A biker wearing a Harley shirt, tattoos, and a Mohawk showed up on Nancy Irwin’s doorstep the other day. Perfect!
We met in an ordinary way. I had advertised for a new tenant when Phil Malette, 26, arrived at my door, trying to look presentable. He’d just come from work, and was wearing an orange-and-black short-sleeve button-up that makes a respectable work uniform—if you think being a biker is respectable. The shirt couldn’t hide the tattoos, though his cap covered the Mohawk. Some people have a hard time because of the way society perceives them. Even those of us who are the most ordinary motorcycle riders know that.
I tried to contain my excitement when I thought of having a professional mechanic live in the apartment. A motorcycle mechanic! His tattoos, piercings, and coloured hair are all just adornments. People brave enough to look different are, in my opinion, braver than the rest. It wasn’t till after Phil moved in that I saw what he really looked like, the unmistakable punk rock vest. And I saw he routinely walks his dog.
Phil didn’t speak English until he was 10, but he grew up in a biker family. His entire family rides, including his sister. They went to biker rallies, the drag strip and oval track at the Timmins speedway and at the airport. Phil got his first bike was when he was two and a half. The Honda Z50 was purchased for his sister, two years older. She hated it—and he loved it. That bike stayed in the family for years. All his cousins rode it. He remembers Gold Wings, Shadows, all kinds of trail bikes.
When Phil was 12, his dad bought a completely wrecked 1984 Harley-Davidson Road Glide, which was the first year of the Evolution engine.
“He rebuilt it from one end to the other,” says Phil. “Which is how I learned about Harleys. My dad taught me everything I knew about bikes. Bottom end, cams, what pushrods did, lifters, valves, all the other stuff. It took him three years or more to get that bike on the road but what a bike that was!”
High school wasn’t a priority in Phil’s life but, unlike other kids, if he didn’t go to school he had to work in the family garage. Transmission jobs, brake jobs, Phil worked with his Dad as a truck mechanic, meaning heavy equipment and 18-wheelers. That future seemed his destiny.
He was supposed to attend heavy equipment school in Thunder Bay, and then live in Timmins for the rest of his life. But when his mother pointed out a trade article to him, he applied to the Harley-Davidson tech program at Fairview College in Alberta. I understand it’s hard to get in, and you certainly don’t get in as teen from a small town without any Harley credentials. Phil’s dad pulled a few strings and he was accepted. (It’s a school I’ve always longed to attend.)
“A lot of people in the school are retired from the military or other retired mechanics, doctors, lawyers, mid-life crisis people who are financially stable and then there are the rest of us who struggle every month,” says Phil. “You have to have mechanical skill. You don’t go there green. If you’re trying to learn tools at the same time as learning fuel, voltage, amperage, it’s tough.
“I had a good background and thought I knew my motorcycles, thought I already was an expert but learned that I wasn’t. I worked my butt off at Fairview College but got 93 per cent. It was the first time in my life I ever passed anything or achieved a level of success.”
Phil dropped out of high school a couple times, struggled through, took some online courses, ended up going back and getting his diploma, It took him five years to finish a four-year program. He credits his mother for encouraging him to finish high school.
So, that’s how a top Harley mechanic landed at my door. Can you imagine how hard it is for me not to be inappropriate, not to constantly ask for guidance or assistance?
Phil graduated from Fairview in December of 2005, and weeks later was hired at H-D de L’Outaouais in Gatineau, Quebec, working under service manager Jean-Francois Phaneuf, (now employed by Deeley Canada), who “taught him everything.”
In March of 2007, Phil moved to Downtown H-D on Front Street in Toronto. He said it was amazing to work there, that he’s never seen co-workers get along so well, backing each other up, drinking beer together at the end of a shift. Mechanics brought their dogs to work. Customers brought in pizza. Or they all went out for dinner. United by a passion for motorcycles, those mechanics epitomized the life. But note, Phil worked an average of 55 hours, six days a week in summer, and was either completely laid off for three months in winters or worked three days a week—which is a real drawback to being a motorcycle mechanic. The glory days ended when the business moved to Lawrence Avenue, where it’s rumoured $18 million in oil money was spent on a complex that they were forced to close in the spring of 2012, shortly after it was built.
Phil started commuting to Oshawa where Mackie’s H-D hired him to help with the overload. Instead, his customers followed him, and he ended up working a lot of 50-hour weeks, but feeling appreciated. (Mackie is sponsoring continuing education by sending the mechanic to one of Fairview College ’s mobile Harley specific upgrade courses.)
This winter Phil will enjoy summer, working at a Harley shop in Australia. Someone made a recommendation … Someone else made him sign a contract that he’ll return!
A licenced Red Seal motorcycle mechanic as of 2009 (late, because Quebec isn’t part of that licensing body), Phil says he’s always been a gearhead. He’s also a musician who plays bass guitar in the “Crust punk” band, Bacterial Culture. This is also the same guy who rides a race bicycle and a 2001 Sportster that’s “pretty ratty.” “It didn’t even have a kickstand for a while,” says Phil. “I’m really into rat bikes. I love looking at a bike and know it’s been somewhere.”
Not every generation looks the same: people or bikes. Sometimes we find common ground. I would not have known this young mechanic if I lived in fear of anything outside the norm.