My motorcycle began quietly rolling down the highway, losing speed to the surrounding traffic. Some folks gave space as I worked to cross four lanes of commuter traffic, but most continued past without slowing. One man came close behind me then aggressively switched lanes to pass on the right with his horn blaring. It was horrible. Powerless. Alone.
My bike came to a halt on the shoulder of the highway a quarter mile from an exit. There was no gas station near the ramp, but it was a quiet place to work on the motorcycle, so I pushed until gravity allowed the bike to coast.
The slow jaunt gave me time to examine the debris along the highway. First came the rubber shrapnel of an exploded truck tire. Large sections of sidewall lay intermingled with fragments of tread protruding rusted steel belting. Next came the head of a shovel. It looked unused but for the jagged stump of wood where the handle had been broken off. I wove my way through these until a crumpled lady’s brassiere appeared. It was purple and I ran it over in a moment of childish enjoyment.
The exit led to a frontage road that intersected two city streets in a confused jumble. Avoiding the mess, I coasted the motorcycle onto the sidewalk and stopped under a tree. It was summer and the sun was high. If I was to be broken down, it was best done in shade.
The bike seemed fine. The engine cranked under a solid charge of the battery and unburned gasoline escaped the exhaust pipes as the motor turned. The spark plugs even looked normal. But the damn thing refused to run. My checklist was spent.
As I began poking wires in hope of making something happen, a late ‘70s Jeep CJ pulled up and parked behind my bike with two wheels on the curb. It had oversized mud tires that extended a few inches beyond the wheel wells, and the top was off revealing a roll bar with chips of paint missing. Worn brown pinstripes ran along the yellow body from the hood to the front quarter panel, ending with the word “Renegade”. A winch sat on the front bumper between two fat metal hooks. It was an odd vehicle for a city, but then again this was Oakland.
“Bike givin’ ya problems?” a lanky man in his sixties asked as he slid from the jeep.
“Yeah. It just died on the highway.”
“They’ll do that sometimes.”
“I checked the gas and was about to–”
“Name’s George,” he said cutting me off with his hand extended.
I shook it and introduced myself, then added, “Thanks for stopping.”
“Most don’t anymore. Even the bikers.”
I nodded, thinking how a man on a motorcycle had rode past as I pushed mine along the highway. He was on a gleaming Harley-Davidson and wore a Harley jacket.
“Been in this spot myself,” George said as he took off his baseball cap by a frayed patch in the brim and swept his free hand through his long, grey hair. “I know how you feel.”
George squatted next to my bike. It was a strained motion and he paused on his haunches to take a breath with his eyes closed. Composed, he reached for a spark plug wire. The rolled sleeve of his work shirt slid up, exposing a tattoo on his forearm of a shovelhead motor cupped in flames. The colors were pale from time and biological wear. Fine lines had blurred, leaving detail lost. The tattoo reminded me of one I had seen as a child.
Mr. Gardenia was the janitor at my middle school in suburban Philadelphia. He was a stout, Italian man who each day wore a plaid shirt tucked snugly into dark indigo jeans with a leather belt and brass buckle. From his belt hung a tremendous ring of keys and a six-inch buck knife sheathed in a case with a hand-tooled picture of deer. Mr. Gardenia was sarcastic to everyone – the students who missed his subtle references, the teachers, even the men at the top of the food chain. One morning he was standing in front of the school examining the grass with our gangly principle, Dr. Winger, as school buses dropped off students. Rubbing his chin, Principle Winger asked Mr. Gardenia what they should do. Mr. Gardenia leisurely examined the pile of vomit composed of curdled milk and egg bits and said, “Leave it. Maybe it’ll grow something.” As Principle Winger nodded, Mr. Gardenia rolled up his sleeves as if preparing for a long day of juvenile emergencies. It was then I saw the tattoo. It was a picture on his forearm of a muscular man wearing a black hood and no shirt. The figure stood over a tree stump holding a double-sided axe so the head rested on the felled tree. But the man was no arborist. He was an executioner. What did it mean? And why did Mr. Gardenia have it? I never had the balls to ask him, but remembered how weathered his tattoo looked.
“That was my ’69 Shovel,” George said when he noticed me looking. “Best Bike I ever owned.”
“Do you still have it?”
“No. Sold it years ago. I miss that bike. It was the last year with a generator.”
“Kick start. So you’re a real man. None of these pansy electric starters.”
“How you start your bike doesn’t matter, son,” George said flatly. “It’s about getting out and riding.” After a pause he added with a wrinkled smile, “And breaking down.”
“So what do you ride now?”
“Nothing. I’m too old. I leave the riding to you young guys.”
We worked on the bike together for an hour, doing what we could with the few tools we had. George even tried a few old-timer tricks, but nothing worked, and it soon became apparent the bike would not move by itself.
“Guess I’ll call my wife,” he conceded.
“I don’t want to bother her. I’ve already taken enough of your time.”
“Nonsense,” he fired back. “We live just a stone’s throw. And besides, it’ll give her something to do.” George pulled a cell phone from his pocket, shattering my preconceived notion that he lived a simpler life. After a short conversation ending with, “And make sure there’s room in the truck, honey,” he flipped the phone shut and said to me, “She’s on her way.”
“Thanks again for all this.”
“No problem. Us riders gotta stick together, even if they’re in a jeep,” he said pointing at his vehicle.
We sat on the curb in silence and watched traffic go by until George asked, “You married?”
“Yes. Well, no. Elizabeth and I have lived together for a ten years and I call her my wife, but we’re not legally married.”
“Doesn’t matter. Just as long as you love each other.” George checked his cell phone, then continued, “And you’re young. Those are the days. You can have sex with the lights on. Me and the misses are too old and saggy for that. Any kids?”
“No, and we don’t plan to.”
“You gotta do what feels right. Folks’ll give their opinion on stuff like that, but you make sure and ignore it. Gale and I don’t have kids either. We couldn’t.”
Before I could ask why, two black guys rode by on flamboyant touring bikes. Their motorcycles were typical for the brothers in Oakland, who bought baggers, bolted on innumerable chrome bits, then painted them in outrageous themes with saturated colors. Some were neon with matching wheels. Others had mythical creatures, like dragons or a leprechaun with a gold tooth. One motorcycle had a painting of The Incredible Hulk on the fairing. He was clutching massive wads of hundred dollar bills as he flexed in anger. Errant bills were on the tank and rear fender with squiggly lines to appear as if the Hulk had carelessly dropped them only to be carried away by the wind as the bike sped along. The motorcycles always had stereos, sometimes with amplifiers and subwoofers in the side bags, making their approach clear through a mélange of beating pistons and synthesized drums.
The men beeped their horns over their stereos and slowed until we signaled everything was fine with a wave. One man nodded and the other pumped his fists in the air as they accelerated towards the city.
George’s wife arrived in an old truck, driving past us and parking with the tailgate in front of my motorcycle. She got out and with her hands on her hips said, “Looks like I found a couple of strays.”
“Keep the funny business to yourself, Gale,” George said. “We gotta get this boy and his motorcycle home.”
She looked at me and without smiling said, “Cranky old fart, isn’t he?”
Pinching my lips to keep from laughing, I replied, “Thanks for coming.”
“No worries, honey. I’ve done this hundreds a times. Did George tell you about the love of his life, that old shovelhead of his?
“And did he tell you how much that damn thing broke down?”
“Hush up, Gale,” George scolded.
“How about all the oil it left on my driveway? Did he say anything about that?”
George stood up straight and adjusted his hat by the frayed patch. “I’ve had about enough of this. You wanna fight in front of the boy?” He tried to sound stern, but it was clear who wore the pants in their household. It was the same side of the marriage that wore them in mine.
George took a wood plank from the truck and positioned it as a ramp between the lowered tailgate and the road. We each took a side of the motorcycle and pushed it into the truck bed, then secured it with manila rope.
“I’ll follow you,” George said heading towards his jeep.
Gale drove along the frontage road as I sat on the passenger side of the truck’s bench seat. For three blocks, I was fixated on whether the rope would hold the bike and kept turning to look out the back window. As we got onto the highway, Gale stole my attention with her first words to me alone.
“You know why George stopped, don’t you?”
“He’s a good man.”
“True. But it’s more than that. He misses motorcycles. Even more, the companionship. Hanging out with other guys and tinkering on those poor excuses for transportation. I never saw him happier than when he was riding.”
“So why doesn’t he get another bike?”
“Because George can never ride again. Arthritis is destroying his hands and back. Sometimes he can’t hold things. Sometimes he can’t even stand. You just happened to catch him at a good time. He took a handful of pills an hour before he found you.”
Her words brought anger and sadness to me in equal measure. The idea of a thoughtful man being denied a thing he loved – motorcycles or whatever else – seemed a cosmic injustice. But these feelings soon gave way to guilt. George could not ride, yet he had stopped to help me, a man he never met.
“But George still finds joy in lending a hand,” Gale continued. “Helping folks like you is his way of being part of it all.”
“I’m glad he stopped,” was all I could muster as I looked out the passenger window so Gale could not see my eyes.
“Yeah. Me too.”
We arrived at my house and unloaded the motorcycle. Whatever problem plagued my bike no longer mattered. I rolled it into my shop and closed the door, leaving it forgotten until another day.
Elizabeth came out and soon migrated to her garden with Gale. The warm days of summer had brought flowers and vegetables in abundance and there was much for them to discuss. George and I put the truck in order and talked motorcycles.
As George and Gale readied to leave, George said to me, “I’ve got a pair of chaps I’d like to give you. They’re used, but they have good life left in em’.”
“That sounds great.”
“Let me give you my number,” he said fetching a piece of paper from the truck. “Give me a call. You can come get the chaps and we can talk more motorcycles.”
I had every intention to call George. We would have sat on his porch, chatting over a beer. He would have told great stories of the road while I kept his passion alive by allowing him to continue riding vicariously through me.
But that never happened. Life got in the way. Work filled my days and other responsibilities the nights. Over time I forgot my promise, and the paper with George’s phone number got pushed around until it was lost.
I never got to know George beyond that one day.
And I regret that.