Not Really About Motorcycles

I only knew “T” because of motorcycles.

When we moved in, the guy across the street introduced himself and asked what we had under our bike covers. Tony turned out to be one of the good guys, loaning tools without being asked and even putting us up in his RV for a couple of nights when we were letting the finish cure on the maple floors we installed.

Didn’t take long before he moved from being our neighbor to being my buddy. Non-gentlemen of a certain age, we’d meet in the middle of the street – it’s not a very busy street – and solve the world’s problems, ranging from how to nail up a sandwich beam to trends in Moto GP racing, all the way to who in this world needs a hard boot in the ass.

Always with the laughing, Tony was, and he had a minute for anyone in the neighborhood, whether that was brokering peace between the Vietnam vet around the corner and the Great Dane breeder one yard over, or hearing out our frustrated teenage son when he wasn’t even sure who he was mad at. The middle of the street was our board room, and Tony was that guy. Then he had a nasty injury at work, ruining his off-hand.

1-DSC_0008

It never quite healed, but he still tried to be who he’d been: a buddy to most anyone, and “Uncle Tony” to our kids. Took us out in his ski boat a couple of times, but we just putted around Lake Washington. He couldn’t hold the rope anymore.

We had him over for supper as many times as we could persuade him, right up until he slipped into chronically feeling “a little sick to my stomach” and staying in most evenings. The kids missed Tony – not just ours but the family across the street, too – and took to intentionally missing shots to bang basketballs off his steel garage door, hoping he’d charge out with his Super Soaker to hose them all down while they squealed like kittens and scattered like giggling roaches.

That’s how it had seemingly always been. They didn’t understand his change. I admit that I didn’t, either. Tony looked alert and was always pleasant, but got skinnier and waxier and more hollow-eyed. Eventually, I outweighed him by a kid-weight or more.

After a while, Tony just didn’t come out much. Instead of meeting in the street, we’d talk at his door. He’d tell me his doctor thought things might improve. Then he’d slip back inside. Most times he didn’t answer his bell.

Still had a dirt bike on his back porch, though; a couple of Interceptors in the garage, and two YSR50s stacked in the woodshed… one with an 80cc motocross engine stuffed into its tiny frame. So we still had things to talk about, even if he wasn’t feeling too well on any given day.

The bikes had fork stickers from NESRA, the North End Street Racing Association, an in-joke among a group of hard riders in this neighborhood of which Tony was a charter member. One day, a big dude with a walrus mustache showed up looking for Tony. He sported NESRA stickers, too. Greg turned out to be not just a fellow rider but a fellow army vet, half a generation previous to me. After getting to know each other a bit, we started conspiring to drag “T” out on any excuse we could dream up and sell him, generally something like Bike Night in Ballard.

Then came Christmas, like it does. Once a year on December 23, we throw our Fat Goose eggnog party for service veteran types and nowadays, Greg usually makes it. All vets are welcome that day; the friend of a friend is a friend of mine, and so is any friend to motorcyclists.

Once he’d been to a party or two and we’d ridden the Isle of Vashon TT together, Greg upgraded seamlessly into the Friend category. It wasn’t long before he started dropping by to help with wiring projects on our “kit house,” or just to grab a beer and BS for a moment or two. Solving the world’s problems, like ya do. Sometimes in the middle of the street, like a pair of kids waiting on Tony to come out and play.

DPK on Suzuki

Photo gratuitously lifted from dreadpiratekermit.org

Ken, though… Ken never made it on Christmas. Known and entirely unfeared as the Dread Pirate Kermit, Ken kept himself too busy charging off on thousand-mile loops for cheeseburgers in the Rockies – and those were his short rides.

Ken wasn’t army. He was a navy vet from Vancouver and, although we got a little riding time in together, he never made it up here for a Fat Goose. Christmas can be a busy time for husbands and dads.

Pretty Wife had met Ken years ago on WetleatherTM, a regional mailing list that binds together an eclectic band of foodies and other genteel freaks under the common rubric of puddle-jumping motorcycles through our moldy northwurst climate. She was alarmed when he invited her to his divorce party, but went anyway and had a pretty good time. A year later, he attended hers. They wound up not dating. Another year or so on that worked out pretty well for me, and we all became friends.

No one gets to keep that forever, not with anyone. We got a text when we were traveling, off in Indiana, looking at a motorcycle that was for sale. Pretty Wife and I had actually been caving that day, taking a look at some non-NW natural wonders, and were far enough underground that I didn’t get the text message until we emerged, blinking, into the Midwest sun.

“Ambulance across the street,” came word from our house sitter, a dear friend, fellow WLite, and the one non-family woman whom my cancer-scourged Great Dane trusted as chosen pack, then, “Coroner is here.”

That was the last direct news we’d ever have of Tony.

There went the neighborhood. Tony’s big brother John brought together a bunch of family members, and they prepped his empty house for sale with clean-up, roofing repairs and fresh paint. John’s family climbed all over that house, hauling everything out, fixing it up and scouring it from top to bottom. We took them cookies and expressed condolences, but otherwise stayed out of their way.

Real estate signs went up in the yard. A nice young couple came to look at it. We tried not to gush too much about Tony being the Best Neighbor Ever. No point raising the bar to unreachable heights.

Eventually, John came over and said, “Hey.

“There’s a cabinet in the garage. Would you guys want it? It’s too big to haul to Goodwill.”

Warily, I circled the hulking hutch. One does not simply bring home unapproved large furniture to one’s wife. She came and checked it out, though, and we agreed to give it a try. It appeared as out of scale to our dumpy little workman’s house as it had been to Tony’s, but it had been carefully and solidly constructed by someone who cared more for relentless build quality than airy design – which is to say, it matches our aesthetic precisely. It’s also built of mahogany, a tropical hardwood our children won’t see much of unless, as the Lorax is said to have said, “someone like you cares a whole awful lot.”

Pretty Wife grew up in the Caribbean. She cherishes a deep and abiding love for mahogany wood. It’s probably why she let that oversized cabinet into our home, where it disrupted all our design plans.

Firing up our wheezy but Tommy Lift-enabled Ford, we schlepped the mahogany monolith across the road in two pieces. Toting it, teetering hazardously, into our house, we screwed the glass upper cabinet securely onto the sideboard, wedged it in the corner behind our fridge, and resolved to move it again only in the event of an emergency.

We unearthed a colorful sign that my hardware store co-worker Joyce had made and delivered to my first post-divorce apartment, reading “WELCOME HOME JACK!,” and jammed it onto an upper shelf where it could silently preside over future festivities.

Mike – completely unrelated to the other characters here – is a two-service vet who served with the army in Kosovo after being a Fleet Marine all over the world. We met Mike on a Motorcyclist story after he, in conjunction with Camp Patriot, magnanimously endowed a ride through the Rockies for disabled veterans. Pretty Wife and I fell into by far the worst on-assignment disagreement we’ve ever had, while Mike and his own pretty wife remained unfailingly gracious. I was just getting around to my resolution for more civil marital deportment when they divorced. Now I’m too afraid to upgrade my manners. What would I do without her?

After languishing on the invitation list for a couple of years, Mike showed up to one of our Fat Goose shindigs, driving straight through from Baja where he’d been crushing dunes on dirt bikes. As I was doling out my justly famous, handcrafted eggnog of which I’m far too proud, Mike inquired into my bourbon tastes.

Notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that my eggnog relies on bourbon in a quite primary way, I wasn’t the least bit polite. In my worldview, bourbon wasn’t a man’s drink and I’m a Scotch man, not a bourbon bitch. The best of Kentucky squozins were merely over-sweetened Confederate liqueurs, at best a self-administered date rape drug for teenage rocker chicks, barely suitable for stripping off old boot polish, blah, blah, blah… Mike raised both eyebrows, but didn’t risk a word further. Considering my manners, he had every right to pour his eggnog out onto our maple floor and slam the door behind him, but that’s not the kind of guy Mike is.

Besides, my eggnog never gets spilled unless people are actively fighting over it. It really is that good.

Around 0300, we were cleaning up the last of the festive ruination when Pretty Wife pointed at the sideboard of Tony’s cabinet. With a twinkle in her eye, she said, “Looks like somebody left something behind.”

I left that corn juice in the cabinet, next to the shot glasses for about three months before mustering the nerve to drill through my prejudices. Woodford Reserve, it turns out, is pretty fine stuff; a thing I hadn’t known. And I continue to maintain a deep, wide streak of jackassery, which is something I did know.

Mike also left off a sixer of Tecate lager. I’m afraid I’ll never change my opinion on that particular beverage, which I’m reasonably certain is brewed from a carefully crafted blend of barley, hops, and Mexican burro urine. That beer moldered in our garage for quite a while before the Dread Pirate Kermit attacked from the interstate.

Ken was an “LD rider” with the hardheaded mettle to ride to Prudhoe Bay just for a Coke. Like Greg, he’d get by once in a while and we’d talk. We keep house, after all, just off the main vein of the west coast. Not sure where he was going that time but whenever Ken was on a motorcycle, it was someplace far away.

We sat around talking about our kids and our sweethearts. Like me, the Dread Pirate was head over heels in love with his new wife. Unlike me, he was entirely willing to down a Tecate or two. We watched with the kind of fascinated horror precipitated by college dares.

My new hotness emerged from our temped-in-place kitchen bearing steaming flats of homemade pizza and we sat and ate with the afternoon sun slanting into our shabby little house, just being happy. Sometimes, it’s enough to consider that life can be kind for a few minutes.

Or less. We didn’t get to keep Ken, either. Nobody saw it coming.

It was only a few days more before His Dreadness sustained a fatal biff, checking out in Nebraska near the edge of an epochal Midwest t-storm. We schlepped the four remaining cans of Tecate to his wake in Vancouver, pulling one faded red empty out of the recycle bin to place gently into Tony’s cabinet, where it still cheerfully mars the upper left corner.

Grandma’s picture is in there, too; it’s from her 99th birthday. The glassed-in side wings of the top gallery, inconvenient for getting glasses in and out, seem ideal for placing mementos and Tony’s oversized fixture has become to a large degree our… well, to put it bluntly, our memorial cabinet. It graduated to that two years ago, when Joyce passed harrowingly away in her own living room, near her own china hutch, with friends feeding her ice cubes and morphine while I stroked her hair and sang old James Taylor tunes in my cracked baritone.

We still have the sign she made, a dial indicator passed down from her father, and her framed copy of the Bill of Rights. Joyce was a strict Constitutionalist.

Tucker Dog’s picture is in the cabinet, too, rearing up joyfully on two Three Legs of Thunderstrong hind legs the year before his amputation, while some younger guy about my size grins down at him. That picture frame is draped with his favorite collar and a rabies tag. Last year I pulled that collar out and put it up to my face, checking for his smell the way he taught me. It smells only of boiled linseed oil. Our cabinet only saves memories, after all. It doesn’t stop time.

At the top right sits a boxwood plough plane that came down from my great-uncle Fred when he passed away a couple of years back. A U.S. Navy SeaBee during WWII, Fred was the man who promised we’d talk after I redeployed from Iraq, but that never happened (no fault of his) and I’ll always wonder what I missed. I didn’t even find out he’d converted to Catholicism until we attended his funeral in The Dalles.

I don’t promise never to use that worn, excellent tool, but it fits well up on Tony’s shelf for now. They would have gotten on well, Tony and Fred. They were both men of craft and both struggled with the bottle, but with the help of beautiful Alice, Fred pulled up before the bottom of his dive and lived to 92. So many memories, extending so far back along so many deep-rooted timelines with details that are sketchy or lost, but reverence requires biography much less than it dictates respect.

There’s a tiny shock of Palouse wheat, but I can’t really discuss it. Maybe in another 25 years.

There’s nothing in our cabinet that references Tony directly. We just live here, moving around it, taking care of our kids and dogs and Mahogany Cabinetbikes and trying to get by. He provided the structure, square in the heart of our house after we demoted our television to the kitchen and gave the cabinet its own wall in the living room.

Getting back to my friend-of-a-friend-who-became-a-friend (can you tell the players without a scorecard? I less and less think the score matters, but that may just be me), Greg didn’t make it to Fat Goose this time. Given that we’ve ascended to that high, windswept mesa of life whereon you no longer buy Jahrzeit memorial candles one at a time, we worried slightly… then abruptly shifted our attention to burning one of those stockpiled Jahrzeits in honor of the 1-DSC_0303superannuated Houndopus. On Christmas morning my wife’s ancient dog woke up dying in front of the mahogany memory trove, six feet from our twinkling holiday fir.

Too bulky for the glassed-in wings, the box of Oggie’s ashes (may his memory be a blessing — the kind that smells better as the years pass) now sits atop Tony’s cabinet. Like the youthful, raddled Tucker Dog before him, the aulde hound was so tired and so ready that he barely twitched as he expired. There was literally no energy left in his body to protest its demise as Oggie left the building.

We did see Greg again. Turns out Tony’s old buddy is entirely okay: still riding Hondas, following blues festivals and scoring various outstanding beers. After a cryptic warning via social media, Greg dropped by the other day. We sat in the kitchen over good dark stout, bullshitting amiably about people we’d known, people we’d ridden with, which politicians need to go drown themselves, and folks we wish we’d known better when we had the chance. We told Greg the story of Tony’s cabinet. After all, friends are friends and FOAFs are friends, and he had brought the beer.

Greg fell quiet for a moment, squinted over his silver walrus mustache and said, “Y’know, it’s funny.

“I never noticed that there before.”

“Well, it was sort of crammed in the corner until this fall. That’s the only wall in the house big enough, but we weren’t sure the TV would work by the fridge.”

“Yeah. I see that. Looks good there. You know, after Tony died, his brother came over to work on the house and get it ready to sell.”

“I remember. He had the whole family there for a few weeks. They did nice work.”

“They did.” Greg paused again. “They cleaned everything out pretty fast. I had an old family piece stored at his house, but John told me they just hauled everything down to Goodwill.”

“Yeah. John basically said this hutch was too big. It’s too big for our house, too, but we like having something from Tony.

“We hauled it across the road with the Tommy Lift on our old truck.”

“Nothing like a lift when you need one. How old do you think that cabinet is?,” Greg asked, peering past us to where the hutched loomed over our living room, bulky and durable as an Icelandic sweater. Greg’s like that, too: big enough that he’s careful with his manners around civilians, and women, and most everyone else.

Pretty Wife said, “It’s got a name on the back. That might be who built it. It’s completely out of scale, but we really like it. It’s not too fancy, but it’s super-solid and well-built – plus I love mahogany.”

“Kinda like it was built by a good carpenter, but not some fancy cabinetmaker?” Greg smiled.

“Exactly,” I said, smiling back. “Hard to break, and easy to use.”

“One of those drawers holds ten bags of flour!,” exulted Pretty Wife, who holds to practical metrics for furniture.

“The name on the back,” said Greg, smiling even wider, “is my grandfather’s.”

“Holy God!” Pretty sure I blushed like a teenager caught kissing the deacon’s daughter. “Do you want it back?”

“No,” he said, “no.

“It doesn’t fit in my house. I’m just really glad it didn’t disappear somewhere.”

“Well, it’s yours if you ever want it.” I raised my glass. “To your grandfather, who knew a few things about solid fastening.”

“To Tony,” said Greg from behind his own pint, “a damn good carpenter, and an even better friend.”

It felt a little funny to drink to his memory, but it wasn’t alcohol that killed our buddy. It was despair. A man built for working needs a workpiece in his hands. So here’s to Tony’s carpentry, and here’s to Ken’s long rides and Fred’s Pacific island runways, and to Grandma’s work against the Devil’s rum and to her century of veggie gardens, to Joyce and her relentless prickly dignity, and to my darlin’ dog Tucker and even the stinky old Houndopus, may G-D bathe his soul. As to that high-speed bastard Mike, he’d better stick around for a while. Ain’t got no room for bourbon in there.

Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a phone call. It wasn’t from Tony’s brother, but from his brother-in-law Harry. Seems there’s a bunch of guys who get together locally, a bunch of old NESRA types. They keep a big garage full of vintage bikes: two-stroke street triples, Maico knobby eaters, all those world-changing four-in-line Hondas… they even have Tony’s two Interceptors, a Rothman’s Edition 750 and a jewel-perfect VF500. He was gracious enough to invite me over to check out their riding tackle, hang out and BS.

I may just take him up on that. I might call Greg to come along. Maybe we’ll go over on our bikes, January weather be damned. Maybe we’ll solve the world’s problems. In this interconnected age, everywhere is the middle of the street.

It never really was about the bikes.

1-DSC_0161

 

Comments

  1. Monte Miller says:

    Reading your words, Jack, I feel like I’m sitting beside you.

  2. Dave Halperin says:

    Great story as usual, Jack ! I always look forward to your writing, thank you !

  3. Tears and smiles both. And a candle yet burning.

  4. NESRA Lives! Thanks Jack! ?

  5. Great writing. As always. And you’re right, it’s not about the bikes.

  6. Beautiful, Jack. You write to the heart.

  7. As always, so beautifully written. A heart warming story overflowing with love and the joy of companionship.

  8. Dave Gomes says:

    Thanks again Jack. This one finds me Mr. Dad-ing it to the three tweens while Cheryl’s in San Antone on ice cube and morphine duty cutting her mom’s mom-ness loose of the birthday leathers.

    Straight up the front, brother. One more time. Here we go.

    God bless.

    • Dave Gomes says:

      PS – I hope that VF500S has the caps on the valve stems. Cheryl’s first bike was one of those I got cheap after it dropped a valve. Still have the holed piston on a shelf in the garage. Finding parts put me in touch with Big Phil Unruh who eventually back-cut the dogs in my Sabre transmission to keep it in gear before he shed the leather for the last time that July just past the finish line at Muncie Dragway. That 500 interceptor was a dream catcher. I can still feel the motor winding, my t-shirt flapping, fanning off the oppressive humidity as the weather just breaks cool at sunset between the corn, bean, and tomato fields north of Kokomo Indiana. Sure, the pavement’s dead straight, but mind the 90 degree bends for some who know’s why property line. Blip down 3, hard right then left to set the dogs barking and the cows turning on their heels.

      DG

  9. Hal Waite says:

    Thanks Jack. Just came across your writing. I’ve spent the last week getting to know you a bit trough your words. Started riding myself in 68 on a Rupp mini bike. Dad was like the dope man, the first one was free. Since then it’s been one hell of an evolution, from riding Vermont on a yamaha 125 endure at 12 yrs. old, to putting around Florida these days on a 2001 American Spirit Indian, of which only six were built, in honor of Sept.11. From good brothers gone, to wind, and rain, LD rides, old dogs and a common loathing for Tecate. Here’s to your life, Thanks for your service. Ride on, in peace, and at ease.

Speak Your Mind

*