The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
The United States of America is not one country but many. I set off on my little Honda XL250 to explore some of them…
United States of America
We were in brilliant sunlight at 30,000 feet as the Laker DC10 started its descent into John F. Kennedy Airport. Fifteen minutes later, on the ground, it was night – darkness broken only by the beacon of the dozens of aircraft milling around waiting to park or take off. I found myself hoping fervently that this was not going to be an omen for my long-awaited tour of the US. Half an hour later my fears were firming up.
The immigration lines in the arrivals lounge were long, slow and staffed by people obviously bored with their job of keeping America safe for democracy. I got short shrift – two months to be precise – when I tried to get an entry permit to take me up to the date on my onward ticket – all of three weeks later than the two months.
But – America, land of contrasts! – things were quite different at Customs. Not only did the officer disdain to search my luggage, but as soon as he noticed that I was a motorcyclist – easily deduced from the crash helmet under my arm – he engaged me in a lengthy and interesting discussion of bike usage in the US. He then closed his station and went off to find out the easiest and cheapest way in which I might recover my bike, which had come by airfreight, out of bond.
There are two types of Americans, I have come to realise. Those who can’t do too much for you, and those who can’t do anything for you.
Ten minutes later, equipped with detailed – though unfortunately wrong – information, as well as the address and phone number of my first American friend, I boarded the bus into Gotham City. For $5 the airport bus was good value.
You get to goggle out at the fascinating and scary concrete ribbons of the freeways, contemplate the towering housing projects and quickly summarise all the warnings about New York – while you’re still safe. As soon as you step out of the bus at the Lower East Side Bus Terminal you’re on your own. At 1.00am, for me, this seemed about on a par with crossing Parramatta Road (Sydney’s main traffic artery) at 5.00pm on a Friday afternoon. Death lurked everywhere.
I didn’t have any American change, so one of the taxi drivers – a sizeable black person – lent me a dime to ring the Youth Hostel. They didn’t answer, so I decided to go ‘round and wake them up. The loan of ten cents had put me so much in the moral debt of my driver that I didn’t feel able to protest his charge of $8.50 for ten city blocks…
He did me a favour by pointing out that I was in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Manhattan, and to watch out. If anyone tried to ‘put trouble on me’, he suggested I keep walking. I amended that to ‘running’ and thanked him.
The hostel was closed for the night, of course, but I got a room in the hotel next door, as well as a much appreciated snack in the hotel’s all night coffee shop. The bellboy pointed out that the TV would operate only if the bathroom light was switched on; I gave him a dollar and fell into bed. I am a creature of sunshine.
The next morning, with temperatures climbing towards the century mark they reached every day while I was in New York, I felt immeasurably better and more in control. I checked in at the hostel, stowed my baggage and went out for a walk. As I left the hostel, my eye was caught by the unmistakable shape of the Empire State Building, visible through a gap between some other buildings across the road. I stopped and admired it for a moment, then turned and began to walk on.
‘Hey, buddy.’ A well-dressed black bloke standing in a doorway marked ‘NY Community College’ called me over. ‘Buddy, I been workin’ here for 20 years. Ever’ now and then, folk stop where you did an’ look up in the air. What you lookin’ at?’ I motioned for him to come back a few steps with me, to where he could see the Empire State, and pointed.
‘The Empire State?’ he said. ‘Oh, yeah, sure. The Empire State. Yeah. Never thought o’ that…’ I’m still not sure if he was taking the piss. Well, actually I am.
It was beginning to get muggy, even early in the morning, and I turned up towards Central Park. It’s a blast walking through New York. I doubt that there’s a more interesting place on Earth. And it’s all the people; the diversity, the style, the craziness. In Central Park, this being summer, it was all hanging out.
I have never seen so many scantily covered ample breasts and buttocks in my life—and most of them on wheels, too. Roller skates everywhere, people with radios clamped to their heads bopping, rolling, even dancing… and rippling – the males with muscles, the females mainly with, er… other tissue.
The remainder of those couple of days is a bit of a blur. There was Greenwich Village, with the frisbee experts working out in Washington Square; the great food in the delis; the spectacular comics pages the Sunday papers serve up; the sight of miles and miles of smog from the top of the Empire State; Waylon Jennings at the Lone Star for $1 cover charge; and the terrible beer.
I approached the beer scientifically. One evening, I bought one can each of six different beers and retreated to the room I shared with a swarthy Frenchman and two melancholy Danes. As I listened to tales of touring the US and Canada by BMW – this from the Frenchman, who’d shipped his bike over and spent eight weeks buzzing around – I sampled the brews.
They were all awful, without exception. Pale, flavourless and nearly non-alcoholic, they all tasted the same. Bad sign.
One of the Danes explained his melancholia, too. He had, it seemed, been mugged. His papers, money and travellers’ cheques had been taken – in Miami, of all places. I’d always thought of Miami as a sort of geriatric anteroom to a morgue, but it seemed street crime was a problem. For the Dane, anyway. His consulate, fortunately, had come to the rescue. They had replaced his passport on the spot and had lent him some money.
With the mugging story still fresh in my mind, I descended into the subways to make my way out to suburban Jamaica to pick up the freight papers for the bike. Graffiti on the NY trains is of a very high standard, and the trains themselves are occasionally even air-conditioned.
Papers in hand, I presented myself at the freight depot. It seemed that some mud had been noticed under the guards on the bike, so the Department of Agriculture man had to be called. Foreign mud is a no-no. I sat around, gasping in the heat, for an hour or so until he came. After one look, he decided that he wasn’t worried. Ah, mud shmud.
I was then free to deal with the lady from Customs, who suspected everyone and everything— she gave me a hard time because my bike registration papers had expired, but finally relented. She did not mention insurance, fortunately.
So I had the bike back – rather bent, since someone had dropped a crate on it, but still my bike. I had to straighten the shock absorbers with a crowbar, but the rest of it wasn’t too bad and went back together quite well. It wouldn’t start, though; throwing away the contents of the float bowl and pushing finally did the trick. My grateful thanks to the guys at Seaboard World, who donated a gallon of petrol and then pushed. I couldn’t have done it without ya.
My first encounter with the freeway system, on the way back into Manhattan, wasn’t reassuring. The signs were so cryptic. What do I know from 72nd Street? Signposting is all very local, unless you’ve memorised the route numbers. No denying that the freeways get you around at a great rate of knots, though.
I was back at the hostel before I knew it. I fitted my lovely new Oxford Fairings windscreen out in the street, and attracted all sorts of loonies. One of them insisted on telling me the long, dreary and predictable story of the disintegration of his Gold Star BSA.
There are British bikes slowly corroding and dying all over the world. I know this because I have been told many times.
Tch tch, that’s enough slinging off at British bikes. Let’s head out for New England, instead, and enjoy summer in the forest.
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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