Some of the commenters from my last article asked, where’s the love? That’s a fair enough question. It’s great to be cynical and sarcastic, but that’s not really why we’re here. We’re here — on HFL, on the road, in our garages — because of something we love. This is a story about that.
Take a look at this picture. That’s my brother on the Yamaha, circa 1982. I’m in the background playing catch. I remember when this picture was taken, and I can tell you I was more interested in that bike than the ball. I never did get any good at throwing and catching, but the bike changed my life.
I’m not telling you this story because I think it’s unique or special. Just the opposite: I’m telling you because pretty much every biker has their own version of this story, and if we were having beers together, I would want to hear yours.
Remember that this was before everybody had a bike. Riding was still pretty fringy. In the Cleveland suburbs where we lived, you didn’t see a bike on the road every day, and if you did, it was usually a scary-looking Hephestus riding it. A Harley shop was basically a garage where you could buy bikes, and there weren’t very many of them. You generally “financed” a bike by saving up for it — I’m sure more than one cat paid the sales tax on his first bike in change. “Factory custom” was still an oxymoron. I don’t mean it was “purer” or “better” — just that things were different 30 years ago.
The bike was cool and dangerous, which I was not. I could pretend to be Indiana Jones or Han Solo, but this was real. My brother and I didn’t have a lot in common then, but we were both misfits in our own ways. He had a well-honed loathing for everything high-school and suburbia represented, and I was just plain awkward. Everybody wants to be a misfit now, but it wasn’t like that then. If you weren’t in, you were out. We were each privately dealing with our parents’ bitter divorce in our own ways; I think we both wanted to get away, and he had a Millenium Falcon.
When my brother went to the Marines, the Yamaha stayed, and I grunted into adolescence. This bike was the girl-next-door obsession, only she lived in our garage. Instead of peeking through the curtains into her bedroom, I was stealing glances on my way out of the house. It was always there, full of potential energy, like a rock perched over the town. It was a naked singularity that warped time and space around it.
Then one day when my brother was home, he tossed the key at my feet and said, “You dropped the key to your bike.” The clouds parted. Golden sunshine streamed onto that spot on the shag carpet. Hosts of angels sang “Get on the Good Foot.”
“The key…” he repeated, “to your bike.” I was incredulous. I think I even forgot to say, “thank you.” All I could do was look stupid. He was out of the Corps and in grad school at this point, and I know he could have used the money he would’ve gotten from selling it. I’m not sure what prompted him to give it to me. Maybe he knew I secretly coveted his possession. We’re not one of those families that “talk” about their “feelings;” we spoke through deeds. He had just said what he needed to say.
The bike needed some work (not much) after sitting for several years, and I tinkered at the carbs with some advice from my brother and his friends.
I was alone with the bike when I bump-started it down the driveway. I let the clutch out, it took off. Suddenly I was going way too fast with no idea how to turn and only a vague notion how to stop. Everything went out of my head. I was a muppet hanging on in a hurricane. I degaussed my brain.
I managed to resist the urge to put my feet down, which would’ve been disastrous. Down the street, over the curb, I stopped in a neighbor’s treelawn, stalled, dripping in terror sweat. When I rebooted my brain, something was different. Some of the neurons had been fried and had re-wired themselves. The change had happened. You know what I mean. You remember when it happened to you. You unlocked a lost atavistic pattern, poked the ancient lizard in your medulla. The T-Rex smells the exhaust, and he knows you’re burning his bones. He wants them back. You’re going to give them to him. You will be his high priest. You will sacrifice dinosaur bones for the thunder lizard. For me, that cul-de-sac was the Road to Damascus.
I couldn’t bump-start the bike in the grass, so I had to slowly and awkwardly muscle it into the street. When I couldn’t start it again, the coy rebuff just fed the fever. Teasing bitch. I pushed the bike home.
I fooled around with the bike all summer. As it was, I never got past second base with that XS — riding it around the block. I had no money, tools, or skills, but I was fascinated by the machine and its potential. I went off to school that fall, and a few years later we sold the bike and I went into the Navy.
If I had that bike now, I would have it tuned tighter than a banjo string, and I would beat it all up and down Cleveland. It would scream. Our safe word would be “There is no safe word.” XS650s are timeless; they’re still cool, maybe moreso than they were back then.
I didn’t have it too long, and of course I regret selling it, but it doesn’t really matter: the change was done. The mental mutation would not be reversed. Two years later I got another bike and haven’t been without one since. I was never able to replicate my brother’s menacing slouch, though. I just look tired when I try it.
I think we put a lot of energy into thinking about who counts as a “real” biker, or what bikes we approve of, or who is worthy to wave to. Are we part of some mystical brotherhood just because we’re all on the road? Is that guy a poser? It doesn’t fucking matter. It’s not a club, and we don’t have to match. You don’t even have to like me. We just have that one thing in common: that kink in the brain that happened the first time a naked singularity passed through it. Sometimes people get it, but it passes by. It works itself out. Sometimes it just gets kinkier and twistier. You’re a carrier. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a big dude on a Road King or a hipster on a CB350. You’re a high priest of the thunder lizard.
Carter Edman is an architect, writer, and rider in Cleveland, Ohio. He teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” and other courses at Case Western Reserve University. He wrote this story in Peru, immediately before consuming a guinea pig and assures us every word of it is absolute truth.