For my 38th birthday in October, I bought myself my first motorcycle.
My mother was appalled. She immediately began mailing me newspaper clippings from around the country about death statistics and the odds of becoming a vegetable.
My father said: "And here I thought it was your brother I had to worry about."
Said brother said: "That is so cool!"
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I had learned to ride only a week before my big purchase. My friend Tonya and I took a safe-driving class at Horry-Georgetown Technical College. The first day was classroom instruction. Right before the class ended at 10 p.m., we were told we had to have proper gloves, among other things, for field instruction the following day or we wouldn't be allowed to ride. Tonya and I exchanged a look. Where were we going to buy motorcycle gloves at 10 p.m. on a Friday night?
The only gloves we found that looked like they were made of the right materials - grippy stuff on the palms and rugged stuff on the tops - were water skiing gloves. They were on sale for 3 bucks at a 24-hour retail store. Score.
Three of about 11 riding mates quit the Saturday parking lot class about two hours into instruction. They just couldn't get the hang of it and feared for their personal safety.
I should have feared for mine.
The first time we were allowed to do a full lap around a small section of the HGTC back parking lot, I was so excited I forgot to apply the brakes when stopping. I opted instead to crash into the curb and do a half-flip off the bike onto the grass median. One of the instructors came racing over - I quickly assured him, "I'm OK, I'm OK" - to check the bike, completely ignoring me. Tonya was impressed with the flip.
Undeterred, I managed to avoid any more flipping the rest of the day, and I was hooked. I passed the class, passed the written permit test, and bought myself a Honda Shadow 600. I named her Ruby. It's a baby bike, but all the bikers I talked to advised me not to buy a bike that felt too big or I'd lose my nerve and stop riding. They said I'd want a bigger bike in about two months. They were wrong: I started jonesing for a 1500 two weeks later. But until she's paid off, Ruby stays.
The first week, I rode every day. I dropped my bike just about every time I came to a complete stop or even thought about coming to a stop. (For you nonriders, "dropping one's bike" means "allowing one's bike to fall on its side in front of an embarrassing number of people.") Each time - except the last time - a man would stop, jump out of his vehicle and help me pick up 450-pound Ruby. He would say, "Are you all right?" which sounded suspiciously like, "Are you out of your mind?"
The last time I dropped my bike, I was at a busy intersection, and no one stopped to help. They were too busy whooshing by at high speeds, and there was NO WAY I was going to walk home and call AAA. So I finally figured out how to turn the front wheel and position my back against the bike for leverage, and - ta da! I picked it up all by myself. And I haven't dropped it since.
All bikers will tell you, as they surely tell me (I think they've been talking to my mom), that if you take up riding, sooner or later you will "lay your bike down." That means you will make a split-second decision to avoid crashing head-on into the vehicle that pulled out right in front of you by tipping your bike over ON PURPOSE and sliding yourself and your bike on pavement. You likely will lose some skin ("road rash"), but it's a better choice than the alternative. I hope to never face that choice, but this is the risk we bikers are willing to take, an internal agreement at which nonbikers can only shake their heads.
The thing about riding is, it's really, really cool. Bikers don't ever SAY that. That would be utterly uncool. But the sheer joy of driving in the open air with your hair flying and pipes roaring is cool. (OK, I have short hair that just sticks up when I ride and pipes that not so much roar as meow, but it's the FEELING that counts.)
Robert Pirsig said it best in the first few pages of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":
"In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
"On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're IN the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. The concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness."
I never made it much past that passage in "Zen," but that was enough for me. That exactly sums up the coolness of riding. It's like oysters or opera: You either love it or you hate it.
Riding is cool in and of itself, but it takes a little effort and education to BE cool while riding. Here are some tips:
(Mom, please stop reading here.) Uncool. I know, I know, stupid, stupid, stupid. I own a helmet. I have worn it. Mostly I don't. It's part of that "frame" Pirsig was talking about, but I'll tell you the ugly (and I mean ugly) truth about why bikers don't wear helmets: They look silly. Especially on me. I have a big head to begin with. Add a big padded shiny helmet, and I go from Xena Princess Bike Warrior to Marvin the Martian. It's particularly uncool to wear a helmet in a state in which you're not required by law to do so. Wear a helmet in Myrtle Beach, and local bikers shake their heads and say, "You can always tell the ones coming down from North Carolina."
Uncool. Yes, they cut down on wind and bug guts. But windshields are for sissies, end of story.
This is absolutely, positively the only chance you have of making fringe look cool. The only reason I don't have a coat with long strings of leather hanging off my elbows and cleavage is because they apparently only make and sell one fringed jacket in Myrtle Beach, and there are beads and turquoise coloring involved, and I can't be a part of that ugliness. But I'm on the lookout.
Again, riding a horse or a bike is the only chance you have of getting away with wearing chaps and not being asked if you're one of the Village People. Plus, chaps make your butt look good.
One must master the cool wave to other bikers. It's friendly, and it makes car drivers jealous because they don't have their own wave. It is uncool to lift your hand high up in the air and shake it around vigorously "like Mr. Rogers," as I was told I did from the back of a guy's bike once. My guy turned around with a horrified look and said with a gasp, "WHAT did you just DO??" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "What was that ... that wave?" (Said as if I'd offered the passing bikers a different gesture.) He continued: "You DON'T lift your hand up like that. You keep it down low and make it a smooth, single, graceful motion." He was right (though he never got me on the back of HIS bike again). You can make the wave your own by subtly shifting the angle of your left hand, or by pointing your (index) finger as you wave, but there's not much room for variation if you want to be cool. And we do.
Uncool. You get bugs in your teeth, and you just look like a big dork if you are grinning from ear to ear while riding. Dorks are not cool; therefore, smiling is not cool. (But I can't help it.)
The coolness of this escapes me, but I am assured it is way cool. Some biker bars have burnout pits out back or burnout rooms, in which the point is to rev your engine as high as it will go with your bike standing still, ruining your back tire and risking the destruction of your engine. It smells really, really bad and just seems silly to me and no one can explain why crowds rush over to watch this puzzling spectacle. But they do. And applaud and hoot and holler and clink their beer bottles afterward. Which is cool.
Riding on the back of someone else's bike
It's romantic to snuggle up behind your man on his big, loud Harley, but it ain't COOL. And you know it's not cool because there's an expression for riding Back There, one that I won't share here (this is a family newspaper, people). Suffice to say, the quaint little phrase equals "not cool." Cool is chicks in front. Better still, chicks on their own bikes. Which brings me to ...
Women riding bikes
Is there anything cooler? I think not. Lots of women have their own bikes these days, but it still attracts attention. And the truth is: Bikers love attention. They love to give it to one other, and they love to get it. It's a huge part of riding. The chrome, the fancy paint jobs, the clothes, the attitude, the noise - they all demand (and, oh, yes, deserve) attention. And if I am out there risking bad hair and bugs in my lipstick, sunburn and brain damage, I want some recognition.
So the next time you see me out there, give me a cool wave. You can even smile if you want. I will be.