The Mild One

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1997

The Mild One

In which the author confronts the one obstacle between his throaty bike and the call of the open road: himself
By Nicholas Dawidoff

The author considers the road ahead
I took my first motorcycle ride on a false spring day in early March. With temperatures suddenly 15 degrees warmer, people in my part of downtown New York City were doing the things they'd been impatient for all winter. The bodega owner on the corner propped the front door open wide and turned up the merengue on his radio. The old Italian men had their lawn chairs out on the sidewalk, angled toward the sun. There was chess in the park and basketball at the playground. And my friend Joel was at the curb revving the throttle of his blood-red BMW K75 motorcycle.

It's a beautiful machine, all clean lines and metallic sheen, and for weeks Joel had been promising to take me for a spin. "We'll go up to the Cloisters," he said, referring to the museum of medieval art set high up on a wooded hill above the Hudson near the very top of Manhattan. The Cloisters is probably the most tranquil place in the entire city, but to get there from downtown you more or less have to take the West Side Highway, a narrow, potholed stretch of road plagued with too many cars, all of them in a great hurry.

From the back of Joel's bike, however, the West Side Highway was bliss. As we sped north at a smooth 70 miles per hour, I felt transported beyond the grit and hustle of New York. Within my helmet I grew unaccountably maudlin. I beamed at the cars we were zipping past. I sang a little "Love Me Tender" to myself. (Elvis rode a bike.) I mourned the deaths of James Dean and Che Guevara. (They did too.) By city bus, it takes two hours to get up to the Cloisters. Joel and I made it in 20 minutes.

It was just before we began the trip back downtown that Joel — a novelist whose most recent book is titled Kill, Kill, Faster, Faster — happened to mention to me that he has an artificial eye. Suddenly I was feeling very nervous. For miles, all I saw was the road in front of us. Gradually, however, Joel's crisp driving restored my high spirits. I watched over his right shoulder as he scanned the traffic with a searchlight's precision, keeping a cushion of space between every potential obstacle and himself, bending gently away when someone veered toward him. When we reached Soho, Joel swung by BMW NY, the shop where he'd bought his bike. There in the showroom, I came face to headlight with a graphite gray 1994 BMW K75 with less than 3,000 miles on it. The first step toward purchasing it was a $1,000 deposit. Sean, the salesman, had seen guys like me before. "He's got the look," he said to Joel. I went home and got my checkbook.

Gasper Trama, sane voice
among the vrooms

This development did not please my sister, who knows why I'd avoided motorcycles my entire life. As young children we saw a biker nearly die right in front of us. Our house was at a busy corner in New Haven. Instead of a proper stoplight, there were only blinking red and yellow lights to slow traffic. Every few months we would hear a terrific bang, look out the front window, and see broken glass and bashed-in metal. Once a woman went headfirst through her windshield and into a maple tree. But the worst was the day a car hit a motorcycle broadside. The rider flew several feet through the air before pinwheeling to a stop on the pavement. I remember him writhing there in an expanding pool of oil and blood. After that, the city installed a real stoplight, and whenever I brought up motorcycles in the presence of my sister, she always said, "Remember that guy?"

That memory has given me 24 years of pause about motorcycles, but fear isn't the only reason I've stayed away from them. I am the son of that breed of worrying mother who, when a child of hers is traveling, stays up late waiting for news of plane crashes. Thoughts of her firstborn hurtling along astride a motorcycle could give her terminal insomnia.

My friend Tom understands this. When he was a college student in the sixties, Tom owned a motorcycle. He loved it, but he eventually sold it because, he told me pointedly, "it caused too much agony for my mother. No son has the right to inflict that kind of suffering upon his mother."

Lately I've come to feel differently. It seems to me that, within reason, men and women ought to try out the things that really intrigue them. Over the past few years, I traveled around the United States interviewing people for a book I was writing about country music. Along the way, the great singer Merle Haggard (who wrote the lines, "Mama tried to raise me better / but her pleading I denied") told me that as a young man, he "had some certain things in my life I wanted to do. I wanted to hop a freight. I wanted to work in the oil fields. And I wanted to play the guitar." In my case, I wanted, among other things, to write books, to learn how to play "West End Blues" on a saxophone, and to ride a motorcycle down a long, empty country road.

Out there behind the handlebars, you're forced into a close connection with the landscape and the need to react to weather, topography, and animals trundling across it. I hoped once I knew what I was doing I'd stop regarding these things as obstacles and instead come to feel a part of it all.

That last ambition tugged at me as I passed through places like Egypt, Mississippi; Deep Gap, North Carolina; and Cotton Valley, Louisiana. I was writing about the relationship between country music and the places it comes from, and it seemed to me that traveling those back roads by motorcycle would have conveyed a much deeper feel for the country than what I was getting in the seat-belted confines of rented Luminas and Corsicas. Back in New York, what I saw up close over Joel's shoulders was something I'd always sensed from afar: that driving a motorcycle elevates quotidian experience. The pleasure of operating a powerful machine is coupled with a heightened perception of your surroundings. Out there behind the handlebars, you're forced into a close connection with the landscape and the need to react to weather, topography, branches bending into the road, and animals trundling across it. Once you knew what you were doing, I hoped, you'd stop regarding these things as obstacles and instead come to feel a part of it all. One of the musicians I talked to while I was writing my book was Bruce Springsteen — a rocker, to be sure, but one who adores country music and, as it happens, motorcycles. His stories about the long-distance motorcycle trips he takes in the West were one more powerful incentive for me. "I love the bike," he said. "Outside my family and the music, it's one of the things that I most like to do, because it clears and centers your mind." Behind his windscreen, Springsteen has found a way to experience the world around him anonymously — without, for once, any danger of that world experiencing him. No wonder he comes back from rides across California and Arizona with fresh songs in his saddlebags.

There are less high-minded attractions as well. One is that a motorcycle provides a person with a certain facile jauntiness. ("Like to feel that bike under you and that big noise," Springsteen says with a hoarse laugh.) Another is the constant presence of risk. For many people — and I guess I'm one of them — danger is part of the allure. For some, the point is the opportunity to show that they are skilled and plucky enough to elude death while perched on what amounts to a brick with rockets.

Springsteen rides despite the fact that a motorcycle almost killed him when he was 17. A Cadillac driver didn't see him, and the apprentice Boss bailed out, with his bike sliding under the car as he was sent tumbling across the ground. He ended up in bed for a month with a concussion and plenty of bruises. Bob Dylan, too, nearly bought Maggie's farm after a wreck in 1968. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the novelists Richard Fari±a and John Gardner, and guitarist Duane Allman died on motorcycles when they were still in their prime. (It is telling that virtually all famous dead bikers are men.) Some 73,000 Americans are injured on motorcycles every year, and nearly 4,000 are killed.

Several friends who learned I'd put money down on the gray BMW said they hoped I wasn't out to prove anything. I said I wasn't and described how much fun my brief excursion with Joel had been. "Of course it's fun," one friend retorted thinly. "Heroin is fun too. That's why people do it. And then it kills them." Another friend described a brief, bizarre 4 a.m. telephone call she'd received a few years earlier from a friend of hers who is an emergency-room physician. "I'm just saying this," the doctor blurted. "If I ever have a child who tells me he wants to ride a motorcycle, I'm going to take out a shotgun and shoot him in the knees first." Then he hung up. "Donorcycles," it turns out, is common ER argot.

I do not live in the ideal environs for enjoying a motorcycle. I might like to imagine cruising blue highways on the seat of a bike, but trying to experience the world around you while riding through city streets is an excellent way to experience the morgue.

A manual published by the industry-backed Motorcycle Safety Foundation of Irvine, California, says right up front that "collisions are not rare events — particularly among beginning riders. And one out of every five motorcycle accidents result in head or neck injuries." Just as there is nothing but a helmet visor to prevent a rider from experiencing the world around him, there is almost nothing protecting him from it, either. This is something of a serious problem in an activity in which the most comprehensive safety study — conducted by a man with the ominous-sounding name of Dr. Harry Hurt — concluded that "the failure of drivers to see motorcyclists is the predominant cause of motorcycle accidents."

The truth is that my ride with Joel was a bit of a mirage. I do not live in the ideal environs for enjoying a motorcycle. I might like to imagine cruising blue highways on the seat of a bike, but trying to experience the world around you while riding a motorcycle through New York City's streets is an excellent way to experience the morgue. More people are killed in New York by strangers driving cars than by strangers wielding guns. This city, so notorious for its distractions, is literally paved with them. The streets are brittle, cracked, pitted, and greased with a slick patina of oil. There is a profusion of taxicabs and delivery vans operated by reckless types who consider the odd fender-bender the price of doing business. With a motorcycle, it isn't the fender that bends. It's you.

A Haitian-born New York cabbie named Jean Roland Payen told me I was crazy to be buying a motorcycle in New York. He said that back in Port-au-Prince, where everybody rides motorcycles, cars know to look for them. "Here, they don't see you," he said. "These guys, I watch them. They go up over the hood. You know, they fly. Then they land. There is blood. They look pretty dead to me."

Another of Harry hurt's findings was that 92 percent of the motorcyclists involved in accidents had received no formal instruction in how to drive a motorcycle. It seemed to me that if I wanted to take on New York — and the wide open spaces beyond — on a bike, I ought get someone to teach me how. I had been told that the best teacher around is another ominously named fellow, Gasper Trama, founder and owner of Trama's Auto & Motorcycle School, in Woodhaven, Queens. Sean, the BMW salesman, was all for me enrolling. (It turns out that a number of manufacturers are solidly behind driver education, too. Several are willing to deduct part or even all of the $370 tuition at Trama from the cost of their motorcycles.) "A bike is not for everyone," Sean told me. "You go try it with Trama. If you like it, the bike is yours. If not, we'll have no trouble selling it to someone else."

So, on a Wednesday morning this spring, for the first time since college, I got up early and went to class.

Like most schools, this one took on the personality of the principal. Gasper Trama, 58, is the son of a Brooklyn ironworker and grew up in the shadow of the Schlitz and Rheingold breweries. He has been teaching for 30 years, but lately his clientele has been sprinkled with glitz: a small gang of movie stars, including Liam Neeson, Alan Alda, and Matthew Broderick have taken his course. Even if Trama's home address long ago migrated from Brooklyn to the palmier confines of Long Island, Flatbush Avenue remains in his speech: He says "motacycle" and pronounces his own name "Trammer." In the interest of "exposing riders to proper and prudent motorcycle operation," he runs his school like boot camp.

I had to get up before six in the morning to make it out to Queens to be on time for school at eight sharp. A few of my 11 fellow students looked a little drowsy, but Trama roused the classroom in a hurry with an unequivocal declaration: "If you can't do it, we'll pull you out," he said. "We're gonna tell you. We're not gonna lie to you." He went on, "I'm from the old school. What concerns me is safety. I'm in the game a long time and I'm not looking for shortcuts."

Trama asked the students, some of whom were experienced riders, why they wanted to take the three-day course. One man said he was tired of seeing parking tickets on his car. A sheet metal dealer from Howard Beach said his friends had talked him into it. Another man had seen a Harley-Davidson and said he'd "gone crazy over it" and bought it on the spot. An emergency-room clerk said that he'd seen motorcycle riders hauled into his hospital "with their brains hanging out," and he wanted to avoid all that. The only woman in the class explained that she wanted to ride beside her husband instead of behind him.

Trama listened and then told us that on the third day we would be given a written test and a road test. If we passed both, we would qualify for an "M" on our driver's licenses and a break on our insurance premiums. Then Trama began to lecture, holding forth on proper turning technique. You should slow and downshift before entering a turn, he said, then look, lean the bike, and finally roll on the throttle. He told us what to expect during skids and blowouts, urged us always to apply both the hand and foot brakes simultaneously, and said that we must strive to make ourselves part of the motorcycle — for starters, by keeping our knees pressed against the gas tank. "Always look where you want to go," he said. "Look down, you'll go down." Our primary obligation was to make ourselves conspicuous. "You have to think all the time that nobody can see you," he said. And sobriety doubles your chances. Citing Hurt's study, Trama told us that almost half the bikers involved in accidents have been drinking.

After a full morning of this, it was time to get on a motorcycle. We left Queens and headed down to a retired airstrip at Floyd Bennett Field in the far reaches of Brooklyn, on the shore of Jamaica Bay. My first solo rides turned out to provide the antithesis of the thrill I'd felt as Joel's passenger. First we learned to balance the bike, and then we practiced basic turns and got to know our way around the clutch by finding the friction zone. As we did so, the day turned cloudy and it began to rain. The wind was blowing a steady chop along the bay, and soon we were all cold and miserable. (My motorcycle idylls had all taken place in balmy climes.) Next we tried some loops and turns at low speed. As we circled around and around, the wind and rain banged away at us. Trama was not displeased. "It's tough," he said. "But you've got to be in good physical and mental shape for this. We want good awareness. You are dealing all the time on a bike with things that are out of your control. If you don't learn how to be ready at all times and in all conditions, you get whacked."

Day two was even more grueling. It was colder and wetter than the day before. Meanwhile, the skills we were practicing grew more challenging. The more quickly you are moving, the more responsive a motorcycle is, but we did nothing that had anything to do with the kind of soaring, bucolic experience I'd been imagining. We spent a lot of time taking tight corners at walking speeds. It wasn't easy. At one point a student who has traveled by bike for years looked at Trama and said, "OK, this proves it. I don't know shit about motorcycles."

For a portion of the day, we trooped into an unheated Quonset hut for a little supplementary discussion with Trama and Lynne Vandewater, a jut-jawed instructor who has the best riding posture I have ever seen. "There are five to six thousand accidents at railroad crossings every year," Vandewater told us. "If cars are hitting trains, what makes you thing they won't hit motorcycles?" At another point she said, "Folks, this is the sensible way. If you ride smart, you'll live longer riding around on this death machine your mother told you about. Don't ride that motorcycle on faith. Something is around that curve. Every accident I've seen, the rider screwed up. There may have been contributing factors, but in the end the rider always screwed up."

Day three began with the written test. Everybody passed. The rest of the day featured advanced turning and braking as well as swerving techniques. Above all else, we were told, "If you reduce your speed too much going into a turn, you'll go straight down." This turns out to be true, as I was able to demonstrate.

The sun finally reemerged early that afternoon. Not long afterward, in the midst of a practice sequence that involved a lane change, a downshift from second to first, and a slow 90-degree turn, I failed to keep the throttle steady and didn't lean far enough. As Trama had promised, the bike lost traction and I went sprawling. My hip was cut and my elbow began swelling. Nothing serious. Everyone was very nice about it, but I was mortified.

Things had been going pretty well up to that point. I could shift with no trouble, I liked swerving around obstacles, and I braked without much difficulty. Sometimes, at the end of an exercise, I'd let out the throttle for a moment and imagine myself high-tailing it down some old state road. My turns were far from graceful, but once or twice I heard Trama yelling, "Way to go, babe!" behind me. Crashing in these circumstances had never crossed my mind. But after I went down, riding became a battle: My hands and feet were numb, my shoulders were tense and rigid, and my wrists ached. I was muscling the bike, not moving with it. Even at low speeds I felt danger beneath me. It went this way for the remainder of the day, and then, late in the afternoon, it was time for the road test.

We lined up in a long row, and Trama asked each of us in succession to accelerate when he gave the signal and then come to a quick stop. That I could do. Then we each had to approach an obstacle and swerve quickly around it. This went reasonably well, too. Next came a series of cones through which we had to weave. Traveling at about seven miles an hour — a pathetic canter — I made it. The final task was executing a tight turn. Mine was ghastly. I approached it the way a cat does a rottweiler, failed to look where I was going, and nicked a cone as I sailed far out of the lane.

Afterward Trama and Vandewater met with each student to provide an evaluation. Ten of the 12 of us had passed. It was getting dark by the time they got to me. "Well, you passed," Vandewater began. "But it wasn't pretty. You butchered that turn. You didn't turn your head properly, you crossed the boundary line, and you de-accelerated. Only thing you didn't do was lay the bike down.

"You need a lot of practice," she went on. "You need to gain confidence. After you fell, you held back and became afraid. Anyone who's taken a spill has a period of adjustment. That's to be expected. That's all stuff you can fix. But that weave. We couldn't deduct points for lack of style, but that was ... " She paused.

"Horrible," said Trama, who was standing nearby.

I called BMW NY to tell them I wouldn't be taking the bike. A few days later I went over to reclaim my deposit. Sean said he was "disappointed, but not surprised" by my decision. "Motorcycling is not for everyone," he said. "Some people, they just get on and go. Most people struggle for a while. Others don't get it at all."

I nodded and looked wistfully over at the spot where the gray K75 had been. It was gone. "Your bike sold to a guy who's taking Trama's course next week," Sean said. "He's paid in full. The stronger your desire to ride, the more likely you are to overcome whatever barriers you come up against."

Since then, I find my enthusiasm for getting out of New York on a motorcycle hasn't really abated. When I encounter one parked on the street, I always stop to look it over, and I get an ecstatic little shiver when I see a nice Triumph or Norton. Recently, on a return trip to the South, I found myself driving along a Spanish-moss-draped stretch of the Natchez Trace in rural Mississippi, and I wore out my traveling companion with exclamations about how perfect the Trace would be for biking. I kept up this line of talk as far as the Arkansas Delta, and then my exasperated friend finally said she'd heard enough.

For the rest of the trip, I kept quiet about motorcycles, telling myself that I'm still a novice and that I pay my rent in a place where, even if you're a really savvy rider, there's always some fool cutting you off or a series of red lights to remind you you're not really dipping around a curve out in God's country. Until I can get myself there, the bike will have to stay in a dark garage somewhere beyond my reach.

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music.

Photographs by Greg Betz

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