The first few steps into Clutches are like those into any other mechanic’s shop.
There’s the smell of gas and rubber. The floors are smooth, gray concrete. Motorcycles and ATVs sprawl across the floor, waiting for someone to attend to their tires, engines and frames.
There is a fridge with Red Bull and beer for sale for customer who hang around while their bike is fixed. Accessories and merchandise hang from the walls.
The pink shirt is the first hint that Clutches is different than other bike shops. It reads ‘Biking for Cancer’ and has the silhouette of a woman riding a motorcycle. Another hangs beside it with pink awareness ribbon on it.
When the owner introduces herself, pieces come together. Melissa Alejandro wears a baseball cap over short, newly grown hair. Her chest is flat.
On March 13, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is in the midst of a battle for her life.
Alejandro also is the owner of two Statesville-based businesses in male-dominated fields: the Clutches motorcycle shop and Mel Co., a construction company specializing in fire caulking.
She started with fire caulking in the ‘90s. She was looking for a job to support herself and her sister after her mother died of colon cancer. In the newspaper, she saw an ad for a job that paid $9 an hour.
Putting on her best clothes, she said, she went to interview for the position.
“I was next to these two men who looked like they just got off a job site, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to get this,’” Alejandro said.
She was called back. Her employer said the company had to meet certain gender and ethnic percentages. As a woman of color, she would help fulfill both requirements.
At her first day of work, Alejandro said she was a little disappointed. Instead of working with wires, she was put on fire caulking detail.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. They’re paying me $9 an hour,” Alejandro said. “I made them really nice and pretty, the fire caulking. … The inspectors were like, ‘Who did this really nice work? I’ve never seen this.’”
The inspector told Alejandro that people paid for the quality of work she was putting forth. That gave her the idea to create Mel Co. in 1999.
Alejandro said she was working at sites while pregnant with her two sons. Business boomed.
As Mel Co. prospered, Alejandro bought the building on Water Tank Road in Statesville where her businesses are still located. It used to house a mechanic, and she was regularly turning people away who didn’t know ownership had changed. After a while, Alejandro wondered why she didn’t just start a bike shop in the building, too.
“Twelve years ago, I had a friend of mine whose name is Lightening, and we had this idea of having a motorcycle shop back in the day,” Alejandro said. “I took off and went to Africa on a hunt and when I left that day he died of a stroke.”
When one mistaken man looking for an oil change had the same motorcycle Alejandro had, she said she decided to make her and Lightening’s dream reality. Clutches has been in business for almost two years now.
“The reason I called it Clutches is, my mentor, Lightening, that’s all he ever made me do. I felt like the karate kid,” Alejandro said. “He says, ‘Until you realize that all bikes have clutches, no matter what they are, you start from there.’ That’s the heart of the motorcycle. Without it, they don’t run.”
Alejandro was running two businesses, and both found success. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She kept running both businesses while starting treatment.
In Clutches, Alejandro said she found empowerment.
“When I lost my hair through chemo, it was really hard,” Alejandro said. “One day, I was like, ‘You know what, I’ll take some photos of myself,’ and I started outside with my camera on my phone.”
On Facebook, Alejandro posted pictures of herself posing with a motorcycle, without hair. She said she was really happy with how the photos turned out and offered to take shots of other women battling breast cancer. She’s done one shoot and has others lined up in the next month.
“Cancer wants you to be ashamed. It wants you to be afraid, and it wants you to hide,” Alejandro said. “I’m not going to allow it to do that in my life. I’m not going to allow it to make me feel like, ‘Okay. I’m going to die.’ And if that is going to happen, my faith has taken me to where I’m ready.”
The bright side
Alejandro listed positives of a terrible situation.
After her mastectomy, she doesn’t have to wear a bra. She didn’t have to shave her legs for months. Now that her hair is growing again, it’s thicker and curlier, so she doesn’t need to worry about a perm. For her, focusing on what’s good in her experience is just another victory.
She decided to start hosting events in the building her businesses are housed in. Half of the building is dedicated to event space where Alejandro helps raise money for breast cancer, veterans and other causes.
She is also working on starting a foundation to help women battling cancer pay their bills. She also wants to make people aware of the many existing foundations people can go to for monetary help.
Alejandro will go through another round of chemotherapy in November. She’ll still be in charge of her businesses, raising her sons and doing what she can to help others battling cancer.
“I’ve been very blessed. God’s brought me work and got me through this,” Alejandro said. “I ain’t got time to lay down and lay around. When I leave this world, I can rest then.”