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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Born to Be Wild, at Full Decibel

April 24, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

A man rumbled through my neighborhood, gunning his Harley, rattling windows and setting off car alarms.

I'm a pretty sound napper, but pressure-waves from his unmuffled engine triggered old earthquake instincts. I leaped off the couch.

This, I presume, was the intended reaction.

My head cleared and I thought of two things. I thought of the children I sometimes see at the grocery store. At age 4 or 5, when you need attention and if you don't get it ... well, you start insisting on it, wailing at the top of your lungs or grabbing for a jar of pickles to drop on the linoleum. Second, I thought of Enron.

Is there more to straight-pipe Harleys than the impulse of kids? Perhaps.

I interviewed a few of these aging biker juveniles at my local Starbucks. When they quit trying to menace me--and how menacing, really, can 40-something junior executives and contractors be, even when prettied-up in HD leathers?--they offered the excuse: safety.

We're hard to see, man, we gotta make ourselves heard so as to not get ambushed by an SUV.

Which, naturally enough, raises the question: If these boys and girls are so all-fire concerned about road safety, why ride a motorcycle? Or why wear the smallest, least-protective beanie helmets they can find just as long as the helmets resemble something from the Nazi Reich? If they want to be seen, why not also wear reflective orange or pink? Etc. Etc. Just curious. Anyway, these aren't conversations that go down very well at Starbucks.

Which brings me to Enron. I wouldn't tilt against the windmill of these self-aggrandizers except the straight-pipe Harley phenomenon strikes me as another way in which social aggression has made its way up the food chain in our culture. No longer are our outlaws the weak and powerless.

I came of age in the '60s generation, so I know something about "self" and striving for individuality. I used to worship at that altar along with all the other iconoclasts who were my friends. But we started to drift away, or at least I did, just about the time we learned that individuality is usually just another type of conformity--and never so much as with the costume and ritual of the motorcycle noisemakers.

I know a middle-age woman in an investment club whose favorite stock is Harley. She is pretty sure there is no end to the supply of aging grade-schoolers who will pay $20K so they can throw the equivalent of a public tantrum every time the weather is fair and they feel the thirst for a double latte. She cringes like the rest of us, but not without some hope of gain.

Did you know that studies show that straight pipes actually reduce the performance of these machines? That's what I'm told by some of my knowledgeable friends in sport motorcycle circles, which is a different culture for the most part, thank you. Most full-size Japanese or European motorcycles can run circles around these lumbering iron swine--or do we prefer the formal term, hog? It's all about ear-splitting aggression and little else, you see. Just sign on to the Harley-Davidson Web site and listen.

I'm happy to report that the mainstream motorcyclists, including the American Motorcycle Assn., have finally broken ranks and turned against the straight-pipe gang. The old T-shirts that read "loud pipes save lives" are being matched with those reading "loud pipes risk rights." Better late than never.

Can I mention that straight pipes and unbaffled mufflers are flat-out illegal? More, as the AMA puts it, "manufacturers work hand in glove with the aftermarket companies to create illegally loud exhaust systems." Or is this beside the point these days? The law is government, government is regulation, regulation is oppression, so listen up! Anyway, cops hang out at diners and doughnut shops, not Starbucks.

Back to Enron. Before the bankruptcy, I remember the uncommon pleasure those Houston electricity traders seemed to take in seeing Californians on the hook during power shortages. It wasn't enough for them to ride high. They wanted everyone else to wriggle and squirm. Ditto the gentlemen and ladies with the straight pipes.

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