What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god. -William Shakespeare; Hamlet
My obsession with motorcycles began sometime in Shakespeare class. A fiery eyed and shaggy haired student, about my age sat next to me scribbling cartoons on the back of a test. His pencil frantically traced and retraced the lines of a motorcycle he was drawing. A cafe racer, right on the back of the white paper. Soon, our Shakespeare professor would walk past and collect the tests, shooting dark-browed scowls at the insubordinate, and the student would toss his pencil to the table, brush his hair past his eyes, and wait nonchalantly for the next topic of lecture.
We eventually became friends, the insubordinate and I. His name was Aaron. The two of us encouraged enough to engage in all sorts of hedonistic debauchery. From sailing and throwing rum bottles to the god of the moon, to breaking and entering, stealing beers from refrigerators and scampering up icy rooftops. And of course, we rode motorcycles. Aaron taught me to ride. There in the quiet streets of that college town I ripped down the neighborhood on his ‘72 CB350. “Brahp!” the bike would scream as I hunched over the clubman bars on the little cafe racer, the one of which he sketched portraits in class. And just like that, with that one short ride, never shifting above third gear, I was hooked, like some small mackerel on a dagger intended for a great white. Bait for the monster culture that would soon gobble me up into the depths of its Jonah-belly. I could not wait to get my own. I needed my own. So I bought my own.
I did what we all do when the first motorcycle fever sets in. I searched craigslist for months for any piece of junk that might fall within my nonexistent budget. Then one day, I found it. By god it was the one! A 1974 Honda CB360 roller, for $250. “Good Compression” was the only scrap of hope on the advertisement. I called up Aaron and together we peeled rubber out to Nowhere, Texas. A haggard and three-toothed man in blue jean overalls stumbled out to greet us. Soon he was placing his grease-ridden palm over the spark plug hole, “See.” he said as he kicked the start “Gud ‘presh’un.”
I turned to Aaron, there in front of the man. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know man. It’s your money.” came Aaron’s unsure response. I took a step back and tried to envision what it could look like, imagining those first rides on Aaron’s little cafe. But rust filled my eyes. Corrosion, and stripped bolts were all I could see. A $250 gamble with a rusty tank and flat tires.
“I’ll take it.” I said and I offered the man $240, because I needed the other ten dollars for gas to get us home. We rolled it into the back of the truck and tore on up the road to that college town. The two of us hoisted it down and into the small one car garage to join the ranks of guitar amplifiers, a drum kit, and a punching bag. It was the perfect addition to that testosterone-ridden room. We took a step back and both felt the same mixture of anxiety and excitement. What had we gotten ourselves into? What black magic would it take to get this thing moving? It stood there resting on a bed of cigarette butts and scattered beer cans.
“Let’s get to work.” said Aaron.
A day later my kitchen reeked of gasoline. Like a crazed scientist I hunched over the carburetors with borrowed tools in hand, reading off a carburetor manual Aaron had written in a tech-writing class. I scraped, scrubbed, and scoured, and then would invite Aaron over for approval. Each time he would send me back, “They need to be surgical.” he would say, and I would hang my head like the Karate Kid, forced back into work I didn’t yet understand.
Next I bought a battery and new plugs and Aaron came over with some starter fluid. We got a pack of smokes and a case of beer and sprayed and kicked and started for hours but to no avail. She just wouldn’t turn over. We got angrier and drunker as the night wore on, and she just yawned a sad and dead laugh with every spray and kick.
But then something caught Aaron’s eye. I could see the lightbulb moment as he took a wrench to the coils and uncrossed the wires to the opposite plugs. “You just never know what people do to these old machines.” he said. We sprayed and kicked again, and the bike backfired and puttered out. With both of our eyebrows raised in bright-eyed wonder we sprayed and kicked again, and the bike roared to life. “Fuel!” he said. “We need fuel!” So we duct-taped a plastic container to the frame and filled it with fuel and ran the line to the carbs. The throttle cables were stuck, so carbs had to be forced open and closed, but there in the garage, with beer bottles, cigarette butts and carbon monoxide, the three of us howled like banshees in our victory. I rolled it to the street and sat right on the battery, covered with a tiny piece of cardboard. On flat tires and a plastic bottle gas tank, the bike took its first sputtery stroll down Panhandle street. It soon died out but it didn’t matter. It was alive. My motorcycle was alive.
Aaron taught me how to seal the tank. He showed me the glory of what steel wool can do to rust. He showed me to use ziplock bags and label them when taking things apart. He showed me how to time the bike. Most importantly he taught me that old motorcycles can be bitchy hags that need a little tender love. “Don’t get angry with it.” he would say. “Gentle, she’s old.” he would warn, and sure enough I would disregard that advice time and time again and strip bolts, hunt down replacements, drill them out, and strip them again. In the unending length of college, the bike never made it more than a few miles around town. I could never finance what it would take to get it legally road worthy, but that didn’t stop me from taking it around the town square with nothing but a rear brake, spewing oil onto the streets, donning a leather jacket and showing two-fingers-down every time another bike passed.
Finally graduation came and it came with new adventures. The bike sat in my grandparents’ garage for over a year while I travelled the world and Aaron and I remained in touch. When I returned, I moved to Maine and continued tinkering on the old Honda. After a new stator, rectifier, petcock, tires, turn signals, rebuilt front caliper, junkyard master cylinder, a chopped tail fender, handlebars, side covers, headlight bracket, taillight fashioned out of the old turn signal, seat cover and shaved down seat, multiple valve adjustments, several timing adjustments, countless gaskets and endless frustration, the bike is something of which I can be proud. It’s a head turner at the light, and a conversation starter at the fuel station. Aaron, while having sold his own Honda, is still a phone call away for good wrenching advice, but these days most of our conversations revolve around the rest of life’s elations or doldrums. These days those seem a little more important than the banshee screaming wrench sessions of our youth.
My obsession with motorcycles was born in college, sounding the barbaric yawps of youth. But as time passes on, it’s easy to see that motorcycles are simply yet another avenue for comradery and adventures among close friends.