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Back Home Again: Life Cycle

Coming across my first motorcycle kick-started a memory from long ago.

At the age of 18, I purchased a Honda CT90, a handy little motorcycle designed to be ridden on and off the highway. It had eight gears, a luggage rack, could go 55 miles per hour, wrung 100 miles from a gallon of gas, and was virtually indestructible. I rode it for one year, on streets, through woods, 100 miles to visit my grandparents, and to and from my job in the next town. The following year, because I was stupid and confused horsepower for masculinity, I traded it for a more-powerful model. Within a few days, I realized I had committed a grievous sin. I returned to the dealer to buy back my old bike, but it had already been sold. Since that day, I have owned five other motorcycles, none of which has given me the satisfaction that fine little machine brought.

It might have been the most perfect motorcycle ever invented—easy to ride, inexpensive to operate, and simple to repair, on the rare occasions it needed mending. In 1986, a bureaucrat from the Environmental Protection Agency decided a motorcycle that got 100 miles per gallon was a threat to our well-being, and imposed several new restrictions, which led to Honda pulling the CT90 from the American market. The bikes continued to sell well in Australia, where they are driven to deliver mail. Over there, they are called Posties. Occasionally, I would dream about my old motorcycle, as one might recall an idylli childhood vacation. Then last year, while sitting in my neighbor Rod’s garage, I noticed the dusty remnants of a CT90 in the corner. I sauntered over to it, appearing uninterested, not wanting to reveal my excitement. I nudged it with my foot, frowning with feigned contempt.

“I had one of these once,” I said. “It was a heartbreaker.”

“Got that on eBay a few months ago,” Rod said. “They don’t sell them in America anymore. The EPA banned them.”

“Thank God for the EPA,” I said.

“I’m going to restore it,” he said. “You interested in buying it?”

“Nah, I’ve got enough problems.”

I stayed away a week, and then returned for another visit. The bike was in pieces, the parts spread across his garage floor.

“Sure you don’t want it?” Rod asked, clamping a new hose onto the carburetor.

There’s an art to motorcycle negotiation. One must strike the perfect balance between indifference and slight interest.

I sighed. “Oh, I don’t know,” I began. “I guess it would depend on the price. These ol’ beaters are a lot of work.”

“I’ve got two other guys coming to look at it,” he said.

I felt a surge of panic but suppressed it.

“Some guys got more money than sense,” I said.

We were thick in the midst of a presidential campaign, so I changed the subject to politics. We cursed politicians for an hour or so, sitting on upturned five-gallon buckets in his driveway. It turned dark, the streetlamp flickered on, and we watched the moths circle the halo of light.

I rose, said goodbye, began walking toward the street, and then turned, as if in afterthought: “Call me when it’s done, and I’ll come see it. Who knows; it might be fun.”

There's an art to motorcycle negotiation. One must strike the perfect balance between indifference and slight disinterest.

One week passed, then two. I fought the urge to phone him, not wanting to be the first man to break.

He finally called. “Hi, Phil. It’s Rod.”

“Who?”

“Rod. Your neighbor.”

“Oh, sure. How are you, Rob?”

“Not Rob. Rod!”

“Oh, sorry about that. What’s up?”

“Got the bike done. Want to come see it?”

It was the middle of the afternoon, and I had no pressing matters to tend to. “Kind of covered up right now, Rod. How about I come by tonight?”

“Sure, see you after supper.”

I waited until 8:30, when it was almost dark, and then walked the three blocks to his house. The bike was reassembled, perfectly restored, down to the decals, luggage rack, and spare gas tank.

“Start it up,” Rod said.

Unlike motorcycles today that start with the press of a button, the Honda CT90 was kick-started. When I turned the key and jabbed the kickstart lever down with my foot, the engine caught, and ran. First time.

This was the most critical moment of the parley. The rookie negotiator, overly excited, will often betray his interest and immediately begin discussing price. I held my emotions in check, turned off the bike, and stood back to look at it.

“Thirty-three years old,” I said, shaking my head. “I read about this guy who was riding a bike this old, and he put on the brakes, and the cable snapped. Ran off a cliff. Deader than a mackerel.”

I let the sentence hang there, casting a shadow of death over our proceedings. He said nothing, there being no proper rejoinder to my story.

He studied his toe, and then pitched out a number. I stared at him, incredulous.

“We’re talking dollars, right?” I asked. “Because when you said that number, I thought maybe you meant Mexican pesos.”

I sliced the figure cleanly in half.

Rod scoffed, but then reduced his initial figure. Not much, but enough to keep the discussion alive. I had given a speech that same week for the asking price. I weighed the exchange in my mind—a speech for a motorcycle, a day’s labor for the chance to recapture my youth. Not a bad deal.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

I paid an Amish lady $20 to weave a basket that fit atop the luggage rack. Several times a week, I ride it into town. People point and laugh. The men call me Nancy. But we bikers are made of tough stuff; the scorn and contempt roll off of me like water.

When I was 18, on a summer day, I tied a backpack and a sleeping bag to the luggage rack of my first CT90 and rode it 40 miles to a forest in western Indiana. I gathered wood, lit a campfire, cooked my supper, and then fell asleep counting stars, the throbbing of crickets a blanket around me. It remains lodged in my mind as one of the most pleasant evenings I’ve ever spent. Now I am 52. My last child moved from home this month to make his own way. The night he left, I wandered out to the garage and sat on my new motorcycle, remembering how it felt to be 18 years old and loose in this world. Some trips take us forward, some take us back, and some both directions at once.

 

Illustration by Ryan Snook

This article appeared in the July 2013 issue.