It was a routine phone call until he informed me that he had recently “traded in the motorcycle on a new golf cart.” My dad seemed uncharacteristically proud that he’d masterminded this deal, which I’m guessing was probably about as straightforward as laundering ancient Roman currency by purchasing and reselling pirated cigarettes through my blind Greek father-in-law.
And at 67, living primarily on a daily ration of bacon and Bud Light (despite having already experienced one major heart attack), I suppose it was probably in the best interest of everyone who uses streets and sidewalks that the old man was no longer soaring down the road on his Two-wheel Freedom Machine with the American flag and eagle “artwork” that he commissioned on the gas tank at the outset of Operation Desert Storm.
When that call ended, I immediately understood the marketing power of the mid-life crisis.
By the following Thursday—social distancing be damned—I was sitting in a backroom of a Harley-Davidson dealership in Southwest Ohio waiting for the H-D New Rider Course to begin. The promotional materials promised that anyone, no matter how inexperienced or sinful, could learn to safely operate a motorcycle in just four days. In my view, this seemed a reasonable investment of time for acquiring such a vital life skill.
The students were a motley crew that no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, could have possibly predicted as sharing a common interest. From what I can remember, these were their stories (names have been changed to protect the innocent):
- Cindy, an attractive bank teller, was going through a protracted divorce from a wealthy, older husband and was learning to ride at the behest of a new lady friend.
- Brandi, a thin blonde woman with a tanning bed complexion, had tried riding a motorcycle once before but had given up after experiencing some ambiguous-sounding setback. She wound up being the best rider in the class. Her very muscular boyfriend showed up during the lunch break of Saturday’s class to bring her some churros and, I suspect, to make sure that none of her classmates were getting any ideas.
- Rick, a furloughed airline pilot, was planning on renting a motorcycle in Vegas and taking a trip through the southwest with his friends in the fall. He didn’t mention liking karaoke, but something about Rick made me think that he never misses karaoke night at some local hellhole bar, threat of COVID or not.
- Joe, a 19 year old painter, was—unsurprisingly perhaps—the least-cautious member of the cohort during the riding skills portion of the course. He seemed to be interested in doing just enough to pass the final evaluation so that he could get a motorcycle license and start tear-assing down Main Street of some Trump-crazed small town. He didn’t appear to be nearly as interested in the safety-related information contained in the classroom portion of the course.
And there was me: The newly-middle aged, pandemic-wary professor who decided there should be some sort of distinct phase between my present and the part of my life where I buy a golf cart and then die of heart disease. The last time I’d ridden a motorcycle was in 1999—three college degrees, two marriages, and one country club membership ago. Although I’ve since learned to let the hatred that’s encoded into the Rich Urban Biker pejorative make me stronger, the aggressive body language I continue to encounter when pulling into a Harley dealership in a German car was initially disconcerting, especially when it happened the first night of Motorcycle Class, as my wife was fond of calling it.
The entire experience was facilitated by an energetic septuagenarian named Steve (name not changed since Steve isn’t innocent). Steve was a military man, so he preferred speaking directly and yelling a lot when communicating. Steve did a really bang-up job of teaching motorcycle safety, but I don’t think he liked me all that much. Though as best as I could tell, he didn’t really like anyone all that much with the possible exception of his wife. Steve had many cars, all with personalized license plates, and ate a bagged lunch on both Saturday and Sunday.
The course itself consisted of two evenings of classroom instruction and two days of riding exercises on a parking lot adjacent to the dealership. Steve spent a lot of time moving orange cones around (and yelling instructions) during the riding exercise days. Because mid-life crises wait for no one, I completed the New Rider course during a heatwave in June. My full-face black helmet, leather gloves, and heavy boots were safety overkill considering the nature of the riding, but they all conspired with the heat to add an element of latent and ironic danger since it felt like I might have a heat stroke at any moment.
On the final day, the course climaxed in a series of graded evaluations to determine whether or not each student could safely operate a motorcycle. I think I was less nervous prior to my dissertation defense, but I still passed all the assessments with a perfect score. And since I had also passed the course’s written exam earlier in the week, I was eligible to receive a motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license. Despite never having ridden faster than about 15 miles per hour during class, I was able to visit the BMV the next week and pay $23 for the right to legally blast down the highway on a motorcycle as fast as any posted speed limit allows.
A subsequent post-graduation afternoon at the motorcycle dealership resulted in the loss of three hours of my life and several thousand of my dollars, but I’m now a fully-patched member of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle cult. Sure, some fellow riders refuse to acknowledge me because I insist on wearing a helmet and, yeah, old people in mid-90s Buick Regals routinely pass me because I drive at or below the speed limit, but I’m now a motorcyclist, dammit. And by my calculations, I have a good 20 years to enjoy the black and chrome, obnoxiously loud midlife crisis that’s sitting in my garage before I even think about starting to shop for a golf cart.