Bill flipped up my visor.
“Is it not human nature to fear that which might harm us?” he said gently. “Motorbiking can harm us. Your fear is natural.”
Mute eyes say plenty, especially to teachers who stopped counting at 10,000 students. Though they could barely see our faces, and we hadn’t yet straddled the bikes, Bill and Bob had already sorted the class. They knew whose testosterone pride had to be brought low, who couldn’t follow instructions, who needed no more than mechanical guidance, and who needed encouragement, above all, to quiet the mental gabblings of failure.
I’m braver than most, but only because I’m scared of so much. My comfort zone goes from my nose to the nearest printed page, and going any further affords daily scope for courage. Like the Italian villagers who discovered new worlds (and new hotties) on their post-war Vespas, I was hoping that Class C California Motorcycle Drivers Permit would expand my range.
Bill and Bob had parked their Goldwing tourers front-wheel to front-wheel; twin monuments against the wind that shunted rolls of fog into the drained reservoir. The reservoir is a vast parking lot for City College now, and at 6.45 on a Saturday morning it stood empty except for the orange cones and rows of bikes of Bay Area Motorcycle Training. Next to the Goldwings, the students’ 250 cc Kawasakis and Hondas were rolling hairdryers (though still scarily potent compared to my bicycle). None of the borrowed bikes had mirrors—they’d break when we dropped them.
First we walked the bikes across the park, lumbering in neutral with the engines off. Then we found the friction zone and moonwalked in first gear. Finally, we planted our feet on the pegs and woozily crossed the range, like a row of bowling balls let go too soon. This was fun until I tried to stop the thing. The throttle roared; I dropped the brake and lurched at Bob, then grabbed the brake and roared and lurched again. He gave a matador’s hop.
“Stop riding the brake! Stop braking! Clutch. Clutch! CLUTCH!”
I clutched. It felt so fucking unfair. Whose idea was it to stick the throttle under the brake, ready to roar at you like a junkyard dog?
“You can’t. Ride. The brake,” said Bob. “The clutch is what?”
“Your friend,” I said sullenly. Every morning I freewheel down Bernal Hill squeezing my true buddy—the back brake. I hate not knowing what to do.
“The clutch is your friend. Don’t grab it. Don’t drop it. Squeeeeze it. And get your fingers off that brake. Head up! Head up! Look where you want to GO.” We crossed and recrossed, with laborious three-point turns, until we had established that all twelve of us could putter at lawnmower speed without damaging the parking lot. Then we lined up in two columns. Bill lectured us while Bob demonstrated our next challenge.
“Old people riding. Makes your eyes mist up, dudnit?” said Bill as we watched Bob weave through the cones. “Or could be the fog.”
Our class was relatively elderly. In the other group there were a handful of cholo kids who had boasted in the classroom sessions about not being afraid to get hurt. They did great ghetto rolls on the way to the PortaPotties, even as the day wore on and we were all near-hypothermic in the dank fog. If you’re under 21 you can’t get a California Motorcycle Licence without completing a safety course, but the wily old men must have manouevered them into the other instructors’ course.
“Five months? Aw, you’re just a puppy,” Bill said to the cute newlywed as we waited for all the students to finish the lesson. “I’ve been married 38 years. And here’s what I learned: women go to Wife School when they’re five years old. This is true. No matter where you are, 30,000 feet up in a plane, filling up your tank, sitting in a bar, whenever you get two guys together and the subject of marriage comes up—and I don’t know why it should come up with strangers, but it does—guy will tell you the same thing. “‘Yew never listen,’ she says, or ‘Yew only pay attention to the newspaper.’” That’s because they all went to Wife School and got the script, and the guys are just shambling along without a clue. A guy, see, he’s got a line in the sand. You don’t cross it, you’re fine.”
He drew an imaginary line with the gripper stick he uses to pick up the tiny cones that mark our courses. “But women, see, they got a line that goes like this.”
He broke into a little trot and drew a line that wriggled like an inchworm, the kind of path we were supposed to be able to weave by now. “You cross that line, and you’re dead. And if by some tiny chance you’re actually right for once—and this is very rare—she learned in Wife School what to do. She’ll go back twenty years if she has to, drag it all back up, mess with your head until she’s in the right again.”
“Twenty years?” sniffed Bob, “Try thirty. Try forty.”
“I just start with ‘Sorry’ now,” said Scott, who was 35. “Whatever it is, I’m sorry.” He told me earlier that he’s wanted to ride a motorbike all his life, but first his parents wouldn’t let him, and then his girlfriend wouldn’t. Now they’re married, and she’s relented, figuring he was old enough not to kill himself.
“That’s good. You’re learning. First step is, you’re always wrong. Wanna know what I do when the lectures start coming down?”
“I’m trying to teach a class here, old man,” said Bob.
“I’m passing on a lesson too,” said Bill.
“You’re cutting into my lunch break…”
“I get down on my knees.” He got down on his knees, leaning on his stick. “And then I grab her around the knees—this I won’t demonstrate with you, Scott—and I press my cheek against her thigh, and I say, ‘Please please please, don’t beat me no mo’.’ Sometimes she laughs. Sometimes she tells me to get out of her sight. Either way, it’s a win.”
He hopped on a borrowed bike and demonstrated the course for our lesson on Swerving. Then he stood ready to coach our individual runs, until we rode back to our parking range for further instruction. Engine-off-key-OFF. Dismount CORRECTLY.
“Know why I do this dog-and-pony show?” he said. “It’s not because I need the attention, or I want everyone to love me up here. I could give a shit about that. It’s because you’re going to perform better if you can relax and get out of your heads, start focusing on the skills. So I goof around to try to get you to look up, pay attention to me and your surroundings instead of to that voice in your head that says that you’re going to mess up. Bob and I rarely, rarely have a student fail.”
Bill comes from a line of Marines, though he’s retired now. Below the cod-acting he has the coiled Zen calm of Special Forces soldiers I’ve known. They’re a breed that seems more thoughtful and engaged with the world than the consumers they’re trained to defend. Bill looks a bit like Dennis Hopper. Not the young Easy Rider, but the stoned and placid grandpa in Fishing With John: ready to make fun of himself, and readier still to smack down anyone else who tries it.
When I came back from a break, he had placed my ignition key on the seat. “Understand, I do this not to humiliate you,” he said, “but to draw your attention to the practice of shutting down. Bikes like that, battery’s flat in no time flat. Get a jump from a car and you’ll destroy it. So, be mindful.”
My mind was full. I missed my bicycle. Its muscle-engine needs no choke.
By the second day we had all got more confident. Bill and Bob took turns coaching us through the exit for each activity.
“Watch me. I said, watch me. You don’t get this right, you’re not going to pass the test, and you’re going to have to come back to spend another weekend with the old people.” Bill hobbled behind an imaginary walker.
“DerVAla,” Bob said, mangling my name, “you’re going to have to speed up or the cars will run you over. Hell, cats will run you over. Going faster is easier. More fun.”
Accelerating into a curve.
“DerVAla. Stop riding the brake.”
Riding over an obstacle.
“DerVAla, how do you feel about yourself now?” I’d made it through a box of u-turns and bounced over a two-by-four plank, backside raised a cautious inch. I said that I felt better, with a huge grin he couldn’t see.
“Good girl,” he nodded. “You’re doing fine.” A hit of praise made me drop the clutch in excitement and cut out. He waited while I scrabbled to figure out what gear I was in. “Okay, just hit the starter and start again.”
“I don’t even call it riding,” said Bill.“I call it practice—unless I’m just going down the freeway to get somewhere. That’s commuting, which I don’t care for. It’s practice because you’re always trying to perfect your skills. And you never do. You’re never perfect, at least if you have a mind like mine.”
When I made it through the last training range, Bill flipped up my visor again and peered in. “Learning to be a good rider will change your life,” he said. “In ways that have nothing to do with motorcycles.”
For the test, we entered a box of cones and described a figure eight. Then we puttered up to a line of cones that forced us to swerve around an imaginary bus. We accelerated into a curve. Finally, we each came to an emergency stop, where Bob sat in a deckchair grading us like an skating judge. “Three. Zero. Six,” he called when I clutch-gear-down-front-brake-rear-braked to a halt.
“You went outside the box with your U-turns. You went too slowly into the turn. And your stopping distance was three feet too long. But you passed,” said Bill, when we had all finished and were lined up in front of his clipboard. “You are now qualified to ride in a parking lot. Good girl.”
I babbled thanks, telling him I didn’t even know how to drive a car.
“Listen to me,” he said seriously. “I hear your thanks, and I’m glad you feel that way, but you need to understand something. I didn’t pass that course. You did. You can do anything you want. If you want to become a good rider, you can. Has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with your own expectations.”
Over the last few years, several people have trained me in new skills: to listen actively on a crisis hotline; to sit in silence on a ten-day retreat; to scuba dive and sky dive; to fast for seven days. It’s uncomfortable to be a beginner. It’s an exercise in trust; in faith that these people know where we’ll end up even if we don’t ourselves. Usually, they’re kind and brisk, used to calming fretful beginners so that they can get their jobs done and go home. How quickly we reduce ourselves to types when distracted by an unfamiliar task.
This morning I dreamed that my motorbike class was trying to get to the Motorcycling for Dummies Training Center, somewhere in downtown Brooklyn, or maybe Dogtown. I was separated from the pack, and found myself spinning out of control in front of a biker bar, scared and embarrassed on my little hairdryer bike. I took a breath, and coached myself through the dream. FINE-C. Fuel-Ignition-Neutral-Engine-Choke/Clutch. I drove—up the hill, miraculous competence—to find my classmates painting canvases about how motorbiking made them feel.
“You can’t teach a human,” said Bill in our last lesson. “It’s been proved. You can tell them, you can show them, you can warn them, but in the end all you’re doing is putting the information in front of them so they can figure it out for themselves. That’s the only way humans learn.”