The last man was scooting out of the Bicycle Kitchen when Emerald Tutwiler arrived for "Bicycle Bitchen" on Monday night. The east Hollywood repair cooperative sets an evening aside for an all-female group of mechanics and their clients to work on bikes without men around.
The former Filipino bakery near Fountain and Virgil avenues, which the co-op purchased earlier this year, is fronted by a concrete yard full of used bikes awaiting owners. The bakery sign reading Sapin-Sapin (Rice Cakes) is still there, along with the logo Bicycle Kitchen and, in Spanish, Bici Cocina.
Inside, the walls are hung with cone wrenches, clamps and other tools clearly labeled and outlined in black, like the dead bodies on TV shows. The bicycle mechanics, all volunteers, and the other women arrived after work, mostly on their bikes. They were dressed in sports jerseys and caps, leggings, ankle boots and Chuck Taylors. One "cook," as the mechanics call themselves, had Heidi braids wrapped around her head and an apron over her bright yellow embroidered peasant shirt.
They stood talking and laughing over their bikes and "wrenching," as they called it: screwing nuts tight or unraveling bike chains. The talk was of guys who try to hit on you during rides. Guys who treat you as if you're stupid. Guys who invite you on a ride, then leave you in the dust in a testosterone-fueled flurry.
Tutwiler, a music engineering student at Los Angeles City College, cycles from her home in Leimert Park to her job at an art studio in Eagle Rock. Her bike is "pretty much my car," she said. The "cooks" don't just work on bikes; they teach the owners how to fix them.
On a usual night, men far outnumber women at the co-op. But the women's night is not crowded. And the price is right. A whole bike, built from used frames and parts, mostly donated, can be had for $80; if you're broke, you can work off what you owe. Bicycle Bitchen recently put a homeless woman from skid row onto a set of wheels, and helps Latino immigrants who use their bikes for work.
One woman around my age was putting a custom-fit bike together with the help of a female cook. Reba Devine lives in the South Bay neighborhood of Del Aire, near Hawthorne, with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson (by choice, not economic necessity).
"I really wanted to be able to put the bike together. That's how you really learn," she said. Besides, her old bike aggravated her bad back. Doctors said she should quit riding, but she ignored them.
Devine described herself as a old hippie who retired from her job as a data analyst at a bank. She always wanted to fix her bike, but her generation was told to leave it to Dad or take it into the shop.
"Guys have a tendency to take over and assume you're stupid, even well-meaning ones," she said.
On the other side of the room, Jessica Ruvalcaba and her friend Jenni LiPetra sorted through derailleurs, cylindrical nuts and other used parts piled inside beat-up filing cabinets.
LiPetra's bike flew off a truck at 3 a.m. on the way back from Burning Man. Ruvalcaba gave her an old bike to use, but it needed work.
"So should I carry a wrench with me?" LiPetra asked.
"No, we should find a fix," Ruvalcaba replied.
The pair owe their friendship to cycling. LiPetra, newly transplanted from Chicago, was riding around downtown when Ruvalcaba rode past and said, 'Hey, nice bike.' Later that day they ran into each other at a bead warehouse in the fashion district.
"I thought, 'Who are you? Can we be friends?'" Ruvalcaba said.
Ruvalcaba lives in east Hollywood — "I like to call it west Silver Lake" — and commutes by bike to her job at a commercial casting office in West Los Angeles. It takes 50 minutes to an hour, about the same as by car in traffic.
Most of the women have been "tapped," "doored" or otherwise struck by motorists, but are pretty macha about it. They talked of the adrenaline of dodging cars as if it was fun.
Ruvalcaba and LiPetra attended a movie premiere on their bikes. They go on group rides that end in house parties with cheap beer and DJs. One of them chatted about a recent outing: "They said it was DMX's house, but I don't know if that was true." There's a full-moon ride by a group called the Ovarian Psycos Cycle Brigade that sounded fun. But neither had tried it yet.
It all sounded so adventurous and romantic. On a bike, Los Angeles is not such a big place. It's being stuck in traffic that makes it monolithic, imprisoning.
Ruvalcava tried to talk LiPetra into taking a year-long bike trip from Los Angeles to the tip of Argentina.
"We'll do stealth camping," Ruvalcaba said. "What else am I going to do here, complain another year about actors and producers?"
But LiPetra is trying to launch her own clothing line. And she's in love.
Most of the bikes and bike parts are donated to the Bicycle Kitchen by people who want to upgrade their wheels or find fixing them too much of a hassle. But, said one volunteer, most of them "just think what we do is really cool."