Disclaimer: The events described may or may not have happened, decades ago, in a galaxy far far away. The names may or may not have been changed to protect the guilty and there may or may not be a city of New Orleans in southern Louisiana. Anything of an illegal nature is categorically denied and is presented as fiction. Anything depicting the laws of physics is presented as events transpired...even if this necessitates a suspension of belief. All protections afforded by the statute of limitations, the 1st Amendment and the little mattress tag that says “Do not remove under penalty of law” are hereby invoked!
I think it was August, but I do remember that it was summer and anyway, it doesn't matter because it's always the small details that make life interesting.
Mike-The-Bike and I were sitting in one of our regular West Bank haunts that night. My Shovelhead sat outside near the front door and Mike's Sportster was leaning against the bar's brick wall.
The bar was presided over by the magnificent Moroni. The man was fiftyish, tall, rail-thin, alcoholic, unpredictable and Irish. Tufts of unkempt red hair shielded a pair of psychotically-cold, pale blue eyes. The eyes gave balance to a long-ago broken nose where freckles and ethanol-insulted burst capillaries vied for space. Moroni saved his meager paycheck for rent and food and drank up all his tips as well as some of his employers' profits. Living in a fleabag, pay-in-advance-by-the-week hotel and eating every fortnight or so provided a delicately-calibrated economic balance to his existence.
Moroni wasn't motorcycle people, but was wildly enthusiastic about any mode of transportation that would take him to the next bar. He was also a congenital liar, though he ascribed this to an atavistic Irish talent for grand storytelling. Tonight's lie, er, grand story, involved his newest favorite bar in the New Orleans French Quarter. Its attributes supposedly included cheap, cold draft beer, beautiful and available women and a friendly, inviting, air-conditioned ambiance.
Mike and I knew this was a lie since we were from New Orleans and realized that you might find one or two of these attributes in a New Orleans bar, but never all three...or at least not in any place with cheap draft beer.
During one of Mike's rare periods of regular employment, he'd convinced some idiot finance company officer to approve his loan application for a then-nice, slightly-used, Iron Head Sportster. Mike had managed the smallest possible down payment, made one monthly note and then lapsed into his usual state of chronic unemployment. For over a year he'd been ignoring legal notices and dodging repo men. The Sportster was nested in a series of friendly garages and alleys, but was never parked anywhere near his house.
Mike played a decent electric six string and managed to survive with occasional music gigs and work as a bouncer at a series of lounges. This gave him enough money for beer, a little money for gas and absolutely nothing to replace the parts which regularly vibrated off his bike. I'd spring for the odd beer, but absolutely drew the line at buying him new parts, oil or gas.
I developed a lifelong respect for Iron Head toughness as a result of watching Mike's innovative methods of feeding that bike. Typically, he'd buy a dollar's worth of gas and then rummage through the gas station's trash cans, bringing up discarded bottles and cans of lubricant. It didn't matter what it was: ATF, 30-weight, power steering fluid... or maybe Johnson's Baby Oil for all I knew. He'd upend these nearly empty bottles and cans on the Sporty's oil fill spout and let the last few drops dribble into the tank. I was always expecting to see a frozen piston or shattered cases, but nothing untowards ever seemed to occur.
I wasn't heartless: I would help Mike with his bike from time to time. Once, I even got into his hopelessly locked-up trapdoor tranny and managed to get him going on three of the four gears. A tranny inspection indicated the malfunction had little to do with Mike's eclectic choice of lubricants, but seemed to be more related to his casual and erratic clutch technique. Any gear dogs that weren't broken and lying in the bottom of the box were hopelessly worn. Between the two of us we had enough junk parts to get three gears working, but getting fourth back would've required non-existent cash, so he rode without it.
This worked well enough around town, but on the highway was a nightmare of insane RPMs and terminal vibration...which of course resulted in the Iron Head shedding more parts. The vibration gods had already stolen the Sportster's tail light and sidestand, which is why Mike's bike was leaning against the bar's wall that night.
My Shovelhead was a lot prettier and better-maintained than Mike's Sportster, but was started with a wire and alligator clip. The damned cheapazzed ignition switch had broken immediately upon being freed from its Milwaukee warranty chains and I had neither the funds nor inclination to replace it. Then, as now, Harley-Davidson parts were priced as if they were fabricated from platinum and unobtanium and this has always been a problem for those living on cast iron budgets.
What I did was fabricate an ignition wire and alligator clip that would complete its circuit by being grounded anywhere on the bike. I'd reach down and clip this onto a bare spot on the frame near the right passenger foot-peg when I was ready to ride. This didn't give me the electric starter, but the Shovel was always a first kick starter, so I didn't worry about it.
Moroni was getting off shift, so despite our misgivings, Mike and I figured we'd just as well be bored in Moroni's new bar as in our regular dive. We agreed to take him across the Mississippi River, hit the French Quarter and check out his new joint. Moroni insisted on riding with me, as the latest thing to have vibrated off of Mike's Sportster was one of his passenger pegs. We wound through the Quarter's narrow streets and finally found the place. There was one empty parallel parking spot on the entire block and Mike rode through it and onto the sidewalk, so he'd have a building to lean his bike against. In a spirit of solidarity, even though I had no need of a building to lean on, I ran up on the sidewalk too and parked in front of Mike.
The new bar, as we'd suspected, was horrible. The beer was expensive and the only air conditioning came from opened doors and windows, which seemed designed to allow any patches of cool air out and flies and hot air in. The attractive and available women were represented by an elderly, balding, obese black woman who talked to herself and went around the room picking up imaginary things off the floor.
Upon leaving, we discovered the previously empty parking spot was now filled, so the only possible way to get off of the sidewalk was to go to the next corner. We fired up the bikes and rode very slowly down the sidewalk 'til we got to the corner, at the infamous Bourbon Street.
The space-time continuum is a tricky thing and people in dangerous situations often feel as though time has slowed. Events that pass in moments can be remembered down to their tiniest detail. Scientists say that this is due to an area of the brain called the amygdala, which lays down an extra dense layer of memories when under stress. Our extensive field experiments conclusively proved that beer was the necessary ingredient for controlling wild amygdalas.
There were four or five cops standing diagonally across the intersection and one of them gave me The Look as my front wheel came off the curb. As I started to roll, he began to sprint out towards the center of the street, so I opened it up, just hoping to leave a bad scene behind me. I was almost through the intersection and had hit maybe 15 miles-per-hour when my peripheral vision caught a hand shooting out towards me from the darkness and I heard the shouted command “Stop!” The hand grasped my leather cutoff and pulled hard.
I suspect that the police academy curricula of the day were long on enforcement and short on physics, but physics will not be denied. There is no possible way for a 200 pound policeman to stop eight or nine-hundred pounds of Harley-Davidson and riders moving at fifteen miles-per-hour. The grasping hand that slipped off my cutoff instantly became a hard drawn fist, rocketing rearwards in the cosmic stream. This fist immediately connected square-on with Moroni's nose and caused him to tumble heels over head backwards off the bike. The fist's impact with Moroni's nose also caused the cop to whirl like a dervish and fall, sprawling in the street.
In recalling long ago events, one should be fair even to one's adversaries and it is this charitable impulse that forces me to note that the policeman almost certainly had no intention of punching Moroni in the nose. He very certainly did intend to drag me off my bike and probably stomp me into a puddle, but Moroni was an innocent victim of circumstance. Collateral damage, if you will. Similarly, there can be no doubt that Moroni's right foot had no intention of jarring my little alligator clip as he tumbled off the back of the motorcycle.
My headlight went dark and the engine died. Instinctively, I pulled in the clutch, threw the bike into neutral and began to coast. I looked back just long enough to see Moroni finish his last roll and come up running, the cop hot on his tail. I continued coasting, losing speed and desperately trying to think of a solution. Moroni and the cop were getting closer. There was no possible way I'd have time to stop the bike, reattach the ignition wire, crank it and get away before being nabbed. Damn that cheapazzed alligator clip; with a working electric starter, I might've had a chance.
I was barely moving now. Moroni and the cop were almost on me. The jig was up. I was thinking about my one phone call and bail-bondsmen. It had been a good run, but this was the end. God only knows, I'd tried! The bike was down to three or four miles-per-hour. Then, as if the universe was giving me a final, karmic kick in the posterior, my front wheel fell into one of the Quarter's notorious potholes. The impact shook the frame like it'd been hit by a bull.
And my headlight came back on!
Dear God! Sweet Jesus! Please, please, please, puhleeeeeease give me enough speed to crank the engine! I'll be a good boy! I won't ever do it again! You can trust me! I grabbed the clutch. I kicked the tranny up into second. I opened the throttle. I threw my body weight forward...and dumped the clutch.
At this precise moment, Moroni - still at full-tilt gallop - reached the bike. Like a Hollywood cowboy mounting his horse from the rear, he threw himself into the air with legs askew and slammed into my back. His arms wrapped my chest in a death grip. Maybe it was the added foot-pounds of energy of 150 pounds of middle-aged alcoholic impacting my back that provided just the necessary force, but the Harley's big flywheels began to turn. KaaaaaCHUNK, KaCHUNK, VaROOOOOM!
The cop grabbed a fistful of Moroni's shirt as the engine caught, but this time Moroni was superglued to my back and we accelerated away. For the second time, the cop went sprawling into the street. It took about thirty feet to get the Big Twin under control as it got sideways under full throttle and we nearly sideswiped the line of parked cars on our right.
We crept out of the French Quarter in stealth mode and found a quiet bar in an adjacent neighborhood to lick our wounds and reflect on events over a beer. It's amazing how two men can share the same experience, yet have very different understandings of what actually happened. Moroni stared at me over his beer, choked-up with Irish emotion. I thought his eyes were getting moist.
“Thanks, mate,” he gushed.
“For...what?” I stammered with the most profound surprise and a complete lack of understanding.
Moroni looked at me with deepest sincerity and said, “For slowing down to save me before those cops grabbed me!”
Thanks for the input, guys! This is sort of a semi-final draft. I may fine tune it a bit more before I send it out. By the way, I recently started thinking about those "old days" because I just bought another old Shovelhead a few weeks ago to restore and get on the road :-)
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