By Annie Newcomer:
After being sheltered for many weeks, afraid to leave our home and engage in this new world made daunting by the virus Covid-19, my husband suggested that we go for a ride on his pale-blue Vespa. He drove his bike like a man stuck inside a house too long, flying past families walking on the sidewalks in our newly socially distanced neighborhood, and I held tightly on to him like I did when we first dated. I watched off the side of my husband’s shoulder as trees whizzed by, enjoying the movement and flow of the air enveloping my being on this beautiful April afternoon. Then the ride got very bumpy, so we stopped to check the bike and found an aneurysm in the front tire about the size of a large grapefruit. Out of nowhere, a huge explosion sounded, causing us and all the golfers on the greens across the street a few dozen feet away to jump. Left considering how to get our wounded bike home, we decided that my husband should carefully navigate the Vespa on the road while I followed in the distance. I graciously accepted that this was going to be a long walk back for me.
Later that day, since almost all the stores were mandatorily closed at this time, I was quite surprised when my husband informed me that he’d found a motorcycle shop that would send an employee to our home to collect the disabled bike and transport it to the shop, where they would replace the tire. Soon after he shared this information, from a window on the second story of our house, I saw an unmarked vehicle pull into our driveway, a man exit, ring the doorbell, and then with my husband’s help, load the motorcycle into the storage section of his truck and just as quickly leave. It was like watching a heist.
Weeks passed with no word from the shop, so I started calling them hoping the Vespa was ready. All I got was the answering machine telling me to leave a message. That was my cue to recite my old sorry request for an update on the bike. I started to worry that we may have given the bike away to a con artist. Finally one day we received a return call with our scheduled time to pick up the Vespa. On the designated day, we headed over to the shop, arriving a little early for our 10 a.m. appointment. We’d been instructed that only one couple was allowed in the store at a time, and we’d be second in line when the store opened.
We started chatting in the parking lot, once again socially distanced, with the gentleman who held the designated first slot when out of the blue #1 asked me if I might like to try his Buddy, a handsome royal blue motorcycle. My first inclination was to politely decline,
“Oh, thank you so much but my mother always warned me that I should never accept motorcycle rides from strangers.”
But he wasn’t actually offering me a ride. He was offering his bike for me to ride. That was a problem for me because it seemed sacrilegious to decline any offer of kindness during a pandemic. And yet to accept was to scoff at my mother’s fear of motorcycles that I had inherited. Indeed a fear with quite a history too because it had been passed down to her from her father. I felt the weight of my duty to guard this “motorcycle phobia” that had been polished over the years. My mother’s storytelling elevated it to sacred, raised to the importance of the Ten Commandments.
The story goes like this: Decades ago when my mother was a small child, her family attended a dinner at the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus in Lansing, Michigan. The bingo games were played before the main event, the raffle of a shiny new Huffy bicycle. The hour grew late, but parents understood the excitement of their children and allowed them to stay up. Those who had gathered that Friday evening were in for a shock when my mother was called to the stage, a tiny girl of no more than eight, and instructed to draw the winning ticket. She did. There, scribbled on the ticket stub she drew, was her father’s Irish Catholic name, James Doyle. My grandfather only had a third-grade education and his handwriting was close to illegible but still recognizable. After deliberating, the judges determined that it was, indeed, his name. Rather than producing joy in him, this unexpected result only unsettled grandpa because he was afraid that the other Knights of Columbus members might think it was a setup—him winning the grand price when, as it turns out, he was in charge of the raffle. But after the initial shock wore off, everyone agreed that my mother hadn’t cheated and that the bike should go home with her, for it had been won fair and square. Then, to everyone’s surprise (the second of the evening) and to my mother’s great disappointment, grandpa declined the bike, saying it was a safety issue. No daughter of his would ever ride a bicycle, he announced. So there, in front of nearly the whole congregation in his church, my grandfather promised to buy my mother a wristwatch, which eased her sadness and ensured that although she left the auditorium without a Huffy bike there would be no more drama that night. She showed her appreciation by demonstrating a healthy respect for time and was never late for work a day in her life when she grew up. My mother held various jobs: in the rectory in her hometown of Lansing and later in the Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. That is where she met my dad and then soon after married him. They moved to upstate New York and raised a large family. In addition to her family obligations, my mother worked for the Civil Service Fraud Unit in downtown Syracuse, New York, until she was 83 years old. She lived outside of town, so she was up bright and early every day at 5 a.m. to catch the city bus, a time schedule she kept until her death at 97.
It’s easy then to imagine that for my mother, who never rode a bicycle in her life, motorcycles were strictly taboo and totally out of bounds for any consideration, especially for her daughters. Indeed, she was so totally against motorcycles that she even made my brother-in-law sell his before allowing him to date and eventually marry my younger sister. If my mother was still alive today and saw me on the back of my husband’s Vespa, I imagine she would go to any extreme to get me removed, even if it meant hiring a small army. I felt as though I was living on the wild side to have gotten by riding as a passenger with my husband. So I had never even entertained the idea of my owning or even "trying out" a motorcycle.
Wandering in all these past memories stalled my conversation with the stranger, who was patiently waiting for my answer. Still I hadn’t decided what to say to him yet as I grappled with what my inner-self saw as the danger of trying a complete stranger’s motorcycle during a pandemic. Sure it was very nice of him to offer, but had he disinfected the bike? Should I just say, “Thank you, because it’s terribly kind of you to offer this chance for me to ride your 125cc scooter, especially since you don’t even know me, but at this moment in time we are all concerned about catching this virus from one another. So, thank you but no thank you.”
But as I looked into his kind eyes, I surprised even myself when I somewhat nervously replied, “Yes, thank you. Yes, I think I would like to try it out.”
Wouldn’t it be a fitting ending if I could tell you that it was love at first Zoom as I revved up the bike and flew through the parking lot, circling at least 10 times past my husband and our new acquaintance and that they were both very impressed with skills that I hadn’t even realized I possessed? But the truth is that I proceeded ever so cautiously, like when I am placing eggs into my grocery cart, and rode only once through the small parking lot, afraid the whole time that I might crash, before tentatively returning the bike to the gentleman with my soft, “Thank you,” to his surprised response, “You’re done already?”
However, don’t judge a "motorcycle mama" by the softness of her voice because before #1 in line was even called up, I whispered into my husband’s ear, “I think I want a Buddy.” Then all that was left for me to decide on before we left the shop was the color. This is when we discovered that our salesman had an artistic flair, and he used this skill to shuffle pieces from frames of various bikes in the store to design what he called a creamsicle look for me.
After a few weeks of study from the motorcycle manual for the written test and then trial rides with only one fall before the skills’ test after another several weeks, I officially earned my motorcycle license. As I exited the DMV that day with my temporary paper-license tightly ensconced in my hand, the security guard, the check-in person, and many waiting in line for their tests cheered me. I floated out the door. I think it takes a village to motivate a senior to acquire a new skill, and I am especially grateful for mine during this pandemic of 2020.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.