On Motorcycles with Milkshakes
My love of motorcycles began at about the age of eight, arms strapped around my father as we “tooled” the streets of Baton Rouge on his ’86 Honda Magna 1100, a bike styled like a Harley but lacking the thudding-thumping engine. Even though Harleys have the attached nostalgia, distinct sound, and all-American approval, my father and uncles drove Hondas. Harleys are maintenance nightmares, but Hondas are worry-free. I’ve been told this important fact of self-defense for most of my life. When you don’t ride a Harley, it always requires an explanation.
Our familial knock-off of Hell’s Angels would stop at burger joints, the lot of us filing through the doors, leather-clad and swollen with gritty pride. We ordered our food to go, so we could lean James Dean-like against the seats and gobble double-stack burgers while checking various gauges and liquid levels. At that time, especially on those afternoons, I thought my dad and his brothers were as cool as it comes, and I by association and birth-right received the same envious, awed gazes from kids reduced to riding in backs of family station wagons while their parents prodded them to sing camp songs. So began my dream of crackles and pops and pistons and leather.
When I was sixteen, my brother would sometimes show up at the end of my high school football practices. Watching us huffing and wheezing through wind sprints, he leaned against his ’92 Honda Shadow 750, patient, pulling long drags off a cigarette, as if unaware of the “NO SMOKING ON CAMPUS” sign he’d just swept by. Of course, he’d gone to the same school and knew the rule, but what principal is going to tell a biker where to fire up his cigarette? Certain people, motorcycle folk, can just through their butts in the face of authority.
From the back his bike, I could see the jealousy in my teammates’ eyes at the sight and sound of my brother and me rumbling along the school drive. We’d go for chocolate milkshakes at Rhonda’s Cafe in town. We'd buy them to-go and strut to the parking lot. Again, propped against a cruiser and cool by association, I’d pull hard at the thick malt, pretending the straw was just like my brother’s Marlboro. Some children dream of acting or singing or professional sports, but from early on, I knew my destiny.
My father rides bikes. Both of my brothers, all of my uncles, and most of my male cousins do. Every gathering at my grandmother’s house, someone throttles in on a new, shining hog, the smell of fresh polish erupting around him as he eases the kickstand down with a new steel-studded boot. The heavy machine rises, relieved when he gets off. The new owner ceremoniously grants other riders permission to “take it for a spin,” and then he nods at the congratulatory comments about torque and pick-up and surprising comfort. The group stands in a circle, stares, and talks seriously over cc-s and power, revving the engine every now and again to admire the smooth beat of the pistons churning.
Sometimes, with my bravery at its highest, my sense of humility in check, and all of the riders back inside my grandmother’s kitchen with coffee or picking at some potato salad, I’d dare to sit on one of the bikes—the kickstand still down, no doubt—and feel the spirit of it swaying beneath me, my toes tapping nervously at the ground on either side, just knowing any minute I might take off, become the next in a long line of badasses.
From the time I got my first job, and all through college, somewhere in my bedroom sat a little wooden box that had been passed down from my father to my brothers to me, and inside that wooden box sat a wad of money known as “the motorcycle fund”. The motorcycle fund would un-rebelliously fluctuate due to need for books or groceries, but nonetheless, I never got rid of it. The dream remained a constant in a set of very tumultuous years.
During my freshman year at LSU, I lived with my brother, Chris, of cigarette rule-breaking fame. He’d bought a new bike, a ’96 Honda Shadow 1100 to replace his older, smaller version of the same model, and every time I came home from work or school or wherever—be it two in the morning or seven in the morning—Chris would be courting his bike, polishing or wrist-deep in grease, having taken the baffles out of the tailpipes. “Listen to this,” he’d said, a smile wide as his Shadow’s back tire, and he’d ratchet the gas to let out a raucous spitfire of noise pollution and oily smoke.
Chris loved his bike and often took spontaneous half-mile rides through our one-street neighborhood, circling the cul-de-sac and really cracking down before coasting back into the driveway, the cigarette still hanging from his mouth. And, after that, we’d flip through the latest Penny Saver or used-car magazine, hoping to find the right deal for me. Hoping any time now, I’d be taking those same suave half-mile runs down Mayberry Street.
It didn’t happen that year. Chris moved to Oklahoma for work, I got consumed with school and my new girlfriend, and my motorcycle dreams looked more like a wad of greasy hundred dollar bills, folded and cinched with a rubber band. Lots of time went by. and without the constant flaunting of my brother’s Shadow, the fund dwindled a little from semester to semester. Then, I graduated. Having neglected or rejected any thoughts or talk of a career, it was the perfect time to shed that university hoodie in favor of a leather jacket and stubble.
I followed my brother to Oklahoma and acquired about the only job my English degree could get me: construction. It was ideal. Not only did manual labor supply me with a closet full of tattered clothes—a biker requirement—but also the money, the insane hours of overtime, to replenish the motorcycle fund. It was the closest I’d ever been to realizing the roar of my own Honda. Then, one Wednesday, the day when the new used-car flyer hit the stands, we found it: a brand spanking new-to-me 1987 Honda Shadow 700, which numerically was 400 less than my brother’s Shadow 1100 and, thus, the exact bike for me.
I daydreamed on repeat that week: a thinner, more muscular version of myself who’d grown shoulder-length hair that whipped in the wind, the close-up of my hand cracking down on the gas, cool shades sparkling silver-black in the sun, a guitar and dusty rucksack strapped in to the backseat, as surely I would be of the same cut as Henry Fonda and Dennis Hopper. I woke up smiling every day, and at work, I talked about nothing else. This Sunday . . . Honda Shadow . . . my brother and I . . . 700 . . . this Sunday . . . my brother and I . . . Honda Shadow . . . 700 . . . This Sunday . . .
When Sunday morning came, my stomach was tight, my hands shaking before I’d even gotten out of bed. My knees wobbled. My brother was drinking coffee and suited in his garb of greasy jeans and a muscle shirt, a leather jacket thrown over the dining room chair. And that’s when I realized that I hadn’t an idea of how to ride a motorcycle. I’d only ever secretly sat on them or ridden what they call—affectionately, of course—bitch. My cousins’ smooth transitions from boyhood to bikerdom had fooled me into believing my family was inherently able to do this. I’d have to start with where the key went.
Imagine the embarrassment as I hand over the most money I’ve ever spent on anything, only to watch my brother, cigarette in position, give it the goose and speed away, being reduced to following him on my bike with me in his truck. What would the boys at the construction site have said? There would be no hesitation lying about this on Monday morning. Nonetheless, that ’87 Honda Shadow 700—it’s important to relay this information when talking about Hondas, year-make-model-size in that order—that ’87 Honda Shadow 700 was mine.
As soon as Chris pulled my bike into his garage, out came the rags and polish. Maybe circling in donuts, spraying geeks with sand and rocks, wasn’t in my immediate future, but shiny is cool. Better yet, a grungy-looking dude polishing his hog up is even cooler. So, in a ritual I’d witnessed for the better part of twenty-two years, I finally got to be an active participant, my own tank and chrome to coo over endlessly.
By the afternoon, and probably third coat of polish, courage and curiosity got the better of me, and Chris took me to the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store. Lessons started with him swerving around in figure eights before he pulled over to pass the bike on. Just holding the bike up made me nervous. It felt so heavy and sure to toss me away like some pissed-off bronco. Chris grazed through a series of simple instructions, but consumed with my face reflected in the tank, my concentration was less than good.
Then, I heard it for the first time: “Let it out easy,” he said, referring to the clutch, which looks like a brake on either the right or left handlebar, the whole contraption more-or-less resembling the cables and whistles of a ten-speed to me—but, of course, better. The bike jumped, or reared (sticking with the Bronco thing), and died. “Let it out easy,” he reminded me. Jump, die. Again and again, we went through this process, until finally, clutch easing out, engine humming with gasoline, I rocketed away with no idea of how to turn.
I barreled toward the front wall of the grocery store at what seemed an ear-splitting speed, but was really still within the bounds of first gear and forty feet. The building got closer. The air went thin. I could make out the wood grain on the boarded up windows when my hand, perhaps instinctively, though turning the bike hadn’t been instinctive, clutched the brake in time to avoid the 10-mph head-on collision with a Super Fresh Grocery. Within my sigh of relief, the bike swayed a little to the left, and my ’87 Honda Shadow 700 shifted off-balance. Barely alive, barely breathing, I fought like mad to keep it from flaying, handlebars out and foot pegs kicking, onto the pavement, and I screamed like a choir girl for my brother’s help.
Chris is one of those special people who find real humor in a situation like mine, the thick, deep echo of his laughter blasting from across the asphalt. He sauntered up, he and his Marlboro, and we got it back on its tires. With little time to breathe, I was back in the saddle, trying again. “Let it out easy,” he reminded me. Jump, die. My brother gripped the back of the seat, the way a father gives bicycle lessons when you’re five, and sent me away with these last words of encouragement: “You HAVE TO lean or this thing will not turn.” And I completed a shaky turn, and another, and so on. Eventually, I rode in figure eights that were doubly larger than my brother’s—the tightness of your figure reflects your skills. I even shifted past second gear.
I drove it home that evening, my ass puckered tight enough to play a trumpet.
I practiced after long days of work over the next couple of weekends, scratching out a collection of pulverized foot pegs and handlebar ends. I left a fat, deep tire track in the luckily-for-me flattish ditch across from Chris’s driveway when turning still seemed a bit too frightening. Despite whatever mistakes, the pride and ruggedness swirled in me thicker than the maltiest of milkshakes. I was a biker, even if only in my infancy. Paying dues, surely, was just part of it.
When my skills got not-that-bad enough, we took a two-hour trip. Finally, the people in cars, children bouncing in the backs of SUVs, looked at us—at me—with that mix of envy, fear, and confusion that I remembered getting on the back of my father’s ’86 Honda Magna 1100. They had no idea about the collection of scratches my bike had acquired over the last two weeks, my inability to turn with consistency and comfort, or the unfortunate overflow of gasoline on my tank from when I’d filled up at the start of the trip. To them, I was simply another cool-ass biker out for his Sunday drive.
I learned things on that trip, substantial things. The wind over bridges bullies you on a bike, pushes you hard toward the oncoming lane. Leaning in curves is easier at higher speeds because, if you don’t lean, you’ll probably die plunging into steeper, less friendly ditches than those across from my brother’s driveway. Gravel doesn’t actually do the whole spitting onto a geek thing, but in fact, makes tires slip with bowel-awakening moments of roller coaster stomach. Bikes remain heavy no matter how far you’ve driven and without regard for how many people are watching you, and when it dumps over during those idling moments, you have to suck it up, refrain from screaming for your brother, and use everything you’ve got to lift that hog back upright.
Despite all of these lessons, despite having done another couple of months of riding, and despite plans to leave Oklahoma for a cross-country trip to see my mother in California, there were still things to be learned. On what turned out to be my last spin on the ’87 Honda Shadow 700, I learned that not every one in cars thinks motorcyclists are cool, and in fact, some drivers don’t think of motorcyclists at all. I learned that, if ever in Baton Rouge for some family gathering, my ’87 Honda Shadow 700 would surely warrant those torque-y compliments that other bikes get because it had the “pick up” I’ve heard about so many times.
With only twenty minutes back to the polish and safety of Chris’s garage, where I most enjoyed biking, a car moved very speedily down an on-ramp adjacent to the one I was moving less speedily along missed me by what seemed like less than inches—I can’t be sure because my eyes closed. I spiked the engine just enough, just in time, to squeeze by—Oh, my dear God, please no, I’m sorry Mom. The car . . . I'm not dead. Never again. My body out-rattled my old bike for the remainder of that ride home, and had there been someone to take the reigns that day, I would've gladly ridden bitch.
I parked that beautiful ’87 Honda Shadow 700 with new leather saddle bags on custom racks, quite content to be leaving it there the next morning when my car would be carrying me across the country. The whole world of bikerdom had whizzed by with that speeding car. My guts couldn’t handle it. The gasoline had completely coursed through my veins. Without even a kindly salute from my fellow bikers, I decided to gracefully bow out of the game with my appendages still intact. I would happily reside in the stories of riding with my brother in the spring of ’01, abandoning that low thud-thump that hadn’t left my head since I was eight. I left the next morning without even bothering to give her a goodbye polish.
Years passed, and my motorcycle jumped from garage to garage under my brother’s care. We’d agreed he’d sell it, and I accepted the promise of his efforts to do so, knowing full well he was too busy. I suspect he was holding out a little as well, secretly hoping for my return, both as a riding partner and a brother redeeming his good name as not-a-pansy. Truthfully, I’m not sure I wanted him to sell the thing because just possessing it entitled me to some right of braggery. More truthfully, I didn’t dare try to drive it the six hours from Tulsa to Memphis, where I’d moved for graduate school. If it stayed in another state, I could both have it and never have to drive it.
I rode on the ownership for years.
When you’ve graduated from graduate school and already exhausted your dream of leather jackets, stubble, and cruising and you’ve long since outgrown the college sweaters, you take the only job your master’s degree in Creative Writing can get you: I began teaching ESL in Korea. And, there, perhaps, new dreams emerged.
While Korea does have an odd, especially leathered-up—more as if for a costume party—version of Disney-style Hell’s Angels/Harley Riders, what really dominates the streets and sidewalks are scooters. These can’t be dangerous: Scooters? Smaller, lighter, less engine, less torque, that little remote control car zappiness in lieu of rumbling pistons. You can even drive them on sidewalks, like regular old bicycles. Hey, a benevolent deity could not have made a more perfect instrument for zippy errands.
The Koreans were on top of this thing, every restaurant fully fleeted with scooters that had little hot boxes, not guitars and rucksacks, on the backseat. Suddenly, persuasive words and phrases were scooter-ing through my head: gas mileage, practicality, cheap overhead, environmentally friendly. And, somehow, the old visions of the ’87 Honda Shadow 700 and that smooth character, those Easy Rider hallucinations, were replaced by a quirky, scooty Ph.D. student who also had the shoulder-length hair but in more of an organic shampoo kind of way.
Of course, a Vespa wouldn’t exactly be the type of machine my cousins and uncles would queue up to sample. But, with my decision to jump ship from America to live in Korea—North or South, they’d asked—opinions of me were already dangling over the canyon of eccentricity. And, words like “cute” and “fairy” and “draft-dodger” joined the scooterific dance of verbiage in my head. Nonetheless, I quietly accounted for some of my wages, the profit from the recent inevitable sale of the ’87 Honda Shadow 700—my father had finally driven up to claim the old girl and took her home on a trailer before selling her—and I created a “scooter fund”.
Maybe I have an inherited compulsion to buy a two-wheeled vehicle. Maybe it’s some deep-rooted, ill-directed need for acceptance from a family of men more macho than myself, who are not unimpressed with my “university stuff” but more amused by it. Maybe I just like to save up for things—I’ve done that over the years, things like guitars and computers. Maybe that old motorcycle dream still had some juice in it, and this was the closet possibility there was. After all, a scooter is technically a motorcycle, however un-Harley it is. I had grand plans.
Then, I went on vacation. Thailand, like Korea, maybe even more so, has tuned into the utter bliss of scooterdom. Signs are everywhere, in bright colors, with catchy phrases in broken English, “Here Scooter Rent” or "Scooter Funny Rent Here". My head spun a spool of ideas that all came round to finding some way, some excuse, to get my ass on the seat of one of these things. “Motorbike Rent Here Cheap” somehow just made perfect sense.
Sure, my trusty Lonely Planet guide had urged readers that only confident, experienced riders should hire a bike, as every year Thai highways claim several tourists. Luckily, I told my girlfriend, Emma, who had often heard the recounts of Spring ’01 “Tour of Tulsa”, her man had experience motorcycling, and not just on some electric-powered, flowered, glorified moped, but on a “real” bike. My fear was completely under wraps, and my desire to get on a scooter was the freaking ribbon on top.
When we wanted to visit a waterfall but found out that it was a good forty-five minute drive away, I knew exactly what to do. It was too far to walk. Taxis were too expensive, even after crafted negotiations. But, there was something else, a second option, a leaner more cost efficient, exciting, ocean-breeze-through-knotty hair way of getting there: Renting a scooter would cut the cost, not just in half, in thirds. How could Emma argue with that? Do you want me to? I prodded. I wasn’t going to, but I will. I hate to miss that waterfall. I mean if you want to go, we’re better renting. I’m not paying that taxi driver forty bucks; that’s crazy.
She didn’t say much, which is not her way. Usually—I’ve often compared her to a spider monkey—she’s jumping and dancing and singing songs. She is a prototypical kindergarten: excited about all new endeavors and bores then quickly of them. However, there was no singing or dancing when she agreed to this one, almost as if her child in trouble radar was going off. It didn’t take long for me to get things underway. The rental place we stopped at had three or four—oh, lucky they weren’t all out—scooters parked out front, and a guy in a knee-length African-ized shirt was busy negotiating a recently returned one into the line. Intrinsically, Emma still seemed less than enthusiastic.
African-ized Shirt Man summoned the owner, a 300-pound Rastafarian-Thai dude with a six-inch goatee, and the price was right, the money already fisted for giving. Everything was right. The rental guy didn’t look like some quirky Ph.D. student; he looked like a bona fide badass. “You ever ride a bike before,” he asked, just moving through the standard questions, as any responsible businessman would do. As if he couldn’t recognize the steeliness in my gaze, I reassured him, citing my vast experience gained in the spring of ’01. Still going through the motions, he suggested a test run, and so I ambled upon the little machine—an automatic, ha, even less power—and commenced getting through these little formalities.
I recall checking for traffic, but maybe not, as the next few seconds of my life were spent negotiating my way across the two tiny lanes of street in front of his business, praying nothing would hit me. By the grace of super-charged battery power, I made it all the way across the road, the popping of gravel beneath the tires as I whizzed off onto the embankment. Unlike in Oklahoma, I had to keep my cool because this time there was an audience to answer to, a fan base, a crowd watching breathlessly as I defied death. The bike and I headed about a hundred feet north before turning around, still shaky but better, and returning to the point of origin.
Rhastaman smirked. Emma stared at me, doing her best to subdue the doubt. My little blunder at the beginning of the test run had not gone unnoticed, and I had to spend the next couple of minutes recounting the spring of ’01 again to demonstrate my expertise. Relaxed and confident, I gave smirking Rhastaman my money. Emma by some strange act of loyalty, trust, and stupidity, after having seen my less-than-convincing trial run, was still willing to betray countless oaths to her family that she’d “never get on one of those” and, in fact, get on one with me, though she insisted on my picking her up across the road of peril, which had only just spared my life.
She watched as I gassed the thing, shot across the road again with a battery-powered blast something out of ground speed tests, and before a thought had crossed my brain, I’d crossed the street. It was too late to turn effectively or brake, but I managed to twist the tire enough to slide into a flowerpot in front of the Ko Chang Washateria instead of flying straight into the wall. Visions of the Superfresh grocery store flashed to pain as I learned that, despite being lighter, easier-to-handle, more energy-efficient, and all those things, scooters dump over just as readily as ’87 Honda Shadow 700s.
My leg was caught under the right side, my big toe being pulverized like a foot peg. My right hand was buried hard in the gravel and glass beside the building, my left hand struggling to push the bike up enough to slide my leg free. My face was red with heat and fear, and from it, I emitted a helpless wail for Emma’s assistance. Rhastaman had already begun the trot over, his shirt hiked comfortably above the bellybutton of his robust stomach, like a man on a mission. Behind him, in tow, was the man in the green shirt, the bottom of it swishing around his knees. You notice details like this in such situations because these are the only people who can save you. They are the same people who will later narrate the story to friends, defiling your reputation. My brother’s hearty laugh pounded in my head. What would the boys at the construction site think of this?
By the time my rescuers had lifted the bike off and plenty of cars had passed, slack-jawed children staring from the back glass with a bewilderment nothing like those received in the days strapped behind my father, it was too late to admit my mistake gracefully. This is what some dreams turn into, I suppose, a pile of rubble sweating and groaning at the side of the road, a girlfriend already busy reassuring me that there is still some reason to feel cool, a Rhastaman and his sidekick with a shirt not unlike a cape already exchanging snickers as they cart the bike back to the line of other bikes, waiting to be rented by an eighteen year old girl on her first vacation away from her parents.
Inside Rhastaman’s bar—he’d graciously refunded my money despite fresh scratches on his scooter—I asked Emma if we could sit and have a drink. We flipped through the menu for the price of Ko Chang's finest, as if it mattered. I needed time to recover, get the shake out of my hands and give my toe a moment to mend. Rhastaman gave two smooth motions to flip the caps off of some overpriced Thai beer. I struggled with lighting the last cigarette in my pack, content to have picked up only one of my brother’s badass habits, glad that I’d moved past milkshakes and graduated to the dulling effects of an ice-cold alcohol.
We decided that one waterfall would be enough that day.