Category Archives: Just thinking

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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Motorcycles in Movies

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Prince aboard the Purple Rain motorcycle.

Though it’ll never be as famous as Easy Rider’s Captain America motorcycle, Prince’s Purple Rain bike gets pretty close as a movie icon.

It doesn’t take center stage in the film, since the movie isn’t constructed around the bike. It does have a good amount of screen time, more than you’d expect in a film about music. It’s even featured on the movie poster and album cover.

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Besides the Easy Rider bikes, these immediately come to mind when I think about motorcycles in movies:

Steve McQueen’s Triumph in The Great Escape

Mickey Rourke’s Harley in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man

Marlon Brando’s Triumph in The Wild One

Michael Parks’ Harley Sportster in Then Came Bronson

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I started thinking about the Purple Rain bike while researching Prince’s family tree for a USA Today graphic the day after Prince’s death. I was running a few of his songs on my personal laptop – just to keep me in the moment, you understand.

I’m not really a Prince fan, though I do like a few of his songs. I’ve seen the movie once or twice and the motorcycle always sort of stood out.

So I finished the genealogy, did a bit of reading, and put together a short article about the bike for USAT, seeking to answer the unasked question: Did he really ride, or was the bike just a prop?

As it turned out, Prince’s bike was a 1981 Honda 400 Hondamatic, one of Honda’s attempts at a motorcycle without a clutch. And Prince, I was gratified to learn, actually did ride that bike. He liked the Hondamatic because of the no-shift operation and because – since he was only 5-foot-2 – he could get on and off it easily.

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The USAT story is here.

Steve McQueen, however, will always have the best motorcycle scene in any movie.

It’s near the end of The Great Escape, when he jumps the Triumph over the first fence but fails to clear the second and gets tangled up in barbed wire. As the Germans close in to recapture him, he reaches down and pats the gas tank of the Triumph as if to say, “Not your fault.” Not even Prince can beat that.

 

What Vera Wang and Snap-On Have in Common

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“Ed loved fine tools and instruments and conversely had a bitter dislike for bad ones. The honest workmanship of a good microscope gave him the greatest pleasure. Once I brought him from Sweden a set of the finest scalpels, surgical scissors, and delicate forceps. I remember his joy in them.”
– John Steinbeck, “About Ed Ricketts” from “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

I once convinced Linda to purchase some Vera Wang cutlery – forks, spoons, and knives – because they felt as good in my hands as a Snap-On wrench.

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I surprised even myself at that. Who thinks of garage tools while looking at table settings?

Apparently I do. To the exasperation of my wife, I normally don’t care what we use in our house. Dishes, glasses, bowls, none of them really interest me. As long as they’re durable and do the job, I’m happy.

But I was killing time in Macy’s one day, waiting as Linda was trying on something, and I drifted over to housewares, found the flatware, and started studying patterns, mostly those from Vera Wang. Wait, Vera Who?

Vera Wang (I learned later) is a celebrity Manhattan designer known for her clothing and bridal designs. She also designs jewelry, eyewear and lots of stuff for your house. Kinda like a classy, more expensive Martha Stewart, I reckon.

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Vera Wang.

I didn’t care about that as I toyed with her Blanc Sur Blanc1 forks, knives and spoons, stainless steel utensils that have a minimalist design with a simple grid pattern on the handle. I was thinking, “These feel just like a Snap-On.”

Both are polished steel and feel good in your hands, nicely balanced and just heavy enough to make you realize you’re holding something substantial and valuable.

You have to look hard to find items of substantiality these days, since most things are designed to be used for a while and thrown away. You don’t toss out hand wrenches, but my sole Snap-On feels more durable, more precise, than any of my Craftsman, Husky or Kobalt tools. Those tools are good, the Snap-Ons just feel better.

They feel like the Leica M3 rangefinder camera I once saw in a camera shop in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The M3 is a thing of mechanical perfection, absolute precision, and I wanted it very badly, but I couldn’t afford it. Nearly 30 years later, I remember what it felt like in my hands. I still want one today.

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Leica M3

But like that Leica with its tactile precision, better tools and tableware come at a prohibitive price. Linda found some Blanc Sur Blancs on sale, else we would have never bought them. I doubt I’ll ever break down enough to pay the asking price of Snap-On.

Even so, my appreciation for tools has extended to tableware. Both can be works of precision and objects of art. And I wonder what a set of combination wrenches would look like, if Vera Wang designed them.

1 – Which is French for “White On White.” The cutlery line has been discontinued, sadly.

The Fifth Helmet

The helmets.
The helmets.

When I first started riding, I also devoured motorcycle magazines, which rapidly littered the house like November leaves on your lawn.

Motorcycle magazine content is hit-or-miss, but I remember reading a Peter Egan Cycle World column in which he marveled at the mountains of motorcycle gear he’d accumulated over the years.

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “Is he just bragging?”

Fast-forward 21 years and I realize he was telling the truth. I realized it when I bought my fifth motorcycle helmet.

On the shelf.
On the shelf.

Manufacturers tell us helmets have a lifespan of about five years before they start to lose their protective qualities. The Snell Foundation1, a nonprofit organization for high standards of helmet safety, says:

The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation.

Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal “wear and tear” all contribute to helmet degradation.

Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance.

The white paint scar.
The white paint scar.

Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards.

Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.

I buy full-face Arai helmets, which are admittedly expensive, but well-fitted. (We look for them on sale.) Comfort is important on long rides – you’ll be less fatigued after hours on the bike if your helmet sits right and shields you from wind and noise.

I get Arais for Linda, too; she can choose the color and style. But she has to have a safe helmet.

New riders quickly come to find how extremely personal helmets can be. You spend hours inside them, and the enclosure has to feel right. I’ve ended up eschewing graphics and colors and going with white helmets, which have better visibility to texting car drivers. Linda’s Arai matches the color of her Vespa scooter.

But what do you do with old helmets? Some people donate them to fire departments, for practice in motorcycle-accident responses; others make lamps or planters out of them.

In the space pod garage.
In the space pod garage.

Ours are lined up along the top of a bookcase in the guest bedroom, faceshields open, reminding me of the row of waiting spacesuits in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I take down the older ones every now and again and dust them off. Sometimes I’ll use one to take a bike for a quick ride after a wash.

But mostly they just sit there, self-contained with memories and stories of past rides. My father used my first Bieffe when I took him for a short ride aboard Discovery, my Yamaha Virago, many years ago; the black Bieffe has a white paint scar from hitting the side of a gas pump while fueling up with my Uncle Robert in California.

The first Bieffe.
The first Bieffe.

I wore the red Arai for our motorcycle travels in Europe; the white Arai was the camera mount for my first GoPro video, through Glacier National Park in Montana.

Motorcycle helmets. The memories they protect are the most precious of all.

1 — The foundation was created in 1957, the year after William “Pete” Snell, a popular sports car racer, died of head injuries in a crash. The helmet he was wearing failed to protect him.

The Imaginary Garage

1995 Triumph Speed Triple (Fireball Orange)
1995 Triumph Speed Triple (Fireball Orange)

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

– Everett Sloan (as Mr. Bernstein) “Citizen Kane”

Motorcycles are visceral machines, vehicles to which you react with your gut and your heart, not your head – ethos a’plenty, logos in short supply, as they say.

Those of us who ride are always looking at bikes, even when we’re not looking to buy, and I think all riders keep an imaginary garage to store the bikes they lust after. This can go on for years and some of those garages can get pretty big.

It can’t be helped. Usually, the bike you don’t buy is attributed to a) money, or b) the deep-down realization that you won’t ride it as you should. I like riding long distances, for example; and so the bikes I have suit me.

Triumph Speed Triple (Diablo Black)
Triumph Speed Triple (Diablo Black)

That doesn’t stop me from putting bikes in my imaginary garage, though most of them probably would not be comfortable for cross-country rides.

A 1995 or 1996 Triumph Speed Triple is parked at the front of my stable. I saw one at the Triumph dealer in Reno, Nevada, back when Triumph was starting a comeback under its new owner, John Bloor.

The Speed Triple was a 98-hp factory café racer, available in two colors, Fireball Orange and Diablo Black. That’s a beautiful bike, lean, lightweight, fast. It looked positively menacing in Diablo Black but I loved the iconic Fireball Orange. I had the poster in my workshop for years. Even now, I still think about getting one.

After 1996, Triumph spoiled the Speed Triple’s look by giving it dual headlights and changing it from a café racer to a streetfighter. That killed it for me, but I still love the ’95 and ’96 models.

Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans
Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans

Next to the Speed Triple is a Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans, a 91-hp sport-tourer manufactured from 2001 to 2005. I saw a red one – the perfect color! – at a bike show in Washington one year and, like Mr. Bernstein, was never able to forget it. I fell into a daydream where I’d take it out West, in one of the empty states where all the highways are drawn dead-straight with rulers, open it up to 15o, and let it fly.

So I think about the V11, too. Moto Guzzi has the v7 Racer these days, a sweet bike, but it’s not the same.

Harley-Davidson Night Train
Harley-Davidson Night Train

Then there’s the 1999-2009 Harley-Davidson FXSTB Night Train, a blacked-out Softail with stripped-down chopper appeal, though it’s certainly not a chopper. I loved the drag bars and the lean, no-nonsense visual aspect of the bike, but it wasn’t the bike for the type of riding I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it, though.

There are others, of course, like the mid-’90s Triumph Tigers and the 2004 Ducati 998 in Matrix-inspired green, and Honda’s CBR1000RR in Repsol livery. Or the BMW R1200R Linda and I rented in Vienna and rode through Slovakia and Hungary in 2009. These are all beautiful bikes.

But they’re bikes I probably won’t get, unless I see a Speed Triple or a V11 for a really good price somewhere. That’s unlikely.

Besides, I enjoy riding Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS and Terra Nova, my 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere. And I’ll bet if I was riding a Speed Triple or a V11 I’d probably be on the lookout for a GS or a Tenere, looking to move them from my imaginary motorcycle garage to my real one.

Remnants of A Man’s Life

Some modified tools. The Armstrong is third from the right.
Some modified tools. The Armstrong is third from the right.

It caught my eye from a shelf of old tools in an antique store: a cut-down wrench about four inches long, an Armstrong wrench as it turned out; good steel, nice heft and fit in the hand. Half-inch open-end.

It reminded me of tools my father and I cut down and modified decades ago to work on my old 1972 VW Super Beetle. One of them, a 1/2-inch Craftsman box, was for removing the carburetor.

We cut about a third or so off a combination wrench and ground down the outside of the box to fit the pesky 13mm nut hiding between the intake pipe and the engine fan housing. Dad took the ragged edge of the box wrench handle to the grinding wheel and smoothed it off perfectly.

The Armstrong reminded me of that wrench and as I toyed with it absently I started looking at the other items on the shelf. There were about two dozen mechanics tools, wrenches, pliers, ball-peen hammers with wood handles seasoned with sweat, and plastic jars of hardware – bolts and nuts, finishing nails, and other stuff.

Hardware in Jif jars.
Hardware in Jif jars.

It was the perfection and uniformity of the jars – old Jif peanut butter jars that were immaculately clean – that made me realize that most of these items had been taken en masse from some guy’s garage or workshop. Some guy who was probably now in a nursing home or no longer alive.

And I started wondering about that guy, who he was, where he worked. I could imagine him cleaning out those Jif jars, removing every bit of old peanut butter, cleaner than his wife’s dishes, and carefully filling them with bits of machined metal. The jars had labels, applied by the antique seller; the owner didn’t need labels, he could see the hardware and he knew what it was.

And what happened to the owner, what brought all his beloved tools to this store for strangers to paw through? Is this all we can look forward to, that all of our tools and books and special things will someday be found in a place like this? Didn’t he deserve better than this?

The tools.
The tools.

I ended up buying the Armstrong for three bucks along with a sad little Canadian Fuller 1-inch wood chisel that I can sharpen and use around the house. Days later, I learn from a query on Garage Journal.com that the Armstrong is a machine shop or engineer’s wrench, specially made for use with machine tools.

“They’re not good for anything but tightening a nut or bolt on the machine they’re used for,” wrote a respondent. “They’re used so some employees don’t steal them and take them home.” I love that observation.

No matter. The Armstrong and chisel will join that 1/2-inch Craftsman box, one of many tools I can’t bear to part with, tools that Dad gave me, and my Uncle Robert, and Dad’s cousin Cyril in Slovakia, and Wendell’s father, Van, and a few others.

Tools that will inevitably end up in someone’s second-hand store one day. Until then, I’ll use them and enjoy them and sometimes think about their histories. And of the guys who owned them. Even the guys I don’t know.

 

That Forlorn Little Bike

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The saddest Honda I’ve ever seen was parked alone in isolation, as if the other motorcycles were avoiding it.

I was wandering the service department of Coleman PowerSports in Falls Church Saturday morning, waiting for Linda’s Vespa to get its annual safety inspection sticker. (Usually we go to Crossroads Cycle for inspections, but I was in a hurry and Coleman is closer.)

bike1All bikes, especially older ones, have a story. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to it.

It was a dusty 250cc Honda Rebel, a 1986 model, as I discovered. The official designation is CMX 250, introduced in 1985 and still in production. They’re essentially small two-cylinder cruisers with a dash of Harley style. They’re good entry-level bikes, and you often see them used in Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes.

Oh, but this one has been badly treated – torn saddle, mirrors pointing every which way and surface rust everywhere. Someone had painted the gas tank flat black, giving it sort of a chopper look, and added an aftermarket engine guard.

odometerBut the right-side cover is missing, exposing the glass cartridge fuse block. The rear blinkers are broken, one gone, and both brake levers are curiously curled outward, on purpose for some obscure, ill-advised reason.

There are 5,815 miles on the odometer, pretty low for a 29-year-old bike. The last safety sticker had been issued in 1996. A George Mason University parking sticker on the rear fender expires in 1992. Next to that, a small dealer sticker: K&R Honda, Bellerose, New York*.

I see a bronze fob attached to the ignition key and turn it over; TOYKO TOWER it says on one side, with the reverse covered in English and Japanese writing. This is a memento, all the way from Japan, of the Eiffel-Tower-shaped communications rig in Tokyo.

And yet, at long last, the little Honda is here, sitting hopefully waiting for service.

Linda’s Vespa is soon brought round with a new sticker and I pay the inspection fee.

“I have to ask, what’s the story with that Honda?” I say to the guy behind the counter.

cover2“Oh,” he says, “Guy brought it in wanting to get it fixed up. We looked at it and started adding up what was wrong and the bill got too high. More than it’s worth, probably. He’s trying to decide what to do.”

It’s a common story and probably explains why the Honda has been neglected for so long. As David Snow used to point out in Iron Horse magazine, Japanese bikes don’t seem to hold their value.

One of the magazine’s recurring features was a monthly page on discarded Hondas, Kawasakis, Suzukis and Yamahas found on the streets of New York City. The owners had simply parked them and walked away. You could find literally dozens of them, but never a castoff Harley, BMW, Triumph, Ducati or other foreign bike.

I take my leave, briefly and irrationally considering the economics of buying the Honda and saving it. It would make no sense, of course. Linda’s interested in scooters, not motorcycles, and the Honda is too small for me. Besides, I still have my own restoration project, a 1965 305cc Honda Dream that’s at home.

sideviewSo I left the Honda there, hoping its owner will find the wherewithal to get it back on the road. It obviously holds some good memories for someone; perhaps there is still time for a few more.

* — no longer in business, according to an Internet search. Curiously, it was located not far from Queens.