Thunder peels down the canyons of cement, echoing from the edifices above, stern with the cold sunlight of another March afternoon. The Leathernecks were out in force today, or as Pointman, our dreadlocked Rastafarian warrior-poet would say, ‘on patrol’, as if lower Manhattan secretly harbored a hidden rice paddy or two, freshly remembered from his youth. Ironically, it was indeed Vietnam that drew us out of our toasty living rooms and into the crisp early spring day, although an observance ceremony at Veterans Plaza, and not some somnambulant Tet Offensive sprung from our leader’s teenage memories.
Perhaps it was the solemn nature of the occasion, or reading the letters home, carved in the Wall, from long dead boys stranded on the other side of the world, but we were all more jazzed up than usual afterwards, ready to drown those secondhand nightmares in bourbon and beer and overpriced cheeseburgers. We descended upon the Village like Khan and his Mongol hordes, albeit wreathed in motorcycle exhaust instead of the frozen breath of steppe-raised warhorses.
The afternoon slipped by like a child’s top, spinning faster, a blur of shots and irish car bombs and the sound of raw engines, the freeze frame image of tourists photographing us as we roared through Soho and Tribeca, hopping from one dive bar to another, slowly working our way down until nothing was left but rock bottom and the Brooklyn Bridge, welcoming us home. It was sometime just before that final call, nestled down in the Lower East Side, that I found myself bellied up to another darkwood polished bar, awash with Jack Daniels and perma-grin and the camaraderie of my brothers, and that was when she walked through the door.
In my favorite film noir movies, black and white and sophisticated shadows, that moment would have been frozen, the music stopping suddenly, the camera panning and moving in for that sudden close-up, the blur focusing on her angelic face, transfixed. Perfect. That never happens in real life, of course, but there I was, mesmerized, the shot glass mid-air, forgotten.
She stood perfectly upright, poised, graceful, her delicately sculpted lips moving as she ordered a drink, her voice unheard by my dumbstruck ears, lost in the background music of the darkened bar. And then she smiled, and it was as if sunlight burst into that murky room, real sunlight, not that cruel echo of early spring that clothed the city like tarnished steel, but summer borne, full of life and hope, heavy with the smell of clover and the drone of drowsy bees, rich with the laughter of distant children. It was the kind of smile that makes you smile back, reflexively, even if you are not the subject of her conversation, the corner of your eyes crinkling helplessly, charmed.
I watched her the rest of the time we were there, between the jokes and the war stories with my brothers, stealing glances, amazed, hypnotized each time. Her hair was resplendent in the light from the window, and it was somehow perfect that the only patch of sunlight in the gloom would grace her thin, elfin face.
And then it was time to go. I had to say something, so I stumbled over and asked her name, and I think I smiled as she told me. I have no idea what I said in return, I can only hope it was something appropriate and gracious—hell, I may not have said anything at all, but only careened out of the door after the other Leathernecks.
But as we rode out across the bridge, the wind sharp now, cutting, as the sun dipped into the East River and the Saturday afternoon odyssey slipped into night, one thing kept repeating itself in my mind.
That, and the memory of that incredible smile, and the way it lit up that small dark room, somewhere in the back streets of the Lower East Side.
“Yo, where the dawgs at, beyatch?”
Okay, so maybe it didn’t go down quite like that. He was actually quite nice. But let me back up for a minute; add some backstory.
Saturday morning, Brooklyn, bright sunshine, frigidly cold, breath freezing to icicyles amid the steel air. Vinnie the Truck and Iceman came to pick me up from post, and a minute later we were on the Belt Parkway, New York harbor skimming past us in a glacier blue haze. The Iceman was reliving his glory days as a Porsche racer, slaloming his way through the traffic, pushing the straight six on his Ford to the breaking point in a deep, delicious howl and providing an excellent cure to my Seasonally Acquired Depression: the fear of imminent death.
Our destination was the Javitts Convention Center in midtown; the annual Motorcycle Show was in town again, and we were called to attendance by our club president, Pittbull. The only problem with being in a Motorcycle Club is the winter, particularly in a northern state given to long, somnambulent periods of deep cold. Riding on snow and ice is just no fun, since there is precious little actual riding, and a preponderance of sliding on one’s backside on unforgiving asphalt. The Motorcycle Show is one of the few times midwinter where you can actually get together and hold court with one’s fellow bikers; show the colors, hobnob, and buy outrageously expensive toys in the hope of future temperatures above the freezing point.
Manhattan was its usual cacophony of barely contained disorder. Bursting from the Battery Park Tunnel, we were confronted with the everpresent mass of dueling yellow cabs and oblivious pedestrians, rushing about beneath the slow, angular resurrection of the WTC. Iceman somehow picked his way through the riot of color and twirling exhaust, drafting behind the more aggressive taxis, and slid us into a convenient parking lot in front of the convention center. Naturally, being the City, we only had to shell out the paltry sum of 60 bucks to the swaddled crackhead that waved us in. Thank God the MC was at least paying for our entry into the show.
Chaos reigned inside the convention center, mirroring our joyride. The place was absolutely packed; a interesting mix between the attendees of the motorcycle show and the annual boat show that was being hosted simulatneously. Rough looking bikers with their club colors stood in groups, eyeing anyone that came within arms reach; leather clad wannabes with too many patches and no affiliation trying to squeeze past the one percenters without actually touching them; old men with trophy wives, too much money and nervous eyes just trying to get upstairs to the boat show without pissing anyone off, and at the bottom of the pecking order, hipster Manhattanites, shell shocked, that seemed to have been accidentally sucked into the convention center by the gravitational pull of the crowd.
We had our preprinted tickets, so made our way straight to the lower floor, nodding to the MCs that we knew or respected, ignoring the ones that we didn’t, and the rest of the folks just moved out of our way, our red and gold colors clearing a path. The Javitts show is a particularly interesting event, in that it brings together MCs from all over the City and the Tri-State area. You will see clubs here that you’ve never seen before or even heard of, and it gives everyone a chance to see and be seen.
The clubs present fall into a few main categories. There are the ‘one percenters’, outlaw clubs, usually regarded as the roughest and toughest and associated with the occasional illegal activity, hence the outlaw moniker–the Hells Angels are an example, and yes, they were present, with a legit booth and plenty of support T-shirts for sale. Next are the traditional 3-patch clubs, like us, which follow the often byzantine organization, protocol and rules of the dominant outlaw clubs, but are generally law abiding folks. Most of these clubs are founded around specific common denominators: military service, a geographical location, or shared occupations. My club, the Leathernecks, is solely made up of former Marines. Police have their own clubs, although they are generally shunned by all other bikers. Believe or not, NYC Sanitation has a well-respected MC; the Trashed. I’ve seen the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and even an Electrician’s MC. Then there are the one patch clubs, usually just formed to ride motorcycles, with a minimum of rules, rank structure or organization. They’re not even called MCs, but RCs–Riding Clubs, and are viewed as little more than a social gathering.
A whole different genus are the ethnic sports bike clubs–which are usually Black, occasionally Latino, and seem to borrow aspects of all three classes as they see fit. They are often viewed as posers though, not necessarily ‘real’ MCs, since they frequently appear and disappear spontaneously and are often little more than a couple of kids with cheap bikes and similiar jackets. At the bottom of the order are the independents, the ‘lone wolves’–motorcycle enthusiasts who are not affiliated with any group, although they may or may not wear patches that initially appear to be biker Colors. There is a whole lexicon behind the patches on a biker’s vest that instantly tells the initiated a wealth of information–who they belong to, where they come from, what their role in the club is, and respect or dismissal springs instantly from this codex in cloth.
In any case, the whole gamut of the motorcycle world was here and on display in all its garish glory. We waded through the crowd until we came upon the imposing edifice of our MC President, Pitbull, surrounded by an improbable entourage of brother Leathernecks and members of his family. Pittbull is this big Italian man–as Italian as Italian can be, with a goatee and a voice like gravel wrapped in velvet. He was standing in the entrance, sporting a mischevious grin and his signature cowboy-ish black hat with a large, gold Marine Corps EGA on the front. Ritual greetings were exchanged, and we began our slow tour through the throng of the crowd.
All the major bike manufacturers were represented; from American cruisers like Harley Davidson (of course); Indian, with their new takes on their old incarnation; new players like Victory; the Europeans, BMW mostly, and then the Japanese, such as Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha. Every kind of motorcycle under the sun–hogs and sportsbikes and touring bikes and racing bikes and trikes. Wild custom choppers, old school bobbers, old man motorcycles with everything up to and including the kitchen sink, bizarre off-road cycles ready for the Paris-Dakar rally, insane custom sports bikes with every conceivable shiny chrome neon doo-dad bolted, glued and velcro’ed into place. My favorite motorcycles of the show, aside from the prerequisite Harley Davidsons, were actually some funky Europeans. Ural, of all companies–Russian, in case you didn’t know–had a whole section with their rugged Cold War battle bikes, complete with camouflage paint, sidecars with adjustable spotlights, spare tires and E-tools included. All they needed was a PKC belt-fed machine gun to complete the ensemble–just like the one parked outside a certain Russian mob joint I know in Coney Island.
My next favorite was almost as funky, and shared the military theme–Royal Enfield. They were just down the same aisle, and had a uber-cute selection of their single stroke 500cc bikes, all done up in vintage British livery; recalling the glory days of English motorcycling and largely bygone names. Norton. BSA. Triumph (still going strong!) The bike that really grabbed my attention was their Bullet 500 Military. Old school olive drab, complete with tool kits that look like ammo cans, this thing looked like it should have been zipping dispatches around the backroads of the Hurtgen Forest instead of sitting in convention center with kids climbing all over it. I’d have loved to taken it for a test ride, although I suspect it would be alarmingly light after my Springer.
So we meandered our way through the throng, greeting various members of various MCs as we went. It seemed like everytime I stopped to check something out, I’d turn around and the entourage had disappeared. No wonder, I tend to get engrossed in things that I’m interested in. I would run into the brothers again whenever there was a logjam in the flow of the bodies, and that usually meant that there was a celebrity around.
There were a couple. Dee Snyder, the lead singer of 80s hair band Twisted Sister was there. He’s a very active biker out on Long Island, and is well regarded for arranging the annual Bikers for Babies charity run. Apparently he has a reality TV show nowadays on A&E, “Growing Up Twisted”, and the rest of his family/cast was there alongside him, in all their glory. Hell, I didnt know he had kids, let along a whole TV show…
Dee, in stranger times.
A couple of aisles over there was yet another mass of bodies and outstretched cellphones, snapping pictures of somebody, so I craned my neck along with everyone else and caught a view of one of those walking sex dolls of the Hollywood variety; all blonde and plastic and parabolic arcs, and next to him was some scrawny, very light skin black dude in a muscle T signing autographs. Very ordinary looking, but yep, it was Ice T, original gangster rapper, star of movies like Johnny Mnemonic, New Jack City and Tank Girl, and currently a regular on the TV show, Law & Order. The replicant next to him was his wife, Coco, a former Playboy bunny. We gawked at the unlikely pair for a minute or two and then shuffled on with the rest of the tour. The only other star I saw was right around the corner; Paul Teutel Jr, from American Chopper, along with a number of their spectacular paperweights from their custom chopper shop. I say paperweights, because, while they are certainly eye-catching, most of them are essentially unrideable, little more than very expensive showroom baubles. Unfortunately Paul Sr was not around–I like him the best on the show, what with his handlebar moustache and grouchy bear attitude.
So, the Leathernecks continued their tour of the show, most of the rest of which was really not terribly interesting. Lots of essentially the same helmets, T-shirts, gloves, and snivel gear. I was amazed that nothing was grabbing at my wallet, as it tends to at most of the biker parties we go to. There’s always a vendor with a new chain or switchblade to keep things interesting. But nope, there was a distinct lack of imagination in most of the vendors. I did come across a small but very cool selection of retro 70’s style helmets, but they were unfortunately both expensive and non- DOT approved. NYPD has really cracked down on non-regulation helmets; they will straight up take your bike if you don’t have one. So that was a wash.
A little further along, I came across some really cool European Lazer helmets that looked like some retro version of a MIG fighter pilot helmet, complete with vertical sliding visor, but wouldn’t you know it–too small. Even their biggest one. Guess they don’t have enough Neanderthal fighter pilots in Germany, which was too bad, cause these helmets were pretty damn cool. I stomped off to drown my sorrows in a beer at one of the concession areas.
So I’m standing there, sipping on a lukewarm budweiser, when who should come barreling through the crowd, but Ice T, with the inimitable pre-fab Ms Coco in tow behind him. For some reason, ol’ T comes right through the crowd up to me, and asks, “Hey, you seen any hot dogs around here?” Quite politely too. I pointed at the Sabrett vendor next to me, and off he went. He must have had the serious munchies or something, because the dude was in quite the rush. Coco undulated along after him, flashed a synthetic smile, and they were swallowed by the crowd.
I suppose that’s what I like about the biker world, and Manhattan in general. Nothing really takes you by surprise. Everybody seems to be on the same level, even if they aren’t. I smiled and finished my drink, and wandered off to find the rest of my Leatherneck brothers. I wouldn’t say that passing interaction was the highlight of the day, but it was kinda neat; I’d have to tell them about it.
Still, I think I would have gone for the gyros.
“Hey, ya wan’ somethin’ ta eat?”
Magic words for bikers and former Marines, and all the more potent when uttered by a woman. I turned to look at her, beer bottle poised halfway to my mouth, my ears perking up like those of an emaciated Doberman.
She asked me again, and flashed a brilliant smile at the end of the question, a sudden white expanse that lit up the small dingy bar so brightly that it was almost alarming. She had the kind of face that made you think you must have known her for a long time, but just had never gotten around to talking to before. Pretty, friendly, in a suburban kind of way. Nice, but with a sense of toughness just below the surface, in that wary way that women over forty seem to have always developed around themselves. One of the guys, y’know, or ,more likely, one of the guy’s wives.
“Uh, sure…” I answered.
She turned in a swirl of brunette, seventies curled hair, and disappeared into the next room, swallowed up by some magic show/kid’s birthday party/low level riot that was playing out somewhere in the back of the building. I went back to my beer and Jack Daniels, and playing the role of the day.
I was at the Marine Corps League on Staten Island, and the role of the day was the Big Bad Biker. The Marine Corps League doubles as the clubhouse of my motorcycle club, the Leathernecks—a small, motley group of characters whose only common denominator is that we are all former Marines.
I was there for a meeting or something; hell, I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter, since what we mostly do at the League is drink. The liquor is cheap, there are automatic weapons bolted to the wall, and a good amount of camaraderie floating around the old men hunched within the small, smoke choked room. The place fairly reeks of gun oil and tough love. To me, it feels something like home.
She reappeared a few minutes later, sliding a overloaded plate of party food to me between the Rastafarian warrior-poet on my left (Pointman, the Vice President of my MC), and the pudgy blonde chick on my right, the one I had been sort of listlessly flirting with a moment before. I turned to thank her, but she had already disappeared, those Farrah Fawcett curls fading into the grey smoke of the bar.
One of the things that always fascinates me is the way in which people meet. Oh, not for a business meeting or a school class, or even, necessarily, for a one night stand. No, I mean romantically, when that kernel grows into something meaningful and longer, when that woman who smiles upon you in the dark turns into the one person that rules your nights.
I mean, seriously, think about it for a minute. You might well not exist at all, if your mom had not happened to imbibe one too many beers while sitting next to your dad in that smoke filled rathskeller in Germany in 1962. And if he didn’t happen to make that one really funny joke, the one that made him laugh and look, just for a moment, like Sterling Moss—then it never would have happened. You, and all your brothers and sisters, would never have been. I guess that’s why I always like hearing about how people meet, of those fumbling words and hesitant trading of information, all with no inkling of the possible futures hanging in the balance of that first tentative smile
Some people talk about the banality of evil, I think about the banality of romance.
I saw her next two weeks later, at the League, in the middle of a riotous biker party, sponsored, of course, by my own MC. She pulled up a bar stool with a flip of her Charlie’s Angels hair, determinedly unfazed by the jostling biomass of testosterone around us.
“So, whatcha doin’?” She had this outrageous Brooklyn accent, as thick and delicious as a Rueben from some Crown Heights deli. It was both comfortingly familiar and intriguingly alien at the same time, as if all the New York movies of my childhood had fused together and somehow deposited this amiable gangster moll in my leather clad lap.
I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to batten down that accent, to learn it’s hidden rules and regulations, to copy the way that it slips and ducks around my teeth and tongue, clipped and abbreviated and with long elongated vowels at strange junctions, but all to no avail. I’m acutely aware that I’m way off in any attempt to copy it, the same way Air Force kids used to make fun of my British accent as a child, so I won’t even try here. Ironically, in those B-movies and TV shows, I hated the Brooklyn accent, but here, in person and with green/brown eyes behind the brogue, it was captivating. It also turned out that she worked for the NYPD, a fact that matched perfectly with her demeanour and that Robert De Niro accent.
We sat there most of the afternoon and into the early evening doldrums of that June evening, making easy small talk. The biker party raged and crashed around us, thick with June humidity and blaring sunshine through the swinging bar door, AC/DC cover songs swelling and fading in rhythmn, until the day finally retreated into the sunset amid the last few blatting exhausts. She was easy to talk to, in an aloof and slightly disconnected sort of way, so much so that I wasn’t sure if she was interested in me, or just happened to have an inordinately large amount of time to kill that day. That is, at least until Pointman suggested that we take a run to Coney Island.
Pointman, as I mentioned before, is the Vice President of my Motorcycle Club (MC). He, naturally, is a Marine–but unlike any Marine you have ever met. Pointman is Black–a notable oddity within diehard Biker clubs–with a massive wreath of braided dreadlocks streaming down around his shoulders. He always wears a red bandanna with his leather biker vest, which is filthy dirty, veritably screaming of long miles on the road and nights spent in dubious locales. The bandanna goes with the massive gold belt buckle that he always wears, and cowboy boots, and, upon occasion, battered cowboy hat. He is, in fact, a key member of the Federation of Black Cowboys–and even more improbably, is both a licensed social worker and a college professor.
He is the one man I know who channels Renaissance Man and schizophrenia better than I.
Anyway, Pointman ended up sitting with us, sucking on VSOP cognac and his everpresent Cuban cigar, its grey choking smoke wreathing around his beard, making him look like some post-apocalyptic african Gandalf.
“Cha-cha’s.” He grunted. “Margaritas.”
A splendid idea! Cha-chas is our hang-out on Coney Island, just a short walk down the boardwalk from the iconic parachute drop tower. It’s a delicous dive bar of a place, it’s walls strewn with signed portfolio pictures of unknown stars, dilapidated starfish, torn fishing nets, and the occasional bra and panties. It’s the only bar on the entire island where you can actually sit on the boardwalk, and so is a perfect place to people watch. Point and I had claimed it a couple of summers ago, and are in the process of slowly turning it into a biker bar, with the help of a couple of other local MCs.
She said she had never been on the back of a bike before; those sharp green/brown eyes direct and wide. She’d give it a try, though, and a few minutes later we were roaring across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, coasting down into the wide arms of Brooklyn. I love the Verrazano, as it has one of the best views in the entire City, and indeed, it was here that I got my first view of my new home. The bridge towers above the Hudson, linking Staten Island and Brooklyn, and from its apex it is possible to see everything from Coney Island, to the Statue of Liberty, to the Empire State Building. At night, particularly, that gently curving expanse feels like a glidepath, flying gracefully down into the scattered constellations below. Her arms were tight around me, and yet she moved perfectly in synch with the movement of the motorcycle and I. Pointman led the way, keeping within the rank structure of the MC, his dreadlocks flowing back from underneath his German war helmet, stogie chomped determinedly between his teeth. The City, wide and ripe and free in the early Summer evening, opened beneath us, and I had that delicious sense of not knowing where the night would lead.
………………..to be continued.