OIL, WIRE, HEAVY DUTY HAND CLEANER, BLACK SPRAY PAINT, BATTERY ACID, HANDLE BARS, SISSY BARS, BABY APES, DRIVE SHAFTS, GAS TANKS, CLUTCH LEVERS, CARB SYNCS, COILS, BEARDS, TATTOOS, LEATHER JACKETS, LONG HAIR, NAKED WOMEN IN HIGH HEELS TRAPPED IN SNAKING VINES AND ROSE BLOSSOMS...
Motorcycle maintenance has an appeal that ranges from the macho (obvious) to the metaphysical (Zen and the Art of...) to the Mickey Mouse (“I’ll fix it myself; thing can’t be much more than a lawn mower on two wheels!”).
While your car is being repaired — like a toaster, a vacuum cleaner or a VCR — it is “in the shop.” While your bike is being worked on, it is “down,” like an athlete, a racehorse, a soldier. Motorcycle owners spend a proportionately greater time hanging around the repair shop than car owners do. Bike owners will oversee the work, maybe pace, shoot the breeze with the unappreciative mechanic, and inwardly wring their hands like someone visiting a close friend in the hospital with appendicitis.
On a rainy Saturday during January’s storms, no one is in the service department of Cycle Parts West on El Cajon Boulevard, except for 33-year- old Brad Helm, the service manager, who is mounting a tire on the wheel of a 1990 Kawasaki Ninja, an off-road version of what is known as a “Rice Rocket” — a street bike designed to go as fast as 180 miles per hour.
Helm is a heavyset man, about six feet tall, with long, dirty-blond hair in a ponytail and matching beard. He wears gray work pants, a denim jacket, and a black “Cycle Parts West” baseball cap shot with streaks of Day-Glo colors. He peers at the front fork tubes where the wheel will be remounted and says, “One of these is bent pretty bad. Here, you can see where the thing is actually creased.” He holds it up for inspection and indeed there is a perceptible curve to the right front fork tube and a straight mark at the middle point of the curve as if someone had whacked it hard with the edge of a metal ruler. “That’s about $120, right there. Replace both of them and it’s $240. I’m already replacing a tire, that’s $85. And look at this ...” Helm points to the wheel rim that’s been buckled severely in one spot. “Probably from the same accident. Could have just hit a curb at high speed. That would be enough to do it. Oh, well, the guy said he got a good deal on this bike from a guy going into the service. Hope it was pretty good; this is probably going to run over $400.
“How’s your bike running?” he asks me. Helm has worked on various motorcycles of mine for almost five years.
“I haven’t been riding in the rain,” I tell him. “That’s more like surfing. But the bike seems to run fine. Think it’s time I sold it? It’s got over 100,000 miles on it.”
Helm looks up at me and grins knowingly, “If you’re not sinking money into into that one, you’ll be sinkin’ it into another one.”
Helm doesn’t usually allow his customers to hang out in the small service area anymore. At one time, he was more casual about it. I remember killing the heart out of summer afternoons, drinking soda and holding leisurely conversations about riding, helmets, accidents, former Sheriff Duffy, and the mechanical differences and similarities between Harleys and Japanese bikes with other riders waiting for an oil change or a brake adjustment. The service area could get pretty crowded, so recently Helm decided there’s only room for himself and partner Lee Crocker in “the bay.” Still, bikers waiting for service mill around on the sidewalk and curb along Illinois Street, though not today, as torrential rains continue to turn city streets into rushing gullies.
Helm has a pump going constantly as water seeps into the shop from the hillside next to it. It makes conversation difficult, so I just look around the room: three tool storage units the size of china cabinets with thin flat trays, an arc welder sitting in the middle of the floor next to cases of fork and motor oil. The shelves hold coils of wire, cans of Chain-Lube and Tri-Flo Teflon, Contact Cleaner, black spray paint, Marvel Air-Tool Oil, and Heavy Duty Hand Cleaner. One shelf is empty except for a battery charger and mounds of crystallized battery acid.
Above another shelf is a sign that looks like an official San Diego street parking sign. It reads, “Harley Parking Only. All others will be towed away.”
No motorcycle repair operation would be complete without several calendars — usually compliments of tool manufacturers — featuring busty, barely clad babes posing against customized Harley “Fat Boys,” old Indian motorcycles, or a Vincent Black Shadow. Above Helm’s work bench and four vacuum gauges, which are mounted on the wall trailing air hoses, is a huge calendar with an autographed poster girl caressing a Harley Heritage. The autograph is in gold ink with wide, loopy handwriting to either side of a gorgeous woman in a beige, fringed bikini. It reads, “Brad, Kick start my heart!” It’s signed, “Sweetest kisses, Laura Morosan.”
“Wish I did.”
Bill Taylor, the store manager of Cycle Parts West, walks into the back room to speak with Helm. Taylor is a rotund man with short black hair, Oliver Hardy with a Wolfman Jack goatee. He is wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of a long-haired biker racing head-on into the foreground. Behind the rider is an American flag and a Patriot missile. The T-shirt reads, “Not all the patriots are in the Middle East.” His shirt exposes several feet of colorful tattoos on his wrists and forearms: naked women in high heels trapped in snaking vines and rose blossoms.
“You gonna run me down to Chula Vista?” he asks Helm.
“Sure.” Taylor is supposed to pick up a new Gold Wing Honda, the GL1500, he has just purchased. The Honda Gold Wings are those bikes you see on the road that look like speed boats or two- and three-wheeled Cadillac convertibles, usually painted in shades that don’t occur in nature, sometimes with a riot of extra reflectors, brake lights, turn signals, CB radios, bells, whistles — you expect to see beauty salon hair dryers on the back.
"Yeah,” Helm says, “Bill just bought himself a new one. You heard about these? They’ve got reverse gear!”
I allowed that I had never seen a motorcycle backing up under power. I asked him what he thought about the Gold Wings; I had meant how he liked working on them as opposed to Harleys or other Japanese bikes, but what he said was, “To each his own, but I’ve always figured a person should be able to pick up his own bike if they drop it. I don’t see how anybody can pick up one of those things if it goes down.”
Helm locks up the shop and climbs into a Ford Bronco. In a moment, Taylor pulls in front of him on a metallic-gray Gold Wing, hauling a cargo trailer that is painted the same silver-grey color as the bike. Rain is falling so heavily on El Cajon Boulevard it seems to be coming from every direction including up from the street.
In the Bronco, Helm talks about his habit of keeping one Harley in good condition at all times while reconditioning or restoring a “discounted” Harley he can pick up relatively cheap. “Once I got the second one in shape, I just make the decision as to which one I want to keep and which one I’m gonna sell. I haven’t been doing that lately, but I’m looking for a place with a two-car garage so I can get back into it.” As an aside, he says, “I hate riding in this weather.” He indicates his boss ahead of him wearing a windbreaker buttoned to the throat and a helmet with a thin microphone attached.
“Is that for CB radio?”
“Yeah, or he can converse with a passenger, like an intercom.”
The appeal of speaking electronically with someone sitting four inches behind you is lost on me, but I say nothing. It strikes me as elaborately superfluous, like wristwatches with calculators and little global zone map readouts telling you the time in Zurich and Tokyo.
Once broached, the subject of the 1992 Helmet Law provides fodder for conversation during the wet drive to the South Bay. “Yeah, people come in and bitch about it all the time. A day like today, of course, you’re gonna wanna wear one. But as to whether or not you’re actually safer on a day-to-day basis wearing one, I don’t know. Sometimes they can give you a false sense of security, like nothing can hurt you. That’s a dangerous feeling on a motorcycle.”
“On a warm day,” I observe, “it’s like riding around with a microwave oven on your head. You can’t hear as well either, and depending on what kind of helmet you’ve got, half the time when you turn to look over at the next lane, all you can see is the inside of the helmet.”
“I know what you mean.”
In Helm’s opinion, has the helmet law provided cops with another excuse to hassle and detain bikers?
“That could be, but not in my experience,” he said. “I haven’t been hassled much at all. One time, I was riding up to LA. and this CHiP pulled me over because of my muffler, which was pretty loud. He just wanted to check out the bike because he liked the looks of it. He told me, ‘I could ticket you for noise, but I’m not gonna. Know why?’ I told him, no, I didn’t know why, but I appreciated it. He said, ‘Because it sounds bitchin’.”
Helm grins and the conversation wanders to what constitutes a legal helmet. “The ones with the D.O.T sticker on them should be legal and probably are. Stands for Department of Transportation, so it’s like a seal of approval in a way, but the D.O.T. doesn’t inspect or test those helmets themselves, they leave it to the manufacturers or distributors. It’s a questionable area.”
The only motorcycle clubs Helm has been affiliated with are H.O.G. (Harley Owner’s Group) and A.B.A.T.E. (American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education). When asked if Helm is an Ugly Motherfucker, he laughed and said, “Yeah, I was initiated, but my membership kind of lapsed.” He is referring to a “social club,” the U.M.F.A. (Ugly Mother Fuckers of America), which holds bizarre initiation rites (screaming twisted obscenities atop pool tables, for example) and consists of little more than a drinking club that meets once a month to plan activities that are for the most part — and often for the best — soon forgotten.
Helm has worked for several dealerships and suggests that the shops in San Diego are something of a circuit. “No one lasts at the dealerships for more than a couple of years. Too much headache work with warranties and such. Everything has got to go through a service manager. At CPW, I am the service manager. [Dealerships] are not a relaxed atmosphere where you can get to know the customers and what their needs are. The average life-span of a mechanic at one of those places is two years.
“I know most of the guys that work in town. I never worked at the Harley dealership in Point Loma. I never took any formal Harley schooling, just worked on them myself over the years. But I can work on anything — Harleys, Hondas, mopeds. I specialize in Japanese bikes, basically. I won’t work on Vespas [Czech], BMWs [German], MottoGuzzi (Italian). I’ve worked on English bikes [Triumph, BSA, Norton], mostly brakes and small things. The problem with that is they take a whole ’nother assortment of tools. Wentworth tools. I’ve got all the American and Japanese metric tools.”
Thousands, judging by the tool tray units in the service bay.
Helm comments on the road conditions again, riding in bad weather. “I was pretty hardcore at one time, for about two years. I rode in the snow and everything else during college. It wasn’t so bad alter they’d plowed the streets. But you have to watch out for manhole covers, and the stripes get real slippery on the road. If you dress warm enough, you’re probably more comfortable than people driving Volkswagens. No heaters in those.”
Helm leaves Taylor at his new bike — which looks like some kind of futuristic Hovercraft or a bloated cigarette boat rather than a motorcycle — and announces he has to make a stop at Stocker’s Supply at 31st and Commercial in National City. “A real nice neighborhood,” he smiles.
Helm brings in a “primary cover,” a shield that covers a drive chain from the crankshaft to the transmission, for another bike he is working on, as well as a “stater” fixed to its housing for a ’78 Suzuki 300. A stater is the motorcycle’s equivalent of an automobile’s alternator, the electronic brain of the bike. It’s a $100 part buried in engine components worth $400 in labor to reach. It looks like a flower of tightly coiled wires soldered to a steel casing, like one half of a cracked, amorphous egg. It could be a fragment of a crashed UFO for all its form and familiarity.
Stocker’s is a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar filled with discounted (used) motorcycle parts. The counter or parts desk is situated at the lip of an old loading dock. Mechanics and private bike owners mill around the desk waiting for parts. Even on a day most people won’t go out for a newspaper, Stocker’s is doing take-a-number business. Behind the counter, racks of rusted exhaust systems hang from the ceiling like strange metallic piñatas. The racks reach into the interior of the barn-like building some 50 feet overhead. Shelves are piled with dusty magnetos, electrical harnesses, carburetor valves, gas tanks, handlebars (“baby apes" and the illegal “ape hangers” that bring a rider’s hands well above his shoulders), chains, drive shafts, calipers, taillights, headlamps, banana seats, sissy bars, batteries, fuse boxes, ignitions — all the gutted, dismembered parts of machines that have reached the end of the road.
A few customers hang around the old gumball machines chewing and talking hike talk. One man in a blue windbreaker, thick glasses, and wet, stringy hair clutches his RF200 half helmet and talks to a larger man next to him wearing a black leather jacket, long hair, beard, and sunglasses, though it is dimly lit inside Stocker’s.
“I used to have a Sportster.” The first man says. “You’d probably call it a sewing machine, heh heh. You look pretty hardcore. I used to be hardcore. I would ride in rain like this all the time until one day I experienced high-speed explosive decompression of my front tire in weather just like this. Approximately 55 kilometers per hour. I’m lucky to be alive.”
The other, taller man stared blankly at him, then said in a voice like small rocks sifting at the beach on an outgoing tide, “Approximately 55 kilometers per hour huh?”
“Yes, that’s correct.” The smaller man nodded emphatically.
“High-speed explosive decompression, huh?”
“Yes, not a pleasant experience. I was in the hospital for two weeks.”
“A blowout. You’re talking about a blowout?”
The smaller man shrugged. “Yes,” he said, as if he’d rather not have it put so mundanely.
“Head injury,” the bearded man nodded as if the picture were suddenly clear. He moved away from the gumball machine, picked up a dusty rear fender from the counterman, paid for it, and left.
On the ride back. Helm talks about the kinds of “cases” he gets that amuse him. “I get guys who have their bikes towed in, spend $30 on a tow charge, and there’s no gas in the tank. I get a lot of people who bring their bike in to get a front tire installed and then they seem to have a problem with the rear brake on it, and they come back and say, ‘You guys screwed up my brakes.’ Then you get the customers who are always in the shop. Nothing actually wrong with their bikes, they’re just constantly having problems, and they don’t want to spend any money on them. You know, vibrations, squeaks. Electrical problems are tough. They could be having an electrical problem on the road, and when they bring it in, it’s working fine. There’s no way to test it if everything’s working properly. They might have their bikes in there for weeks and still not find out what the problem is.
“Then there’s your backyard mechanics, your shade-tree mechanics. They’ll bring the bike in with, say, a carburetor problem, and they’ll say, ‘It’s not the carburetor. I just rebuilt that myself.’ The guy doesn’t even know how to adjust the idle on the thing, and he’s rebuilt his own carburetor?”
As for characterizing certain “types” associated with specific bikes:
“Well, your Gold Wing riders, as a rule, don’t care how much they spend, ‘Just fix the problem.’ They want to have their bike right, and they’ll do all their preventative maintenance. Same thing with Harley riders, mostly. Then there’s the category of people who will spend $100 on a piece of chrome, but they won’t drop $50 to do a full service on their motorcycles once a year. On the whole, Harley riders are best about maintenance.
“A lot of Gold Wing guys are retired military, middle-aged — 40s, 50s, I’d say that.”
What would Helm say the average life-span of a motorcycle is in terms of miles? “I had a guy at House of Honda tell me it was 20,000 miles,” I tell him, adding, “Mine has 114,000.”
He answers, “I’ve had ’em at 30,000 miles where they’re completely gone through and need rebuilds. Japanese motorcycles, mostly. But I’ve had Gold Wings come in at 140,000 with no problems at all. Those are highway models, not dirt bikes. I’d put it at 40,000 miles before you start sinking money into the machine, which you might not want to because the resale value on them is not that high at that mileage.”
The most difficult bikes to work on? “You know, any particular type of bike that comes in, and you go, ‘Shit, I don’t want to work on that’?”
Helm laughs, “Yeah, a few of them. Ahh, a lot of the new Gold Wings, and the sport bikes are difficult mostly because they’ve got so much put into such a small area, and then they cover everything in plastic, so you’ve got to tear the whole bike apart to work on it. The Yamaha and Suzuki sport bikes are real time-consuming, though it’s not that bad once you get it all apart. The worst bikes on the road are probably the Honda V bikes. The V45 Magnas and Sabers. Bad problems with cams. You gotta pull radiators off to do valve adjustments or carb syncs — the coils, the tank too, they all have to come off. The worst bikes to take care of are the bikes nobody ever took care of. Or the ones abused by ten different shade-tree mechanics before they bring it to you.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Helm emphasizes. “People forget to maintain tire pressure. I get bikes in there all day long that have five pounds of air in the tires. People don’t realize the bike is handling heavy, doesn’t wanna go around comers, wants to stay straight up and down, and it’s a sign of no air in the tires. Then they come to me and say, ‘Hey, I only got 3000 miles out of my tires. What’s wrong with these things?’ Another thing is to remember to fill your front forks with a hand pump. If you put an air chuck on there, you can put about 30 pounds in in about a second and a half, and it will only take about 6 to 17 pounds in the tube, max. You can blow it out.”
Consumer advisories covered, the conversation shifts again as we pull up in front of CPW. Helm gets out of the car, opens the service bay, and goes back to work on the Ninja, balancing the tire on the wheel with lead weights.
We talk about the stereotypes about bikers that have persisted long after these images have ceased to be in any evidence on the road. “Yeah,” Helm agrees, “you definitely don’t have to have a ponytail and a beard, wear engineer boots, or anything like that anymore. All types of people are riding now. Still, people will stereotype.”
“More women, too,” I suggest.
“Definitely. Why not?”
“Yeah, they look cooler on bikes than guys do.” I am again studying the calendar with Ms. Morosan’s autograph.
“I’m gonna have to turn on this pump again so you’re not gonna be able to hear me.”
“Okay, well thanks, I’ll just go hang out in the store for a while till the rain lets up.”
In the retail shop I find still another half-dozen guys and two women browsing for bike accessories on a day of monsoon-like rain. We brush past each other in the aisles past displays of “Gunk” Engine cleaner, brake fluid, Tire-Balance sealer. Assembly Lube and Octane Booster. Opposite these are racks of brake and clutch levers, oil filters, goggles, sunglasses, Kryptonite locks, gloves, boots for sport bikes, coolers, bungee cords, bike luggage racks, fork boots, colored cargo nets, plastic fenders, side and rearview mirrors, hand grips, multicolored plastic sport-bike “armor,” Day-Glo Spandex and Kevlar pants, T-shirts, backpacks, saddlebags.
Pausing at the door before braving the downpour that shows no sign of letting up, I check out the decals on sale near the cash register:
“Pussies will never be heroes.”
“Helmet laws suck.”
“WORN UNDER PROTEST!”
“Don’t Mess With My Head.”
“Harley’s Don’t Leak Oil, They Just Mark Their Spot.”
The number 15 bus goes by outside, and I have to chase after it.