It is no longer acceptable to begin a motorcycle story with a line like, “I admired the purple-ish red paint of my bike, over the head of a perfect beer, poured by Vinnie, the bartender at the ‘Bucket of Guts’.” Current social consciousness precludes even hinting that there was ever a day on which a rider mixed the wind in his hair with the head on a beer, or that such a occurrence could ever happen again. Yet I would be lying to my gentle readers if I suggested that my late adolescence and early 20’s didn’t string dozens of those days together — without the dire consequences that are now so often predicted. It’s hard to say if I was “super cool” or just lucky.
The “Bucket of Guts” (not the bar’s real name) was located in “The Heights” section of Jersey City. While the designation “The Heights” had a certain elitist sound to it, very few of the eastern-facing streets had a commanding view of Manhattan. What was understood, however, was that “shit flowed downhill,” and that living in “The Heights” (and to a degree its subset the “Western Slope”) theoretically raised your head and shoulders above the rest of Jersey City’s effluential neighborhoods.
To my way of thinking, this bar was the pinnacle of local café society. It drew characters with names straight out of a Dickens classic, with all the peculiar physical traits common to the cast of a Fellini movie. Guys were “Possum, Critter, Duke, Fingers, Lefty, Froggy, Joey The Mouse, and Louie The Snake.” In addition to the tattooed men and women, there were the those with the Taras Bulba haircuts, body piercings of 10-penny nails, pet scorpions in matchboxes, street brawlers, and the “specialists” (who could accomplish anything with a little scratch). Into this society, I rode a purple-ish red 1975 Kawasaki H2 and routinely parked it at the curb. I will not deny that I parked at the far end of the line of bikes outside, so as not to upset the riders of the Harleys, the Nortons, and the Triumphs, who all regarded my machine as a cross between a moped and a urinal.
Though no one was ever handed a registration form to join this public house, membership was by tacit recommendation only. I had none of the skills, the unique attributes, nor the street-cred of these guys... But I came with the backing of “Cretin,” one of the most amazing Jersey City personalities who ever lived. He had the physical presence of a legend, the ability to dissolve like a shadow, the wisdom of a diplomat, the survival instincts of a virus, the classic education of a blue blood, the generosity of a Franciscan monk, and the ability to beat someone within an inch of their life.
I was waiting for Cretin as this story slowly unfolded, and I admired the purple-ish red paint of my bike, over the head of a perfect beer, poured by Vinnie, the bartender at the “Bucket of Guts.” There was only window in this bar, strategically placed so that no activity inside could be viewed from the street. But it was possible to see out if you moved a stool over to the glass, and I had yet to tire of looking at my new bike. So I sat on a stool, sipping a beer, taking in the limited view.
The Kawasaki H2 combined the worst of Japanese know-how, which was just getting warmed up in those days, with the vague lines of the typical Brit bike. The chrome was shiny in the beginning, but had a cheap “pressed” look to the mufflers, along with a rakish line to the seat, which made the pillion candy slide into the rider. And the “badge” on the gas tank was the kind of cheap decal found on outboards a decade earlier. It sounded like hell, but flew like a bat out of the same place, as long as you didn’t try anything fancy with it.
I loved it.
It was a dead summer day in the bar. The usual suspects were slow shuffling in and Cretin was nowhere to be seen. Two of the other bikers were surprisingly congenial and engaged me in conversation that would not be typically forthcoming. I switched from beer to something healthier, like gin, and enjoyed being one of these guys, howsoever unlikely that seemed. Late afternoon became early evening and my bike was joined at the curb by ten or twelve others, though “Cretin’s” Norton was not among them. You can get lost in a neighborhood bar and I found myself putting handfuls of quarters in the jukebox, savoring the bite of the gin in a Tom Collins, and getting urge to find something spicier in the jeans of some brunette, when Cretin arrived like one of the plagues from ancient Egypt.
“Reeeep!” he yelled, from the door. “That piece of Japanese shit finally break down on you?”
“It’ll kick the shit out of that Norton any day of the week.”
“I guess not today though,” said Cretin. “You got it in the shop?”
“It’s parked at the curb, you blind asshole.”
“Where?” he snapped.
The Kawasaki was gone. There were 15 other bikes there... But there was only a gap like a missing tooth where the H2 had been parked.
The blood drained from my head and I could feel the cold grip of reality grab my balls.
“Did you park it here or around the corner?” asked Cretin.
“I parked it right here.” My voice was beginning to climb an octave.
“Did you leave the keys in it?”
A fast search through my pockets and a mad dash back to bar revealed my keys were among the missing too.
“Well, we know how they got it. Now we have to get it back,” said Cretin.
My suggestion was to call the police. This comment drew sidelong glances up and down the bar, where the mention of the police was not usually associated with a solution. “He’s kiddin’,” said Cretin to the crowd. “Reep, we’ll find your bike.”
For once, I didn’t share his optimism. At the very least, I expected the bike to get stripped, dropped, or chopped, and I made the mistake of saying as much.
“Who would chop a Jap two-stroke street bike?”asked Cretin. “They have a parts value of eighty cents. The only person stupid enough to buy one was you. And you bought a purple one.”
A handful of guys reputed to know something about hot motorcycles fanned out from the bar. A few of the other guys, all specialists, also left while Cretin started working the pay phone on the wall. Vinnie the bartender started pouring me gin like it was water, and I started drinking it like I was a carp. An hour later, a guy named “Bennie the Glip” came into the bar and handed Cretin a slip of paper.
“Bennie The Glip” found your bike,” said Cretin. “We’ll wait until some muscle shows up and then we’ll go and get it. The muscle was three bikers the size of boxcars, with upper arms sporting life-size tattoos of Visigoths burning villages. Surprisingly, Cretin led us to an alley only two blocks away.
“Isn’t this Spider’s place,” asked one of the huge bikers.
“I never liked Spider,” said Cretin.
I knew Spider, and I liked him fine. I liked his girlfriend even better.
The alley ended in a garage, that had a dim, flickering light showing through the windows.
“Go get it, Reep.... We got your back,” said Cretin.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. The last fight I’d gotten into was when I was eleven years old, with the neighbor’s kid who was the same age. And that girl beat the shit out of me. Nevertheless, I went toward certain death like a snowball to the sunlamp. I pushed open a side door and looked inside. There was my bike in the center of the garage, surrounded by candles. On the seat was an exotic dancer from one of the seedy topless joints up by Union CIty’s Transfer Station. Her name was “Rani,” and we’d met through a lap dance a week earlier. She was topless then and she was topless now.
Laughter from the guys confirmed I’d been the victim of a hoax.
“Happy Birthday, Reep,” said Cretin.
Led Zeppelin seeped from a boombox and Rani started dancing on “slow simmer.” The guys closed the door on their way out.
I had seen Cretin deliver a gesture with one finger. This was a bit more elaborate.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2012