The two met when John, who was 19, inquired about a Honda CB350 that
Steele was selling. Having graduated from mopeds to motorcycles in a matter
of months, the CB350 was one of Steele’s first purchases. John didn’t have the
money to buy it, but he was willing to paint Steele’s garage to get it. Next he
asked Steele for help maintaining it.
“I was like, ‘I’d really like to learn how to fix it, so will you teach me?’” John
says. “Four years later, and I’m still harassing him.” Steele, who saw in John his
younger self, agreed to help and soon understood that John had an aptitude
for mechanics. John didn’t need to be shown twice how to do something, so
he took him under his wing.
Steele didn’t graduate from high school. Actually, he didn’t go to high
school. He cut a deal with his mother that he’d earn his GED in what would
have been ninth grade. He traveled West, worked odd jobs, hopped rail cars
for adventure and drank a lot. Today, he doesn’t mind telling people how
much he values sobriety.
“I quit drinking seven or eight years ago, and with that came a whole
bunch of extra time and money and motivation to do things,” Steele says.
“Motorcycle maintenance is the best therapy. ... To get something working
and running that hasn’t been running in however many years — 20, 30 years
— there’s nothing more satisfying than being that person who fires it up for
the first time in however long.”
It wasn’t long before Steele’s bike-buying habit outgrew his garage, and he
was renting storage space. After a storage deal fell through, Steele happened
upon a two-bay, vacant auto shop on Canal Street, one block from where he
lives. Vintage Steele relocated in October 2012.
On a Sunday morning in late fall, the bay doors are closed. The shop smells vaguely volatile, a mix of metal and solvents and paint. More than a dozen motorcycles are wedged side by side against one
wall, headlights pointing to the center of the shop, like so many bikes backed
up against the curb at a busy biker bar. It’s a United Nations of bikes, from
Japanese Hondas and Suzukis to British BSAs and Triumphs, a German
BMW and even Italian Moto Guzzis. Most have been on the planet a decade
or two longer than Steele has.
“You can see we have the whole gamut. We have British. We have German. We have American in these Harleys over there that are both mine.
We have Japanese. So we do not discriminate at all with any motorcycles,”
Overhead, dozens of bulbous gas tanks in black and blue and red and
rusty colors that say Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki hang from the ceiling like a
metal version of a Dale Chihuly glass installation. Steele likes to tell kids that
the tanks are breeder pods that will soon hatch baby bikes.
The shop’s four lifts are occupied with projects in various stages, including a Triton stripped bare to its silver metal. The Triton — a hybrid of two
British bikes, a Triumph engine and a Norton frame — is a classic café racer
from the ’60s. A cadre of four guys and one woman, all in their late 20s, banter
about what’s happening in their lives — a baby on the way, a new cat — and
laugh and call each other out the way old friends who have a lot on each other
Steele likes to tell
kids that the colorful
bulbous gas tanks are
breeder pods that will
soon hatch baby bikes.