All posts by George Petras

Why is a Motorcycle Like a Fountain Pen?

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“I give up,” Alice said. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.

— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

I can’t speak to ravens and writing desks, but motorcycles and fountain pens are alike because you operate both with care.

Motorcycles demand much of their pilots. You get wet in the rain, chilled in the cold, and filthy from the road. You have to suit up like a deep-sea diver before climbing aboard.

Writers with fountain pens find their lines can skip, bleed through paper and leave stains on fingers. You have to make sure you have enough ink on hand because the supply will run low when you least expect it.

In short: A bit of suffering is endured with both.

In return: You experience something car drivers and computer keyboardists never get: The ability to see things in a different way, a greater level of personal control, and a sense of satisfaction at doing something few people do.

On a motorcycle, the road winds invitingly ahead of you; with a fountain pen, the writing unspools across the page in elegant lines of ink.

You’re also forced to live in the moment. On a motorcycle, you have to maintain situational awareness at all times, lest some inattentive motorist, road debris, or sudden turn tries to kill you.

With a fountain pen, you can’t backspace and delete. The words you’re writing will remain for eternity, unless you scratch them out (which is excruciatingly bad form) or start over.

So you have to think ahead with both.

I’ve been on motorcycles for 23 years and started using fountain pens back in high school. Both always make me smile.

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Behold, I Am the Angel of Death — Thy Day of Reckoning is At Hand

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“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”

— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”

Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.

It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.

“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.

Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.

I’m about half a football field behind her when a brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.

I’m watching this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself to watch the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it.

She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.

And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.

She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.

Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.

My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.

And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.

I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.

Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.

We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.

But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”

I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.

Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.

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It Ain’t Easy to See the Easy Rider Cemetery

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Sept. 15 | Day 9: We didn’t ride to New Orleans because of Easy Rider, but since we were there anyway, why not visit a site that was featured in the movie?

I like to ride motorcycles, so it stands to reason I watch motorcycle movies, though most are admittedly dreadful.

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But I will watch Easy Rider every now and again. The 1969 classic, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Jack Nicholson, follows two long-haired chopper riders from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

There’s a memorable — some say confusing — New Orleans sequence in which Fonda and Hopper and two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) drop acid in a cemetery, have sex, and generally freak out.

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Those scenes were shot in New Orleans Cemetery No. 11, which opened in 1789 in the French Quarter. Filming took place without permission and the Catholic Church, which owns the cemetery, was reportedly scandalized when the movie opened.

I’m looking for the large statue that Fonda climbed on, and — using real, personal angst to drive his character in the film — began talking about his mother’s suicide.

Frances Ford Seymour, the second wife of actor Henry Fonda and mother of actors Peter and Jane Fonda, committed suicide2 on April 14, 1950. Peter was 10 years old.

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As the camera rolled, he used that awful memory to get into his character’s bad trip while sitting on “Italia” in the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb, a mausoleum that was built in 1857 at Cemetery No. 1.

“Italia” is the statue I want to see.

We get to the gate at Cemetery No. 1 and a woman sitting at a card table just inside says, “That’ll be $20 for the tour.”

“Excuse me,” I say. “We’re not with the tour. We just want to look around ourselves.”

“You can’t do that,” the woman says. “You have to join a tour. It’s $20 per person.”

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“You have to pay to look around the cemetery?”

“Yes,” the woman says. “You have to join the tour. It’s $20 per person.”

“Hmm.” I say. “Well, no, thank you.”

And we leave. Forty dollars to look at a cemetery?

I’m rather stunned at this, and I kvetch to Linda on our way back to the hotel. A sign at the gate says tour proceeds are used for the cemetery’s upkeep, but it looks as though most of the money is going elsewhere.

“Oh, yes,” says the hotel concierge upon our return. “They’ve been doing that for years. It helps keep out the vandals. I’m surprised they didn’t charge more.”

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We later find out that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the public in 2015 but allowed tour companies to pay the diocese for rights to conduct for-pay tours. If you have a relative buried there, you can apply for a permit to visit.

So Cemetery No. 1 is now a for-profit venture.

Still curious about New Orleans cemeteries, we take a streetcar out to the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, built in 1833, where most of these pictures were taken. It reminds me a bit of Père Lachaise in Paris, historic, sobering, haunted.

I later discover that “Italia” has not fared very well. At some point, either by vandals or natural means, the statue’s head has come off, along with one of the hands. Other statues are damaged, too.

Which is obviously pretty sad. Maybe I was too quick to forgo the cemetery tour, but tell me who’s repairing that statue and I’ll be the first to put my contribution directly into their marble-dust-covered hands.

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1 — Yes, that’s its real name; 2 — Jane Fonda, writing her memoirs decades later, discovered her mother had been sexually abused as a child.

 

‘Say, What is This?’

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That’s what we heard from lots of people while test-driving a 2017 Polaris Slingshot SLR for a USA Today review. The Slingshot, which looks like a sports car but is categorized as a three-wheeled motorcycle, attracted lots of attention.

It was unnerving at first, but we got used to it. It’s fun to drive, but I’ll stick with conventional motorcycles for now.

A link to the USAT review is here.

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Where Does Your Music Come From?

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Sept. 16 | Day 10: We were in some home furnishings shop that Linda had dragged me into on Chartres or Decatur Street, when I start listening to the music playing in the store and thought to myself this is pretty good.

It’s a haunting song, and knowing I would never remember any lyrics that would let me find it later, I ask the 20-something woman at the counter if she can tell me the title.

She looks at her computer screen and says, “Peaches. The group is ‘In the Valley Below,’” and bingo, I realize I’ve made another accidental music discovery.

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Some people say our taste in music stalls out as we age (we stop listening to new stuff and are content with what we know) while others say our preferences simply evolve.

Growing up, I didn’t really seek out music. I caught stuff on the radio sometimes, and benefited from suggestions of my more-astute friends.

For example, Steve Wargo, one of my oldest friends, introduced me to David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Pure Prairie League, and many others, for which I am eternally grateful. Many of those songs are on my iPod today.

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But nowadays, music seems to find its way to me by happenstance, with some notable tunes surfacing during our motorcycle rides. Some of the music I’ve discovered by accident:

  • Into My Soul” by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gabin in Budapest, Hungary, during our 2009 ride.
  • “Wish to Fly” from “Best of Chilhowie” in Zvolen, Slovakia, in our 2011 ride.
  • Powerful” from Skye Edwards’ “Mind How You Go” in a series of motel room AMC commercials on my way back from San Diego aboard Endurance in 2006.

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There are others, of course, but the motorcycle tunes seem to stand out the most. The music filters through the cacophony of life and I pick it up in bits and pieces, track it down the best I can, and add it to my collection. Maybe I need to develop new listening habits. Or just ride more.

Kept the date

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Sept. 20 | Day 14: As promised — back in August — we made it to the Loveless Café in Nashville on Wednesday night, parking the bikes in the coveted “motorcycles only” spaces after riding in from Memphis that morning.

We were tired, so our celebratory dinner was rather subdued. The restaurant turned out to be over-air-conditioned, so I got a gray souvenir sweatshirt for Linda. It was easier than breaking into the sidecases and less ridiculous than wearing the riding jacket.

Best biscuits and jam I ever had, though.

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All on the Same Day (Part 2: Selma, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: The waterproof mapcase resigns without notice somewhere between Underwood and Selma, turning my AAA Alabama issue into rain-soaked mush. We’re playing hit-and-run with Hurricane Irma’s skirts today and we soldier on, getting irreparably drenched.

We reach Selma and stop on a side street before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge so I can switch on the GoPro camera attached to my helmet. A long stoplight separates Linda and me, so I cross the Alabama River alone.

That bridge, a symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, opened in May 1940 and was named — doesn’t this just figure — after Edmund Winston Pettus, a U.S. senator, Confederate general and KKK leader in Alabama. He died in 1907 and is buried about a mile from it.

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The span was designated a national landmark in 2013. Today, it’s quiet with meager traffic moving through the rain. Weather-wise, it’s a miserable day.

We park the bikes at the bridge’s southern end and look around. A group of tourists, students maybe, files off the bridge and crowds into a tour bus, but otherwise it’s quiet.

We walk across the bridge ourselves, both ways. It’s a solid, massive structure. I try, but can’t begin to imagine, what those brave marchers felt in 1965, knowing that baton- and tear-gas-wielding state troopers were waiting for them.

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There’s a small park dedicated to Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement, but it’s deserted and lonely in the rain. Nearby shops appear rundown; some are boarded up.

Selma is located in Dallas County, which has a high unemployment rate: 7.7% in August, compared to the national average of 4.4%. An Auburn University report sets the county’s poverty rate at nearly 37%. We see ample evidence of this as we ride through Selma.

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This isn’t white guy discovers Southern poverty — Southern poverty is not new, economic stats for other Southern counties are shockingly higher, and it’s been this way for generations. But this is the first I’m seeing with my own eyes.

And history waits patiently everywhere.

We’re wet, tired, and hungry, and Linda finds a Church’s Chicken outlet about a mile from the bridge. We park the bikes and peel off wet rainsuits with difficulty.

Behind the restaurant, we can’t help but notice an abandoned four-story brick building, its windows broken, grass growing wild. “Good Samaritan Center” is across the front.

I’ll think it’s some sort of housing unit until later, when I discover it’s the Good Samaritan Hospital.

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The Good Samaritan Hospital. Oh my God. This is where Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, a Baptist church deacon and civil rights activist from Marion, Ala., died on Feb. 25, 1965. He was shot by an Alabama state trooper following a peaceful protest for a jailed civil rights worker. Jackson, unarmed, was shielding his mother from police assault.

Jackson’s death was the catalyst for the Bloody Sunday march weeks later. The people injured during Bloody Sunday were treated at this same hospital*.

But I’m unaware I’m standing in front of a historic place as we turn away and enter the restaurant.

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There are two or three other customers. We grab a table, pile the dripping rainsuits in a corner (they’ll create a puddle roughly the size of Lake Superior, which I’ll mop up later) and order chicken.

As we eat and fuss with maps, other customers begin to drift in and soon the place is half-filled. As it happens, we’re the only whites there. A couple folks, seeing the helmets, ask about our ride and Linda entertains them with stories about the Vespa. They wish us well.

One guy in a Minnesota Vikings shirt engages us in lengthy conversation, telling us about himself and asking where we’re from. He asks, as politely as possible, if I have any money and I give him two or three dollars I find in a jacket pocket.

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Seeing this, a friend of his, a younger guy in a baseball cap, inserts himself amiably into our conversation and they exchange few friendly barbs. It’s plain they know one another. (Linda will later say she thought he was a counselor of some sort — he had that vibe.) As I pick up the rainsuits, preparing to leave, the baseball cap guy asks:

“Say, how much, how much did you give that guy?”

“Oh, not much,” I say. “A dollar or two, I think. Not much.”

“Listen, I know that guy,” Baseball Cap says. “He’s just gonna drink it up. You don’t have to give him something.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Here,” Baseball Cap says, pulling something out of his jeans pocket. “Y’all are traveling. I want you to be safe, to travel safe. Here, take this.” And he presses some crumpled bills in my hand.

I’m astonished. Even a non-motorcycle person can see Linda and I are not in need. We’re wearing pricey, armored riding suits (mine with patches from the places we’ve traveled — Slovakia, Hungary, Quebec and the Blue Ridge Parkway) and carrying Arai helmets, one with a GoPro video camera attached.

“Sir, this is really, really nice of you, but, really, we’re okay,” I say. “Please, I really can’t take this.”

“No, no, you keep it,” he says. “Y’all are on the road. You keep it, okay?”

And this is where I fail miserably. In the milliseconds that follow, I struggle to think coherently but I can’t find a way to gracefully decline. Baseball Cap is totally sincere.

“All right. Okay.” I say. “Thank you, sir. This is very kind of you, thank you.” And we shake hands.

“Y’all be good,” he says, as we leave.

I take the crumpled bills and shove them securely into an empty pants pocket, where they’ll stay for the next 130 miles as I wonder, in the solitude of my helmet, why a stranger in one of the poorest counties in America should give us a couple of bucks.

Everything is soaked, including that helmet. At fuel stops, it’s like sticking my head in a bucket of cold water when I put it on.

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We press south through steady rain. The Vespa runs low on fuel and the Oak Hill Grocery on Alabama 21 has only 87 octane (the bikes prefer 91) and an awning that doesn’t provide much cover. I pour our 1-gallon reserve into Linda’s tank and top it off with 87 as she tries to stop the rain from falling in.

Finally, we arrive at Atmore, Ala., our destination for the night.

“All I need is a guest laundry and some old towels and I’ll be happy,” I tell Linda as we shut down the bikes. It’s after dark and the rain has let up at last.

She reports the hotel doesn’t have any rags. “They say they threw out everything a week ago.”

I won’t be deterred. We need rags to stuff inside our sopping helmets, boots and gloves, to dry them out. We end up taking Terra Nova to a Walmart five miles away, where we find they’ve just had a power outage and are waiting for their computers to recover. Holding a couple stacks of towels, we make friends in the delayed checkout line.

Our long wet day is winding down at last. Inside our room, the gear is spread out to dry. Bath towels are stuffed inside our boots and in both helmets. Washcloths are inserted into our gloves. I’m using the guest laundry machines to wash and dry everything I can. We’re good.

Until I clear out my riding suit and find the crumpled bills given me by the baseball cap guy in Selma. I thought he’d given me two dollars.

He didn’t. There were two five-dollar bills in that pocket. Ten bucks. Ten bucks from a guy who thought I needed it more than he did.

“Look at this,” I say to Linda, and we talk about what to do with it, how to pay it forward.

It’s only much later that night, when everything is dry and folded and put away, when the room is dark and silent and I’m awake and staring at the ceiling, that I think about how I didn’t even ask his name. Or those of the two landscapers in Underwood who stopped to lift the Vespa.

Or how folks who have little can be more willing to offer help than those with a lot.

And how all this — all of this — happened on the same day.

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* — Good Samaritan was built in 1944 and closed in 1983. In 2016, city and county officials proposed reopening the hospital as a specialized clinic; funding did not materialize and the plans remain in limbo.