sitting in my local bar near closing time when the bartender, another regular
and I notice a police cruiser idling right out front, looming ominously
through the glass entrance. This place has had more than its share of brawls
on the weekends, as well as drug activity in the bathrooms and parking
lot that the owners would sincerely love to stamp out, so the police keep
an eye on all aspects of compliance. Their collective memory is razor-sharp
when it comes to a place where they once needed two sets of handcuffs to
reach around the back of a huge, shaggy-bearded, woolly-haired patron,
who bowed the suspension way down on one side of the cruiser when they
finally stuffed him inside, eyes glowering within a tangled mass of locks
and tattoos. The register must be closed by 2 a.m., the last customers
gone by 2:30. Since I keep late hours and arrive stone sober at 1:30, two
beers later, I’m not too worried about riding home in a straight line at
30 m.p.h. But now it’s only 2:20 a.m.
Suddenly the whole front of the bar is awash in harsh light. We’re like flies trapped inside a fluorescent tube. Maybe the police chased a fugitive to the doorstep, then concluded he must have run inside. We expect to be stormed at any moment. Finally the other customer ventures out and returns to report that “they were just admiring your Indian.”
I always sit where I can see the back wheel, but I had forgotten that the bike was anything out of the ordinary. That can happen when you ride it nearly every day. I’m sure there are plenty of other regular Indian riders out there, not to mention the elite hardy souls who flog their Springfield iron cross-country, but there’s one place none of us can ride our Indians: under the radar.
Whether we like it or not, when we chug past, those who appreciate motorcycles will see it as a significant event, and others who are the least bit observant will probably realize they’re seeing something very old and special. I seem to be invisible to soccer moms in minivans, especially at intersections, and most conspicuous to women in leather vests riding pillion on chrome-laden Harleys, as the boyfriend acts too cool to notice.
Once late at night I was meandering along some lightly traveled back roads, and even with no mirrors, I kept noticing headlights illuminating the road from behind me, continuing after I made a couple of turns. Finally I got tired of it and detoured into a parking lot. It turned out to be a police car, and the young officer could hardly contain himself as he asked about the bike. “Do you have any idea of the heritage behind this thing?” he said. Then his demeanor seemed to wilt a bit as he said, “Gosh, it’s so small.” Before I could think of a clever reply along the lines of, “Sorry, next time we’ll try a weathered Heritage Springer with a dummy kicker,” his radio summoned him on an emergency call.
And I’m not safe even within my lair. Recently I had started my new 45” with great difficulty and had it up on the rear stand way back in my driveway, near the back of the house and visible only if you looked from straight out. In shorts and a threadbare, grease-stained T-shirt soggy with sweat, I was sitting on the asphalt with some tools scattered around as I bled the oil feed for air bubbles, among other minor tasks. A shadow passed in front of the sun, and I looked up to see a stranger on a bicycle wearing one of those pointy insect helmets, with his young son in an identical helmet on a smaller bike. I didn’t mind pausing to talk briefly. He asked: “Is there a place around here that sells these?” Ever since then, I have been infected with the mental image of a used 101 lot along a commercial strip with rows of pennants flapping in the breeze and a sign proclaiming: “BUY HERE – PAY HERE!” The conversation wore on, and there’s only so much light in the day, and if I had a lighted garage I probably wouldn’t have been sitting on the asphalt. So I was relieved when the son said: “Daddy – it’s too loud!” I fought back an impulse worthy of W.C. Fields to reach over and unleash a fistful of throttle through the straight pipes (“You want loud? I’ll give you loud!”), and they left on their own, with the father assuring the lad, “I bet you’d love to have that man’s nose full of nickels.” Well, he didn’t really say that, but if thoughts were deeds I would have deserved it.
None of these incidents should come as a surprise. Riding an Indian is a privilege, and that’s a gross understatement. And with privileges come responsibilities. I believe one of ours is to serve within reasonable limits as goodwill ambassadors to those who admire the heritage these bikes represent, even if they lack the wherewithal or commitment to pursue ownership. Of course, there are two sides to that. I have to say it bothers me that not once has an inquiring bystander appeared the least bit interested when I have mentioned the easiest way to learn more about my bikes. The public library a few blocks from my home has Hugo Wilson’s “Ultimate Motorcycle Book,” with a large color picture of a much nicer 101 and some background information.
In the face of this sort of dunderheadedness, we should probably imagine ourselves as Miss America in a parade waving to the crowd. Even when we feel more like Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan the day she was on a float with costumed stand-ins for Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters and the crowd overheard her saying: “This is the corniest thing I’ve ever done.”
It’s part of the gig. Make your peace with it somehow. Don’t forget to wear the satin sash next time you go riding. And then: Take it away, Bert Parks!
Bob lives in New Jersey
and regularly rides his 37"
1928 101 Scout. Bob is an
occasional contributor to
the AMCA magazine, and
other publications -and,
of course, one of the
monthly VI columnists!