Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Thing that Goes

I bought a motorcycle on Craigslist this week. I still don't know exactly why I did this. I already own a very reliable car (which I often need for transporting video and sports equipment), I don't exactly have a steady paying job, and I otherwise try my hardest to avoid doing rash, potentially life-changing (or life-ending) things like this. Besides, I'm half scared to death of motorcycles. But I'm also half in love with the things.

I think my infatuation started last winter when I bought a collection of Kenneth Anger films on DVD. I had seen a clip of Scorpio Rising once before, but watching the whole thing touched some strange nerve deep inside me. I watched it again and again and again, which is strange because I almost never feel compelled to watch anything- even movies I love- more than once a year or so. But something about Scorpio demanded repeat viewings, if only to solve the mystery of why I found it so affecting.

And I'm still not sure I can put my finger on it. It might be the beautiful but almost naively simplistic cinematography. Or the amazing and ironic pop music. Or the conflation of James Dean, Jesus, and Hitler. Maybe it was just the biker boys.

Scorpio was one of the first films I saw after coming out, and I think this set me up to identify with Anger's cinematic fascination the male body. Scorpio's bikers preen and polish themselves just as they do their motorcycles. The bikers' existence draws structure through costume and ritual and subcultural mythology- they are their own self-perpetuating gods, just as magnificent and tragic in genesis as they are in death.

A few months later, I met up with one of the subjects I've been following for my surf documentary. We had gone to high school together but had never really been close friends, and I hadn't seen him in five years. His footage ended up being pretty amazing, as he was emotionally sincere and unafraid to bear his soul. He had great stories and uncanny camera sense. And he was gorgeous and rode a motorcycle.

Four months later, I find myself looking over a 2001 Suzuki 500E: midnight blue, 487 cc engine, standard bike. The owner is a musician who works from home, and I find myself nervously questioning his thinning hairline, goatee, and olive-skinned complexion, as if any of these things should serve as a dire warning, but I get the impression that he is just as nervous about the whole thing as I am. I feel funny negotiating a price with him- it's the type of thing that I relished doing when I was traveling in Asia, but it feels strange doing it in America. It probably makes me uncomfortable because I have so little experience bargaining, and I'm afraid that I'm doing it all wrong. Is my first price too low? How am I supposed to read his response? Haggling is a skill that has more or less been bred out of us polite, upper-middle class America (does that even describe me anymore?), but this is a deficiency that I so badly want to fill. Kind of like how I feel about motorcycles.

I come back a few days later to pick up the bike, but it starts giving me trouble, and I find myself regretting taking three months to buy a bike since finishing my safety course. The motorcycle lurches and sputters but doesn't really go anywhere. I start getting frustrated, and eventually get it moving, only to have the bike stall out as I stagger forward, and I struggle for a few seconds before the bike falls to the ground. It's not a bad fall, but the cap at the end of the handlebar is a little bent. Much worse, the bike won't start. The engine whines and gasps, and slowly gives up. I push it back to the sidewalk, afraid that I've tragically broken the thing already, and soon the bike won't even respond to the starter button.

This is exactly the embarrassment that I had been dreading, and all the discouraging words of my friends start come back to me. But I pull myself together and go get the old owner out on the street with his voltmeter. Turns out the battery, like my ego, is totally shot, which explains a lot of things and actually makes me feel a lot better. I want to be pissed at the guy, but I figure he's more dense than dishonest, so I don't bother with it.

A fresh battery improves things greatly, and I take the bike around the block a few times to get a feel for it. I start remembering how to work the clutch to shift gears, and it all feels pretty good. This lasts for about five minutes before I manage to drop the bike again. After propping it back up, I quickly realize that there's no longer a brake lever on the handlebar. A trip to the dealer (new brake lever), the grocery store (WD-40), and my roommate's toolbox (metric-size socket wrench), and the bike is functional again.

I ride the bike around the neighborhood where I bought it, and I notice a lot of the residents are Hispanic (the types that conservative talk radio is always warning me about). There's a family talking in Spanish as they pack their SUV for a picnic, a group of people who have taken over a large chunk of one street with an RV and a table full of delicious smelling foods, and a young man selling oranges and water on a street corner. I see a piƱata set up on the side of the street, and I wonder if it's someone's birthday. It's my birthday in a few days, but I don't have any plans other than going to work. I want to have a party, but I don't know enough people in Los Angeles to invite over, which makes me kinda sad.

Eventually, I decide to ride the bike to my apartment, even though it means leaving my car behind to pick up later. The ride back is something I had been dreading, as I've been deathly afraid of being too incompetent to operate the motorcycle outside of residential streets. To my surprise, everything goes really well. I don't stall at traffic lights or have too much trouble shifting gears. I also get going fast- up around 45mph- and it feels great. Or at least it does until I get to the main street near where I live. Without warning, the engine stops turning over and the bike dies while I am in the middle of the street. Somehow, I manage not to panic as I walk the bike over to the side of the street.

I open up the fuel tank and find that I can see the bottom pretty clearly, which I take to be a bad sign. I'm frustrated because the old owner told me there was enough in there for the bike to go another 125 miles, and I haven't even taken it 50. I walk a few blocks to a gas station. There's another biker there, a stocky Hispanic guy with a chin beard. He looks at me walking up there with my helmet under my arm and right away says that it wasn't my fault and that his bike ran out of gas just one week ago in Long Beach. His friendliness makes me feel better, and the attendant is nice too, though the gas canister he sells me is the most complicated piece of cheap plastic I've ever encountered.

I ride back to my place, but it's not easy going. It takes a little while for the gasoline to start flowing again, and then I can't keep my engine properly revved. I stall the bike and lose power at least half a dozen times on the way back- it's a wonder I don't cause any accidents. I eventually get home in one piece, but now I just keep worrying about what I've gotten myself into. What exactly made me think this was a good idea in the first place? What could I have done during all these months when I've lusted after a motorcycle that doesn't fit my needs or lifestyle? Does this have anything to do with why I find myself so isolated from everything and everyone around me?

Luckily, I'm too worn down to worry all that hard.

No comments: