Saturday, February 14, 2009

Social Intercourse on a Harley

Back in the day, when I weighed 95 pounds soaking wet, when I was still young and strong, my husband walked out on my daughter and me unexpectedly one cold February morning. He left us on a little patch of land in Osage County, and it broke my heart.

He took 80% of the family income and left me with 100% of the bills. A few days after he left, for good measure, the furnace broke during the coldest weather in years. Luckily there was a wood burning stove so I learned how to split wood then. If wood is frozen, it will pop right in two, much like I imagine a spineless, lying coward of a polecat husband might...

It was not always easy, but my daughter and I made it just fine. As my heart healed, and my finances healed, my life opened up in ways I did not expect. I eventually realized my husband's departure was a mighty blessing, setting me free to live my own life.

Once all the bills were paid, and my finances were squared, I was able to save money, something impossible during my marriage. I could dream of things I had never been able to seriously consider ever before in my life. One of those dreams was a Harley Davidson. My own Harley Davidson.

As my savings account grew, I talked more and more about getting my own motorcycle. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, tried to talk me out of it. I was not big enough to ride. I could not maintain a Harley on my own. A Harley was too expensive to own.

"Get a Honda," everyone said.

"No flippin' way," I said.

Ah, but if you focus on something sharply enough, you can get what you desire, your dreams come true. That is how reality works.

In the little bank where I deposited my pay check every other week I knew everyone on a first-name basis. I had never had even an accidental over draft. I deposited into my savings out of every pay check. I did not owe a dime to anyone on this earth. When the time came, when I found a good used Harley with less than 3000 miles on it, the loan officer refused to give me a loan, even though I had more than enough for a down payment. "Buy a refrigerator," he said with a cheesy smile. I just looked at him.

I got a loan from another bank and took my money out of the little bank. The loan officer overheard me closing all of my accounts because his desk was close to the teller windows. Looking sheepish, he intercepted me leaving his bank. "Someone must have given you the money for that Harley."

"Yes, I got the Harley, and once I've learned to ride it, you will see it parked right across the street every day." I was cool but inwardly I was jumping with glee.... GLEE!

(Glee - noun 1. Open delight or pleasure; exultant joy; exultation.)

That motorcycle was big. It was a 1979 Harley Davidson Superglide, 1200 cc engine, four speed transmission, with original blue paint. To the horror of Harley lovers the world over, (myself in particular), AMF had in the late 70's bought the floundering Harley company. On the tanks below the "Harley Davidson" lettering were the hated "AMF" letters. As soon as that Harley was in my possession, the AMF lettering was carefully removed with a knife and rubbing compound.

The first solo ride took place on gravel lanes in a small graveyard, where there was not much of an audience. Each time I would drive a bit further along the country roads until I was brave enough to drive on the paved (and busier) roads.

I remember well the first day I felt confident enough to drive around Lake Shawnee, east of Topeka. Everything went well and I was on the way back to the garage when I inexplicably lost my nerve. I pulled over into the mouth of a gated drive way and stopped the engine. I was in a panic for no reason. I did not want to ride that big motorcycle alone. I could not handle it. I would get killed by some idiot turning left in front of me, leaving my daughter alone in this world. Every fear I ever felt in connection with riding motorcycles, every reason not to ride, assailed me as I sat in dry-mouthed panic.

When I look back at that moment, it is one of several cross roads in my life. I could have locked the bike up, walked to the nearest phone to call someone to come get me and the motorcycle, and given it all up. That is exactly what I felt like doing. As I sat there, thinking of how much and for how long I had wanted my own bike, a calm came over me. Left-turning drivers be damned. I was going to enjoy riding my own Harley Davidson. I had earned it. I started the engine and rode on.

I made several rules with regard to riding. Since I was a single mother, I vowed to never ride and drink, not even after one single beer. I did not break this vow until my daughter was well into high school, and I had been riding for a lot of years. Even then, it was only a few times, and only one drink. I rode with a very hard-drinking crowd, so I likely remember a lot of things the others do not recall now - or wish they did not recall now.

I also vowed to never let anyone work on my motorcycle. Harleys were notorious for breaking down, needing a lot of maintenance that required a knowledgeable hands-on owner-rider. But I had a different logic about them. They were the best motorcycles in the world. The reason they broke down all the time had more to do with all those owner-riders who only thought they knew what they were doing. If I could not tweak it, fine tune it, or fix it myself, I took it to the Harley shop. The only time I was ever stranded was when I ran out of gas.

Over the years, I rode as much and as often as I could, to every place I could ride. I loved it, and I especially loved riding alone. Getting out on the open road, having control of a big engine effortlessly powering you down the miles is a singular pleasure. It sounds corny, but there is an opening into the experience of riding, where the highway is felt through your hands and feet, where the engine knows where you are going. It feels as if the road is alive and coming to meet you. And though I was never reckless, even at eighty miles an hour, you can roll the throttle and there is always more power in a big twin engine. Riding a big motorcycle, you can outrun just about any worry, at least for a little while.

Unfortunately, there are a LOT of other people you have to share the road with when you ride a motorcycle. And you have to interact with them. There is a certain amount of social intercourse required, like it or not.

If I was riding with any of my male "biker" friends, no one dared to say a thing to me. But a woman alone seems to upset a certain type of man. I will not repeat the worst things ever said to me at stop lights. I just laughed at whatever they had to say and hoped if my bike ever did break down, one of those creeps would not happen by.

The funniest things ever said to me were comments from black people. Black guys would pull up beside me, the widest smiles in the world, and carry on quite charmingly. When I laughed at them, it was because they were funny. I assume their masculinity was not threatened in any way by a woman on her own Harley. Black women were always friendly to me as well, even if it was their male companion who was carrying on. They often asked all about my motorcycle, how I learned to ride, always friendly and I always enjoyed encounters with them.

Often when I rode to work in the mornings, there was a contingent of guys waiting for the bus in the downtown area. I did not understand it, but those "highly successful" characters would always shout and hoot at me. I ignored them. "Get a job, Fools!" I always thought angrily. 

One of the bike's two previous owners had customized the kick stand arm, bending it quite deeply, making the bike lean far to the left when it was parked. When I first started riding, I sometimes had a hard time setting the bike up if it was parked on a left downward slope. It was a lot of weight to push uphill. In those days it was legal to park in the empty triangles caused by mid-block street crossings. I always parked in one in front of the downtown Walgreen's diner windows, (to gall the cheesy banker). I was having a hard time getting my bike off the kick stand one afternoon, but I knew what I was doing. Some man sent his little daughter out of the diner to give me a message. "My daddy says that bike is too big for you!" the little girl informed me in her most bossy little voice.

"You can tell your daddy that I'm just fine," I told her. The adrenaline from the insult surged through my blood and I sat my bike up as if I was six feet tall instead of five feet one inch. Indeed.

As time went on, the fact that the bike leaned so far over was an advantage and I became quite strong handling "Old Blue".

Of course, I was still young in those days, and quite snobbish about riding a Harley. Anyone who rode something else was just not in the same league of motorcycling, in my opinion. One thing Harleys do well is to vibrate everything loose. I was on 24 Highway north of Topeka, making a left hand turn, when my motorcycle died, right in the turn. Narrowly avoiding dropping the bike, I managed to not get run over from either direction. I was pushing my dead motorcycle across the lanes of traffic, trying to get out of everyone's way. I was very embarrassed. My shining savior was a middle aged guy dressed in plaid golf shorts, riding a moped. He came buzzing up and cheerfully helped me push my motorcycle out of harm's way. Bless his big plaid heart! I thanked him profusely, and would have given him a hug, but he mounted up on his massive moped steed and zipped off into the sunset before I could get my arms around him. Who was that plaid man, I asked myself.

The battery cable had vibrated loose and all I needed was a Phillips screw driver. I saw two linemen and a tool truck about a block away. I walked to where they were perched on the pole, asking if I could borrow a Phillips screwdriver. They were hostile, and just stared at me. I asked them again if I could please borrow a screwdriver, explaining that the battery cable was loose. One guy said they did not have any tools. The other guy said he would have to call his supervisor. I guess they were union guys...

I eventually borrowed a screwdriver from someone else and was on my way.

My daughter rode with me when she was young. She seemed to be proud of her mother's motorcycle, and loved to ride with me. We never ventured too far from home, though. I was always extra careful and hyper-aware when she was riding with me. People simply do not drive their cars and trucks with the safety of motorcyclists in mind. The most aggravating thing drivers do is to look directly at a motorcyclist and then pull out directly in the path of the oncoming bike. One day my daughter and I were riding along a four lane street in Topeka. I noticed a truck pull up from the left, and something told me to watch it. Sure enough, it sat at the intersection until we were too close for it to safely pull out, then pulled right into our path. I had already started slowing down, so it was not what anyone would consider a real close call, but close enough that it made me mad. I sped up and came along side of the driver's side. An old guy in overalls was driving, and apparently his son and young grandson were in the truck with him. His window was down, so I asked if he had not seen us. I had to shout but I did not ask in a mean or hateful way.

He instantly became angry and yelled there had been plenty of time for him to pull out in front of us and who the hell did I think I was?

Oh, the shouting match was ON!

We drove along, side by side, shouting and trading insults. I yelled that he did not own the road and that he was a bad driver. He became absolutely livid and was cussing me as if I were a dog.

We were coming to a stop light and I told my daughter to get ready to run to safety as soon as I had to stop. I did not know what that old fool was going to do. As we came to a halt, amid the other cars in the turning lanes, the other drivers all got an earful. I did call him an old s.o.b. because by then I was so angry at all the names he had called me in front of my daughter (and his young grandson, I might add). He was so mad that he did not even realize what he was saying. He actually called me a god damned nigger. I could not help myself and just started laughing, really laughing, right in his face. Was that the best the old bastard could do? I looked around at the shocked faces of the other drivers, sitting there on that beautiful spring morning, and shook my head. They seemed to be waiting for me to get off my motorcycle and shoot them or something. I patted my daughter's leg and told her not to worry, and soon we were on our way. I have never forgotten that old man. What a jerk.

The worst thing that ever happened when I was riding, the closest I have ever come to being in an accident, was another road rage incident. On an impulse buy, I had purchased a little hamster for my daughter. I had the box zipped up in my leather coat and was on my way home. The light changed to green. Out of habit, I looked before I pulled into the major intersection. Apparently, that fraction of a second delay really ticked off the driver behind me, and he laid on his horn. What a jerk! Almost reflexively I flipped him the bird. Wrong move. He instantly became enraged. He roared up behind me and at the last possible moment, veered to the right and veered back to the left, trying to run me off the road. Then he sped up, pulling into my lane and slammed on his brakes. He did this for over a mile. I kept moving because I thought he would run over me if I stopped. I was afraid for my life, but some how I stayed calm and searched for a safe way to escape that maniac. Finally, I guess he got it out of his system and drove on, and I was able to make a left hand turn and get away.

He was driving an orange two door Monte Carlo with a black vinyl roof. I memorized his tag number and remembered it for years afterward. He was a nice looking young guy and believe me, if I had ever saw him again, I would have punched him right in his face, regardless of the consequences. I called the police as soon as I got home, my voice still shaking, my knees weak. I was transferred around and left on hold for so long that I finally hung up. I had no faith any action would have ever been taken. I was just glad the hamster and I made it home. I never, ever again flipped off another driver again, no matter what.

I do not understand why there was often such malice directed toward me when I rode my motorcycle. I wondered if all those white guys thought I was a lesbian. Maybe they thought I was a "biker chick" and therefore did not deserve even the minimum of respect. I have always wondered how bad it would have been if I had been a lesbian biker chick? Bigotry is an ugly, evil thing. When I dared to stand up for myself it truly enraged those men.

All in all, owning and riding my own Harley Davidson was quite an adventure. It was an accomplishment, a personal victory. That Harley, Ol' Blue, was a symbol of the freedom I had worked so hard to achieve in every area of my life. Not least, it represented financial freedom. Once that bike was paid off, I used it as collateral for every major purchase I needed to make after that. I eventually had such great credit that I was able to purchase my own home with no cosigner.

It meant that my broken heart was eventually healed. I rode that Harley away from all that old heartache, right into more heartache, but that's another story. I got a small understanding of the senseless anger and hatred some people harbor in their hearts. I became an excellent defensive driver, successfully staying out of every inattentive, angry, or incompetent driver's way. Best of all, I had fun. It was simply fun riding that bike when I was young. It was the best time of my life.  

Post script: Thank you, Shawn Hastings.

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