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.
The other day I took the new Harley out for it’s first real run. Just a short ride around town, since it was the first day that we had both sun and temperatures in the high 50’s. I rode out of Fort Hamilton, down to Coney Island, and then out towards West Long Island. I was shocked at how delapidated Coney Island is; far from the amusement park glories of the past, it is now largely a collection of projects and rusting little businesses. Brighton Beach isn’t too bad, although I was sort of disappointed not to see any evidence of the Russian Mob that supposedly runs the place these days.
Further down the road, I stumbled across another relic from the past, Floyd Bennet Airfield. Opened in 1931, it was the first airport in the New York area, and at the time, was the most space age aerodrome in the country, with it’s concrete runways and electric lighting. Nowadays, it too is falling apart; supposedly operating as a heliport for the NYPD, nothing seemed to be there except for some ancient hangars and a squadron of resentful seagulls. I motored on.
I decided to cut across the north end of Brooklyn, and see if I could find the Brooklyn Bridge. In Germany, I would take off on the weekends, without a map, and do my best to get lost. Well, try to, anyway, I never really did, mostly due to the excellent German habit of dotting the landscape with very detailed and clearly marked road signs. That, and the internal cranial map that I’ve developed after a childhood of wilderness exploration and an adult life of land navigation courses. New York is a good test of this, though, particularly when you only have a fuzzy idea of the lay of the land.
It can be interesting, in a way that Germany wasn’t. I never found a ghetto in Bavaria, but here, where the neighborhoods can blend instantly from one extreme to another, you can find yourself in some pretty dicey areas with little or no warning. Between the ‘normal’ squalor of Canarsie, and the yuppie-fied brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, there are a couple of real gems to be found. Crown Heights. Bedford-Stuyvesant. Flatbush. East New York.
Last night, on duty, I asked a group of our D.A.C.P. officers, all of them retired NYPD, where I should absolutely not go, regardless of the time of day. They thought pensively for a minute, and then rattled off a couple of names. All of the ‘hoods above were on the list, with East New York the number one advisory.
Needless to say, I didn’t know this on the ride. I became aware that something was off, however, after a little bit. Looking at boarded-up storefronts and groups of tough looking guys on the street corners, it became apparent, in a Mozambique sort of way, that I was the only white person in sight. This, and the fact that I was sitting on a brand new 20,000 dollar motorcycle, dressed in full biker regalia, made me a little nervous–that, and the fact that a lot of people seemed to be staring at me. In a city where the Golden Rule is not to make eye contact. Traffic was thick, and the going was slow. The feeling reminded me of patroling Sadr City.
Relax, man, I thought. You’ve got 32 tattoos, and you’re a big guy. You’re a combat vet. You’ve explored most of Europe and a good chunk of Korea on a Harley. Besides, didn’t your mother always tell you that you could pull off just about anything if you look at ease and fully confident?
Suck in your gut. Stick out your chest. Light a cigarette, and smoke it with a sneer, like John Wayne on a Chopper. Or at least a cutrate version of Peter Fonda. Adopt the biker persona that let you party with Hell’s Angels in Austria just a few months ago. Yeah. I got this. I started feeling pretty good about myself, although I kept an eye on the rear view mirrors in case anyone tried to bumrush me from behind. I can do this. Just look like you belong here, or at least are some crazy whiteboy biker who no one in their right mind would mess with.
I stopped at the next traffic light, slowly exhaled a wreath of cigarette smoke in a Clint Eastwood snarl; a Western theme song in my head. “Wah wah-wah.” Which is when I heard a little voice to my side say, “Hey, Mister.”
I looked down, to the sidewalk on my right. There was this little black kid standing there, wrapped in a grubby bubble parka, clutching something that may have once been a candy bar. Five, maybe six years old. His eyes were clear and wide, without malice, but with the sure knowledge of someone who has seen more than I have. And he said, in that voice that all children have; y’know, the kind that you can hear above whatever traffic noises are around you–the sort of voice that everyone can hear:
“Are you lost?”