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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

It once seemed that my whole life was just one long reluctant approach to the party, followed by retreat. And approach again. From the dark outside I would enter, the bar, the club, the private party. The sight of the people inside, a huge gang of togetherness, would hit me like the wall of heat when you open an oven door. I would stand there, furtively scanning the floor, or the fire exit more likely, quivering inwardly from a fear I could not name. After a couple of hours of gripping the bricks with my fingernails behind my back, never speaking to a soul, and invisible to all of them anyway, I would put my coat back on and re-enter the night cold outside for the subway trip back home. There was both relief and inestimable sadness in this moment. Look! I can be abandoned by people I don't even know yet!

But hope sprang eternal in some gland, and the next weekend I would ride the train to some other convocation of strangers. Return home again.

Now I am a (forcibly) changed woman. Time growing short will do that to a person; so will finally getting sick of one's own crap. So will finding where you belong.

People who speak Dutch often like to hang out with other people who speak Dutch; go figure. Dog trainers meet for coffee at their regular spot to share the latest scandals and how to get clients to actually follow the protocols they've paid the trainers large sums to impart. Scuba divers go out for margaritas and plan trips on their cocktail napkins. And motorcyclists, at once fractious and cohesive, form their societies based on marque or riding style or locale, if neither of the first two can support social numbers.

And so it is here, I was overjoyed to learn. But only because I interrupted the long approach-and-retreat gambit of yore.

At first it was just me and my bike, in this new world, and the left-hand wave passed between two projectiles headed in opposite directions. But one day I found out--how? I forget--about an annual vintage-bike ride leaving from Woodstock on a Sunday afternoon. The gods who preside over the calendar of child visitation schedules smiled bemusedly down: --Shall we give her this one, Hal? --Yeah, sure, Gus, let's give her a try and see how she does.

Let the tire-kicking begin. Upwards of seventy or eighty bikes, including my own cusp-vintage, but really all over the map, from Royal Enfield to airhead to sportbike, gathered in one place and a lot of talking to get done before we embark on the world's slowest ride to lunch. I came home later that afternoon with phone numbers on torn-off scraps of paper and the news that there was a local-riders dinner that met every Tuesday.

Obviously the deities in charge had judged my performance with approving benevolence, because Tuesday is the only night of the week I could do such a thing as go out, the only night I could practice such selfishness as this is for me alone. Heretofore I had used the evening to hunker down at the kitchen table and and work while eating vegetarian chili from a can. But now I would go out, be with others of my kind. What a certain poet of the riding community once called "my people." The family whose bond is closer than blood.

Still, it was hard. Walking into the restaurant I clutched my helmet, affixing what I trusted was a nonchalant but pleasant look atop my features, but which probably appeared as brittle as old paint. I went up to an empty chair, pulled it back, and felt inside a little like cheese toast that has been left under the broiler for a few seconds too long: about to burst into flame. Still smiling, though.

Now they are my people. Every Tuesday I belong to them; they belong to me. It's one big warm bath of belonging, there at the cheap restaurant. I don't even remember what I eat: house salad? chowder? Because what I really eat is words--talk about all things concerning that which brought us together, motorcycles. And there is so much to say, about so much: gear, trips, rides, mishaps, the one great moment of speed, thrill, luck that rises up like godly hands to carry you up and over. People gesticulate, laugh, pass the bread. One fellow sits with his iPhone continually six inches from his face, as people with iPhones always will, but he's listening, and he can provide video illustration on demand of whatever the conversation has come to.

We are a great plurality, none of us the same yet all similar in one deep and sticky way. One night there were four European expatriates in attendance; most weeks a fellow (on a BMW, natch) rides in from Connecticut, because our group is superior to the one he has back home, he opines. Once we had Art Garfunkel's brother, and the former head of the Goethe Institute. There almost every week is the man who arranged and played on "Dueling Banjos" in Deliverance. Whoever is sitting next to you might reveal surprising things, about his past in Germany or in the city or in walks of life you'd never have heard of otherwise. And I sit with them. With them.

All across the country, nay the world, this scene is repeated: weekly dinner with the folks, all of whose motorcycles wait patiently outside for the bills to be paid, the final notes exchanged, the goodbyes till next week, or next weekend ride to somewhere, together.

One week I happened to sit next to a couple, perhaps in their sixties, who looked neither to right nor to left, who kept their eyes on their plates, working at them like machines until they were empty. The people across the table, laughing and questioning and talking about all the bike stuff that in the end boils down to life itself made no impression on them whatsoever. It seemed impossible that they had come to the right place. What rider comes to Tuesday night dinner for the pasta or scallopine or dinner rolls?

It was an aberration. I never saw them again. There must have been some mistake. For they were not ecstatic to be there. And that is how you know us: those who belong.

[Written to the sound of The Name of this Band Is Talking Heads ("There's a party in my mind, a party
that never stops.").]