I consider myself an “international” rider, even though my trans-border experience is limited to taking a Kawasaki H2 into Canada, in 1976. I realize this is a stretch, knowing that staying in the Canadian resort of Niagara Falls hardly competes with riding a GS Adventure through the malarial swamps of the Pan American Highway. Still, the experience entitles me to tell my blood-curdling story of having to eat French fries doused in cheese curds and gravy (a Canadian delicacy), when others drag out their tired tales of being attacked by pygmies with blow guns.
Many riders allude to the halcyon days of their youth, when they rode mythical BMW R bikes designated by low numbers and slashes. The implication is that they are “pure” riders because they have never strayed from the path of Teutonic mechanical perfection. Though I started riding a K75 on a regular basis in 2005, I first rode a BMW in 1983. Technically speaking, I have been riding BMWs for 31 years, even though 23 years passed between my first and second ride. I am as pure as the next BMW rider.
It should also be noted that my first BMW ride covered 192 feet and ended with an attack by pygmies.
Before my career in public relations included writing things like congressional testimony, speeches and life-like quotes for corporate zombies, I earned a living doing the marketing for a roller rink. This wasn't one of your run-of-the-mill skating facilities left over from the ‘40s, but rather a multimillion dollar disco/singles club for the well-heeled and slick wheeled. From Thursday through Sunday, indescribably heavenly bodies gyrated and swerved through this place to a throbbing beat that percolated raw sensuality.
On weekend mornings the place was given over to the 3–7-year-old-crowd, who lined up outside the box office with their parents. It was a week or two before Christmas, and some genius decided that nothing would delight this particular demographic more than to have Santa Claus arrive by motorcycle.
"Great," I said. "I'll get a release out to the papers and get started on the ads. What chump are you going to get for the role of Santa Claus?"
Public relations is the story of unending service to the client. Yet the measure of that service is subject to constant change. There are days when your clients hang on to your words as if they were directions from a prophet. And then there are the days when your value is measured by how fast you can get them coffee or clean the toilets.
"Well, we thought you'd do it as part of the seasonal promotion," my clients said.
"Do I look that stupid?" I asked.
The Santa suit had been custom tailored for me. Made of crushed velvet and lined with real fur, it was rumored to have cost a grand. (This was in the '80's, when a grand was real money.) The leather belt was four inches wide with a silver buckle. There were real leather pullover boots, too. But the best part was the wig and beard. They were all one piece and either made of real hair or silk. Even the little square Ben Franklin glasses were real glass. The costume was gorgeous.
I would be lying if I said I didn't make one hell of an official looking Santa. I looked more stocky than fat in those days, and gave the impression that jolly old Saint Nick could easily split a cord of wood. According to the plan, “Santa” would pull up on the bike and toss candy to the kids waiting in line. He would then point to the sack of gifts slung over his shoulder, indicating there was one for each kid. There was, if a parent shelled out three bucks for the kid to sit on Santa’s lap inside.
The bike belonged to the rink’s manager and was a peculiar German motorcycle that had the engine sticking out on both sides. While not actually a rat bike, the machine had seen better days. The manager claimed it had been under a tarp in his yard for seven years, but the part about the tarp was probably an exaggeration. I mounted it out of sight, in the adjacent parking lot of a diner. An old leather mail sack filled with bogus empty gift boxes was slung over my shoulder while a primitive tank bag bulged with candy.
Earlier that morning, the folks at the diner had changed the grease in the French fryer. This was a messy operation that left a thin trail of the viscous stuff on the pavement, where the grease collection truck had parked. I might have seen it, if I wasn’t wearing a wig with a matching beard and bushy eyebrows. The bike’s tires rolled through it like a rubber stamp on a pad, as did the soles of my beautiful Santa boots.
The aging R bike fired on the fourth kick. There is something about a motorcycle, any motorcycle, which leads a pure rider to twist the throttle. I was told to shift the old Beemer into first, roll out with my feet down, and dismount in front of the kids. But I have a problem with authority. I am compelled to place the thumb of my right hand against my nose and wave the other fingers when fun beckons. Fun beckoned now. I had the bike in third gear and rolled into the rink’s lot at about 35 miles per hour. It was my thought to buzz the crowd, do a figure eight, and pull up in style.
On my tombstone it is going to read, “He had one thought in his head and it was wrong.”
The crowd let out a cheer when old Saint Nick roared into the parking lot. I tossed a handful of candy to the mob, which was like waving red meat to a convention of tigers. That was the instant the flowing silk beard blew up into my face, covering my eyes. In a panic, I slammed on the binders, causing the ancient drum brakes to bite with an irregular, rusty grip. As the bike bled off speed, the beard dropped down, giving me an unparalleled view of the rink’s garbage cans. That might have been the end of it, except for the greasy spots on the tires. I slid into the cans at about 10 miles per hour.
There is something about New Jersey that changes the natural good in people into something else. We have all heard of the famous “New York frame of mind.” Well, the New Jersey frame of mind is more like a virus. A stunned silence swept the crowd for an instant. But these were Jersey kids and the sight of Santa piling into the garbage brought on waves of hysterical laughter. Then a handful of seven-year-old thugs noticed the gift-wrapped boxes strewn about the fallen Santa. This started a stampede. They started kicking me when they realized the gift-wrapped boxes were empty.
All of us remember the first enchanting ride we ever took on a BMW. Mine was 192 feet long and I was attacked by pygmies. The facts entitle me to the headlines. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you!
If you liked this column, you are going to love my book, Conversations with a Motorcycle. It is a memoir of desire and angst: my first two years in the saddle at age 19, on a wicked Kawasaki H2. The book is $20, plus $5 S&H. Email your name address and phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org Pay by invoice or PayPal when your book is delivered. Zap me about giving an inscribed book as a holiday gift.