LOWER EAST SIDE — At the end of a long day working on bikes, Emmanuel Tambakakis' hands are caked with grease and dirt — but he doesn't mind.
"When I look at my hands, it makes me happy," said Tambakakis, 38, a Queens resident.
After a brain injury at his previous job as a cameraman left him teetering on the edge of homelessness, the muck under his nails is a sign of a new life for Tambakakis: a career as a bike mechanic.
"It's very Zen, meditating working on bikes," he said. "It's perfect. It's the ideal job."
Tambakakis was one of 27 New Yorkers to graduate Thursday night from the first class at the Bicycle Mechanic Skills Academy, a job program launched by the Lower East Side's Henry Street Settlement and Recycle-a-Bicycle. The three-month training program offered instruction, an apprenticeship and job placement support, timed to get graduates ready for the busy spring season.
"It has been very intense, but very quick and amazing," said Tambakakis, who apprenticed at Brooklyn's Bike Smith through the academy. "This is the first time I wished school was longer."
The mechanics-in-training were taught everything from the basics of tightening brakes to how to build a bike from scratch, according to Jeff Underwood, an instructor.
The course including 10 hours of instruction and a weekly 10-hour apprenticeship. Students were given a $500 stipend through the Robin Hood Foundation, Underwood said. Other funds came from the Heckscher Foundation for Children and the Consortium for Worker Education.
Underwood also gave students the rundown on the history and culture of biking, as well as bike design.
"Since our founding days in 1893, Henry Street Settlement has been in the game of workforce development," David Garza, the organization's executive director, said at Thursday's graduation ceremony.
"And it's not a game," he added. "It's a matter of life and death in a way that gives them economic self-sufficiency."
So far, one-third of the students have already found full-time jobs, Garza said.
Karen Overton, director of nonprofit Recycle-a-Bicycle, said the program was aimed at those who wanted a career change — or just a good job. Participants ranged from New Yorkers in their early 20s to those in their 40s and 50s.
In doing outreach for the program, Overton specifically targeted women, who made up a quarter of the participants.
"Women are under-represented in the biking industry," she said.
The academy's first class is a pilot for the program, which may be repeated next December, a representative of Henry Street Settlement said. Funds for the program also came from the Heckscher Foundation for Children and the Consortium for Worker Education.