The Fraternal Order of the Bike

It’s a perfect night for a ride, the h says. It is almost to a word the same invitation he issued to me a week after we first met, some eighteen years ago, also in August. Then, I rode pillion on the KLR 650; tonight, it was the newly restored BMW K1200 RS. They are the same species of vehicle like a terrier and mastiff are the same species of dog.

To ride is to be part of the fraternal order of the bike. I love how, passing another motorcyclist, they will acknowledge you with a lifted finger, an inclined chin, a head bob, a wave…

Tonight, lots of people have the same idea we did, the streets are abuzz with bikers. We head east, to the Embarcadero, riding through the quiet streets of Presidio and Pacific Heights. The uber wealthy spend summers on the east coast or in their wine country homes, so the month of August is always echoey-seeming in these neighborhoods, with plenty of street parking, the monolithic mansions mostly empty, the occasional lonely light burning inside. As we pass, the mansion facades are touched with the gorgeous rosegold light of the westerly setting sun. In the distance, the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts takes on an ethereal glow.

We putt across Van Ness and down to the Embarcadero. A motorcycle cop pulls up with that crackling sound only the Harley makes. He is in his blue shirt sleeves, and gives us a friendly wave. The BMW roars with such power that I half expected the cop to pull us over just for sounding too fast. But he is obviously as thrilled to be out in the beautiful evening as we are. Nice evening, isn’t it, the h calls, and the officer gives a big smile and a thumbs up as the light changes and he zips away.

There are a fair amount of people out walking, running, skateboarding, biking and scootering. We pass half a dozen restaurants serving outdoors, and their patios and outdoor dining areas are full to capacity. Most people appear to be distanced/masked as we zip by. The h splits lanes and we are at the light next to a guy in all black on a Kawasaki Ninja. He looks like a Bond villain but then flips his black visor up and he’s just ordinary and his eyes crinkle in a friendly way when he smiles.

At the next light I hear two more bikes roar up and hear a shouted conversation between two riders. I look over my left shoulder and spot two guys in their late 30s, I think maybe Filipino, in surfer shorts and flip flops. I can’t tell you what make and model their bikes are, because I am so distracted by the fact that they are both enormously fat and totally shirtless, revealing what seemed to my unprepared eyes like miles – nay, mountains – of skin. They talked and revved their engines and they were laughing loudly, their bellies quite literally rolling with merriment. Each of them had long hair blowing wildly from beneath their helmets and that got me wondering whatever happened to No More Tangles, this awesome product you’d spray on your long tangled hair and it would magically unsnarl. These guys would love that, I thought. They are laughing and revving and rolling and shaking, their stretch marks and cellulite naked to the balmy California evening and though I’d never ride with that much skin exposed – think of the road rash! – I am for a moment envious at their unselfconscious optimization of the weather. I decide I love them. As the light changes we all roar off, they flash me a peace sign and I fork the sign of the rock and roll horns and they honk their horns long and loud, shaking with laughter.

We exit onto the highway and the h let her walk and talk and I scream inside my helmet in an admixture of joy and terror that I found out later from the h was not at all disguised under the sound of my wind breaker snapping loudly in the wind. Did you like that? he grins. She can really accelerate.

We exit onto Cesar Chavez, passing the former location of an enormous homeless encampment of more than one hundred tents. I passed it daily when making deliveries for the bakery. People complained it was ‘dangerous’ but by that I think they mean “startling” and “uncomfortable-making” because when there are this many homeless, it starts looking like a system is to blame, and not a bunch of ‘dangerous’ individuals so desperate they sleep OUTSIDE in notoriously cold, foggy, uncomfortable San Francisco. I had read that the city made a tremendous push to get the homeless inside during the peak of the pandemic. Though we seem to be kind of in an endless peak. Even if the vaccine came tomorrow are we really going to tell people, ok back to the street for you, say hi to all your new evicted friends.

We swoop onto Harrison, where a girl pulls up on a burgundy colored Indian motorcycle that is perfectly girl-sized. She has a spiffy blue helmet and a long thick tail of chestnut hair hangs down her black leather jacket with its yoke of fringe swinging jauntily when she shifts. When she jumps off the light her ponytail flies out in exactly the same way a pony’s would, if it took off at a run

Dolores Street | San Francisco | DK Eyewitness Travel

We ride down Dolores with the tall glamorous palm trees marching down the median. The park is pretty crowded, though people/groups float like bubbles on the vast rolling green lawn, easily six or more feet between them. We hang a left on 17th and soon we’re putting past the bars and cafes of the Castro, where the sidewalk seating is fully occupied, wall to wall men.

There is a certain kind of man that gives the bike a second glance as it goes by. I enjoy pointing this out to the h, narrating what I conjecture each one is thinking. The h laughs by bobbing his yellow helmeted head when I get off a good one.

I like to sing when we’re riding, and one of the songs that always occurs to me is Bob Seger’s Roll Me Away, which he wrote after taking a motorcycle trip to Jackson Hole. Roll, roll me away, won’t you roll me away tonight…I too am lost, I feel double-crossed, and I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right Bob gets it – he’s the Bruce Springsteen of the plains imo.

We sail through Ashbury Heights, then down Haight, where the plywood in the windows of the retail shops alchemize the nostalgic seediness of the murals and graffiti to something infinitely sadder, something like abandonment. It’s hard to imagine these streets as they once were, teeming with the young and the lost and the tempest tossed, the tourists threading among them to get their tie dye souvenirs. If the economists are to believed, half these places will never re-open. A group called The Partnership for New York City projects that one-third of New York’s small businesses will close for good. In California, employers estimate 50% of lost jobs will be permanent. Last month an AP survey mirrored that estimate from the employee side, with half of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic saying their jobs have been permanently eliminated.

We cut through the panhandle, and there are strings and knots of people everywhere, lounging on the grass, biking on bike paths, strolling under the huge shade trees. A little pod of mopeds putts up and surrounds us. I like your helmet, yells a girl on a Vespa. They speed off when the light changes, making a sound like wasps. We roar after them, like a mountain lion after butterflies. We keep saying how amazing the weather is, but though the weather feels amazing riding along in my motorcycle bubble, the fact of the weather is actually alarming, not amazing. Today’s 90 degrees was a heat record for San Francisco, beating the previous record of 86 set in 1995. These records are going to keep happening – Science Advances predicts extreme weather in North America will increase by 50% over the next 80 years, costing $100+ billion annually. Last year the Fed warned that climate change could threaten the financial system, the kind of warning you’d think politicians and businesses would be prone to listen to. Sometimes I have a sensation that we’re rushing over a cliff and only as we find ourselves suspended in the air before gravity tugs us into the final fatal fall will we lament our ways, and the time we squandered to make it right.

Still the temperature and the sunset light are Italianate, and we wend our way homeward in violet-tinged air. As we head up wide Masonic boulevard, people are pouring out of the houses and down their steps – people alone, couples, people with dogs, a group of four masked girls here, a family of six there wearing cute matching yellow masks. There is a palpable joy that everyone takes in the evening, and as we race along the sound of the engine is like the heartbeat of the city itself, revving with contained power and longing to break free, like the heart of the midwestern songwriter who wrote I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind like the heart of the midwestern girl way way out in California, riding behind her love singing it.

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