Acquiring a motorcycle proved to be more complex than I imagined. In May, 2014 I didn’t have a motorcycle license nor did I know anyone with a motorcycle who could help me learn. My old-school uncle let me take out his bike once, sans license or instructions, but he lives in Colorado. I needed to find some way of making myself a quasi-legal driver, and then purchasing something to ride
Finding a cheap bike wasn’t difficult. Finding a cheap bike that didn’t remind me of a motorized cow proved to be more challenging. I trolled Craigslist daily, hourly even if I was in class and bored. Finally I hit upon a winner. There it stood, a 1984 Kawasaki 440 LTD. There was only one picture but it was promising. The description painted a picture of a bike ready-to-ride. At $800 the price seemed too good to be true, which turned out to be the case. I ended up paying $950 but mechanically it was as promised.
With the help of my girlfriend and her Civic, I was able to meet with the owners to put a deposit on the bike. They agreed to hold onto it for a month until I had my license. As I’ve grown older it’s gotten easier to wait for wonderful things. I no longer wake up at 5am on Christmas day nor do I have trouble sleeping the night before a vacation. That being said, I had little on my mind for that month but my bike. The last batch of university exams came and went like missed opportunities. I studied hard enough to get B’s while daydreaming what it would be like to pull back on the throttle and take off from a stop sign.
A week after university ended I took a motorcycle safety course. After a few hours in the classroom watching cheesy videos, we began learning how to ride. Our introduction to motorcycling took place on grocery getter 250’s. They exuded a look of entry level plastic and cheap materials. They were obviously styled by the interns. The lawnmower engines made as much noise as the washing machine on spin cycle. None the less, it was still exciting to turn them on for the first time. Having ridden illegally once in Colorado, I had more experience on a motorcycle than half the class. It was a hot weekend in June and we roasted in style. Our full-length riding gear protected us from the pavement and the sun while baking our organs medium rare.
I loved working with the bikes but the speed was maddening. The longest straight away was a clandestine two hundred feet. Anything over twenty would be reckless. This low speed was especially troublesome given the location. Our practice parking lot was set next to a long road. All weekend, bikes would cruise by, unhindered by instructors, small engines or noticeable boundaries. Seeing our class learning to ride they would gun their engines and take off down the road. I stared with envy and mouthed curses at their uninhibited freedom. Of course, I would do the same damn thing in their position.
The weekend concluded and I was given a waiver to take to the DMV. I would have to pay $50 and sign some documents. After the technicalities I would be legally recognized as a motorcyclist. Anticipating our eagerness to start riding, our instructor explicitly warned us.
“You do NOT have a motorcycle license until you take this waiver to the DMV. This does NOT mean you can legally drive a motorcycle yet.”
I didn’t let small trifles like that slow me down. The next day my sister drove me out to Buffalo in her blue Saturn. Bumping along in the uncomfortably outdated stick-shift, I knew we arrived when I saw it leaning in the driveway. My Kawasaki was tilted on its kickstand and looking gorgeous. Hank brought the engine to life while I tried to keep the drool in my mouth. I had brought my brand-new helmet, leather jacket with short sleeves, poorly made riding gloves from eBay, Timberlands and uncontained glee.
As I slid onto the bike and kicked up the stand, only the autistic Rain Main wouldn’t have been able to read the fear in the previous owners faces. They saw an inexperienced kid yearning to have fun. Combined with their knowledge that I only knew slightly more than nothing about motorcycles, they had a right to be scared for me. Someone had to bring an apprehensive mood because I was capable of nothing but ecstasy.
I waved goodbye to Nancy and her husband then took off out the driveway, dragging my sister behind me in the car. At that moment, perhaps I could have felt more fulfilled but I’m not sure how. My bike was running beautifully and the weather was divine. I even found myself selecting the correct gears ninety-percent of the time. I had already driven a manual Toyota for two years and that proved to be invaluable knowledge in operating a motorcycle correctly.
My family was disconcertingly aware that I lacked a license. They could have said something but I think they knew that their words would have not been a hindrance. If I had to hitch-hike, steal a car or ride my BMW bike for five hours, I would have found a way to retrieve my motorcycle. There turned out to be no cause for concern. Thanks to my careful driving the trip resolved itself without incident. I pulled into the backyard of our two story home and thumbed the kill switch. My family came streaming out in a tide of bodies to admire my new toy. Well ok, I don’t have a big family. My mother came out and took pictures of me idly stretched out on the bike with a beaming smile on my face.
The next day I donned my riding gear and took off for my final illegal ride. This time the ends justified the means. I was headed to the DMV, fifteen minutes away. Reaching my legal salvation, I was unpleasantly surprised to notice a police station conveniently located next door. The officers wouldn’t have to go far to ticket me for the several laws I was breaking. Avoiding eye contact, I walked into the DMV a ruffian and I walked out, license in hand, a law abiding citizen. I will say this, it was only after I got my license that I really tested the speed on my bike. On the back roads, I found it was capable of seventy, provided there weren’t any hills. Eighty would have been more exciting but I also may have killed myself. Sometimes things are just meant to be.
Buying a bike was not a snap decision. I had had a gluttonous desire to be a motorcyclist since the age when I started liking girls. I craved the feeling of going fast without having to physically work for it. On a motorcycle the throttle is controlled by twisting the right handle-bar grip forwards. Above each handlebar is a lever. On the right, it’s the front brake. The left side controls the clutch. Shifting gears is accomplished using the toes of your left foot. On the right side is a pedal for the dramatically less effective rear brakes. There is a story about the Hell’s Angels. A couple of the more driven members would remove the front brake, leaving only the rear. Voluntarily taking away 70% of a machines braking power takes guts. Learning to ride, I was happy to use the full 100% of my machines breaking power.
While owning a bike satisfied some lasting itches, I had an expressed purpose as well. I needed something to reach work. As in previous summers, my dad had a project for me. I was destined to spend a month logging trees on his sprawling piece of forested property. As my father not so subtly reminded me,
“You’re going to be driving to work on a motorcycle and using a chainsaw in the woods, that’s a promising summer right there.”
Of course by promising, he was looking at it from a hospitals point of view. The medical establishments of Western New York stood to make a fortune from me. I would be learning two new skills at the same time, how fun! Five days a week I drove to work and returned unharmed. However, my bike developed a couple of problems as the summer wore on. When I bought it, the horn worked sporadically. That didn’t bother me as much as it bothered New York State. My bike hadn’t been inspected in eight years and it wouldn’t pass inspection in 2014 without a working horn. My mental process went something like this.
“Should I spend a couple of hundred dollars to have the horn fixed and the bike inspected? What else could I use that money for? Well I’m going to be in New York City in a month, a city of approximately two bars for every person. I think I’ll hang onto my cash.”And so I did. I spent twenty dollars to buy a replacement horn from eBay. By the time I had finished replacing the original horn, I had made the problem worse. I tried poking here and prodding there but I was quickly forced to give up. That left me no option but to make my peace with flirting New York state law. Fortunately, I spent most of my time riding in the backcountry where laws are more flexible. City policemen, however, take a more literal translation of what it means to abide by the law.
At the time I had a job working as a barback in a concert venue. A couple of nights a month I would ride the bike into Buffalo. This grew to become a disconcerting trip for me. By this point in my career as a motorcyclist, my machine had developed an annoying tick. If I turned the handlebars left it would instantly stall. As any experienced driver will tell you, turning left is a necessary part of arriving at your preferred destination. However, unlike a car, I had several options.
Motorcycle are easily influenced by how you throw your weight around. Cutting a path down the road, I would push the bike from left to right, all willy-nilly, without ever prodding the handlebars. However, the real problem is that at low speeds, leaning into the bike is almost useless. That meant coming up with a second, more complex solution. I began to avoid left turns like an alcoholic avoids clarity. This was possible because I knew my routes down pat. I’d pick the roads with the least lefts and be off on my precariously functioning, thirty year old Kawasaki.
Tactics aside, there comes a time in a man’s life when he has no choice but to turn left. Even after he’s leaned through corners and planned the perfect route, life is still going to throw him some curve balls. I had one final trick that allowed me to continue being unreasonable. The handlebars had a bit of play before they stalled the bike. That meant I could turn them about five percent west before the engine shut off. I knew exactly where that stall point was and I exploited it. If I had to turn left, I would make sweeping turns with the five percent of play my bike allowed me. It wasn’t graceful but god dammet, it saved me having to pay for a man to fix my bike.
Cost benefits were a positive aspect of my insanity, but the negatives caught up quickly. In traffic, every left turn was stressful. I was scared of stalling in the middle of the road and being unable to get my bike to start again. It would be terrifying to hold up traffic on a stalled motorcycle. In a car, there are windows to fend off the outside world. Riding a motorcycle, you experience everything personally. After several weeks, I finally brought up the problem with my father. Naturally I disguised the magnitude and duration.
“Dad my bike is acting weird. When I push the handlebars too far (more than the width of a pencil)to the left the bike stalls. It’s a weird (scary) problem and I’m not sure how to fix it (I want to save my money to go out to the bars in New York).”
“Well we can take a look at it this weekend.” Was his reply.
When Saturday arrived, I pulled that bike back onto its center stand, jimmied off the fuel tank and started pretending I knew how to fix a motorcycle. Ironically, I was actually able to fix this problem. My dad helped me to apply some logic to the situation. This logic eventually led me to a cluster of yellow, red and blue wires. I broke open a seal and found a frayed wire that was stretching out every time I forced the bars to the left. I replaced it and drove like a sane person for the rest of the summer.
Unfortunately, on a thirty year old bike my problems didn’t end after I that. Around mid-June I decided to fix the problem with the horn. After an hour, the horn still didn’t work and I had managed to disable the right turn signal. “Well that’s no good” I muttered to myself. I dove back into the greasy recesses of the bike, flashlight in my left hand and pliers in the right. After half an hour, I’d broken the left turn signal. Proud of my work I reassembled the bike and washed my hands of grease. For the rest of the summer, anyone unlucky enough to be driving behind didn’t know a fucking thing about when I was planning to turn.
Not completely lacking a soul, I minimized the problem by speeding up before turns, thus losing the traffic behind me. Reckless and stupid, yes. Perfectly logical to my twenty-two year-old brain, another resounding yes. Most importantly, I never had a cop tail me. Should that have happened, I would have been forced to drive straight to until he turned first. I suppose I lucked out there. But I wasn’t so lucky on a Sunday towards the end of June.
My mom’s car was in the shop. She wanted a ride to pick it up from the mechanic and told me to drive her in my sister’s Saturn. I suggested the motorcycle instead and she assented. There was a small catch, however. I had one comprehensive, cool looking full face helmet. And then there was the other helmet, which wasn’t quite as safe. It was the size of a large cereal bowl and offered just as much protection. There were several large cracks running along the top and Inside was stitched a one inch label stating “Not DOC certified, intended for NOVEL purposes, not street legal.” I gave my mom the life-saving helmet and strapped that fucking cereal bowl to my head without a second’s hesitation. It had neat little bullet hole decals all over it and the damn thing didn’t even come past my ears. I must have looked so cool.
Five minutes later, the cop who pulled me over didn’t think so. From a distance, Officer Spoil-My-Good-Fun spotted my retarded helmet and suggested I buy a real helmet. Being in an observant mood he also suggested that it was time to get my bike inspected. In an offhand manner he says “The idea is to get it inspected every year, not every eight years.”
A defining feature of my personality, that has kept me out of heaps of trouble over the years, is that I’m not a smartass by nature. Unlike some friends I’ve had, I don’t treat cops poorly. I’ve noticed when you treat officers like humans, say yes sir and acknowledge what they say, they tend to be ok people. “Yes sir. Well you see I just bought it (5 weeks ago) and I’ve been meaning to get that taken care of (lies).”
He cut me a pair of tickets and told me to get the bike inspected. I wonder if I would have gotten three tickets if he knew the turn signals didn’t work? I was looking at a $200 fine which I took in stride. I had already run the math for this situation. In my world logic works like this. A repair bill at the shop will probably be $300. I know that if I get pulled over, the ticket can’t possibly be that big. I’ll roll the dice here. I can get pulled over and ticketed once this summer and I’ll come out ahead. Me and Johnny cash have at least one thing in common, we both decided to fight the law.
I never did get the bike inspected. Or buy another helmet. Or fix the turn signals. By the time I got the ticket I only had one week left in rural New York. In eight days I would be in New York City where the Metro reigns king. No worrying about busted signals and annoying tickets. Instead, my days would be focused on defying the nauseating heat and not getting run over by a taxi. Even though the big city was only a week away, I wasn’t in the clear yet.
Three days before I left, I had one final heart-pounding incident. You should understand that on a motorcycle, the inspection sticker is pasted onto the front fork of the bike. That way an inquisitive cop driving from the opposite direction can clearly see it. My sticker from 2006 is blood red, while the current sticker from 2014 is bright yellow. Any cop who glances left at me would instantly know I’m up to no good.
The day was July 1st and I was driving from my dad’s apartment to my mom’s home. It was a perfect evening for riding. Warm weather, sun and subdued traffic on the roads. By this point, I began to get nervous at every cop I saw. I would watch their eyes as they got close, to see if they looked at the forks of my bike. On this picturesque summer day, coming into town I hit the stoplight in the worst possible form. I was first in line without a car to hide the front of my bike. And sitting first in line, on the other side of the light, is a state trooper in a bulbous new Suburban. My heart rate began to climb the second I spotted him. Time slowed to a crawl while I waited for that light to change. My eyes hidden behind the visor, I watched every twist of his head, on the lookout for any cue that he’d noticed me and the ruse was up. When the light changed we both accelerated slowly. I’m not sure if this is good science, but I believe my heart was going twice it’s normal speed. We passed within several feet of each other and then I watched in my rearview mirror. He continued straight in the other direction and the farther he got, the better I felt. After ten seconds I knew that he wasn’t going to turn around. I started to breathe again, picking up my eyes to look at the road in front of me.
The first car that catches my eye is another state trooper. He’s a hundred yards away and coming straight at me. By this point, two weeks after my run-in with the trooper, my mother had put the fear of god into me.
“If they pull you over again and give you a ticket for that damn inspection, you’re going to be screwed Sam! You’re going to be in serious trouble.”
Being a twenty-two year-old man with a motorcycle, a job that paid me more than I deserved and friends in New York City, I brushed off her words. However, she repeated them enough that they stuck. Five seconds later and fifty-yards away from the second state trooper, her words are coming to mind. “Shit” I mutter several (twenty) times. Again I play my casual game. Grill the living hell out of him to see if he looks at my bike. The sun is hitting his windshield and it’s hard to tell where he’s looking. As soon as we pass each other, I look back. In my mirror, I see the wretched brake-lights. “Oh fuck me Jesus” I silently pray.
By this point the impossible has happened. Somehow, someway, my heart rate has increased another ten percent. I’m surely aging at four times my normal speed. While the cop flips on his turn signal and begins to turn left, I’m running over a story in my head. “I’m sorry officer. I’m taking the bike off the road tomorrow. Honestly, I will repent my life of sin.” Only, he doesn’t make a U-turn. He turns left and disappears down a side street. I realize that the street he turned onto leads to the local police station. Thinking for a second, I remember it’s five and his shift has probably just ended.
I take my first breathe in ten seconds. “He’s just going to the station!” A triumphant smile plays across my face. “Fuck the police” I yell into the cushioned inside of my helmet. Feeling awfully swell, I focus my attention onto the traffic in front of me. Seventy yards away and coming at me fast is another State Trooper. There are no cars in front of me to hide my bike. He has two-hundred and ten unmolested feet to notice that I’m flouting the law like a garden variety hooligan.
A calm comes over me. I imagine that young men in war, after being shot at enough times, attain a similar calm. It’s akin to accepting one’s fate. My heart was still pounding in the red zone but my head became clear. As we drove past each other I scrutinized his face and wondered whether he had kids. We passed each other and then the game began. With a practiced glance, I began studying him in the mirrors. I saw no brake-lights, no turn signals and no flashing lights. We both moved away from each other doing an even forty miles an hour.
That evening I got home and didn’t share a word of what transpired. I warily, and out of necessity, rode my bike for another two days. The unnamed deity of motorcycling saw to it that I never passed another cop. I vividly remember pulling that Kawasaki up into the garage for the final time. I drained the gas, put a tarp over it and thanked it for a wonderful summer.