Monday, March 28, 2011

The Great Ride

It’s funny, I write this blog entry on an airplane heading from New York to Texas. It sort of reminds me of another trip I took from New York to Texas. And although I am not sitting in First Class, this one is a pretty easy trip, comparatively speaking.

The summer of 1980 was one of the hottest summers on record, but I escaped the heat, heading north to New York. My folks had returned from Italy and my Mom opened a small restaurant. I went up for the summer to work for her and help run the place. But in my heart of hearts, I knew I did not want to go back to riding the Austrian Puch Newport Moped when I returned to college in the fall. It was just too small and slow and besides I could not get a date riding that thing to save my life. So I decided to upgrade to a full-blown motorcycle. I took a look around at the 2-wheeled landscape in New York and with my meager budget, had so settle for something small.

I ended up with a Honda CB400F. This was a small café style motorcycle with low slung handlebars and a very cool four-into-one exhaust. It had a great classic look.

In my infinite wisdom, I decide to ride that bad boy from New York to Texas. On a Honda CB400F, a very small motorcycle with a 392cc motor. What was I thinking? I had a plan to equip it for the journey. I bought a tank bag that strapped to the top of the gas tank. Inside I placed my rain gear and a CB-Radio. Yep, “Breaker-One-Nine”. I bought a microphone and headphone for my helmet and would run the cable out of the tank bag and run it up my jacket where it would poke out for the last few feet into the helmet (giving me range of motion). I installed cruise control. You twisted the throttle and when you got to the speed you wanted, you flipped down a lever that held the throttle in place. Need to slow down or speed up? Un-flick the lever, adjust the throttle and reset the lever. Pretty low tech, but it allowed me to ride one handed, giving the other hand and arm a break. I also bought a sissy-bar (but a low one, tall ones looked stupid on a Honda CD400F). On one side of the sissy-bar where the passenger would sit was a huge back pack from Italy that carried most of my stuff and on the luggage rack behind the sissy-bar was the rest of my stuff. Yep I even had boots, gloves, a denim jacket and rain gear. Man I was prepared. No tools though, thank GOD I would not need them!

On the first day of my trip, I hugged my Mom and Step-Dad good bye and headed out. I know there were tears in my Mom’s eye as she figured that she would never see me again as I would no doubt be killed on this long journey. But she said that I had to learn these lessons on my own and begrudgingly let me go. The first part of the trip was brilliant and the weather cooperated. I headed south down the New Jersey Turnpike, went through Philadelphia and skirted our nation’s capital before I turned southwest and headed through Maryland. Once off the Interstate I picked up major secondary roads and made pretty good time.

The one thing that I noticed was that the longer you rode…the more tired you got. The small motorcycle vibrated constantly and after a while (like 45 minutes) your butt started to get really sore from the stiff seat and the constant vibration of the small motor. Plus the riding position (a low café style with low slung handlebars) was not optimal for long distance riding, but shorter distances of 10-20 miles followed by long periods of rest. So my wrists and arms were getting sore too. The small motor really buzzed, sending up a constant high-pitched vibration to your hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders, neck and head. This was going to be a long trip.

Midafternoon found me being overtaken by a huge Harley gang. I got nervous as the engulfed me, passing me on both sides. But they all gave me the low wave salute of fellow bikers and one got close enough to me to holler over the thump of his huge V-Twin and the whine of my inline 4, saying I should ride with them for a while.  I did and we rode for about 100 miles together until they went a different direction and I had to stop for gas. It was great, that feeling of flowing along as part of a huge group, they were pretty cool.

Stopping to fill up (which I had to do every 150 miles or so), I saw the clouds start to gather and judging by their color; turning from white to gray, figured rain was on the way. So I changed into rain gear and headed back out. About 50 miles later the rain hit. Sheets of rain, buckets of rain, torrents of rain, a boat load of rain. I soldiered on trying to ride against it, but after I filled up the tank one more time, I ran out of steam. It was getting dark and I tried to find a motel. Finally out of the gloom of the rain, I saw a rainbow up ahead; a crappy motel. I was saved. Checking in I noticed that they had a diner attached. Thankfully I would not have to venture out to eat. After I checked in I went to my room and peeled off my soaked clothing. Even though I was wearing rain gear, I was soaked like a drowned rat. Called my folks to let them know where I was and that I was okay, I made it down to the diner where I ate a very meager dinner and went to bed.

Outside the main part of the storm crackled and roared as rain lashed the motel. I had found a place under an overhang to park my bike, so at least it was dry. The next day, the storm continued to rage outside. I sat on the bed and held my head in my hands; I could not believe how crappy this trip was turning out and thought that maybe I had made a mistake undertaking so long a journey on such a small motorcycle. But I could not turn back; I had no choice but to ride on. Watching the local news, they predicted…more rain. I could not stay, I needed to keep moving, so I put on dry cloths, rain gear and headed back out into the pouring rain. There is nothing as bad as being wet and cold while riding a motorcycle. It was hard to see and I had to battle the spray of trucks. I was soon soaked to the bone again and I heard the constant CB-chatter from the truckers feeling sorry for me and alerting others to be on the lookout for one lone motorcycle. It felt like it would never end. But it did…

Crossing the West Virginia / Kentucky border the clouds started to break, revealing gaps, the sun and a promise of a beautiful day. I stopped under an overpass and peeled off my rain gear, stowed it and waited a while for the roads to dry a bit more before setting off again. As the day moved on towards afternoon, I swept down the road, the day getting better as I rode west. The beauty of Eastern Kentucky, the air crisp, the Honda CB400F buzzing beneath me, I felt pretty good as I rode into Lexington. I stayed a few days and guess what? I called a gal I knew in high school, telling her I was in town for a few days while riding my motorcycle from New York to Texas. She agreed to go out with me on a date. Oh yes, upgrading from the Austrian Puch to the Honda CB400F was already paying dividends.

In one day, I rode 620 miles from Lexington to Little Rock and almost fell off the motorcycle when I stopped for the day, I was so exhausted. The first motel would not rent me a room. I must have cut a dashing figure; motorcycle garb, sweaty, dirty and dusty, bugs splatted on the helmet. To this day, I will not stay at that chain… I went to another motel next door and they gladly rented me a room. I still use that chain sometimes.

I rode the sections from Little Rock to Dallas to Austin on some of the hottest days of the summer. Breaking my own rule and peeling off my denim jacket, riding with just my short sleeved shirt. Arriving in Austin, my arms and hands were wind burned, the tan lasting well into the late fall before it faded. I owned that bike for a while before my folks gave me their car (a FIAT Strada, but that is another story). They finally decided that they did not want me riding a motorcycle anymore and who could blame them. Besides, I was ready to get back to 4-wheeled transportation.

Until next time. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Back in the U.S. of A

After almost a year in Italy, it was about time for me to return to the states and commence my college education. I did not want to leave, but the fact is I was deported. Something about being over 18, not enrolled in school or working (obviously being a lead singer in a rock band did not count or help for that matter). My Step-Dad received a letter from an Italian Magistrate and we dutifully showed up for the hearing. I was given 3 weeks to leave the country and that was it. I stayed until the last possible second.

I had been accepted into the UT and flew directly from Milano Italy to Austin, TX. Now many of you may know Austin to be an uber-hip city, but in 1979? Not so much. Once again, I felt like I have been put in a time warp and sent back about 10 years into the past. But now I needed to get on with the job of going to school. My Mom and Step-Dad had sent me with $2000 to start off my school career. It seemed like a lot of money. And if I had spent it wisely, it probably would have lasted me much longer.

I bought a car. You are not going to believe this but I bought a dark green ’72 Vega. It was like bad karma, it was terrible, but for $500 it ran. The folks selling it must have put some magic elixir into it because if did not shake, rattle or demand more oil during the test drive. Even after I got it home it seemed to run okay for a few days. But suddenly the potion wore off and slowly (no come to think of it …quickly), it turned into the piece of crap I remembered from ’72 when my Mom originally test drove one of its evil siblings. During the fall freshman semester it seems like I dumped a lot of oil in this thing to keep it running. And it ran worse and worse, rattling and clanking, sometimes it seemed that the engine would shake apart. I dumped in more oil to quench its thirst.

I distinctly remember one day. I had to get my wisdom teeth pulled and a family friend set me up with a dentist he knew. He said the dentist would help me out on the cost since I was not earning too much money at my new job. I went to the dentist office, they numbed my mouth (no local anesthesia for me, no…that cost extra….), pulled the teeth and propped me up afterwards. The dentist gave me two Tylenol and pat on the back, saying that should do the trick. I asked him for something stronger as I was in pretty good pain and had to work that night. He told me that he did not believe in stronger pain medicine; that was all I was going to get. Funny, when I arrived I did not see the blinking sign saying this guy was also practicing sado masochism as well. Reaching into my back pocket for my check book, it was not there. I had forgotten to bring it with me. He demanded my license and held it, making me drive all the way home and back so I could pay him (thank God I was not stopped by the police). What a great guy, so compassionate! I was in so much pain, it was awful. He actually gave me some of his cards and told me to pass them out to my friends. Oh yes, the highest recommendation - avoid him at all costs (unless you were in the Aggie Crop that is…sorry gratuitous Texas A&M dig here…). I remember thanking our family friend profusely, telling him that he could skip giving me any more recommendations on doctors, dentists, restaurants or anything else…ever. Come to think of it, he was an Aggie too.

I continued pouring oil into the Vega, it continued to devour it at an alarming rate. Finally one day I was near college campus heading home from class and it died. I had owned in only four months. I called our family friend (yes the same one that recommended the dentist) and asked him what to do. He said he liked the car and would give me $400 for it. Deal. I took the $400 and added another $200 that I had scrimped together and bought an Austrian Puch Newport Moped. Talk about your basic transportation, but hey it was cheap! It started (if you pedaled it fast enough) and got great gas mileage.

I was so smart though, my job was on the north side of Austin and my apartment was on the south side of Austin. So I figured out this convoluted route along some major but mostly back streets and it took forever to get to and from work or school. It was a bit hairy at times having many cars piled up behind me all wanting to get around the slow moving moped. Come on! I was getting along at a pretty good clip of 28mph. It is amazing I did not die riding this thing at night. The headlight was sooooo bright and it dimmed when you were off the throttle or the motor idled at stop lights. The people at work took pity on me and I remember loading it the back of one gal’s car, it just fit in the trunk of her mid-70’s Mercury. I remember one night she gave me a lift somewhere and she asked me to be careful as I got it out of the trunk as she has just had the car repainted. SCRAPE… I took a huge gash of paint off the quarter panel. She just stared at me and hung her head shaking it slowly back and forth. She was a good sport and continued to give me rides; her Mercury with the moped sticking out of the trunk.

We did get stopped a couple of times by the local police. But we never got a ticket, or a warning. See this gal had a thing for cops and being a pretty decent looking gal herself, I think a lot of them had a thing for her…. Anyway…I remember one time we got stopped and the officer dutifully asked for her license. She took a look as his name badge and remembered meeting some place or another. So rather than getting a ticket, she ended up with a date that Friday night. Pretty good deal all around if you think about it. I got a ride home, no ticket was issued and she got a…well she got to go out with another police officer. Like I said, everybody won.

Our Mercury –Moped combination was a common sight at a couple of the clubs we frequently after work. We never feared it would be stolen, it looked just too ridiculous. There is nothing quite as sexy as trying to pick up a hot gal when riding a moped, especially a moped with one seat, especially when it was hanging out the back of a mid-70’s Mercury. It did not get any better than that.

I did not have many dates my freshman year. As a matter of fact…I had none.

Until next time.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Living the Dolce Vita

As an American teenager, living in Europe, that magical year between high school and college and adulthood that was supposed to follow, it was a great year. I would never trade that experience for anything. I got to travel around a bit, discover Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. But the main thing I did while living in Italy? Played in a rock band.

An American teenager living in Milano and a lead singer in a rock band? Well remember the part in my earlier post about checking out the chicks in Italy? When you are a lead singer in a rock band, they check you out. It was fun (I do not want to say how much fun; my wife may be reading this…). The band was called BTN as in Better Than Nothing. They needed a singer and I auditioned. We practiced a few songs feeling things out, trying to figure out if we all jived together or not and it went pretty well, until we played Dog Eat Dog by Ted Nugent, aka "The Nuge". We totally rocked as I knew all the lyrics by heart. I was in.

We played some strange and fun gigs. Some paid, some didn’t, some paid well. I remember playing at American military bases. We would play high school dances or the NCO club and what I recall was that they paid a lot, fed us, put us up for the night and got us into the base PX (Note. My Mom would send a shopping list with me with items like M&M’s, Raisin Bran, peanut butter and other things that we could not get in Europe). But the one that stands out in my mind the most was when we were on TV.

Now Italian TV was not like TV in the States (as we called America). For one thing, it was in Italian. And the second thing was that frequently it made no sense. There were a lot of independent channels and they made even less sense. I worked hard on my Italian and towards the end of my stay was fairly conversant in the language. But sometimes I could not figure out what was going on. Like watching the serious interview show and there was that moment when the host would drop his voice to a whisper and ask the fallen local magistrate why he stole all the Lira from the poor children’s funds, when suddenly Beepo the clown would come flying out and bounce a beach ball off the hosts head, pull a tiny monkey that played tiny cymbals from inside the sack tied around her waist and told the audience that she had been a very bad clown while squirting the camera from the purple flower in her lapel. I did not understand it at all, but the studio audience collectively wet their pants, they were laughing so hard.

One of the guys in the band had a connection (wink wink) with a friend of a friend of a friend that was opening a bar / art gallery. This bar owner had paid for one of the local channels to do a TV Show covering the first four weeks of partying (Oh I think there may have been a new artist launch each week, but the focus was on the owner and her friends partying very hard). And BTN was hired as the house band. It paid stupid money, and there was good reason for this, as we would find out.

One of the bonus’ of having me in the band was I had access to a car (as did one other member of our 5-man outfit). So we piled all our gear into every available centimeter of the 127 and (as I recall) an Alfa Romeo Alfetta and went across town to the bar, err…Art Gallery. We dutifully arrived mid-afternoon to set up our gear and do sound check. Parking right in front of the place, we got out of our cars and locked the doors. We were going to go for a quick look inside to get the lay of the land. Now in Milano (or anywhere in Italy for that matter) you always locked the door to your car and never left anything in sight as it would be boosted in seconds. There were no high-end radios in Italian cars, they would not make it two seconds before someone would come by and feel the need to liberate whatever you had. It was like a sport, although a sport that involved a lot of broken glass and tears.

We looked suspiciously around the street we were on and felt that maybe it was best to have someone stand guard outside to protect the valuable contents of our automobiles. As we tried to decide who would stay, we heard a soft chuckle come from the main entrance to the club. Turning we saw the large and dark figure of main door man / bouncer who had arrived early to let us in. He had the look of someone who had just got off the train from Naples or Sicily maybe….not someone to be trifled with.

“Why are you guys locking the doors to your cars?” he asked.

“Well, we don’t want our stuff stolen…” our lead guitarist answered.

Taking a drag on his cigarette he chuckled again. “Take a look around; what kind of neighborhood do you think we are in?” Motioning for us to look beyond the arc of his lit cigarette.

Looking around, the street seemed a bit ominous. People passing by averted their eyes, the stores were all spotlessly clean, there was no garbage on the street (Milano was terrible about garbage in the street and this place was pristine). And the vendors had that look…like they did not care one way or the other if you came in, bought or turned away. They were….protected. He answered his own question for us.

“This my friends is a protected neighborhood…” he said while using the nail of this thumb to pull down the skin below his eye.

“Ahh… a protected neighborhood.” Replied one of my band mates. Then turning to me put his hand beside his mouth so only I could see it and mouthed “Mafia”.

“And who do you think owns this place?” he asked.

We all collectively turned to the band mate who had set this gig up for us who suddenly found great interest in his shoe laces, preferring not look us in the eyes. He had neglected to tell us that the club belonged to the local Mafia Don’s mistress or girlfriend (one of many no doubt).

“Your cars are completely safe here. Nobody will even look or God forbid touch them. On this street, right now, they do not exist. Leave them unlocked, open even, your equipment is completely safe here.” Then finishing his thought, he turned back inside and said to himself…”and God help them if they do…”

We unloaded our gear, set it up, did sound check and preformed four shows over the next four weeks. They were crazy parties with lots of blue lighting, beautiful people gyrating to the groove we laid down or crowding around the bar…err..sorry…art gallery. And there was this one hot gal that wore next to nothing but danced holding a large bamboo bird cage with no bird inside (yeah I thought that was strange too). At the end of our show, our cars were still out front, untouched…and unlocked. A few weeks later the whole bizarre event was brought to the small screen in what could only be described as crazy Italian TV editing, with the camera zooming in and out, in and out, in and out….it gave me a headache watching it on TV. I did not even finish watching the first episode. But man did that gig pay well.

Until next time.