Tuesday, July 8, 2008


They may not have been Hell's Angels. They could have been another, similar bike club, or an ad hoc group of scruffy and dangerous-looking guys on bikes. But at the time I thought they were Angels, and maybe they were. The Angels' colors were often seen in the East Bay in the late 1960s.

On the first warm, sunny day of spring, everybody who owned anything on two wheels with an engine was in the Berkeley Hills enjoying the absence of rain. I was piloting my 125cc Lambretta northward on Grizzly Peak Boulevard between ClaremontAvenue and Dwight Way, my hair braided against the wind, the California sun broiling my skin. (I never learned; I would come home from exploring the countryside with sun- and wind-burns covered with a fine film of greasy road grit. And in those days before crash helmet laws, my friend Natalie and I punished our hair with what she termed "combing parties.")

To my left, a ridge of brushy vegetation with an occasional small and wandering tree rose a few yards above the road. The hills of Contra Costa County rippled eastward on my right and lost themselves in the distance. Usually resembling tan suede(as columnist Herb Caen said of the landscape of Marin County, north of San Francisco), they were now green with the winter rain. Mount Diablo rose above them on the horizon, toward Stockton and Tracy. When I misplaced myself on one of my jaunts, I would make my way to high ground and survey the horizon. In that treeless landscape, Diablo or Mount Tam -- Tamalpais, in Marin County --were as visible as a lighthouse at sea. Between them, I could figure out where I was, more or less.

Chains of bikes going south leaned successively around the curves, straightened up, and leaned the other way, following the undulations of the road. One such group came up behind me, traveling faster than I was, but not by a lot. The Berkeley Hills were home to me. The Lambretta got 60 or 70 miles to the gallon. With gasoline going for 25 cents a gallon it would be hard to suggest a cheaper form of entertainment than driving around exploring. I was as familiar with the hilly and curvaceous terrain above Berkeley and beyond as I was with anything at the time, except maybe my recipe for nutritionally fortified white bread. I hopped right along, slowed down mainly by the limitations on leaning around corners imposed by the Lambretta's design.

On anything like a straight and level road, those guys would have stomped down a gear or two and roared past me. Genuine Angels in a hurry might have done so even on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. But basking in the genial weather like everyone else, they pulled out of line and passed me one at a time like normal people. One or two even glanced my way and smiled. I may have looked as strange to them as they did to me: a college-y twenty-something, hair pulled tight and braided down my back, wearing a dress -- I didn't own any pants at the time -- driving this little thing with a floor, and the gearshift on the handlebar. Yes, Angels might take note of such details, even at thirty or forty miles an hour, especially if they'd ever bothered to steal a Lambretta.

For a few minutes I had the heady illusion of riding in a pack of Angels. Then the last one passed me and (with apologies to Walt Whitman) we took our separate diverse flight, I mine, they theirs, pursuing.