Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Street Fighting Man

In the late 1990s I lived in California, in San Francisco. For a few weeks when I first arrived I became a bicycle messenger. I did my time on the Sansome wall, I worked for Aero, the biggest company that had the lowest rung in the social pecking order of San Francisco couriers.

During the years that I lived in SF and traveled in Latin America, I didn’t own motorcycles, but I never stopped thinking about them. Along side us bike couriers were the motorcycle couriers. We eyed each other suspiciously, but shared space. We were athletic; they were, well, different.

We all charged. Everyone made all their money between the hours of 9:30 -11:30 with another rush between 1 and 3:30. During these hours there were packages to deliver and we all made haste. What this amounted to was a loosely controlled race within the city every single day. Do well today, and your dispatcher, the person that assigns you packages will give you choice runs tomorrow. Every day, every day, the momentum builds. Have a bad week? It shows up in your paycheck next week and you get fewer packages. Living at the poverty line this has real meaning. Eat to ride, ride to eat is not a slogan but a life for couriers.

All this meant that I rode crazy. We all did, but so did the motorcyclists. There have been plenty of times and places in my life where I have realized I was in over my head, involved with people whom I had no business rubbing shoulders with, involved in a dangerous and sometimes illegal activity. I once became so enraged I kicked the rear view mirror off a car in traffic. I was satisfied to see it hang from it's control wires.

I've heard it said that San Francisco has more emergency room admissions for per motorcycle registration than any other major metropolitan area in the United State. I can believe this.

Maybe you've hear of Ziegiest, the famous motorcycle bar in San Francisco. Ziegiest of the flower of motorcycle courier "style". The reason for the quotation marks is that like so much of motorcycling many people ape the lives of few. Harley guys dress in motorcycle gang "style", BMW guys dress as if they were leaving for Africa at any moment, ricers dress up as Valentino Rossie. It's a fantasy world unrivaled even by little girls combing the manes of their plastic ponies.

To me there is something beautiful about a 7 year old CBR with damaged body work that a Triumph Speed Triple just isn't going to capture. At some point, out of necessity or weariness or due to lack of funds most couriers just gave up. They stopped perpetuating the fiction that motorcycles don't fall over. "Street Fighter" motorcycles, like the Speed Triple, are supposedly derived from this world.

Crashing is a real thing, I did it myself at the track recently. Even in that controlled environment it was pretty frightening. I can't imagine it on a crowded street with buses and curbing and pedestrians. I wanted to erase the memory of it quickly and removed every mark left on the bike, replacing levers with scuffs that in no way impaired function.

In another time and place I realized the beauty of marks. There were times when I would drink in the sight of knackered CX500s and rolled FZRs. There were as loved as working dogs, or as despised by them. Either way, they were tools.

As someone that considers himself an aficionado of motorcycles I am aware that I was observing a rare species. Like a botanist clinging to the side of a waterfall in South America viewing, for a few moments, a rare bromeliad I was witness to a rolling concourse of inelegance that spontaneously assembled every day.

I was close enough to these guys to bum cigarettes off of them. They were not friends but not strangers either. So, I look at this derived "style" and think of the price paid by willing and unwilling participants that threw CBRs down crowded San Fransisco streets. So when you see a Speed Triple, close your eyes and know what cool is.

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