Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Saddest Ride Of My Life

He was the first of my close friends to die and the circumstances were murky. He’d been hitch-hiking home from a resort job in New York State on a night when it was raining in solid sheets. A passing cop said he saw my friend give him the finger when the officer drove by. The cop turned around and went back to impose an arrest. At over six feet tall and built like a boxcar, my friend was not inclined to accept social injustice... And not on this night, apparently. There was an alleged scuffle and my friend got tossed into the road, where he was struck and killed by another passing car — driven by his boss.

As I said, the circumstances were murky.

It was a small town where everyone knew everybody else. My friend was regarded as a city kid, up to bus tables. As far as I know, there wasn’t much of an inquest or an investigation. Dennis was certainly the kind of person who would flip off a cop... But would do so looking him right in the eye, in broad daylight. He was an artist, a poet, a citizen of the world, and a voice against repression in labor and in politics. He was a bit of a fighter and not one to back down if he was right. (Even if backing down was the smartest thing to do.) It was the pure Irish in him. Dennis was the real McCoy, initially schooled in Ireland and brought to the United States. Simply stated, Dennis L. wouldn’t take shit from anybody.

I have asked this question over and over again in my mind... How closely could you see someone’s middle finger extended on a dark, rainy night from a passing car? And in the glare of the headlights, Dennis wouldn’t have seen it was cop until the car would nearly have passed. I remember Dennis telling me how he traveled the length and breadth of Ireland hitching rides. “Anybody would pick you up,” he said. “Rare was the day when I had to wait 15 or 20 minutes.” The cop was certainly within his rights — on multiple levels — to go back and investigate a hulking huge person walking on the side of the road in a drenching downpour. I believe the world is a worse place for the outcome, however.

I got wind of the funeral through the friends' network. I’d been sweet on Dennis’s sister for a bit, though I think she regarded me more as a blister than anything else. The word on the street was that she wanted me to be there... And wanted me to make her laugh at least once during this ordeal. Yet to me was also assigned the task of picking up Ray B., a close mutual friend who was studying as a Jesuit novice at Fordham University, in the Bronx, one of my least favorite of New York City’s five boroughs.

The Kawasaki H2 started on the first kick.

This would be a no bullshit run of about 48 miles through some of the most challenging traffic I would ever encounter. Looking back, I can’t recall I ever gave it a second thought. (I would have to take valium and steroids to pull this off today.) I rolled onto to US-1 in Jersey City, also known as Tonelle Avenue, and began a descent into hell. There were a handful of houses scattered between decripit businesses on this stretch, all covered with an inch of grime and solidified truck exhaust. I ran up to Fort Lee and crossed the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge, heading further north on the Major Deegan Expressway. It was the middle of the afternoon and traffic could best be described as the chaotic flight of millions of steel clay pigeons. The George Washington Bridge is two levels of four lanes — in each direction — with exits from right and left on the New York side. I had a rough idea where I was headed. Fordham Road is the major thoroughfare in the Bronx, and the fastest way to get to the Bronx Zoo, which is one of the finest zoological parks in the country. Fordham University is the imposing Jesuit run edifice of higher learning on the left. It appears to be about the size of Newark Airport.

The tach on the Kawasaki danced its full range as I flogged the gears going through traffic. While I can’t claim to have split lanes, I changed them a lot, running between 60 and 70 miles per hour. That ended at the Fordham Road exit. Here the traffic was bumper to bumper, and stoplight to stoplight. If I thought Jersey City was a dense mass of people, than Fordham Road in the Bronx was a neutron star of packed humanity. Turning into the university complex, I pulled up in front of Murray Weigel Hall. I was educated in the Jesuit prep school system and have a profound respect for these folks. It was like pulling up to the front door of the White House on a motorcycle. (I felt like I was stealing something.)

Ray B., one of my oldest friends (and the priest who would eventually baptize my daughter) stepped out in a black suit with a Roman collar. He folded a mass card into his jacket pocket, looked at the Kawasaki and said, “How do I get on this thing?” He had never ridden a motorcycle before.

Sitting ramrod straight against the sissy bar, he shortly found himself fired out of a cannon. I determined it would be faster to cut through Manhattan. We took the Deegan south toward I-95, headed west into Manhattan, then cut south on the West Side Highway. At the time, the West Side Highway was an elevated structure paralleling the docks on the Hudson River. It was notorious for the high speed of the traffic, it’s incredibly primitive ramps, the accidents that littered its deck, the battered nature of its pavement, and the fact that generations of pigeon shit had thoroughly rotted its cheap steel — so it was in the process of falling down. We exited at the collapsed part and rode over a stretch of exposed cobblestone, before turning into the Holland Tunnel.

I couldn’t help but thinking it was an odd life I led. The last time I’d ridden this bike in New York, I had picked up some bar floosie and rolled around with her in Central Park. Now, I was riding with the polar opposite.

“Are we taking a tour of the most dangerous and desperate places on earth,” yelled Ray over the scream of that two-stroke engine. As the oldest of the two underwater Hudson River crossings, the Holland Tunnel used to be the dimmest and the worst maintained. We surfaced in downtown Jersey City like a blue smoke belching barracuda coming up for air. The funeral home was on Montgomery Street, as I recall. Ray lurched off the bike, removed his helmet, and said with a grin, “Well that was taut and gripping.”

How different we looked... He in a black suit and Roman collar, and me in dress pants, with an oxford shirt under an old Army fatigue jacket that had belonged to my father. He was the personification of Christian solace. I looked like a character from the movie classic, "The Deer Hunter." We each traded a wan smile and went in to the business at hand. It was the saddest ride of my life, over 35 years ago.

Ray and I are so different now. He became a noted scholar and world traveler in the service of Christ and I became a world business travel writer in the service of Riepe. He is now in a wheelchair, and I gimp with a cane. Coming out of that funeral, he said to me, “Don’t get killed doing something stupid. I plan for you and I to be old friends in rocking chairs someplace, pissing our pants together.”

I recently reminded him of that statement, and mentioned that when he said it, I had thought it wouldn’t be this soon.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011

23 comments:

Charlie6 said...

Jack, another vividly described ride...though I wonder why he didn't take mass transit to someplace outside the hellish maelstrom you described where you could pick him up?

Or, was it, to counterbalance the "carrying a floozie" negative balance when last you had a pillion, that the motorcycling gods gave you such a saintly passenger? I hope you wiped the seat first?

dom


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Woody said...

so did you make her laugh?

Conchscooter said...

I have always admired how you have kept such a wide range of friends
over the years.
I attended a funeral myself a while back and I asked the chaplain if he would give me an equally bang up send off when I croak and he smiled and said sure. Now I have to find someone who will deliver Steve to my service on a motorcycle. That could be a challenge.
Unlike myself you have the consoloation of imagining an eternity of virgins, riotous living and pant pissing together. I cannot for the life of me figure out how you can believe this stuff but I do hope it is some kind of consolation as life rolls on. Can I pant piss with you at some point?

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Charlie6 (Dom):

We were iron men in those days. Utterly invinceable and absolutely fearless. I wouldn't have thought to ask him to take mass transit, and he wouldn't have thought I was challenged by the run. He had no qualms about getting back on for the ride home. He recently told me he'd get on the back of my current bike tomorrow. Off course, our asses are much larger now.

Thanks for reading and commenting,

Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Woody:

You bet your ass I did I worked hard for each smile. Her name was Carmel and she was as sweet as unsalted butter.

Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Conch:

It has been my experience that friends are the only real insurance and peasure in this life.

I believe in the hereafter because it is true. I believe they will let you in because I am an optimist. In heaven, everyone gets a BMW, with a factory-installed tach.

Pant pissing gets more common among those who cary on at all hours in Key West, without regard for the outcome.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Allen Madding said...

reep,

The priest obviously believes firmly in the life hereafter or he would have never crawled on the back of a two wheeled rocket piloted by a kamakazi biker.

Friends are the jewels of life that show up at the worst of times and somehow make things a bit better with just their presence.

Key West does seem like a grand location to wet ones trousers while facing the sunset.

-Peace

Steve Williams said...

Mr. Riepe: After reading this I said to myself, "Jack's a passionate man". In all your stories and experiences you share here it's pretty obvious you squeeze every drop of living out of them -- good or bad.

Maybe that's why your writing is so good and the pictures so vivid. You were wide awake when they happened. Thanks for the reminder and sorry about your friend from long ago...

Nikos said...

Jack
I really must buy a decent guide book for Manhattan as I cannot keep up with you and the priest.

Vielen dank und auf wiedersehen from Wiesbaden (escape the Royal Wedding trip to eat curry wurst), N

Circle Blue said...

"He was the first of my close friends to die," you had me right there. I suspect we all remember that first close friend's passing. What a shock and an affront! It would take the passing of years and other friends passing to press my mortality upon me. Heaven knows I don't miss the foolishness of those days, but I do on occasion miss the bravado; miss the doing things without "a second thought", but not very often.

A good read.

And, I love your comment to Conchscooter: "It has been my experience that friends are the only real insurance and pleasure in this life." That has indeed been my experience as well.
~k

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Mr. Madding:

The "priest" has been a inspiration to me over the years, though I would never tell him that as his head would shortly be larger than his ass.

During the few times when I have troubled him with my questions, his response has always been grounded in the most basic of common sense. Though there have been times when he seems to depart from it. I discussed this episode with him once (probably two years ago), when he said, "I trusted you to know what you were doing. I still do. I get on the back of the bike you own now, if I could."

He has never once preached to me.

I once went drinking with a pal (Cretin) who could tear up the tracks like no other mortal man. On a summer night in a New Jersey shore town, he finished the whiskey and beer within minutes of each other, and stood on the jetty to piss into the ocean.

He then let out a roar.

"Was that to challenge the dawn?" I yelled over to him.

"No," he raged. "I couldn't get that zipper down fast enough." He resolved the problem by stealing a pair of shorts off a clothesline.

Thanks for reading and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Scooter In The Sticks (Steve):

Thank you for your kind note of encouragement and the compliment. I used to notice how people move through life oblivious to the best parts of it... That every circumstance has a color and a taste... And that a smile is what elevates man above every animal, except the dog.

The saddest folks are those who rush through life, incapable of understanding that each second may hold the seed for a paragraph or a novel, and that it takes the expenditure of another second to interpret the first.

You do the same thing I do when you stop every 40 feet to take a picture. And whether you photogragh the same thing every day, it will never be the same way twice. You might discard half the pictures you take... Aaaaaaaah, but the other half.

I have an old friend — John Rielly — who is a great writer (much better than me), who once said, "The secret to appearing to be a good writer is to make sure they never get to see your crap."

There is always someone willing to show how the magician gets the rabbit out of the hat.

Thank you for the best compliment I got all month.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Nikos:

It's easy in this episode... Just look at the grid and follow the blue lines east to west, and north to south. Had this run been surgery, I'd have been cutting with a hatchet. What I find amazing now, is that I would no more attempt this ride today, unless it was at gun point.

I don't have any idea what happened to my balls.

Regarding the royal wedding, the bride is genuinely beautiful. The groom seems likeable. He'll be sleeping on the sofa within a month and she'll be wondering why the hell she can't go out and share a snort with her friends. It's the circle of royal life.

Thanks for writing in and smudging the towels.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Keith:

The last time I came face to face with my own mortality was when my bike was a smoking pile and I was getting strapped down to a board... But my own sense of incalcuable loss was when my pal Bill Matz died, and when my friend Cretin passed. There was no explanation for the loss of Bill, who should have lived to be 100. But Cretin arranged to die in secret... Within a stone's throw of his pals, who would have no idea of his plight.

One was the victim of a super-weak heart, buried in a tower of muscle. The other was a man who overcame his fear of death, and spit in its eye, prior to meeting it on his terms. He was the toughest man I ever met.

Don't you think that foolishness and bravado are the same thing — only one is decafinated?

I've been meaning to write this piece up for sometime. I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for reading and for writing in.

Fondest regards.
Jack • reep • Toad

Bruce said...

Jack
Must have been hard to write that one. Thanks I knew it happened but didn't know the how. Knowing of Denis and that era I'm not surprised. I had a few dustups with NYS troopers myself. I'n a different place and time, I might have gotten to know him better He was defiant and I can see him getting his diploma and releasing his ponytail. He had the balls you seem to have misplaced.
Also, John Reilly is a better writer than I , not me!
Bruce

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bruce (Fenske):

I have been thinking about this piece for a bit now.

I do not know that it was a New York State trooper involved and I am inclined to think it wasn't. Like I said, the circumstances were murky. Dennis was a good guy and had his foibles and no one but him and one other person will ever really know what happened that night.

I especially remembered that wild ride (in daylight) down from Fordham that afternoon. Oddly enough, John Reilly rode on the back of my Kawsaki once too. So did my brother Robert. Other than that, my pillion seat was reserved for hot-looking women.

Thanks for reading Twiated Roads, and for commenting.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Brady said...

What shit luck. I've been waxing on about my friend, "Raptor" for some time now and understand the feeling you had, and undoubtedly still have, about the loss of your friend. I took a ride after my friend's death, not before the funeral, but the day he died. My feelings were murky and cold, but it felt like the only way to honor such a wild character. Sorry about your friend. Really.

Brady
Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Brady:

It was a long time ago and a shame nevertheless. But it is impossible for men to go through life without knowing a Dennis L., a Cretin, or a Raptor, and not feel their loss. But after a while, you begin to realize how grateful you are that they lived at all.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Doc Rogers said...

Dear Jack,
A difficult subject well written from the heart! It makes one think of the day we first realized that we were no longer ten feet tall and bulletproof. Many of us have had close calls where we may have stood back and realized that a) we were incredibly lucky, b) we had just used one of our 9 lives, and perhaps even c) where we said to self ... self, that was incredibly stupid ... why did I just do that ... and how in the devil did I survive? Time is our most precious commodity. Thank you for the introspective moment.
Take care, Doc Rogers

Chris Luhman said...

Great story Jack.

I read this quote earlier in the week and it seems to fit here:
"Friendship is like peeing your pants, everyone can see it, but only you can feel the true warmth"

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Doc Rogers:

Like I said, it happened a long time ago, and I wrote the story because I was thinking about it. All of the principal characters have grown old and fat, and even a few others have passed on. But it was the only time I ever had a cleric on the back of my bike, and it was strange that he would be in an official capacity.

Denis was too bright a light to go out that way, but those wre the circumstances.

Thanks for reading and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Chris:

There aren't many morals that apply to the stuff I write, but if there was one for this piece, it would be: make the most of today as tomorrow has no guarantee.

Thanks for reading my tripe and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

I hate murky, Ihor said...

But what is one to do? My Mom met Denis on the Montgomery bus on her way to or from work at Schaeffer Belts, just north of the Holland Tunnel. She saw his notebook and said "My son goes to Prep!" He asked the name and two unlikely friends met. It was a common thing that the bus was crowded and Denis would offer Mom his seat, making the bus more crowded as Mom is only 4' 11". It was like a teacup poodle pal-ing with an Irish wolfhound. She would occasionally give him homebaked goods, whose excellent quality you are aware.
Didn't we help Carmel move once?