Poster for the Threepenny Opera
(Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
I always wanted some recognition from guys like these, or at least the ability to walk among them with impunity.
This acknowledgement was only possible through the accumulation of street “cred” earned in a bar fights, hustling swag, or the conversion of hot items into lukewarm cash. I had no talent for second story work and my only value in a bar fight would be that of a hostage, or perhaps cover, if the lead flew. My last fist fight had occurred at age 12, and that girl beat the living shit out of me. Yet through the auspices of one great guy -- an original on the scale of Hunter S. Thompson -- I was accepted by the constituents of at least one gin mill that had the reputation of being a bucket of blood.
But I was always the square peg in the round hole. (Oddly enough, that is still true three decades later with the Mac-Pac, the BMW group that I ride with.)
I never fit the profile of a biker in the mid-’70s. And I certainly don’t fit one now that I have a physique that is largely determined by my present container. (At the moment, that container is Pennsylvania.) Even though I weighed 175 pounds in 1975, and had no trouble jumping up and down on a kick starter, I had great difficulty passing for cool. In fact, there were those who claimed I was the antithisis of cool, which is a douche.
While the average person would be hard put to actually define the characteristics of a douche, everybody knows one. For example, in the commercials for Apple Computers, the personification of the PC is clearly a douche. In hoping to pass myself off as a regular mug in a neighborhood tavern where any service or commodity could be negotiated, I only highlighted my own inadequacies as an urban agent provocateur.
In 1975, the Honda four-stroke 750 had yet to save the world and most riders sat astride Harley’s, Nortons, BSAs, and Triumphs. These machines came in a wide choice of colors, such as black, faded black, deep black, glossy black, and basic black. None of these machines were factory original and all were modified to sound like the mating call of artillery. Their riders wore black leathers (always pricey) and boots that would have made Nazi storm troopers envious. They attracted red hot women, who smelled like sex, cigarettes, beer, sex, raging good times, and sex.
I rode in an old army jacket (my dad’s from WWII), work boots from Sears, and a helmet that was candy-apple red, sold to me by Fabulous Sam, the Gypsy King and local Kawasaki dealer. He knew that this was the sort of helmet only a douche would wear -- and he sold me two of them. My bike was red. But the kind of red only found in popsicles.
These guys looked tough because most of them were. They had nicknames like “Stitches, Blades, Rock Head, Animal, Slide Hammer, Mad Dog, Pus and Johnnie Tombs.” They were good fighters, but you’d be hard pressed to collect a full set of teeth from any five of them. Several were sources for controlled substances, and others were rumored to have special talents. Jackie M. (deceased, and a friend of mine) was said to be able to steal a hot stove. Freddie D. (deceased, and another friend of mine) could fence it before it cooled. The bartender was “Vinnie,” (deceased, a friend of mine, and one of the funniest guys that I have ever met).
You couldn’t just walk into a place like this. (Actually you could, but most didn’t.) I was introduced to this facet of Jersey City café society by “Bobby” P. (deceased and missed every day by me), who could best be described as a combination of Monet, Nietzsche, and Charles Manson. Bob once decorated an apartment by painting quotes from Shakespeare on the walls. Yet he painted “Helter Skelter” over the bed in the “love suite.” He could quote Julius Caesar in the original Latin, but would think nothing of breaking off a car antenna (remember those) to use as a weapon in a vicious street fight.
There was no rhyme nor reason to Bobby P. He could spend the day in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum (he loved art), after which it would be beer and a joint in a joint down by the waterfront, before cruising the hookers on 10th Avenue. Bob insisted that this was part of life and the sooner I understood it the sooner I’d be able to write about it. On my first foray into this part of the New York, Bob picked out the ladies, selected the services (flute serenades) and set the price. When this Fellini-like adventure concluded, the two ladies got out of the car, and Bob’s removed a wig to reveal he was a man.
“If you say anything about this to those jackals at the bar, I’ll kill you,” hissed Bobby P. (I’ve been dying to write about this for 33 years.)
Another night found me back at the gin mill, waiting for Bob to make an appearance. I was passing the time chatting with a guy on my left who had a tattoo on his arm which read “In Saigon, call 246-3456 for a good time.” It was under the picture of a pineapple with a ring in it, like a hand grenade. The stool to my right was taken by a nervous looking gent, who seemed somewhat ill at ease. His name was “Jiggs.” It was my understanding that he got this name for doing primitive tattoos, using a variety of pointed objects and dyes of questionable origin.
“Hey buddy, could you buy me a shot of whiskey,” Jiggs asked. It was apparent he had the shakes, or something. I figured the guy was down and out on his luck, and I was happy to do it. The shot got poured. Jiggs snatched it, turned away from the bar, and downed it in a gulp. He asked me to repeat the favor two more times, and I did so. (We were all socialists back then.)
I later learned that Jiggs had plenty of money, but that the bar would not sell him whisky, as it made him crazy. Shot three had cured him of his jitters. He was no longer Jiggs, but Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Leaning over, he said to me, “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.”
This put a damper on my good mood.
I mentioned this to the gentleman with the pineapple tattoo, as he was standing between me and a window that was just my size. At this juncture in events, I must ask if my gentle readers are familiar with a kind of instrument called a linoleum cutter. This is a short knife with curved blade like a raptor’s beak. In an instant, this gentleman snatched a linoleum cutter from his belt, reached across my face, and put the curved blade to Jiggs’ throat.
The standard linoleum cutter...
(Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
“Shut the fuck up.” he said. He then retracted the cutter like it was on a spring. This entire transaction took a tenth of a second.
Jiggs neither moved nor spoke for the rest of the night. I was amazed.
This bar in Jersey City was one of my first stops when I picked up my 1975 Kawasaki H-2. It was still early (about 6pm) when I pulled up, the bike sounding like a chainsaw on steroids. I was finally to be recognized as a bar biker. The guys started filtering in about an hour later, when a bruiser named “Scratch” pounded to a stop on a Harley that moved on a surge of thunder. He’d been gone for a few months.
“Who’s the douche with the pile of Japanese shit out at the curb,” he demanded. “The fuckin’ thing looks like a raspberry popsicle.”
“Easy,” said Vinnie, the bartender. “That’s Reep’s bike. He’s Bobby’s friend. He don’t fucking know any better. Tell him it looks nice.” And that was how I learned that I was regarded in this saloon as “Bobby’s peculiar friend, Reep, who didn’t know any better.”
It was utterly distressing that Vinnie and Scratch had this conversation, shouting over a juke box, three feet from me. But I had a new nickname: “Reep,” even though it was somewhat synonymous with being slightly retarded. Oddly enough, a number of the Mac-Pac think of me in the same light.
Note #1 -- Of the 17 regulars who used to hang around in this place, 14 were dead before their mid-forties. A certain percentage were dead in their thirties. None were killed in motorcycle accidents nor shot by the police. They died of "party" related causes. Not all of them succumbed to overdoses. Some lingered for a while. When my friend "Bob" was admitted to the hospital for the last time, he told no one. He didn't want his friends to see how the mighty had fallen. He died in quiet obscurity. You had to stand in line at the funeral home to see him off.
As it turns out, there was a distinct advantage to not being a bone fide member of Jersey City café society. I got to write about these guys.
Note #2 -- I eventually gave up attempting to be something that I wasn’t and concentrated on being a writer. This got me far more respect than I ever dreamed of in this place, and the friendship of some of the most amazing people that I have ever met.
Note #3 -- Bobby P. called me one night and asked me to swing by and get him at his place. I pulled up on the Kawasaki 750 Triple and handed him one of my metallic red helmets.
“Only a douche would wear something like this,” said Bobby P.
He rummaged around in a closet and found a 1950’s “Steve Canyon” Air Force Helmet, with the “bug eyes” visor that dropped down at the touch of a button.
Note #4 -- Bobby P. and I were in a sleazy joint at the “Transfer Station” in Union City, NJ one night. The place had seven customers: Bobby P., myself, and five guys on Harleys. We were there as Bob was in the process of sweet-talking an exotic dancer out of her g-string. My attention was focused on one of her pole-dancing colleagues, whose had the unique ability to accept single dollars, with both hands behind her back.
I was in love.
The other customers failed to appreciate the deeper, more esoteric nature of this lady’s talent, and were becoming rowdy. This caused her to move to my end of the bar, and to dance over my cocktail exclusively. I concluded that we were a match made in heaven. This rush to judgement may have been somewhat premature, as the one of the other guys assumed a rather threatening posture.
“Have you got my back,” I asked Bobby P.
“Sure,” he replied, without looking up.
I was about to say something genuinely clever, when I felt a hand grab the collar of my shirt and jacket, prior to dragging my ass out into the street.
“Are you out of your mind,” screamed Bob. “Those guys were the (insert the name of a bloodthirsty biker’s group still very much active today). They’d have ripped your arm off and beaten me to death with the bloody stump.”
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2009
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)