Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Riding With Peter Pan...
My friend “Cretin” was something of anomaly. A street fighter, a barroom plug-ugly, a sidewalk pharmacist, and the kind of guy who’d show up with a runway model on his arm one night and a $10-whore the evening after, he was a graduate of a blue-collar Christian Brothers prep school, who was fluent in Latin, loved Shakespeare, and was passionate about art nouveau. He rode a Triumph (briefly) or a Norton Commando (mostly) in the mid-seventies, when Jersey City was the closest it ever came to being Dodge City. I have written about Cretin before and readers tuning into “Twisted Roads” for the first time can learn more about my role model by clicking here and here.
There were three blue-collar parochial prep schools in Hudson County, NJ back then. They were prep schools in every sense of the curricula, as Latin, (sometimes Greek), algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, “The Classics,” art, and foreign languages were required of everyone. And they were as blue-collar as a denim shirt. While there were those whose dads were doctors, lawyers and insurance company moguls (plus one in my class whose father was the Haitian Ambassador to the UN), the fathers of my peers back then were cops, fireman, plumbers, bus drivers, electricians, pizza-makers, and realtors, who wanted their kids to grow up with the designation of “professional.”
I went to the Jesuit prep school, which was regarded as the most challenging and the least fun. It was also acknowledged to be the biggest collection of douches in Jersey City (and quite possibly the universe). Once on the inside, however, inmates were gradually made to understand the process by which cream rises to the top and learned that the opinion of the 5-cent seats is seldom worth that much. (For the record, I graduated 3rd from the bottom of my class, and introduced the two kids dumber than me to my mother on graduation night.) “Cretin” went to the brand new “Brand X” prep being pushed by the Christian Brothers, as did most of my gutter-spawned friends from grammar school. One of these was “Scratch,” (not his real name, but close enough).
This complex introduction to advanced parochial education in Jersey City, back in 1972, is important in introducing the relationship between the players. I did not know Cretin in grammar school... But “Scratch” and I were in constant trouble together from the fifth grade. He also went to the “Brand X” prep and gravitated toward “Cretin.” (They had similar anarchist tendencies.) It was “Scratch” who introduced me to “Cretin.”
“Scratch” was the nerdy kid who had the brains to do anything and the balls to do whatever he wanted. He was building science projects in the sixth grade that were getting college students credit that same year. He won full scholarships to every private high school to which he applied; and walked away from one of the most respected secondary schools in the country — because he felt like it. He said “Fuck you” to every authority who questioned his motives or principles, and was one of the best guys to hang with.
“Scratch” was one of the leaders of the rebellion at the “Brand X” prep school in Jersey City. They tried to suspend him a dozen times, but could never make the evidence stick. They threatened to revoke his scholarship, to which he replied “(see above comment to authority).” They threatened his National Honor Society standing, to which he said “(see above comment to authority).” And they threatened his graduation, to which he commented “(see above comment to authority),” as he had already won a full scholarship to one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country. It was at this engineering school that “Scratch” took his first fall... And it was doozy. He fell in love with a woman, had a scorching affair, and woke up like so many of us do, with his pants down around his ankles, bleeding from his ass and soul.
“Scratch” said “(see above comment to authority)” and walked out on a four-year scholarship that may have been worth more than a quarter of a million dollars today. And many would have thought he’d lost his mind, with the new direction he’d taken: “Scratch” decided he wanted to try his luck as a professional in modern dance. Essentially, modern dance is a kind of complex ballet that entails a lot of prancing around. I shook my head at this, while “Cretin” rolled his eyes, suggesting this was some kind of vicious self-penance that we couldn’t fathom.
Most ballet dancers start their careers around six-years-old, by taking four-hour lessons, followed by twelve hours of practice, seven days a week. By the time they are eight-years-old, they are ready to make a serious commitment to ballet. “Scratch” was 18 when he started to pursue this. (It should be noted that he had a physique like coiled copper cable wrapped around titanium, and endurance that was difficult to comprehend.) Within three years, he was dancing in the company of the legendary Charles Weidman (New York City). I failed to understand this level of personal achievement at this time, but it would be as if I had decided to take up climbing and started with the north face of the Eiger.
“Scratch” began a physical transformation that was sometimes hard to comprehend. To see him on stage, in New York City, flying through the air (to land on his toes or fingertips), left me puzzled at times. I once asked him, “Where’s the payoff in all this?” Naturally, the payoff was in the expression of his art, which in many regards was also his soul — that had once been confined to mathematical formulas and conceptual drawings. We were backstage and “Scratch” was about to slip into a dressing room door, which he held open a second. Inside, I could see any number of the most incredibly beautiful women — in various stages of undress. He just smiled, reducing things to my primitive level of understanding. (His commitment greatly exceeded my ability to comprehend it then.)
A month later, “Cretin” and I sat sweating on two shiny motorcycles, attempting to reach another level of understanding.
Jersey City was the dog shit and broken glass capital of the world in the summer of 1975. It is hard to imagine an uglier place. (To my thinking, it still is. And since I was born and raised there, I can say what I want.) The heat that night baked the tedium and desperation out of the concrete sidewalk and flat roofs, converting it to human drippings, and those who to thought to flee, even for just a few hours, moved on their options.
I conned “Cretin” into taking a screaming 78-mile ride up Route 23 to High Point State Park. There we could find someplace in the trees, above the Delaware River, to drink whiskey out of a bottle, eat cold meat sandwiches, and breathe in cooler air bereft of hot car exhaust, fetid bar farts, or the industrial perfume on the kind of women who’d be likely to accompany us at the last minute. (There would be no women on this run as my luck was stone cold and “Cretin” was in one of his “They’re-all-bitches” moods.)
We were headed toward a deli off Journal Square (the epicenter of Jersey City hopelessness) when “Cretin’s” Norton Commando squatted in an imperative stop. I nearly swallowed his bike’s feeble 2-watt taillight.
“Scraaaaaaaaatch,” Cretin yelled across a concourse of skewed traffic, loading busses, and mobbed humans branded with that “God-damned-this-heat” look on their damp faces.
“Scratch” had just exited the PATH (subway) station, on the return trip from Manhattan. He wore glasses as thick as steerage deck porthole covers and glanced around as if his name had been shouted by the buildings or lamp posts around him.
“Cretin” yelled a second time, then whipped the Norton through the lines of taxicabs, bus lanes, and crosswalks of the “old” Journal Square. I followed, enduring the car horns, extended fingers, and shouts from endangered pedestrians that invariably lay in his wake.
The plan was explained to “Scratch,” who donned my spare metallic green helmet and climbed onto the Norton’s pillion. The backpack — or a variation of the rucksack — was already popular in the mid-seventies. But “Scratch” was never one for conventional wisdom, and carried his dance gear in something he found to be more convenient. The nature of this device, which had been invented in the 1890’s, will be discussed later. It should be pointed out that “Scratch” was returning from a “full dress rehearsal,” and was wearing an outfit that would raise nary an eyebrow among his most intimate friends, but one that might have been judged “avant-garde” in the provinces.
“Scratch’s” grip not only proved ideal for carrying his dance gear, but had lots of room for the rum, coke, some beer, three huge deli sandwiches, and other stuff — like a bag of sugar cookies and a can of pineapple juice — all of which we got at the deli.
The ride out of Jersey City and into the countryside was uneventful, but somewhat competitive, as “Cretin” sought to hold the lead and set the pace. In pure speed, the Norton Commando was no match for the Kawasaki H2, the fastest stock motorcycle of its day. (But the Kawasaki had the handling characteristics of a falling tree.) I was content to let the other bike lead, and to take in the scenery, which at the time was bathed in the soft, pre-dusk July light. Route 23 ran through hilly, dairy farm-country, with contented cows in the fields and vapid-eyed horses along rail fences. But “Cretin” got cocky and kept slowing down to laugh over his shoulder at me, before jazzing the Norton ahead once again.
I got tired of this and let him have it on the stretch of highway around the Newark watershed, which is more like a little expressway in the country. The Kawasaki did its thing — albeit with that fruity two-stroke outboard motor growl — and took off like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. I passed the Norton like it was nothing more than a good-looking piece of British riding iron running on weak tea. There was a buzziness to the H2 in the pegs and handlebars that matched the sound of the engine, and which added an extra dimension to the texture of the road, filtering through the primitive suspension. I came to associate this sensation with the liberation of my soul, and was celebrating another escape at the expense of “Cretin’s” Norton when the unthinkable occurred.
A whitetail deer stepped off the left lane shoulder and into my destiny, a couple of hundred yards up the road.
I hit the horn, with was like squeezing a chipmunk, and then started downshifting (without the benefit of the clutch), while hitting the brakes. It should be noted that I was doing about 85 miles-per-hour at the time. Like most of its species, the deer had shit for brains and stopped dead center in the road, displaying that look which clearly indicates it was trying to determine the best way to run directly into my bike. And then it reversed course, tap dancing back to the shoulder. And I mean tap dancing. It couldn’t get traction on the pavement with those stupid hooves, and was slipping with every step. I glanced into the mirror to see where “Cretin” was and then swerved to the right, bleeding off speed for a false sense of security. I couldn’t see “Cretin” in the mirror... Because he was six inches off my rear wheel.
I whipped passed the deer, and “Cretin” whipped past me, with his left arm extended, and the middle finger on his left hand pointing upward, in mute testimony to the smoothness of my maneuver. The Norton handled much better than the Kawasaki, and even though “Cretin” had taken it to the shoulder to get around me, the bike followed his line of sight effortlessly, without the wobble that was the H2’s legacy and curse.
And it was in this pose, with the state bird of New Jersey roosting on his hand, that “Cretin” shot passed the police cruiser hidden in the median. Naturally, the cop thought “Cretin” was saluting him, and the roof lights came on with sinister intent.
The Kawasaki was a powerful bike for its fleeting fifteen minutes in history, but 75 horsepower is hardy nuclear muscle. Missing a couple of shifts at a critical moment was almost as good as coming to a full stop as that two-stroke motor sang the loudest at the higher end. In fact, the way I had slowed to avoid the deer could have fouled the plugs. I was going well below the speed limit when the cop pulled out onto the pavement.
“Cretin” went a full mile before surrendering. The cops were officers from the local town, and it may have been harder to find two good old boys of purer country stock — even in the deep south. They ordered the riders from the bike and then the show started. (I pulled over about 50 yards back, and started to fidget with the plugs.) These were the days when cops had real authority and didn’t have to worry about getting shot or sued by every asshole behind the wheel. (And it should be noted, that cops back then were a lot more judicious in how they exercised that authority.)
“Cretin” knew the drill, and went about producing a well-worn license and registration. He was a scofflaw of the highest order, and I knew that one thing or another would be askew about his identification. (He carried papers under the name of “George Claxton” for years, changing them to “Clax” Claxton after getting nailed under the first monicker.) But the cops had no interest in “Cretin’s” identification that night.
“Scratch” stepped off the Norton as if he was incidental to the evening’s events. As I said earlier, he had come from a dress rehearsal, and was wearing reddish-orange tights, under a jet black body suit that adhered to his frame like a tattoo. This outfit was so tight that it outlined every muscle like a mold. This is how “Cretin” and I came to know that “Scratch” was hung like a moose. His hair was nearly waist-length, but was braided in two pig-tails. And he was still wearing his stage make-up, over a hint of five o’clock shadow.
The two “Jack Armstrong, All American” cops were utterly speechless...
“Scratch” slipped the bungee cords that held the container for his gear, the booze and sandwiches to the Norton. It was an oversized, traditional trap-door wicker picnic basket.
He knew “Cretin” better than I did and expected the identification review process to run at least an hour. “Scratch” spread a little cloth on the ground, parked his ass on it, and began dunking the sugar cookies into a cup of pineapple juice.
“What have you got there?” asked one of the cops.
“Sugar cookies and pineapple juice,” said “Scratch.” “They are an unlikely combination but taste surprisingly good. Want one?” His response was cold sober, precise, and succinct.
The cop just shook his head.
After asking ‘Cretin” where he was coming from and where he was going, the other officer grilled him about the extended finger.
“I was coming up behind some asshole who slowed down to 35 miles per hour — in the left lane — and then the guy cut me off when I passed him on the right. The finger was for him. That’s him back there. You should beat the shit out of him with your nightsticks.”
One of the cops took a leisurely walk in my direction and asked, “What’s your story?”
“My plugs fouled and stalled the bike,” I said. “I’m putting in the spare set now. I hope I didn’t scare that other guy and his girlfriend.” (I could barely get these last three words out without choking.)
“It’s not his girlfriend, exactly,” said the cop.
The one cop returned “Cretin’s paperwork (which identified him as Leon Trotsky) and they pulled away without issuing a ticket. “They never looked at my license once ‘Scratch’ got off the bike and removed that stupid helmet,” said “Cretin.”
The three of us were tucked away in the woods overlooking the Delaware river forty-five minutes later, mixing rum with pineapple juice. The stars were just coming out and the night creatures were tuning up. We had laughed ourselves silly over this story... And then the topic turned to women. I was in another dry spell that I thought would leave me celibate for life. “Cretin” was raging about an unreasonably short-tempered girlfriend who’d found him in the arms of another woman, who turned out to be her cousin. Neither one of us realized that “Scratch” had gotten more ass than a Port Authority toilet in the past six months, and that none of it entailed lying, pleading, nor buzzing around on motorcycles.
“Cretin” was somewhat silent when “Scratch” got through with his sexual summary. (Not only was “Scratch” a stickler for the truth, but he was incapable of exaggeration.) For the briefest moment, “Cretin” and I considering adopting his techniques.
“We all have to make the best of our respective abilities,” said ‘Cretin.’ “Besides, do you know how stupid Reep would look in those orange tights and that body suit? He already looks like a total douche on that Kawasaki. The cops should have beaten the shit out of him just for riding around on it.”
©Copyright Jack Riepe “Reep” 2011