I was out and about in east Atlanta, where I have been spending more time lately, at bars and restaurants and rock shows with my younger friends. They continued on into the night and tired, premenopausal me headed home. I can’t keep up with them, but I try doggedly for the happy hours, their first drinks and my senior citizen’s special, but then shortly I am off to my bed. This night I stayed uncharacteristically late (but early for everyone else), to say goodbye to my dear young friend Ben. If I were to have a son, I’d wish he’d be just like Ben. He’s everything I want in offspring, and then some.
I secretly paid the bill and left my beloved friends for my beloved Kindle Fire. On my way out of the parking lot, I drove by a large crowd of young men, sipping judiciously and slow on Whynattes and Gatorade, as certain activities and alcohol do not mix well. I know this for a fact, truly madly and deeply. Very deeply.
They were standing in the street in front of the widely opened doors of a motorcycle garage, chatty and ebullient. They hovered around their impressive, expertly and intricately customized bikes, chopped up two wheel wonders gleaming with chrome and heavily constructed after market pipes, laid back lowered and painstakingly whip stitched solo seats, flaming peanut tanks atop chassis that had either the odd structural neo-futuristic tubing of Ducati or the tidy café racer guts of BSA or Triumph or Norton.
Extraordinary machines leaned on their sidestands, cute guys in their worn out leathers all around them, pudding bowl helmets (unsafe and useless but cute as hell – go for the full face helmets please, and keep these pudding bowls for photos cuz they’re cool) precariously hanging on handlebars by chinstraps – these are a few of my favorite things.
Each bike cut a dramatic bella figura, as each was a little fantasia, a Frankenstein’s monster made of iron and steel, built for the wind, wholly representative of its owner, the only limitations being the confines of basic engineering and the hazard of deft imagination. They’d welded together the parts of motorcycles that they loved, creating the bikes each in their own image. It was man playing god through motorcycle mechanics, and on this, the seventh day, they rested.
This was a relatively quiet gathering, as it was still fairly early, and they were all probably nerdy gearheads anyway, as there were no girls in sight. The loud hip-hop I have always associated with east Atlanta parties was muted so that they could continue conversing about their bikes, what went wrong with them, what went right, what you could do, what you couldn’t do, what they were planning to do, where they bought parts, who gave them good deals, who ripped them off – then more solemnly – who went down, and who nearly did. Good natured gallows humor and humble respect for the grim reaper and cage drivers(cars) in front of you unexpectedly turning left, the bane of all who ride, and what we are (or should be) constantly watching for, historically and presently.
I stopped my car and rolled down my windows to gawk at the fine, fine motorcycles. This caused some curiosity with the guys, and they popped their heads into my car to invite me to their party. It was clear I wasn’t going home anytime soon.
I inspected and asked after all the bikes, and they were happy to share their vast motorcycle knowledge with me, wisdom passed down, experienced biker to novice biker. I told them about my 1966 Honda Dream 305 but they had yet to see one in their garage, and they were all far too young to remember them when they first hit the market. I mentioned my forthcoming Harley Sportster, and they became even more animated and brightly enthusiastic. In general, Harleys, Ducatis and the vintage British bikes were what they were into. We spoke at length about the Iron 883 and the Forty-Eight and the Seventy-Two and the Superlow as if they were friends we had in common. We reminisced about the infamous suicide clutch on Harley-Davidson gas tanks built in the 1930s and I asked if they’d read the book about the Vincent in the barn.
They implored me to ride the Honda over soon, and that they customized and chopped and fixed everything, regardless of year, make and model. I could purchase the parts online and bring them in and they’d work on it. They’d change oil and tune up and add accessories. Whatever I needed, wanted, craved, they’d be more than happy to oblige me. They loved bikes, and were even good with scooters too, which in hipster Atlanta is the ride of choice. It’s Mod as Brighton here. I didn’t expect that, being a sworn and born Rocker myself, to the bone. I signed an autograph. I got a phone number. I promised I’d return. I will. I know this.
One boy was extremely flirtatious, and begged me come home with him. I did not, for even though I talk and walk with much brag and swagger, I am actually spoken for, and so I don’t go anywhere anymore with boys or anyone frankly. I did reach my hand out to touch his face, lovely as a girl’s, his flawless skin smooth against my rough, calloused musician’s fingertips. I asked his age and he said defensively, “21……”. I threw my head back and whinnied like a horse and then said quietly, “be careful on that bike. Don’t you mess up that pretty face.” He nodded solemnly, then after a meaningful pause said plainly –
“Well… you be careful too. Because you are beautiful. So beautiful. Come and stay a minute with me. Bring that beauty over here, next to me. Come on. Please. Please?”
AH. MY HEART. HE IS ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS. WHAT A GREAT MOMENT TO BE ALIVE AND BE ME RIGHT NOW.
I want to see that kid at vintage bike rallies for years to come. I want to watch his hair go grey and tiny lines start to appear around his baby face. I want to wave at him on his amazing and loud custom bike from my rickety vintage steed as we pass each other on Euclid. Perhaps we could revisit this mutual attraction when I am in my 60s and he is in his 40s, when our age difference wouldn’t raise as many eyebrows. that’s a nice thing to consider. I said goodbye and visualized a glowing light all around him, to protect him as best as I could.
Sweet young stranger, be well. Ride safe. Let’s meet again, sooner and later. Let me be witness to your days, months, years as the sun turns around you, as time takes you from boy to man to elder. I look forward to this.
I think the majority of folks would assume I was talking about white guys, who run and own most of what we know as the motorcycle trade. Being a biker is to be a minority in and unto itself, and often there is an unspoken limit to how many minority identities you are allowed to claim. The motorcycle enthusiasts I met were all African American, younger than me, and of course, knew their way around bikes far better than me. Race in riding isn’t widely discussed, probably because like everything, it’s considered the province of white men, but I know that this is not entirely true. we are living proof of it, and we are keeping the shiny side up for as long as we possibly can.
The history of motorcycling was altered forever by Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy, Black men who imagined then built the masterpiece choppers from the iconic film “Easy Rider” – we are talking about the dudes who realized the dream of THE CHOPPER – yet the enduring legacy and lore of mainstream biker culture in America doesn’t include them. Why aren’t Vaughs and Hardy household names? Why must race so often disguise and camouflage brilliance? Why do I feel I will ask this question until the end of my days and never be answered truthfully? Perhaps it’s at once my flaw and saving grace – I ask things too directly.
In Georgia, 70% of all motorcycle fatalities are young African American men, which is terrible and profound, because they don’t constitute 70% of all riders, not by a long shot. Death by bike is always possible, as the road and its rigors are an equal opportunity destroyer, but the racial disparity here sickens and scares me.
In the south, racial differences are egregiously more apparent than in other places I have lived, yet in an unexpected way. What I have noticed, being a relatively naïve and new southerner, is that there are way more interracial couplings, way more interracial friendships, way more racial harmony in general here, seriously more than Los Angeles, which could rival 80s apartheid in the segregated-by-freeways cityscape, but race in the south is also mentioned more, noticed more, discussed and dissected more, and not always in the best light.
Being of color and living in the south is to know that you are considered different, other, outsider. Race is inescapable here, possibly due to the history, as stars and bars still fly in some parts, and maybe the weather too. You can’t bundle up. It’s hot. Everyone walks around without sleeves. They see your color coming from far away. There’s an irksome honesty inherent to the land. Folks just talk about things like they are. People come in different colors. They get treated according to their color. Not always badly, but there is a difference. There is always a difference.
The prejudice isn’t what you’d expect. There’s an interesting acceptance of race here, and idea that yes, we are not the same, but we must live in the same place, so let’s really go for it and live together. Let’s get married and have biracial children and hang out with people who are not the same because who else would we marry and have kids with and be friends with? We have to get along because we are all we have.
There is an eventuality and finality to the racial divisions in the south because in general, southerners don’t let their racial divisions get in the way of their lives. They don’t let the racial divisions divide. They don’t ignore them like they do in Los Angeles or London, cloaking the color of skin with a patina of invisibility, where the less white you are, the less you are seen.
Southerners don’t pretend that racism isn’t real, or that they are post racism, which is the most ludicrous lie of all. Racism is dead on real in the south, painful and jarring as it is everywhere else, but it’s also strangely inconsequential, because nobody lets it stop them from having a good old time or loving on each other. That is why I sort of fit in down South. Sort of.
I fit in with the African American bikers, and I understand them all too well. I am sick of being defined by this skin, this identity, these assumptions of others. The bike sets me free. At speed, nobody sees my race. With a full face helmet and riding gear on, two wheels turning underneath you as fast as wheels can go, there is no color except the blur of the lines painted on the road, which you must watch, along with everything on the horizon, and carefully, or else all you will see is red, your blood on the asphalt, and that you will only see briefly, before everything fades to black.
On the bike I feel invincible, powerful, entitled – dare I say it – white. When I ride my bike I feel what I imagine a moneyed white man feels, like that famous Atlantan, Ted Turner himself, like this is my world, and I am seeing it from my Harley, if the chain don’t break. You can’t believe what a rush it is. It’s not possible to explain it to someone who doesn’t get the constant reminder of inequality that race represents. What could I say? Riding motorcycles makes me feel real. It makes me feel like I was always supposed to feel. For a second, it makes me feel like you.
I am imploring all bikers, especially bikers of color to ride safely. Watch the road. Watch yourselves. Watch out for each other. Let’s live to ride yet another day. There’s a saying, “Ride like you stole it”. I don’t want to adopt that for us. It’s far too loaded of a statement. There’s too much stereotyping and racism involved in that to get into here. Let’s change it up. Let’s ride like we own the road, like motorcycle cops, who in my opinion are the most practiced and proficient motorcyclists. When they are out on their beat, everyone slows down out of respect and a healthy measure of the right kind of fear. That is what I want for you and me. Don’t ride like you stole it. Ride like you patrol it.