clear its something he holds extremely close, something sacred he doesn't want taken away. "I'm here every weekend," he says.
He got the shop about a year ago by pure luck, he says. "I was looking for a place. I just found it. It was lucky. It was destiny when things happen for the right reasons." But, he explains, "This place is a huge responsibility, man. Maybe one day, it'll get bigger. It'll be my little place."
Like his chance encounter with the old machine shop, though, Max seems intent on things happening for the right reasons. He's conflicted about who he builds bikes for and talks constantly about the hard part of owning a shop that he hopes gets people excited about vintage bikes, but without exploiting what's good about this little piece of Americana.
Explaining an upcoming trip to Japan he says, "It's pretty big out there. They just love what reeks of Americana. It's a cool guy scene and it's so f*cking American. They rule at it, though. The bikes they build are f*ckin' insane." He adds, "I sell a lot of sh*t there. But, I hate all of it. I hate selling sh*t, the promotion it's just this place costs money, you know?"
But, when he talks about his blog, 4Qcondtioning, he's most comfortable. It seems like the truest representation of his passion for this little capsule of pre-70s motorcycle-ridinghis attempt to show it for what it is, so that those people in it just to look cool can't change it. It's a lot like skateboarding. "I just wanted to show how much I was doing. With my site, I can make fun of myself, make fun of other people have a sense of humor about stupid sh*t."
Describing a ride that morning, Max said, "I like to take my camera out. Most of the people who have these, don't ride them because there's no suspension. And, I like to show it's possible to ride it. They used to ride these all the way to New York."
Like skateboarding, it's hard to keep your intentions pure. Many people are just trying to enjoy themselvesdo something that they love. But, it's inevitable that it will be done for the wrong reasons, that the slice of Americana might be changed by those people trying to fit the part. But, as a skateboarder, Max Schaaf builds bikes for the right reasons.
"I'm doing okay," he explains. "I could really do with someone big coming in for a bike. Skaters will come in with a bike and I can't charge them a lot of money. I want to go further. But, I do so much of it pro bono." But, that's not his biggest concern. He builds bikes for the same reason he started skating, because he gets lost in it.
He points to a bike. "I like that a factory didn't make it and nobody has this bike." He looks around at his little capsule of time, the fuel tanks, posters and trinkets hanging on the wall. "Most of all, I hope that people are doing this because you get to show your personality," he says.
If you're looking to get a bike made or parts made or painted you can contact Max Schaaf at email@example.com Joshua Brooks