This personal essay is the nucleus of a book I am working on about women riders. It has nothing to do with rider ed and everything to do with who I am, where I came from and why I ride a motorcycle. What needs to be changed has been changed in order to protect who it needs to protect. It is frank. It is also long. You are warned.
In June, 2002, life and death were poised in a Cirque de Soleil balance as I roared along California’s 210 on tIM’s Harley-Davidson Sportster 883R. The Sportster 883R looks like the old flat track racers—it’s painted Harley orange and black and has almost straight, wide handlebars. When we had traded motorcycles a few minutes before, the sun had just set and the sky was still flushed with 60’s colors —hot pink, chrome yellow, and tangerine—while the mountains were a dusky navy blue. Like a steel cable the concrete freeway uncoiled over the slopes of the San Fernando Valley.
All I knew in the velocity and rush of endorphins was that I needed to take responsibility and control of my life, find my own balance and take care of my own needs. Which is why I was roaring down the highway away from tIM.
I zoomed up to and around cars as if they were stationary slalom poles and I was a down hill skier. I had shaped what I did and what I wanted around what others wanted and wanted of me for my entire life. I did what made them happy no matter how unhappy it had made me. And I couldn’t allow myself to do that any longer. Eventually, tIM caught up but it was too late—I had already left him behind. I had finally moved from the passenger seat in my life to the driver’s seat. And it was all the motorcycle’s fault.
tIM is not a typo. It’s an affectation he adopted when the Internet was just a bunch of geeks conserving the 9600 baud rate with abbreviations written in golden letters on black screens. Since those days are long over, I could write it properly, but the mixed case reveals a great deal about him.
That afternoon, we had ridden up Big Tujunga Canyon to the Crest and followed it down to the 210. The Crest is officially known as the Angeles Crest Highway and it’s one of the most lethal roads in Southern California. But I don’t think of death when I ride the Crest, I think of life—abounding, passionate life—lived at high speed. And I think of my first date with tIM, five years earlier though I hadn’t thought it was a date at the time. I had thought he was merely a friend cheering me up.
I needed cheer because, the day before, I had walked away from my job as an executive assistant/office manager of a small production company. I had refused to change the date back on the franking machine so it would look as if my boss had mailed his taxes on time. “My brother-in-law is a postal supervisor, and he says they watch for that after April 15th,” I explained. “It’s illegal and they not only fine you, the company can’t use a postage machine anymore and you still have to pay the late penalty.” I had his best interests at heart, but he had not taken it well. While he loved my Midwestern work ethic, he despised my Midwestern morality. When he got back from Cannes, France, he gave me the ultimatum—quit or be fired. I had not taken that well and had left work leaving it undecided. What upset me the most about the whole thing was that it had taken me so little time to fail so badly.
Four months before, I had moved out to Los Angeles with only enough for the first month’s rent and security deposit on an apartment and four hundred dollars cash for gas, groceries and utilities. It was a huge risk but one I had to take. For 21 years, I had followed my husband Mark’s dreams no matter where they led. There would be time one day, he said, to pursue mine and I had believed him until I finally realized he never meant for that day to come. That’s when I discovered my dreams were as much about leaving him as about writing success. I asked him for a divorce and he insisted on custody of the boys. The boys insisted on custody of the dog. So my teenage daughters and I had left Hudson, Wisconsin at 5 a.m. in mid-January towing a Lumina sedan behind a U-Haul truck. Three hours from home we were blindsided by weather.
At the first gas stop, my 17 year-old daughter Jenny had begged to drive the truck, and I let her. Twenty minutes later we drove under an overpass. On one side of the bridge, it had been calm with a gentle mist. On the other side, there were sixty mph wind gusts and ice on the road. The truck blew across one lane and Jenny over-corrected and it fishtailed. Bang! The Lumina hit the truck then played Crack the Whip. Around and around we went then snap! We were in the ditch. I changed places with Jenny so the cops would think I had put us there. As the three of us shivered in the cab, I said. “Maybe this is a sign.” I stared across snow-covered corn fields. “Maybe we should just turn around and go home.” No, the girls insisted. I couldn’t give up. I had to give my dream a chance.
Snow began to fall as the tow truck pulled us out and within ten miles it had turned into a freak blizzard. We couldn’t see the tail lights of the car ahead unless we rode their bumper. I couldn’t help thinking we should’ve gone back. Perhaps it wasn’t too late. I could make up with Mark and stop the divorce. The family would be together, and wasn’t that the most important thing? After all, moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career writing in the movie industry was too big a gamble for someone as old as I was. But in a blizzard turning back is no longer an option: you either become stranded on the side of the road or you drive on. I drove on. A few miles past the Iowa state line, we drove out of the storm and on through winter-bare and brown fields.
Two days later we drove through Needles, California and on through the Mojave desert in a high wind advisory and arrived in Los Angeles in the middle of a rainstorm. I had already flown out to LA two weeks earlier to find an apartment and sign up for temp agencies. Hoping to delight my daughters with exoticism, I had chosen the most California-style two-bedroom apartment I could afford—an older garden court building with pink stucco walls, a pool in the middle overshadowed by tall palms, an avocado tree and night-blooming jasmine. But it, like most Los Angeles apartments, was on a street packed with other apartment buildings and that was too great a psychological distance from our spacious five-bedroom home set on an acre of land a few hundred yards from the St. Croix river. The girls hated it. Of course, now they look back and love it.
We got soaking wet and bone-chilled as we carried up the sofa and chairs and beds and desks and what seemed to be a thousand boxes. It was the last rain Los Angeles had for almost a year; the next day was sunny and warm as we settled in and that night the Packers won the Super Bowl. On Monday, the temp agency called and sent me down to the production company to be the Chief Financial Officer’s assistant and office manager.
For some reason, my boss, Bob, took me out to lunch that first day. How odd, the other two assistants said. He doesn’t do that. But he certainly liked to eat with me; as the first weeks passed I was sent out several times a week to pick up lunch for the two of us or he took me out to trendy restaurants. To talk about business, he said, though little business was ever discussed. He was impressed, he said, that I had started to work two days after arriving in LA. I was smart and capable. He liked that. Within two weeks, I was negotiating a permanent position and salary, and within a month, I was hired permanently.
I knew I was lucky. Wonderfully lucky to have landed a job so quickly in the industry. Absurdly lucky that my boss was willing to pay me a good salary—far more than the previous assistants had gotten. And he was wonderful. So attentive. Loved to have me sit beside him in his office, his leg so naturally, gradually sliding over until his knee was touching mine. I would shift away to find his knee touching my leg again a few moments later. Then, at every opportunity, there was the hand on the elbow or small of my back or some reason he had to bend over me at my desk or get me to bend over his. I was sure this couldn’t be what I thought it was. Maybe, I thought, this kind of touchy boss-employee relationship was the way things were done in the Southland—and things did go south after I told him I was flattered but uncomfortable and that and led up to the tax return mishap a few days later. So there I was, with a bit more in the bank but without a job.
As I walked out of the production company that Friday night, I didn’t think I would be so lucky again—and, even if I was, my daughters hated LA more than ever. I should’ve listened to the signs and never left the Midwest. So, when tIM called to ask me if I wanted to get out of the house, I was eager to get away from the confusion and worry and the girls. But I wasn’t interested in anyone. Especially tIM.
I had met him through mutual screenwriter friends shortly after I had moved to Los Angeles. He was a trucker by night, a writer and inventor by day, and had sold jokes to Jay Leno. tIM rarely wore anything but a stained t-shirt and jeans, was going bald and his remaining hair was long, straggly, and thin. His beard looked as though he trimmed it with a Swiss Army knife, and he had deep acne pockmarks. His hazel eyes, which could be merry and mischievous, could also look frighteningly intense. Once when we were looking at old videos, he said he looked like a homeless person. “More like a serial killer,” I said. I was only half-joking. But his looks weren’t important to me.
I thought he was clever—he’d make us howl with wry jokes about current events, and his bookshelf overflowed with Vonnegut novels, Edison bios, and computer technical manuals. And generous, too—he’d spend an entire day fixing his neighbor’s master cylinder for free. On the other hand, his sense of humor could be very bizarre. Like the two tins on the top of his fridge; one was labeled “human eyeballs” and the other, “human fingers.” They were empty—I checked. But there was something about him that made me wonder if he had a double life. I laughed it off as writer’s fancy.
So, tIM struck me as a living Rubik’s Cube, or better yet, like those plastic holograms which show a different picture depending on which way you turn it. That fascinated me and, of course, I longed to solve the puzzle. Our friends that knew him much better assured me he was harmless. He was as different from my soon-to-be-ex as possible, and that difference fascinated and scared me. Too much. He was too much for me. However, he did ride a motorcycle, and that intrigued me most of all.
I hadn’t been on one since I was a teenager. My sister Pat, ten years older than me, had a friend whose younger brother had a bike. One humid, sunny Minnesota afternoon, they insisted I try it. Maybe she wanted to impress Greg, or maybe they were trying to fix me up with his younger brother who was cute in a teen idol sort of way. Or maybe—this is what I thought afterwards—maybe she hated me. But, because I loved her, I said I’d try it.
“You’ll love it,” she shouted as the bike roared to life. “It’s so much fun!” Nothing about the bike or boy inspired confidence, but I did get on behind him and he took off with a spray of gravel. I hated the speed, I hated clinging to him and I hated how the wind blew my hair in my eyes. I started screaming as we roared down the highway that ran between the green fields and didn’t stop until after Steve disgustedly deposited me back on the driveway. No, I didn’t think motorcycling was at all fun.
Yet, some thirty years later, that’s all I wanted. To be radical. Be dangerous. Be free. Be other than what I felt like I was—an unemployed, middle-aged mother of four. So I told tIM sure I’d go out for dinner with him but only if we rode the bike.
That night, tIM showed up at my door and whipped a drooping, half-crushed rose from his leather jacket. He handed it to me along with a beaten-up red Bell motorcycle helmet that was missing a visor. Then he told me my twill slacks wouldn’t do, I had to wear jeans and change my sandals. Did I happen to have a pair of hiking boots? No? Well, then, wear leather sneakers and I’d need a leather jacket, too. Didn’t have one? Well, denim was all right. I objected—it was hot outside.
“It’ll be chilly on the bike especially after dark and if we fell—not that we’re going to—denim cuts down on road rash.” Road rash, he explained, was skin torn by contact with the pavement. He tossed it off casually as if such injuries were merely minor inconveniences. I was pretty sure I was making a mistake, but I wouldn’t back out.
“Just do whatever I do,” he said as he made sure the strap under my chin was tight enough. “Don’t put your feet down until I tell you to. If I lean, lean with me—we won’t tip over. Don’t lean the other way, because that will make us crash.” Then he got on and started his’79 Kawasaki 750.
It was a real ratbike—it backfired every time he throttled down, had worn paint, rusty chrome and a ripped seat. His biker friends who rode the big new Kawasaki Ninjas, Ducatis or Harleys loved to make jokes about his old 750 but tIM cherished it.
I climbed on behind him and settled into the passenger seat. Motorcyclists rarely call it that. Some call it the p-pad—and “p” has more to do with cats than passengers. Others call it the bitch seat and whoever rides back there rides bitch. I’m glad I didn’t know about that back then.
I gingerly held onto his jacket but he reached back and grabbed my hands, placed them around his torso and took off. He rode considerably slower than Steve had so many years ago, though perhaps it only seemed as if he did. Even so, it was enough to change my perception. This time, the bike’s potentially lethal tango seduced me.
A bike’s motion is like tightly-linked parallel turns in downhill skiing. It’s a sailboat coming around so sharply the rudder is exposed. It’s the hostile jig two boxers perform in the ring—and it’s a right, and a left, and a right. I was astonished and entranced by this flitting and sinuous weaving and the abrupt lean of the bike as it cornered at an insane angle. But, more than that, there was a rhythm, a pattern, a dance that my body responded to on a visceral level. I was terrified and yet yearned to give myself over to that wild, motorized beat.
The world around me was transformed. A simple ride from Studio City to Burbank became an adventure akin to riding with the Pony Express. An ordinary Toyota Camry had never seemed so massive, so lethal. SUVs were buffalo rumbling beside us, ready to crush us out of existence. The streets were a wilderness of steel, rubber, and concrete. And we rode with no metal shell around us, no seatbelts, no air bags to protect us. I imagined there were three of us on that bike—tIM, myself, and Death with scythe in hand. Perhaps Death rode on the tank or perhaps he rode behind me, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I had never felt so alive.
And then there was the eroticism I had never suspected was there. My legs spread and my thighs lying along his thighs. My crotch, by necessity, nestled up to his butt—and he had a very nice one. No wonder most men don’t like to ride behind other men. And I became so aware of my breasts when sudden stops slammed them into his back. An untamed sexuality as radical and dangerous as the motorcycle flamed up and embarrassed me. I scooched back on the seat as far as I could and stiffened my arms the next time he began to brake, but it was too late. New, exciting possibilities roared within.
We stopped for dinner at an Italian place on Magnolia. The cafeteria-style food was at best mediocre but I was satisfied: I was far from my previous life and going farther. After dinner, he asked me what I wanted to do.
“Can we go up to the mountains? Somewhere I can see for a long, long way?” I wanted that sense of visual perspective to find the internal kind. Now I see it was a different kind of perspective I was looking for. I needed one that comes by contrast and in that contrast between the extremes we find our private normal.
He knew, tIM said, just the place. We got back on the bike and headed for the Crest. Traffic was light, and tIM rolled on the throttle. The wind stung my eyes as it had when I was a child, but this time, I craved it. I thought if I let go, I would blow right off. Just sail backwards like an empty plastic grocery bag, dipping and swirling through the air until I came to rest somewhere far behind him. And then I did cling to him.
He turned up the Crest and we leaned together through tight hairpins and wide sweepers doing a smooth, elegant mambo past towering rock walls and sheer drop-offs. The tire tripped the Light Fantastic far too close to the edge for my comfort. Visions of crunching bones, blood, pain and sheering metal overwhelmed me. Terror clenched my belly and my hands wet with sweat clutched his torso. All eroticism was wiped out by dread.
Just around an outcropping of stone at the entrance to a Forest Service road, tIM pulled over and stopped. I shakily climbed down from the back and took my helmet off. We walked along a narrow ridge and looked out over the valley. There it was, the sunset.
The Desert Candles—those astonishingly tall, white-flowered plants native to California—caught the last rays of the sun and gleamed high on the mountain slopes while the valleys below filled with sparks of light. Distant LA disappeared as the marine layer rolled in. We talked of things of small importance until the world was dark and the headlights of other travelers on the Crest looked like air bubbles flowing up through a dark champagne. Then we walked back to the bike.
I knew tIM wanted to kiss me and he would’ve if only I walked a bit closer to him or if I slowed down. His desire hung in the air between us as an unspoken question. I didn’t move towards him and I put my helmet on right away though I did let him fasten the strap.
On the way down, perhaps because the drop-offs were hidden by the night, perhaps because I began to trust a man who wanted a kiss but waited, I gave myself over to the rhythm of this twisting ride, to trust the massive physical forces that kept the bike balanced in the turn. Exhilaration such as I’d never known before vibrated through me and the rising tension flowered into joy and release.
No, I was wrong—the motorcycle’s motion isn’t skiing, or sailing, or boxing. It’s more like wild sex—back and forth, back and forth. And when we reached a straightaway, I let go of tIM and stood up on the pegs. I leaned against his back and flung out my arms. I was free and I knew I had to have this experience again and again.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I had no job prospects or couldn’t decide whether to quit or be fired. It no longer mattered that I was getting older, or that I had lost my best friend—my ex-husband—in the divorce. Or that my boys were in the Midwest with him and my girls hated California. All those things that seemed as dangerous as the rock walls and drop-offs were challenges, the means to experience the risk and joy of living. And, in that moment, it was more than enough I was alive and free and had an unknown future. I was going to take the twists and turns of life like this bike took the Crest. I was going to maneuver through my stalled dreams like this bike took the streets. I wasn’t a minivan trapped in a slow-moving motherly life. I had put myself in a risky position and I would embrace it with joy and find my way.
We stopped for a drink and later, as he put on his helmet, his jacket and t-shirt lifted exposing his torso. There on his flat stomach was a thin streak of black hair running down, circling his belly button and disappearing into his jeans. I wanted to touch where the plane of his belly met and curved over his hip bone. It captivated me and aroused me and was an image that came back frequently over the next few days. An image that still tugs at my heart. But I didn’t touch him; I climbed on the bike and he carried me home.
I didn’t become a motorcycle right away either. As so many other LA dreamers do, I temped that summer filling in for a day or a week at places as glamorous as MTV or as prosaic as a cable company. But in my pre-California life, I had been a communications liaison for an adult education program. I had been a Vice-President of Public Relations. I had a Master’s degree in theology. I had published three books and scores of articles. I had been a columnist in two national magazines, damn it! And there I was cross-checking names and addresses against billing records then going home to two hostile teenage children. When my youngest daughter went to visit her father in Illinois and decided to live with him, I was devastated. I thought about taking any regular job just to be done with the uncertainty. But I wasn’t going to settle. Not this time. I was going to go for what I wanted, and, by then, I thought tIM was part of the equation.
Throughout May and June, he pursued me as I had never been pursued. He’d send me silly e-mails like, “I’m sitting on my motel room bed wearing nothing but a towel and socks and thinking of u.” He bought me the kind of trinkets displayed beside gas station registers and the sheer volume was impressive if not their substance. And he made me laugh. I needed to laugh so I kept going out with him. But after that first date he drove his beat up old Camaro because the bike always needed work.
When he’d bring me home, his desire was as heady as the night-blooming jasmine by the pool. I began to think of what it would be like to kiss him and then I wanted to kiss him and then I wanted to badly. But I knew it wouldn’t work—knew he wasn’t right for me. One afternoon we were at a party and I couldn’t bear the weight of desire and dread anymore. We went for a walk on the shaded streets of Pasadena’s Historic Bungalow district, I told him I wanted to be just friends. The thing was, I said, it was better I didn’t see him at all because I knew he wanted to kiss me and I wanted to kiss him and that wouldn’t do. “Like this?” he said—and he did—fierce, passionate and hardcore French. It was the motorcycle all over again. I couldn’t resist—I didn’t want to resist—I kissed him back.
Over the next few weeks, I realized it was speeding out of control and this wasn’t where I wanted to go. I tried to break it off. I refused to go to his house. I knew, if I went, what would happen, but I couldn’t bear the growing sexual tension. So, when tIM called one morning at six a.m. and asked me to come over, I went.
It was Saturday so I could fly along the 134 East. As I turned onto the 2 South, anticipation tightened my thighs, my belly. He lived in a section of Eagle Rock where mariachi music blared at night, fighting cocks crowed incessantly in the morning and no one could afford to paint their house. tIM rented a tiny, yellow, one-bedroom place tucked between the steep, overgrown hillside and a shabby two-story in front. I took a deep breath and stepped inside. Even though it was morning, he had candles burning in his bedroom—I could see them on the dresser as I stood in the living room. How foolish in the dawn. How romantic. I dropped my purse on the floor and soon our clothes followed. Then I discovered that which I had always assumed was the stuff of fiction and film; I experienced passion. Later, I drove home marveling at the sweet ache between my legs but I took a bath before the children got up. I couldn’t wait to go over to his house again.
Passion is more than the thrill of the deal or the roller coaster ride can provide, more heady than the bliss of water after hours in the desert. A superb tension that grows until the next time you can see him. Oh, please, today, right now. Please this minute—I cannot wait any longer. Passion is being caught up in a towering breaker and ground into the sand then seized and tossed under again over and over until you believe you’ll never escape and you would quite willingly drown.
One summer evening, as the sweet, cool night air flowed through the open windows and Beethoven’s Pastoral played on the stereo, we had sex on his sofa. No, that’s too tame a word for it. We were screwing pure and simple, and I was annihilated.
In that moment, I thought I would do anything he asked. In that instant, crimes of passion or financial devastation seemed perfectly logical means to remain in those throes. Passion trumps reason, demolishes responsibility and sweeps away such petty notions as being a respectable mother. It’s the fierce trap, the negation of control. It possesses a terrible, severe beauty, and, as I write this, I long and fear to experience it again.
Those moments made me feel daring, radical—as if I was a motorcycle. But, by then, I was half of a twosome like any other couple. And I always saw him on his schedule, always over at his house, always did what he wanted. I hadn’t traveled far at all from my prior life. I was still a minivan.
After two months of sex interspersed with job-hunting, I landed what seemed to be a dream position—celebrity personal assistant to a multi-millionaire actress/producer. I quickly learned anyone who needs two housekeepers, a handyman, a general factotum, a business manager, bookkeeper and three lawyers as well as a personal assistant to manage their daily life isn’t the easiest employer. Especially one who had run through two other assistants in less than two years.
My boss Betty was as complicated as tIM, and I suppose that’s why I felt a bond with her from the moment we met. I was awed by those who called and came to the house. Dazzled by the Mercedes 650e and the Rolls Royce in the garage by the twin sub-zero freezers. Stupefied by a woman who fed jumbo tiger shrimp to her cats and steak and ribs to her dogs but cheated the repairmen. She was like a high-speed car chase—you just had to watch to see what happened next. Unfortunately, those in close proximity sometimes get hit and road kill is a personal assistant’s job description.
From the first day, I was the one who lied for her. I was the one who took the blame for things that happened before I came, for relationships that had soured years before. My job was to smile when she humiliated me in front of others because of a mistake she had made. But I had learned my lesson at the production company, shoved down my distaste and lied and smiled and remained employed. But it wasn’t just the duplicity that wore at me.
I was the script analyst, the travel agent, the buffer and the human BlackBerry one moment. In the next, I was her confidante as she sat at her dressing table and hugged a picture of her late husband. I was the one who was expected to crawl around in my heels and skirt in a crawl space or garage looking for an errant kitten. I was expected to come in at night or on holidays to do what the housekeeper could have—and should have—done and what Betty could have though perhaps not should have done for herself.
It was all right, I assured myself, I could protect my self-image. I knew where my boundaries were. But it felt all too much like my first marriage; I was too used to being an extension of someone else. I suppose, on some level, Betty sensed that at the interview and I was hired for my essential weakness as much as for my strengths.
Then, on one blisteringly hot evening in September, 1997, it all just got to me: the move to California, the divorce, this intense relationship I knew should lead nowhere and the high-pressure job. By the time I had gotten home and flopped on the sofa, I thought “life sucks and then you die” seemed an overly optimistic cliché. I could only think that I was at heart a minivan and LA is a Hummer kind of town. I should move back to the Midwest. I called tIM and told him I was giving up and going home.
An hour later, he knocked at my door and peered through the screen. “Want to go for a ride on the bike?” That September evening, he was my motor oil Jesus, a blue-collar savior. I said yes, grabbed the helmet and jacket he held out, pulled the door shut behind me and we climbed on his bike.
He turned onto the 405. Like usual, it was a veritable parking lot. All the lanes were jammed with SUVs and sedans crawling up the Sepulveda Pass heading towards the Los Angeles basin. I couldn’t bear traveling at no more than a brisk walking pace. Not that night. I regretted my decision.
tIM, though, had no intention of puttering along in traffic; he started to lane-split. That means a motorcyclist hurtles between two moving vehicles with just a few inches clearance on either side. Lane-splitting requires titanium nerves or, alternatively, full-blown insanity.
Certain I was about to die, I clutched his waist so hard I’m sure he lost his breath. I desperately hung on as we rushed by all the impatient drivers sitting in their metal cages. tIM, however, expertly wove between them. The bike danced this way to avoid a SUV hogging the lane and slipped that way to evade an absent-minded Nissan owner. Within minutes, we had passed hundreds of cars and were turning onto the 10 towards Santa Monica.
I felt an unholy glee as I realized the true power of the motorcycle in Los Angeles. It had nothing to do with brand or engine size or speed and had everything to do with maneuverability. We weren’t like these poor stiffs forced to creep along, unable to escape. Nothing could stop us! Power to the biker scum.
Soon, we were zooming up the Pacific Coast Highway. The sun was setting over the water in a splash of orange and magenta. The rolling breakers swept in along pale, sandy beaches and the Santa Monica mountains loomed against the darkening sky. I raised my visor and greedily sucked in the cool, ocean breeze. And then it happened—as it’s happened so many times since—I sighed as I rode.
A deep sigh from the bottom of my feet that expelled every bit of breath and, along with it, all my accumulated stress, tension and anxiety. I imagined it streaming behind me as we roared towards Malibu. Imagined it lost in the polluted inland haze. Then I inhaled a rich sense of relaxation and joy along with the salt tang. I was not only calmed but liberated. I let go of tIM and flung my hands out.
This was amazing, I thought. This is everything it’s cracked up to be—it really is freedom. I want to be able to escape traffic. I want to be able to lane-split. I want to be able to fly down the empty highway and feel the wind on my face, to find peace whenever I wanted like he could. I want this spontaneous freedom. I needed this and I couldn’t depend on his sporadic urge to take me along. A ferocious desire shook me. I had to have this at my beck and call. In that split second, I decided to stay in LA, learn to ride in front, and get my own motorcycle.
For, as wonderful as it is on the back, there’s one thing the passenger never experiences—control. She has no say over where the bike goes, how fast it gets there, or how it meets obstacles in its way. This then and not the minivan was my life’s metaphor: I had been the passenger in my own life. If I wanted to be truly free—to be a motorcycle—I had to take control, learn to a balance between my needs and others, find my own power and do it at the speed of life. I had to take responsibility for my choices. I was going to become a motorcycle by riding one.
Over tIM’s, my children’s and my boss’s protests, that is. tIM didn’t want to bear the guilt if I got hurt or died. My children thought it would be totally humiliating if their mother rode—besides they thought I was too old. Both my children and my boss thought it was far too déclassé. And tIM, my kids and my boss all agreed motorcycling was too dangerous. The word that cropped up in all their objections was woman—motorcycling wasn’t for women—and especially for women like me. But I wouldn’t be swayed or delayed. It was something I had to do and do it as soon as possible so I signed up for a basic learn-to-ride course.
tIM came around enough to go out an buy an abandoned 1978 Kawasaki 400 for $100 to surprise me. I was surprised all right—it was rusted, the seat was torn and it didn’t run. To top it off, I had to pay for a bike I wouldn’t have chosen, and that felt like I was the passenger once again. On the other hand, it was mine, all mine. For over a month I worked with him doing all that it took to get it running again. At last it roared to life and was ready for a road test. Since I didn’t know how to ride yet I had to stand at the end of the driveway and watch tIM ride my motorcycle away and wait for him to come back. And that, too, bothered me.
By then, Betty had begun giving me huge piles of clothes she no longer wanted. I was to pick out what I wanted and give the rest away. I didn’t want staid St. John’s Knits that made me look 20 years older, but it was clear she wanted me to wear them and so I did. “Little Betty” the rest of the staff called me and I hated it. She kept me late if she knew I had a date with tIM and brought me with her to the country club or the Bel-Air Hotel bar for drinks. Her rich, old male friends, she said, would make a better catch than tIM. Then again, if any of them did come on to me, it was hell at work for the next few days.
Finally, it was time for the motorcycle training course. I thought she’d find a reason to prevent me from going but she didn’t. That first day we got on the bikes there were twelve of us in the parking lot at Pasadena City College—all men except one other woman. Most of the men already knew how to ride, but the woman didn’t. She was a middle-aged librarian and we avoided each other during the course. It was as if two women standing in close proximity would snap together like magnets and make a feminist statement. That wasn’t a statement I, at least, was prepared to make. Over the past ten years, I’ve found that women don’t take up motorcycling for some “Storm the last bastion of masculinity, women!” reason. Rather, like me, they tend have very private reasons—so private that they may not even know what they are and may only reverse-engineer them by seeing the effects in their lives. All of us, though, would say we found freedom in the ride, which is exactly all men are willing to admit as well.
Major Bill taught us to creep through tight turns, uncertainly weave around cones, to stop without locking up the brakes and not drop the bike. As we rode, the marine layer gradually gave way to sunshine. The next weekend, we learned more of the same and to do it with a little more skill. The librarian failed the test at the end of course when she fell during the quick stop. I passed and felt I should have failed—I knew I wasn’t road-ready. tIM took over as my mentor.
For the next few weeks, I followed tIM on my bike through Eagle Rock. Followed him down strange streets that lead nowhere I knew, confused by his doubling back and forth and the winding roads along the hillside. Mariachi music blared from passing cars and the rundown storefronts were dark and gated. Terrified I wouldn’t see him turn and I’d be left lost and alone, terrified that he would lead where I didn’t have the skills to follow. The night air was chill and moist against my face. We always rode in darkness, and I was always cold.
There was too much to remember—both what was immediate—like shifting and turning—and what was possible—like dogs and unseen oil on the pavement. My bike was far heavier and more awkward to maneuver than the bike I had used in the course and the weight preyed upon my mind even when I did not feel it. I worried I wouldn’t stop in time, would lean too much as I went around a corner—though, god only knows, I didn’t lean much at such slow speeds. But anything off the vertical seemed an invitation to kiss the pavement. It felt as though every driver was out to get me. I felt too exposed without metal walls around me and it felt wrong not to wear a seat belt. I was all too aware I was too vulnerable.
Fear, not freedom, then, was my constant companion. No one can sit beside you as they can in a car advising and warning and affirming. No one can reach over and save you from crashing. You ride alone. You have to even when you ride with others. Even if there was someone on the back. I once heard the average rider makes 300 decisions every mile—or was that minute? I can’t remember which, but I can well believe it’s the latter. And I, alone, had to make them all and ride or fall by those choices.
A bike has a way of paring down options: you can ride smart and live or ride dumb and die. No motorcyclist can afford to forget that for long. Every time we climb on it every mile we ride demands we embrace risk, make choices and fully commit to them even though the result may injure or destroy us. Whether called mistress or master, the bike requires our total allegiance at the moment and in the moment and in the next and the next. Waver in our absolute attention for even an instant and icy-shock-pant-peeing-stomach-churning terror is too often the sharp, immediate reprimand.
To ride, then, is to take control of one’s destiny—it cannot be any other way. Yes, I must make my own decisions and cannot pretend otherwise. I cannot blame anyone else for the consequences. I will end up where I want to go by every choice I make along the way or I will end up hurt or dead as a result of those decisions. It cannot be any other way. And, in the beginning, when the learning curve was steep and perilous, when so much more was unknown than known, feared instead of welcomed, it felt like aloneness not solitude. It was not yet Burke’s “delightful horror” that invigorates the will but it was, as Corey Robin argues, a “revivifying fear. That fear of ourselves will push us to overcome our own desire to forsake our freedom. We will develop a stronger will, finding our freedom precisely in a fear of ourselves.” Or, in my case, in mastering my fear of the ride.
Early that summer, I married tIM. I didn’t want to marry and wasn’t sure I should even be living with him, but that’s what he wanted and he offered me insurance—literally. If I married him I’d have health, dental and eye coverage. Marriage without love is a charade I knew—and I could not, would not live a lie. But I did love him and just because most marriages seemed to end up with one person being a passenger to another’s will didn’t mean it had to happen. Besides, insurance in the eyes of the world is exactly like a helmet and safety gear to a rider: it’s what responsible people did, and so I said I do. And I kept on riding.
But no matter how fearfully I made each decision in those early months the next one was easier to make with confidence. As confidence grew, I took on new challenges though at first they frightened me as well. I ventured out into the LA daylight and rode the city streets and freeways and onto the twisty canyon roads. I learned to lane-split. There were close calls, rain, wind, uneven pavement and that brutal LA congestion. But I rode and then rode some more and overcame my fears. And when I did that I found the freedom I had sensed from the back of the bike. I learned to love the solitude of riding even when riding with others. To ride then is a motorized metaphor for an independent, adult life. I was no longer a passenger I thought.
I only rode, though, when tIM did—he would have it no other way. It finally occurred to me that the men who took the course with me had probably been riding alone from the beginning, so why shouldn’t I? And so I did—I rode the motorcycle to work. That first solo ride reminded me of those nights in Eagle Rock—I was once again afraid I’d run into a situation I couldn’t handle. But I did manage. I arrived home from the commute exhilarated instead of enervated.
Within a year, I had bought a brand-new Harley-Davidson Sportster 883. Along the way, I began to make decisions based on what made me happy, what made me feel free. I rode to work, rode to visit friends, rode everywhere I could. And then I rode away from my job—it was just another way I was living my life as a passenger.
Powerful industry people offered to get me another job in the industry, but that’s not what I wanted do; I had come out here to make my way as a writer and I had to give it my best shot. While I was sending out my work to publishers, I read scripts that summer for the Nicholl Fellowship through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. My route took me along Muholland Drive, down Benedict Canyon and into Beverly Hills. The first time I took that route after I had left Betty’s employ, I gave myself over to the rhythm of the ride on Muholland’s curves, delighting in the tightly-linked S-turns when I broke out of a wooded section and saw the San Fernando Valley spread out to my right. And then I sighed, a deep sigh from the bottom of my booted soles to the top of my helmeted head and a quiet joy filled me. I was a motorcyclist. I was free.
That fall, I began the Master’s in Professional Writing at USC and taught freshman composition. I rode home alone from campus late at night without fear. But once I began to ride alone on the bike my marriage deteriorated swiftly. tIM’s dark humor that had impressed me and everyone else so much turned macabre in private. He’d put his hands around my neck and lightly squeeze pretending he was angry, pretending he was choking me. Or so he’d said. He’d follow me around the house demanding over and over if I slept with another man and it drove me mad. He threatened to have someone come and kill me while he was out of town—but he was just joking. So he said. Ha-ha.
Then one day he trapped me in the garage and threatened to kill me with a palm tree saw—a wicked scythe on the end of a long stick. He wouldn’t drop the saw or let me by until I held out my arms and said, “so kill me then.” I was terrified, confused and thought about calling the police but worried about what he’d do if he knew I had. An hour later he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. In those milliseconds between his lips closing around the barrel and his pulling the trigger, my heart stopped. It didn’t go off. There were no bullets. And then he laughed. It was just a joke, he said, and didn’t I have a sense of humor? A friend and I forced him to go the emergency room. I didn’t tell the doctor about anything except the palm tree saw and the gun. The doctor said tIM had a over-the-counter drug-induced psychotic break from using pseudophedrine in combination with guarana to stay awake on his overnight trucking schedule. tIM just had to stop using the stimulants and all would be ok. Insurance covered the visit but there was no coverage for the terror I had felt, and no doctor could repair the damage to my trust.
We began to go to marriage counseling. It didn’t work. How could it when tIM thought that all that was wrong with our marriage was that I didn’t know how to take a joke? The therapist, apparently, didn’t have a sense of humor either: After she heard about everything he had done, his secret bizarre behaviors and other incidents she asked me to meet with her privately and said that tIM didn’t have a drug-induced psychotic episode, he was psychotic. She suggested I leave him, but, if I did, I should do so when he wasn’t in town. But marriage meant for better or worse, sickness and health so I tried to stay, but things just got worse, more scary and hurtful. And that’s when the Cirque de Soleil balance shifted.
When he went to work on one of his two-day trips, my children and three of my friends packed and moved me in one day. By the time we were done, it was dark and chilly and there was only one more thing left to move—my motorcycle. My daughter offered to do it as she had learned to operate her own motorcycle by then, but I insisted on riding away by myself.
The streets were empty as I roared down the street, and I began to sing and weave the bike back and forth within my lane, coming to a full stop at a red light without putting my feet down then rolling on the throttle once the light had turned green. I rose on the footpegs over the railroad tracks then sank back in my seat. Those miles of asphalt became a darkened ballroom—a place of liberation where I relished dancing alone on the dark empty street. There was no fear in me only confidence in my freedom of choice; the freedom to ride away from the past and the freedom to ride toward a future where I took complete responsibility for my own actions.
That’s how it began, then, my love affair with motorcycles, with this strange man, and, consequently, a journey into womanhood I never suspected, never anticipated. It was a pilgrimage perhaps I shouldn’t have taken with him as my guide, but then I wouldn’t have known the kind of passion I’d only read about, and I may have never gotten on a bike.
It was the motorcycle that brought me into his life and the motorcycle that changed me. Those changes were what saved me, destroyed our relationship, and caused me to roar down the 210 five years later. I was finally riding up front in my own life. I was finally taking responsibility for my own choices, taking control of my own destiny and finding a dynamic balance. He has another woman now who rides on the back, one who he will never allow to ride her own motorcycle, a woman who would never think of doing so.
I have become an investigative motorcycle journalist now. I’ve sold a script and my novel is with an excellent New York agent. I’m in love with a man who loves that I ride my own ride, make my own decisions, live my own life and sticks to my principles.
And as long as I do stay riding in front of my own life, I find freedom and I find joy. When I forget, that’s when things go badly, but life has a way of paring down options and I’m learning to ride smart.
Almost five hundred pounds of throbbing, hot piston power thrust between my legs but I’ve tamed this surging beast. It will obey me. I’m the one who calculates my entry speed into the corner, easing off the throttle, downshifting for power and acceleration. I lean so far into the turn that the foot peg scrapes on the asphalt, and at that sound, I exult. I am free!
And I’m in control. I have met the challenge of fear, balance, power and the speed of life and I’ve emerged the victor—and not just with this turn, but the previous ones and the next and the next and the next. I sail along the highway, inches from a sheer drop-off into the valley, but I am confident and unafraid. I choose my own path, aware of the risks and using them to increase my pleasure.
I am a woman.
I am a rider.
I am a motorcycle.
And I won’t ride bitch in anyone’s life.
I was working on the Moonrider Redux entry today on what MSF is and isn’t and went to look for piece of documentation and found notes from an interview with a corporate lawyer who works with some of the top Fortune 500 companies in terms of what’s legal and illegal in terms of marketing and advertising. He was a rider friend of rider friends of mine and someone I’d gotten to know over cups of very bad coffee at the Rock Store. He was one of the first–but most certainly not the last–who was so impressed to meet me in 2004 because of the articles I had written for MCN.
He certainly wasn’t impressed with me in the winter of 2005 when I called to interview him about some of the legal issues that I had questions about as my investigation had progressed. I had forgotten a lot of what he had said. I thought some of you might be as interested as I was.
It was interesting, in part, because he disagreed with what I was doing. His main gripe was the interview with Harry Hurt– he said Hurt had lost credibilty because of what he had said in that interview about helmets. L, btw, owned a Shoei (and rode a BMW motorcycle). So Harry who had spent his entire life studying helmets and tested the helmets–including the most expensive and the cheapest– says they are not safer and L. was sure he knew better than Harry. Uh-huh. Right. Of course, after that MCN article came out, European mags started saying the same thing and then Motorcyclist did their own story (without, of course, giving any nod to where they got the idea) and found the same thing was true. I wonder what L. thought at that point…
At any rate, he also didn’t like what I was writing about MSF and the state of rider training. He confirmed what another attorney (one who worked for a state) had told me about what I had discovered: MIC, MSF and SVIA were, indeed, legally sister organizations. He differed from the other attorney in some of the other questions: It didn’t matter that MIC/MSF/SVIA denied that for years on their IRS 990 forms. That wasn’t important, nor were all the other misstatements on those forms (He wasn’t a non-profit tax attorney nor even a tax attorney, of course). And it didn’t, in his opinion, mean anything that MIC and MSF were sister organizations.
Oddly enough, he used Michael Milken as an example to justify that. Milken, as you may remember, was the Madoff of the 1980s–the junk-bond king who went to prison for insider-trading. His activities were implicated in the Savings and Loan Crisis that have so many parallels to the woes on Wall Street today. Milken, L. said, also was a philanthropist and had 5 non-profit foundations. So just because MIC beget MSF, didn’t mean MSF was bad. To compare MIC and Buche to Michael Milken, you have to admit, is far, far beyond anything I’ve ever done–and this was a guy who admired both MIC and MSF. Well, I guess we all have our own kind of heros…
And admire them, he did–and it didn’t matter, to him, that the public was deceived. The real world, he said, doesn’t allow for transparency and it was perfectly fair for corporations to use subterfuge because it was for their stockholders’ benefit. “John Q. Public things Yamaha, Suzuki’s, Kawasaki’s [and the rest] participation in MSF is altruistic, and that’s alright,” L went on. “It improves their public relations, gives them a liabilty shield and drives sales while appearing to look as if they aren’t in it for the sales and puts a good image out there for the public. I’d do the same thing if I were them. It’s smart business.”
He didn’t agree with “with your hunt, but then I tend to be more sophisticated.” The kind of misleading of the motorcycle public was just “reality in the corporate world” where there is “a certain dissemblence in their souls of honesty.”
There wasn’t anything wrong with that, this high-powered and very wealthy attorney told me, “They’re just looking for a bottom line to protect shareholders” and corporations like the manufacturers and MIC “hire people like me to cover his [Buche's] ass. It’s the way of corporate America. It’s just business and the way it is and the sooner you realize that, the better. You won’t change it.”
This corporate attorney was pretty much into rant mode at this point and went on happily, “The legal system is trying to put business out of business.” The problem was, he said, “The unscrupulous consumer looking to hire legal whores.” And we, as riders, should protect the manufacturers and I was doing a terrible thing with my investigation.
There was, he said, “a fine line between what kind of standard is good or bad training” and what the MSF was going was “almost right on.” A novice didn’t know what was good or bad training and if MSF was 80% good, that was good enough. Not that he was or ever had been a rider instructor or had recently taken the class himself. But, like helmets, he knew what he was talking about.
Of course, he had told me during the small talk warm-up, hey how ya doin’ part of the conversation that his fiance had recently taken the BRC. He went right out and bought her a new K-series BMW to celebrate and they had gone out for exactly one ride together. Since then she wouldn’t get back on the bike. Why, I asked, was she afraid or she didn’t feel she knew enough? He didn’t know about that, he said. She just never found the time or had the inclination to go riding with him. But he was going to make her get out there. Clearly, there was no connection, in his mind, between his fiance’s reluctance to ride on the street and “a novice didn’t know what good or bad training was” and MSF’s purpose to increase motorcycle sales–you know, something like a new graduate getting a brand-new K-series BMW…
But what I was doing–discrediting MSF through my articles on UK and USA training and MSF Responds, was wrong. “There might be backlash,” he said, “if we put heat on it.” If people start finding fault with it and doing their own thing, “Like Red [Runyon] who goes off and starts his own little school” then “the manufacturers might give up funding MSF and say, “We don’t want to deal with it.” And if not MSF, then where would we be? How would people like his fiance learn how to ride?
Of course, he completely missed the irony of his first defending the free market corporate “anything goes if it makes the stockholder money” philosophy he had been arguing with the better mousetrap foundation of the free market system, but then what do I know? As he said, I’m not as sophisticated as he is.
What I was doing was an evil thing “with the product liability laws the way they are.” I should not, he said, “give the lawyers ammunition. MSF is in the right track.” As long as they weren’t doing anything flagrantly illegal–like embezzling funds or covering up serious flaws–I should stop what I was doing. Thus spake the corporate attorney in charge of making sure his clients’ marketing activities and advertising claims couldn’t be prosecuted.
That’s where my notes end. And that’s pretty much where our friendship did, too. Oddly enough, I didn’t have any further conversations with L. My calls always seemed to find his voice mail and weren’t returned and when he saw me at the Rock Store he avoided me. He wasn’t the first to do that–and he sure wasn’t the last.