Jun 15 • 8M

MOTORCYCLE DIARIES

Hot times on two wheels.

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All names have been changed to protect the stupid (except mine, because fully I admit how stupid I was.) 

I recently sold what I think will probably be my last motorcycle.  I can’t tell yet.   Every few years, a tremendous, lusty feeling will grip me, and it ends up with me buying a motorcycle.  Last time, I found myself compulsively buying body armor on eBay. I told myself I was buying it to participate in Occupy Wall Street riots, but then I ended up buying a gorgeous black Ducati Monster 695 named Donna, by her previous owner. 

I rode Donna around Manhattan and Brooklyn for a few years.  There is no feeling quite so sensational as riding a bike as a female; motorcycles are the ultimate fashion accessory.  Men literally run out of cafes and bars to talk to you while you’re idling at stop signs.  You walk into a bar in a kevlar jacket with a helmet and you will never need to buy a drink for yourself (which is kind of a moot point because if you’re riding the bike you really can’t drink.) 

But there is a saying in motorcycle land:  it is not a question of IF you will get into a horrible accident, it is a question of WHEN.  I knew scores of people who had had terrible, life-altering motorcycle wrecks, including two guys that were left as quadriplegics, controlling their wheelchairs with their mouths, and one guy who sustained massive brain damage and changed his name to Thomas.  And I felt, having been on motorcycles pretty much my entire life, that I had finally run out of the physical luck that kept me intact all this time.  I did some incredibly stupid things on motorcycles over the years, and since I moved back to the Bay Area, for some reason I felt strongly that the motorcycle fairies were no longer on my side.  I had tested them too often, and it felt like the inevitable accident was waiting around the corner. 

Some of the dumbest things I did, I wasn’t the one driving.  One of my earliest memories — I was no older than 3 — is being on the front of my father’s Bultaco dirt bike (no helmet - this was before helmet laws) and him doing a wheelie the entire length of our block, in the late afternoon.  I was terrified, of course, but I didn’t cry because it was supposed to be fun.  I decided it was fun. 

When I was 19, I used to ride on the back of my insane roommate Harry’s Triumph Bonneville 750, which was always reliably leaking oil on the sidewalk in front of our Victorian in the Mission District of San Francisco.  Harry tinkered with it constantly, and spoke to it in a motorcycle language he invented, “Sprocket! Grock torque flange throttle!” 

Harry and I used to go to music venues, get drunk and pretend to have fistfights on the dance floor.   Then we’d get back on his bike and tear our way back to the Mission by way of Golden Gate Park, where, in the fog at night, Harry would open the bike up to about 90mph. 

There was a particularly steep hill somewhere over Dolores Park that we were intrigued with.  It was a virtual cliff.  It looked like a 90 degree angle.  So, (again without helmets), we decided to jump it.  Harry revved up the engine at the top of the hill, and we went off the edge…and something we did’t anticipate happened.  The back end of the bike was much heavier than the front end, so we launched into the air tipping heavily backwards.  I was looking at the sky. When the back tire finally hit the pavement, it was only through some kind of superhuman adrenalin strength that Harry was able to guide the front of the bike down from its vertical position and actually land it, with a couple of harrowing bounces. 

We were both white as sheets afterward.  We never spoke of it again. 

All of my boyfriends had motorcycles for a long time.  I worked in bars, and most of that network of bar people had bikes.  One time I was with my boyfriend Dolph, a strapping ex-high school football player who had done some work as a model.  For some reason, Dolph was the kind of guy other men really wanted to sucker punch.   His face made other dudes angry.  We were riding around on Dolph’s bike somewhere in downtown San Francisco, and a tattooed guy with sunken cheeks who looked like an ex-con, driving a convertible Bronco, suddenly took exception to Dolph and started angrily following us.  Dolph tried to bust all kinds of moves to lose him, including getting on the freeway, but the psycho kept pursuing us for miles, getting more and more pissed off, acting like he was going to ram us from behind.   While driving, Dolph started to remove his motorcycle gloves, because he figured he would have to pull over and fight the guy. 

On a stretch of road just beyond a tunnel, the Bronco guy made his move.  There was a steep concrete embankment around the road, in sort of a funnel shape.  With a wild engine roar, the maniac in the Bronco drove up the embankment like he was going to drive ahead sideways and land on top of us, but thankfully, his car exploded, first.  His car pivoted and dropped back down into the middle of the road pointing the wrong direction; his hood flew up and black smoke began pouring out.  That’s how we left him in the rearview mirror. 

Another thrill-seeking friend of mine was screaming around town on a Ninja, and decided to impress me with a ride through the Broadway tunnel, where we did over 180 mph, with no helmets.

Naturally, being an idiot, I liked it, but I did feel like it was pushing my luck. 

I finally started riding my own bikes around age 21.   Being a fairly small person, it was always hard to stand up when the bike was fully stopped, so I dropped my bikes a lot - especially in front of cafes, where there were a lot of people to laugh at me.   One time, I had just gotten out of a weepy therapy session after a bad breakup.  I was just getting on my bike when my recently exed boyfriend rode by on his motorcycle with a gorgeous Asian girl on the back.  It felt like a blow to the stomach that took the wind out of me.  On my way home on another hill, I stalled out and my bike fell on me.  I was crying and ridiculous.  An old lady in the crosswalk came and helped pick it up off me.  I was so mortified. 

Donna was finally stolen out of my driveway recently, after sitting there for a few years.  I still loved her.  I still yearned for her, but I wasn’t riding her.  She was just too dangerous.  So she was neglected. 

Anyway, she was stolen, and my friend who works as a cop actually found her up the street from me (proving that cop skills are often useful, even if the cops of my neighborhood don’t use them).  Some idiots tried to cut all her wires and take her to the top of the nearest hill, and tried to roll start her.  Donna’s ignition was gored out. Her front headlight was missing.  She was in bad shape. 

I sold her that same night to a friend of the cop, who ran his own Ducati/Moto-Guzzi operation out of a warehouse.  He was able to fix her up and flip her to another young woman who was stoked to have it in short time, and I got a small stack of hundreds.  Thus my biking days have apparently ended. 

But I never say never again.  What I really want is a sidecar, but with a bike that actually runs. 

Photo credit: Nancy Balbirer