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FIRST PERSON

Off to Places Not Measured in Miles

November 17, 1994|ERIC SLATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The pathetic signs of a sad obsession were there for anyone to see. Anyone not blinded by well-polished chrome.

I parked my new-to-me 16-year-old Harley in the living room/bedroom/dining room/kitchen of my one-room apartment. And still clamped on a padlock.

I started the bike just to hear its unfathomably dark and deep cant, shutting my eyes and rolling my head around as though the motorcycle were belching Mozart's Requiem. Then I shut off the engine and went to bed.

I knelt at its gearbox at 2 in the morning, shivering almost uncontrollably in the cold, painstakingly scrubbing oil residue from the tailpipes--with a toothbrush.

My only excuse? It's my first Harley.

But, in my defense, there was a reason for the late-hour toothbrushing. The Love Ride was just hours away, and damned if I was going to be the only one of 20,000 riders with unflossed pipes.

*

The truth is, I had been a bit nervous about joining the most massive mob of potentially bad-ass bikers ever assembled in the free world--or assembled to raise funds for charity, anyway.

For one thing, my bike is the baby of Harleys: a Sportster, known in Harley parlance as a "Sporty," a term that always makes me grimace. Not to be too Freudian about it, but even with a 1,000cc engine it is considered small. And mine is a '78, built at the nadir of quality control at Harley-Davidson.

Maybe I will be mocked, I thought. Maybe I will be scorned.

Also, I have no beard. No ponytail (although I did in college, I sometimes feel compelled to point out to those asking about my Sporty). No beer belly worth bragging about. These grooming and fitness attributes, especially the suck-in-able gut, might garner bonus points in some circles, but I knew such traits would make me suspect among bikers.

So I customized my seat and chopped my front fender and polished my pipes until I could see . . . "Hey, that's stubble on my face." Admittedly not as threatening as a three-foot-long Texas blues-man beard, but better than nothing, and I felt somewhat heartened as I put down my cleaning implements for the night.

*

All the worry, all the cleaning, all the wanting for a blue-collar job were unnecessary, I realize as my friend Amy and I pull into the alley at Harley-Davidson of Glendale last Sunday. At the Love Ride, anything and everything, anyone and everyone goes.

Lime-green customized Softails with orange flames. Old police bikes. Ancient Fatboys. There are plenty of Sportsters here, some with pipes shinier than mine, some with pipes duller; some louder, some that are buried in the aural rubble of my combustive thunder.

Playmate Pamela Anderson is here--riding behind some rock 'n' roller whose name escapes me and who seems slightly peeved that her name is being called out more often by paparazzi than his--on a sun-yellow custom Softail worth more than my car, my Harley, my mountain bike (also worth more than my car) and my Mason jar full of change combined.

Actor Judd Nelson's ride is battered and black and swathed in grease, and looks like I had long believed a Harley should look until somehow I got it into my head that a Harley must be toothbrush-clean and dipped in chrome.

The Soldiers for Jesus are here. So are the Hells Angels (San Fernando Valley chapter) and a surly looking gang of Century City attorneys.

As we wait with some anticipation for the start, Jay Leno poses for pictures, somebody from "Northern Exposure" cruises the crowd. Nelson approaches and says something about feeling locked up here, knowing that road is so close.

Amy dares me to bum a smoke from him. I'm feeling daring and ask.

"Sorry, man," he says sincerely, "I bummed this one." We both chuckle.

By the time we head out through the corridor of giddy onlookers, up Interstate 5 where men, women and children are lining the overpasses and waving wildly, and riders with prison tattoos wearing Prussian army helmets are waving back with equally good cheer, the whole damn thing is such a gas you can hardly keep the grin off your face.

*

I had ridden motorcycles on and off since I was a teen-ager. But now I'm 28, and it had been two years since I garaged my last bike when an editor arrived at a party this summer on a blood-red Ducati, a leather-clad woman on the back. He pulled off his helmet and patted his graying hair, as though to extinguish any flames. I started shopping the next morning.

I was on a writer's budget. An old Yamaha Maxim, I thought, or an early '80s Honda; I could get something for $1,500, easy. Within a week I was agonizing over a spotless BMW in a spotless shop being watched by a stern seller who would not budge from $3,250. It was cool. Very cool, and very quiet.

I bought the Harley the following day from a guy with a long braid who was working on a pickup and slugging Miller beer when I arrived with the money.

"No cerveza, no trabajo ," he said in hack Spanish. His wife began to cry as I prepared to ride off, and she had to turn away.

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