Saturday, October 17, 2009


It once seemed that my whole life was just one long reluctant approach to the party, followed by retreat. And approach again. From the dark outside I would enter, the bar, the club, the private party. The sight of the people inside, a huge gang of togetherness, would hit me like the wall of heat when you open an oven door. I would stand there, furtively scanning the floor, or the fire exit more likely, quivering inwardly from a fear I could not name. After a couple of hours of gripping the bricks with my fingernails behind my back, never speaking to a soul, and invisible to all of them anyway, I would put my coat back on and re-enter the night cold outside for the subway trip back home. There was both relief and inestimable sadness in this moment. Look! I can be abandoned by people I don't even know yet!

But hope sprang eternal in some gland, and the next weekend I would ride the train to some other convocation of strangers. Return home again.

Now I am a (forcibly) changed woman. Time growing short will do that to a person; so will finally getting sick of one's own crap. So will finding where you belong.

People who speak Dutch often like to hang out with other people who speak Dutch; go figure. Dog trainers meet for coffee at their regular spot to share the latest scandals and how to get clients to actually follow the protocols they've paid the trainers large sums to impart. Scuba divers go out for margaritas and plan trips on their cocktail napkins. And motorcyclists, at once fractious and cohesive, form their societies based on marque or riding style or locale, if neither of the first two can support social numbers.

And so it is here, I was overjoyed to learn. But only because I interrupted the long approach-and-retreat gambit of yore.

At first it was just me and my bike, in this new world, and the left-hand wave passed between two projectiles headed in opposite directions. But one day I found out--how? I forget--about an annual vintage-bike ride leaving from Woodstock on a Sunday afternoon. The gods who preside over the calendar of child visitation schedules smiled bemusedly down: --Shall we give her this one, Hal? --Yeah, sure, Gus, let's give her a try and see how she does.

Let the tire-kicking begin. Upwards of seventy or eighty bikes, including my own cusp-vintage, but really all over the map, from Royal Enfield to airhead to sportbike, gathered in one place and a lot of talking to get done before we embark on the world's slowest ride to lunch. I came home later that afternoon with phone numbers on torn-off scraps of paper and the news that there was a local-riders dinner that met every Tuesday.

Obviously the deities in charge had judged my performance with approving benevolence, because Tuesday is the only night of the week I could do such a thing as go out, the only night I could practice such selfishness as this is for me alone. Heretofore I had used the evening to hunker down at the kitchen table and and work while eating vegetarian chili from a can. But now I would go out, be with others of my kind. What a certain poet of the riding community once called "my people." The family whose bond is closer than blood.

Still, it was hard. Walking into the restaurant I clutched my helmet, affixing what I trusted was a nonchalant but pleasant look atop my features, but which probably appeared as brittle as old paint. I went up to an empty chair, pulled it back, and felt inside a little like cheese toast that has been left under the broiler for a few seconds too long: about to burst into flame. Still smiling, though.

Now they are my people. Every Tuesday I belong to them; they belong to me. It's one big warm bath of belonging, there at the cheap restaurant. I don't even remember what I eat: house salad? chowder? Because what I really eat is words--talk about all things concerning that which brought us together, motorcycles. And there is so much to say, about so much: gear, trips, rides, mishaps, the one great moment of speed, thrill, luck that rises up like godly hands to carry you up and over. People gesticulate, laugh, pass the bread. One fellow sits with his iPhone continually six inches from his face, as people with iPhones always will, but he's listening, and he can provide video illustration on demand of whatever the conversation has come to.

We are a great plurality, none of us the same yet all similar in one deep and sticky way. One night there were four European expatriates in attendance; most weeks a fellow (on a BMW, natch) rides in from Connecticut, because our group is superior to the one he has back home, he opines. Once we had Art Garfunkel's brother, and the former head of the Goethe Institute. There almost every week is the man who arranged and played on "Dueling Banjos" in Deliverance. Whoever is sitting next to you might reveal surprising things, about his past in Germany or in the city or in walks of life you'd never have heard of otherwise. And I sit with them. With them.

All across the country, nay the world, this scene is repeated: weekly dinner with the folks, all of whose motorcycles wait patiently outside for the bills to be paid, the final notes exchanged, the goodbyes till next week, or next weekend ride to somewhere, together.

One week I happened to sit next to a couple, perhaps in their sixties, who looked neither to right nor to left, who kept their eyes on their plates, working at them like machines until they were empty. The people across the table, laughing and questioning and talking about all the bike stuff that in the end boils down to life itself made no impression on them whatsoever. It seemed impossible that they had come to the right place. What rider comes to Tuesday night dinner for the pasta or scallopine or dinner rolls?

It was an aberration. I never saw them again. There must have been some mistake. For they were not ecstatic to be there. And that is how you know us: those who belong.

[Written to the sound of The Name of this Band Is Talking Heads ("There's a party in my mind, a party
that never stops.").]


Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

I know what you mean about social awkwardness, I usually find myself wishing that I was anywhere else but at the party.

In my previous motorcycle life I’d developed riding friends the old way; you know, by meeting them and getting to know them. Our group (maybe it was a tribe) met Friday evenings at the motorcycle shop belonging to two of the friends, shared a beer or 2 and then off to dinner for those that didn’t have commitments. Today I live far from those people and have lost contact with all but one (just found him on a motorcycle forum!). I find organized rides (when I feel like riding with a group) on a regional forum, and have met a few riders that have the potential to become friends.

I have attended a couple Bike Nights (Two Wheel Tuesday), but haven’t found that group yet. My group. Nice people, sure, but in a different phase of their lives. To most of the participants I almost certainly remind them more of a friend of their dad than a riding buddy. I probably look like the couple that couldn’t wait to finish their meal, although for me it so that I can go out to where the bikes are parked. I mingle much better in the parking lot than inside the restaurant (shrug).

Congratulations on finding your group. Maybe it will become your tribe!


ren said...

Over the years, I have tried to join a group. Maybe hikers, maybe photographers, maybe knitters. But always, always, I end up doing things alone, and prefer that. I love a party, but I love the leaving, too. Later, going to see one or another of the friends I'd made. But regularly meeting as a group? I do not have the temperament. More power to you, M, that you have found one that you like. And Steve, the parking lot allows for quick release, no excuse necessary, unlike the dinner table inside. I understand.

seanny said...

That was perhaps the most beautiful story of our two-wheeled family I have ever read.

What an accomplishment. In Harley circles, we have a saying, "If you have to ask, you won't understand." That's always bothered me, being a trained writer, but never have I come close to elucidating the biker experience as eloquently and as passionately.

Thank you. I'm sharing this one with everyone I have shared a single mile with.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I fervently hope, Steve, that you do find your people--see, you are a member of a tribe; you just haven't found your particular tribal brothers yet.

(My tribe happens to be all over 40, and some are over 60, so I know I belong!)

Until I happened to stumble on mine, I believed they did not exist.

The world of the online forum is fascinating, though. It certainly appears to be a real tribe--and it feels downright magical to be able to re-connect with others from the past whom you might have thought were gone with the wind. *But* (and this may just be my peculiar viewpoint, no one else's) while it may masquerade as true & deep friendship, online relationships are NOT real friendships. Like true love of all sorts, those can only be attained face to face--because they are comprised of shared history. Time and experience together. Not words.

I think they're out there, Steve, and you'll find them.

As for you, Ren, you know what I just realized? You are a leader, not a follower. That is why you may not feel comfortable sticking with the group. And, in addition, you probably realize your own company is superior to that of many others out there. That's the truth.

Sean: Thank you! This piece came out of my sense of wonderment and appreciation to both motorcycles and the people who ride them---because as we know, there can't be one without the other. I am eternally grateful to both, and know I can never truly express what this means.

ren said...

I don't think of myself as a leader, but as a loner. I have a difficult time conforming to proper group dynamics and manage to upset the cart more often than not. Is that because I want things to go the way I think they should go? Maybe. Does that make me a leader? Only if anyone will follow, I guess, eh?

And, well, I don't know that my own company is all that great, but thanks for the thought.

Scott from Devon said...

It is the most amazing thing when you find your group, and I found mine through the internet. A forum run by a motorcycle magazine in the UK gave us a little space - for a joke we called ourselves "The South East Massive", based as many of us were in the South East of London. That was 2007, and the group became more of a family, and unlike most internet fora..very personally close. How? Well its our way of doing things that we meet up as often as possible to ride, eat, laugh...and cry as we surely did at the funeral of our founder in June this year. Paul set up our own forum when we were kicked off the magazine one, prodded us in the right direction, made us laugh, fascinated us with his stories of riding since the age of 16...and we were devastated when he was taken away from this world.

And we found then, as members travelled from Scotland in the north, Wales, and myself from Devon, and all points between, to a field underneath Paul's beloved South Downs, that we were family, and cared so very much for each other.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Scott, that's pretty lovely. I mean, not losing a member of your "family." But having found one, in that way. The internet does make it easy to connect, and stay connected. But the real glue is riding together (and breaking bread). Oh, yeah: and helping each other find parts.

Scott from Devon said...

Yes the key is that we ride together a lot, and meet up for meals as well. We have a small number of "members" and people join through invite/application. If you didn't know we were there you would never find us! I suppose our average age is in the 40s...

Theres no other internet forum quite like it..

all thr best


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Oh, yeah, and P.S. to all those who have weekly riders group meetings and who wonder what to do during the winter. One idea: motorcycle movie night. Or nights. Throw in some Moto GP, "The World's Fastest Indian," and "The Great Escape" and you've got more than a few dark, cold hours taken care of.

Send in your ideas for others, please. I'll be making the popcorn.

Steve said...

A couple of the riders I was with last weekend were raving about "Long Way Round" and "Long Way Down". Might be perfect for a weekly get-together.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thanks for the tip--looks good: Will check it out.

Scotty in Devon said...

Long Way Round is very good - its sort of the opposite of the Ted Simon minimalist approach, but then Ted didn't have to make a television show about his trip. The two lads Charlie & Ewan, were much criticised by bikers here for having backup trucks etc etc.

However thier great triumph was in getting non-motorcyclists to watch the program. I'd come into work and people would say "Did you see them last night - they were in Mongolia, it was great". People came up to me and said "So how do you get your motorcycle liscence...I'd like to know.."

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Hey, you know, you've just put your finger on what might be called "the dark side" of this motocyclisme brethren lovefest business: the fact that motorcyclists can often be scathingly critical of one another. Sometimes, if someone else doesn't choose to ride the purist way (and there are a lot of purists out there, each opposed to the other's brand of purism), they land really hard. Sure these guys needed support vehicles--they were being filmed! No other way to do that. And as you say, they performed a service to motorcycling. I am looking forward to seeing the film.

Steve said...

I believe that it was made as a documentory sort of program for television. I hadn't heard of it before my fellow riders mentioned it, and none of my co-workers are familiar with it. An episode or two a week would keep the group entertained well into winter if it's nearly as good as I've heard.

Congratulations Scott, for the family atmosphere on your forum. Although I still read and participate on forums, many times they remind me of Monty Python's "Argument" skit. But then it sounds like your group uses the forum to stay in contact between get-togethers, it would be difficult to insult a fellow member when you might be sitting next to them in a few days. Your group has dont it right!