Thursday, August 4, 2011


One of the maxims of my misspent youth was that you can carry anything on a motorcycle. From the 125 cc Lambretta I bought in 1964 to the 1971 BMW R50/55 and a couple of second-hand scooters between, two-wheeled transportation was the only kind I had. Much of that time the people around me didn't have cars either, and there wasn't an obvious alternative to using my scooter or cycle as a truck.

I brought cinderblocks home in the saddlebags of the BMW, four at a time. I tied several years of Christmas trees onto luggage racks, crosswise, and then tried to remember not to drive between lanes of traffic. I still design my recorder-carrying boxes with the motorcycle in the back of my mind somewhere, even though I don't drive it any more. My first husband and I carried camping gear "piled high" (his phrase: he said, "We're going to get stopped," but we didn't). On one memorable occasion, when he discovered that his Honda needed more fixing than he could do, we transported the engine to the motorcycle shop on my bike, me driving and him behind me with the engine in his lap.

I had various boxes and crates on my open-air vehicles, supplemented by bungee cords. I once dropped a (fortunately empty) gallon-size metal gasoline can off the back of some scooter, making an inconceivable racket. It does objects no good to hit the pavement from a moving vehicle, even at twenty miles an hour. I learned to fasten my freight down so it wouldn't fall off: cords both front-to-back and side-to-side (I once had a pile of books fall off because it didn't occur to me that they could slip sideways), pulled tight with all my strength -- taking care, of course, not to tip the bike over in the process.

I carried groceries around Back Bay on the Lambretta in a big wooden box attached to the carrier. I remember dusting snow off the seat before starting the scooter and heading off, wearing a woolen jumper and some kind of windbreaker. I didn't own pants of any kind in those days.

When I moved to Berkeley in the fall of 1965, the scooter came along. My friend Natalie and I shopped at the Berkeley Co-op on Telegraph Avenue near the Oakland line and drove to her apartment on Dwight Way or her brother's on Durant Avenue with our week's purchases and one or two other people's in the box on the back, the green onions waving behind us "bravely" (her word) and the overflow on her lap or on the floor. I may have tried once to hang a bag or two over my arm but left off when I found that it interfered with my steering.

One day, shopping by myself, I set a small frozen turkey on he rear seat -- the Lambretta had two separate seats -- with intent to fit it into the box after I did something else, and then forgot about it and drove off. Three or four blocks and some right-angle turns later I pulled into my back yard, dismounted, and was surprised and amused to find the turkey still on the seat. I tell that to people who are reluctant to accept a ride because they think they might fall off. They usually aren't impressed.

After Berkeley and a motorcycle-less hiatus of a couple of years, during which I lugged catfood, Kitty Litter, and groceries three blocks from the A&P to my apartment in Belmont, I bought the BMW. That bike carried groceries and musical instruments around the western suburbs until it came to the peninsula south of San Francisco with me and my then-husband in 1973. There it acquired an orange-type crate that strapped to the luggage rack. I had the grocery checkers trained: Everything goes into two bags, period, end of story. The BMW was an even poorer prospect than my various scooters for trying to drive while hand- or arm-carrying bags; and, of course, it had no floor.

There was a commercial on television for a while that showed a motorcycle pulling up to a group of young men, with a case of beer strapped on the back. Making appreciative noises, the guys help themselves, open the cans and enjoy their brew. The person driving the cycle turns out to be a girl. Fine -- but whoever put together that commercial clearly had never opened a beer that had just arrived on the back of a motorcycle.

Strawberries don't like motorcycles either -- one fifty-mile ride shook, compressed and bruised my berries enough that I had to make shortcake or jam immediately. Neither do cameras. The man in the camera store in Athol told me of one customer who had shown up on a bike with a bunch of screws rattling loose in the bottom of his camera bag.

Young people are always moving. In one Boston relocation, a friend and I drove the Lambretta between Beacon Street just below Hereford Street and somewhere in the Park Drive area over and over and over, carrying whatever we could. On one trip, he rode with a soup kettle over his head (this was in the wild and free days before laws about crash helmets).

Bleak House in Braille isn't as heavy as the OED but it is about as bulky. When Natalie wanted help getting Bleak House to the post office and thence back to the Library of Congress, we loaded most of the volumes into the box on the back of the Lambretta. She sat on the back seat, holding the stragglers.

In 1971, when I bought the BMW, I was living with Sherry, and she was building psalteries. A psaltery is a Medieval stringed instrument, trapezoidal in shape, a couple of feet long, less than a foot wide, and an inch and a half deep. One day when Sherry and one of her instruments needed to catch a bus from the station on St. James Street, we all piled onto the motorcycle and set off. As we zipped in and out through traffic between Belmont and downtown, I kept wondering if we would scrape the psaltery against a car or stab somebody with it -- the pointed ends were fairly pointy -- even though I knew the instrument was smaller than the width of the engine, with its horizontal pistons, and that she wouldn't be holding it crosswise anyway. We got to the bus station without incident and Sherry and the psaltery caught their bus.

Probably the least successful system for carrying things was a couple of metal boxes -- ammunition crates, I think the guy at the surplus store said they were -- not very big but thick and heavy. Sherry and I roared up Route 2 together one weekend so that she could use my father's potter's wheel, with her supplies in the two boxes. They couldn't be fastened to the carrier side by side; they had to stack one on top of the other. Usually this was all right, if a tad wobbly, but I discovered during that trip that at a certain speed on the highway they would cause the motorcycle to shake alarmingly. We kept our speed down and got there all right, and the threatened rain held off. I think the boxes stayed in Otter River and we carried our stuff back in something else.

When I worked at Stanford in the mid-1970s I had, due to some oversight on the part of the people who make rules, the same privilege of checking books out of the library that faculty enjoyed (presumably so that professors' pink-collar lackeys could check books out on their behalf; it probably wouldn't occur to the officialdom that such persons might check out books on their own account).

One of the volumes I borrowed was a modern edition of fourteenth century Italian religious songs that I had come to covet after hearing a couple of them performed. To my delight, the book included facsimiles of the original manuscript pages with the transcriptions into modern notation. This is the kind of big, expensive volume that libraries prefer not to let out of their sight. The hole in the rules enabled me not only to take the book home and play through it -- a godsend to those of us who don't read music well enough to hear it in our heads while sitting at some back table -- but to carry it off to a place with real copy machines, such as they were at the time, instead of trusting to the coin-operated machines in the library: Remember those things that for 25 cents produced a copy on thin, slippery gray-ish paper that curled up and slipped off of music stands?

My husband and I used my copy of one of the facsimiles in a Christmas card we made, and it amused me to think that, at four removes or so, our card reproduced the pen-strokes of the scribe who made the original book six hundred years before. It also amused me to reflect that if the library powers at Stanford knew how I was transporting their book they would have fainted dead away in unison. (The book made it back to its home just fine.)

In my brief career as a music student at San Francisco State in 1978 and 1979, I was a voice major and thus didn't have to concern myself with transporting my instrument, although damaging it by singing into the wind became an issue at one point. The other biker in the music department at the time toted a flute around. We agreed that it was just as well that we weren't cellists.

One morning in the mid-1970s, the strap of my shoulder bag broke. I was carrying it, as I always did, over one shoulder and under the other arm, flapping behind me in the breeze. I stopped to investigate when the bike started to slow down, and discovered that the strap had caught in the rear hub and wound itself around and about, dragging the purse along a quarter of a mile of freeway. I walked along there a couple of times rescuing such of my possessions as could be found, acutely aware that this was unsafe and illegal. I bought another purse, replaced glasses, reconstructed check registers, exchanged a few torn and burned dollar bills for new ones at the bank, and took to wearing the purse strap around the back of my neck and cradling the purse in front of me on the gas tank.

Laurie and I, sometime after 1986, bought a heavy, unwieldy object in Fitchburg and then had to transport it the fifteen or twenty miles to Otter River. I vaguely remember that it was something in the furniture line -- possibly shelves to contain his ever-exploding population of radios, audio components and recording equipment. We were probably in our fifties at the time, and we had a car. I think we went for a ride, strolled into Staples, saw this thing, and were unable to resist buying it on the spot. Finding ourselves with the motorcycle and no bungee cords, we tried to buy some at a bicycle shop. They had none. They did have a bunch of old bicycle inner tubes and some S-hooks, which we accepted and made the best of. We crept back to Otter River on Route 2A, arriving safely with our cargo.

Once or twice I've ventured into what might be called live freight. I've written somewhere else about the time we tried to carry Natalie's guide dog. It didn't work (see DOG ABUSE). In my pre-BMW days in Belmont I used to take my cat to the vet in a carrier strapped to the back of a bicycle, to her great unhappiness.

Once in the summer of 1981, I needed to move the BMW from the bottom to the top of a short gravel driveway. With Justin, twenty-some months old, in a pack on my back, I surveyed the situation. The bike weighs 400-odd pounds. I never could push it without barking my shins on those horizontal pistons. Peter Beagle (I See By My Outfit, an account of a New York to California jaunt on a large motor scooter) has compared walking his vehicle -- presumably smaller and less awkward than my BMW -- to pushing a fully-armed knight on roller skates. Given the loose gravel underfoot, I decided that driving it would be safer: at the very least, with one foot on the ground on each side, I could keep it from falling over and landing on top of me with Justin at the bottom of the pile.

Although at a distance of nearly thirty years it's hard to think myself back into the reality of what Justin was like as a little kid, I remember that at no time was it advisable to leave him on his own recognizance beyond arm's reach. I don't, and probably didn't then, know what he'd have done if I had divested myself of him and the pack and set them on the ground somewhere while I moved the bike; but he'd have thought of something inconvenient and probably life-threatening, and put it into execution quicker than thought. He was safer in the pack on the motorcycle, where I knew what he was doing.

I vaulted onto the seat -- this bike was built for German men, something it reminded me of from time to time -- and pushed down the key (please don't ask me to describe the idiosyncratic ignition system on this machine). Justin, his small head glued to my right ear, watched with interest as the control panel lights went on. I stepped the bike into gear, let the clutch out, and crept up the driveway with both feet on the ground. When I stopped and pulled the key out, Justin uttered a small
whimper and said "Wide!" I gave him to understand that there would be no more ride of this kind today, climbed off, parked, and walked home.

Most of the expedients described above were adopted because any alternative would have cost money that I didn't have, or generated inconvenience I didn't want. In my youth I was inventive, resourceful and poor. That phase of my life went on for a long time, and the modes of thought and action it established persist to this day.