Article — From the November 2009 issue
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I. ROBIN’S-EGG-BLUE CHOPPER AND SANDY MOON
I rode an Italian road-racing bicycle in New York City in 1966 that when I wasn’t riding it hung on two spikes driven into the front hall whitewashed brick wall of my house on East 93rd Street. Tom Avenia, an Italian in Harlem, an Italian American in unwelcoming Harlem, sold me the bike, an all-chrome Fréjus. His shop was the shop for serious bicycles. I bought the Fréjus for its beauty. I rode it to sit on beauty and go fast. But it didn’t go fast enough. And the drivers in New York were dangerous. They weren’t used to bicycles sharing the street with them and didn’t always like it and sometimes made it clear with their cars that they didn’t like it by aiming for you. My beautiful Fréjus was swift, but the streets were pocked with potholes and the cars were unfriendly. To go fast on two wheels was the point. To go fast on two wheels is the point of life, isn’t it? So I began to think about going even faster.
There was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealer in the East 70s that I came on one day. Harleys back then were brutal crude things. Even the Harley Sportster, their relatively athletic, relatively slender sport bike, was mechanically a Neanderthal, but in any case the Sportster didn’t count because the only motorcycle that mattered was the big guy, the great big, full-dress, traditional highway Harley with saddlebags and maybe pompons, lots of chrome, a dumb throbbing thug of an engine, outdated technology, the bike America rode (along with the recently discontinued Indian), the America that rode motorcycles, that is. These dogs were called “hogs,” terrible motorcycles. The police rode them, rednecks rode them, white-trash working-class meatheads rode them. Their thick squat bulk was the opposite of the elegance of the Fréjus. But there was something about their lack of refinement that was appealing, a manly he-man of a bike. The dealership went perfectly with the motorcycle. It was a small garage space, not especially clean, staffed by gruff iconic American tough guys who were also madly in love with Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I walked in off the street and began a lifelong obsession with motorcycles.
The mechanics worked in a small area behind where the new bikes were displayed. In that small space, on a raised dais, as if on an altar, was a motorcycle the mechanics were building out of the chassis and motor of another motorcycle. It was what was called a chopper, in this case a chopped-down police Harley, a big hog stripped of its bulges and made chaste and svelte and simple—and with the fenders and tank painted an astonishingly pretty, entirely unexpected robin’s-egg blue. I trembled with desire.
After months of waiting for the mechanics to finish their baby-blue prize, my baby-blue love, which I had bought in advance of its being finished, after endless visits to watch it happening, or not happening, as was more often the case, the bike was mine. Only I had never ridden a motorcycle.
I had a friend named Johnny Greco who was the squash pro at the University Club who had a friend named Bobby Collins. Greco was a dark-haired wiry fist of lower-class energy whom I knew from Elaine’s, the chic place he and I both went to regularly, both of us particular friends of Elaine herself. Greco claimed he knew how to ride but he did not have a motorcycle license so could not instruct me. It turned out that Greco, the great athlete, couldn’t ride at all and in fact flunked the driving part of the motorcycle-license test, which he decided to take some time later. With me looking on (I had my license by then), he wobbled and put his foot down and didn’t make it between the pylons, a miserable humiliation on a lovely, bright sunny day. Johnny told me heroic stories about Collins, a construction worker worshipped by the men who worked with him, a great oak of a man, a man among men, fabulous, charismatic, immensely strong, and an experienced licensed motorcyclist who would be happy to show me how.
Collins, the construction worker, turned out to be a curly-haired, smilingly courteous man with interesting political views and gentle good manners. We were all the same age, around thirty, but Collins had been a laborer for more than ten years already. We met and went to pick up the motorcycle. Collins was awed. The bike really was stunning. Collins started it up and I climbed aboard behind him and rode as a passenger over the river to the derelict industrial area in Queens where I was going to receive my lesson. Greco followed in his car. I knew what to do on a motorcycle. I knew what lever did what. I knew how to start it and how to stop it. I set off and when I wanted to slow to a stop I accelerated instead and couldn’t remember where the brakes were until quite a ways down the road.
Every morning I rode down the FDR Drive in those last halcyon helmetless days before the new state helmet law took effect (requiring you to wear one) to the office I had taken in a building south of Foley Square where my then brother-in-law Frank Conroy also had an office and so did Norman Mailer, writers among the private detectives. Day after day, the same two cops in a cop car turned on their lights and their siren to stop me, once the helmet-law warning period was over, telling me each time that the next time I would get a ticket. I took measures to avoid them, would speed up or slow down, or hide between lanes of cars, and they would catch me anyway. All this was done with great good cheer. I liked the wind in my hair and the city around and above my naked pate, and I liked these cops and our game, and they understood completely.
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