In New Hampshire — this little triangle where winter chills linger well beyond April and summers are too short — they begin to emerge at the first hint of the spring warmth to launch yet another season of burning gas and showing off their two-wheeled rumblers. They ride around, helmets optional, on these curiously built machines, setting off car alarms, rousing babies from their slumber and making your heart forget its rhythm.
The motorcycle fetish is big here (an annual weeklong spectacle known as Motorcycle Week, held in the central NH city of Laconia, is scheduled for mid-June). Strangers — many donning elaborate outfits of leather and boot — gather in the sun outside specialty shops that serve the needs of fetishists, or outside coffee shops, sipping their stimulants, chatting casually about their immaculately clean steel-and-rubber monsters. The rituals awe, puzzle, and disgust the non-rider.
Diverse groups — these impromptu gatherings. Various ages, various hues, women among men, unapologetic look-at-me devotees in sunglasses, self-satisfyingly pointing out parts of their machines to each other, revving their engines, enjoying the fleeting warm sun. Also, the camaraderie: they ride in clusters on the highways, looking out for one another, stopping to aid a comrade who has punctured a tire. Admirable and charming, indeed — even enviable.
The younger fetishists seem more adventurous, pushing the engines of their rides to tremulous extremes, tempting fate. Out of nowhere on a freeway, some young daredevil on a sparkling Honda materializes in your side-view mirror, levels with your steering wheel and throws you a blazing look that unmistakably warns you that you’re too slow and you should get out of the way. You oblige.
One does not begrudge the riders their romantic quests, but please spare me the cliché about the search for the freedom of the open road. There’s no such thing as an open road: The highways are clogged with vehicles, and what we have in my crowded city are narrow potholed streets that cross each other at mostly right angles, each street punctuated at short intervals by traffic lights and stop signs. On the sidewalks play tots, apt to chase their playthings to the middle of the street and into the path of a speeding road warrior.
There may well be the pull of the “open” road, but one suspects that the roar of the tailpipe is also a principal draw for the road warrior. The rumbling tailpipe is an absurd extravagance, much like the erectile tail of a peacock — it isn’t about performance but seduction. The road warrior must derive some pleasure from hearing those booming echoes that bounce off the walls of the buildings that the machines rattle as they race by. What’s noise to us could be a kind of symphony to him and his fellow fetishists.
If not music, then something else is at work here — something perverse: sadistic pleasure in tormenting others. The effect of tailpipe thunder on the mind is devastating: It disrupts concentration, snatching your mind from the task at hand and sending it into some nightmarish zodiac from which it struggles to escape. Long after the monster has left your zip code, your mind still replays the thunderbolts to you. Perhaps the road warrior knows full well the pain he’s inflicting on us, and he enjoys doing it.
The rumbling tailpipes on certain bikes favored by some fetishists convince me that most motorcycles are bought not so much to get their owners from point A to point B as to be shown off to strangers. A gathering of bikers outside a Dunkin’ Donuts shop is a bragfest. And on the highway, the biker makes it clear to you that he wants you to look not just at him but also at the gleaming thing upon which he sits astride.
This is a defensible view, for motorcycles are largely impractical conveyances. On two wheels they require, one imagines, extraordinary skill to handle them. The rider can carry another passenger, but that would seem to increase the chances of crashing this strange contraption. And here in the Granite State — with its long winters — a motorcycle is essentially a summer toy, stored away somewhere during the cold months and wheeled out only when the sun reaches up higher on the southern horizon.
The sun is inching up in the sky, all right, and leaves are beginning to bloom on the deciduous trees that feigned death during winter, but it’s hardly summer — nighttime temperatures can drop to the freezing point even in May. Still, the bikers can’t wait, and they’ve already brought out their machines, and they’re big and loud. “MOTORCYCLES ARE EVERYWHERE,” says a bumper sticker on an SUV. It’s not a warning; it’s a deliberate provocation.