Feb 17, 2008

A Different Breed

A company called Mesa Engineering has recently marketed a really expensive power amplifier, called "The Baron," aimed at folks who don’t blink when they’re asked to cough up $75,000 for a home stereo rig or $150,000 for a home theater system. In The Audio Adventure's hilarious review of this big bucks toy , the reviewer wrote "The word that came to mind as I listened [to the Baron] was ‘attitude.’ This characteristic gives the Baron an attitude comparable to the attitude you’d expect from a person who rides a Harley--especially a woman. Tough but extremely attractive in a slightly dangerous way." If that doesn’t make you want to regurgitate, you’re slightly dangerous in an extremely unattractive way.

In the motorcycle world, Harley riders seem to be taking all kinds of diverging paths. A lot of the new Harley owners are really upset that many non-Harley owning motorcyclists don't cough up instant respect for their vehicle and lifestyle choice. You see this on the Internet, but that crowd of geek bikers would probably rather talk to you about Unix and stock option tax tips than Sonny Barger's trials and tribulations.

Based Harley's advertising, and the usual riding costumes, the big part of the "Harley mystique" is still about being an outlaw. An outlaw, according to Danny Webster is someone who is "a person excluded from the benefit or protection of the law." Or, if you're a mild-mannered outlaw, "one that is unconventional or rebellious." A bunch of us, who have been on motorcycles for a long time, have learned to avoid that first group because they're dangerous and unpredictable. At best, you'll get your bike messed up. At worst, you'll get yourself messed up. The second group is mostly humorous and will often buy beer if your listen to their two-wheeling and stock-brokering stories. Here's where the mud meets the crystal ball, though. A good number of the first group's old members appear to be merging into the second group.

The Angels and their offspring, being the primary importers of various illegal substances back in the free love years, were dangerous to be around even when they weren't trying to be dangerous. In Omaha in the 1970's, talking to a Harley biker at a stoplight could get you pulled over and searched, just out general police principles. In LA in the 1980's, nodding at a bandit Harley owner, while stopped at a similar traffic light, could get you shot. From 1963 until the last few years, I made it an act of self-preservation to stay on the other side of town from guys on Harleys. That was as close as I could find to being on their "good side."

Now, it seems, a lot of the new breed of Harley owners wants to dress like outlaws (or a member of the Village People) but be treated like a respectable member of the society of road-loving, bug-toothed motorcyclists. They want the rest of us to respect their choice in vehicles, simply because it happens to have two wheels. When we see them stranded along the roadside (as often happens with overweight, marginally engineered, air-cooled motorcycles), they want us to stop and offer assistance. They want us to wave at them, even knowing that, at best, one in two dozen of them will wave back.

Even more weirdly, some of the old breed are blending into the new breed. It's really confusing when a strongly held stereotype turns out to be useless information. Seeing a pack of leather-clad, Harley mounted 300 pounders getting teary-eyed over Make A Wish kids is that kind of experience. It’s impossible to calculate the label-busting that these bikers do when they spend half a year fundraising for an organization that grants the wishes of terminally ill children.

Since I like to think of motorcyclists as members of a universal good-fellowship club, I'd like to accommodate the new breed Harley owners while, still, maintaining a safe distance from the nasty guys. Like I've said, at least once, it's getting so that you can meet some of the "nicest (and richest) people" on a Harley. But I can't tell one from the other because they buy their costumes at the same store. From those safety-beanies to the shirtless vest to the black cowboy chaps, I can't make the good guys from the scary guys. Until there is some clear label for me to read, I'm marginally willing to stick out my hand because I still need all of my fingers. I'm old and can't afford any more broken bones, especially ribs.

My opinion about hate and distrust is that it is all based on fear. Humans want to ridicule, avoid, beat up, or kill the folks who scare us the most. The intensity of the reaction depends on your level of intelligence and how much fear you hold. Supposedly, the more you know, the less you fear. The more you fear, the more violent your reaction. I believe that as much as I believe anything about the human animal. Or any animal. And it's still just my opinion. Pretty early in my motorcycling career, I learned to be tense around Harleys. Ok, I learned to fear being around Harleys.

In my dirt racing days, a couple of times, a half-dozen Harley heavyweights unexpectedly appeared at the track and, uninvited, rolled into the pits. Twenty scrawny--still wasted from their last 30-minute moto--bikers would interrupt whatever they were doing and start looking for the longest, heaviest wrench in the tool box. At the same time, our wives would begin to shepherd the kids together and as far away from the scene as possible. If the odds were fairly even, we'd circle the wagons, help each other load up the bikes, and get the hell out of there before the world came to an end. Guys who ride 125cc two-strokes just don't fare well in all-out street fights with 280 pound gangsters, pumped up on coke or PCP, and wielding well-chosen and often used weapons. The valor part of discretion was in sticking around long enough to make sure all the good guys (and their families) got out alive. Otherwise, we just wrote off the escape to good sense and found another place to meet for the next race.

Those were tense times when bad things often happened. I still get a mild urge to keep a big pipe wrench under the bed when a Harley blubbers past my house at night. Just describing this ancient history has reminded me that I really need to own a big pipe wrench, in case a big plumbing job comes along. I'd love to keep writing about my 40 year love affair with Harleys, but I need to go to Sears. Ride safe and see ya on the road. Wave, if you're a good guy.

August 2001

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