They said the guy picking me up would be “a Guatemalan gangster, but with a nice streak.”
It was 5pm. I was standing outside the Los Angeles offices of A Band Apart, the Bender and Tarantino-helmed production shingle where I was a newly-minted VP of Production.
My job was finding new material for feature film projects – which came in the form of scripts, articles, life rights, books, and verbal pitches. Sometimes I sought them. Sometimes they sought me. One of the more interesting inbound prospects came in the form of a nice young chap I’ll call Jake. He had short blonde hair, a solid but not overly large build, lots of energy, a legit-looking biker jacket, and a screenplay he passionately believed in.
He cold-called my office one day, and I said ‘yes’ when he asked if he could give me a quick pitch over the phone, and then follow up with the submission of his script.
It was a movie about outlaw bikers. “But not Hollywood outlaw bikers. Real ones.” That intrigued me.
He explained that, in biker gang culture, just belonging to a motorcycle club with tough-looking members in leather vests doesn’t necessarily make you an outlaw. Apparently, a lot of weekend warriors masquerade as Hells Angels lookalikes. The true, hard-edged and criminal elements are designated “one-percenters.” They’re serious fellows. Jake’s screenplay was about their world.
Because I was a stickler for authenticity, I’d asked, “that sounds like a great world, but what are your sources, and how do you know about it?”
“I live in it” was his answer. And that was promptly followed by an invitation for me to come experience it.
Blessed with an appetite for diving into unusual American subcultures, and fancying myself rather adept at finding a way into these underworlds, I of course said yes.
So there I was, on the sidewalk just by the garage entrance to my building on Beverly Boulevard, waiting for a ride to Long Beach, where later that night I was supposed to meet up with a bunch of no-joke bikers who wanted to show me their world, as part of a movie pitch.
The nice, long-time valet attendant came out of the garage, saw me standing there, and chatted with me. I asked him for some help. I needed advice. “What kind?” he asked. “I need to learn how to ride a motorcycle,” I replied. “Rather quickly.”
When we’d spoken earlier that day, Jake had made it clear that he wasn’t going to just parade his world in front of me like a pasha being offered deserts. Nor would I be looking at it through glass, like at an aquarium. I’d be going out riding with them. “And it’ll go late, so cancel any plans for later.” And after I’d enthusiastically said I’m all in, he’d made an offer which was really no offer at all: “you can either ride on someone else’s bike, or ride your own.” I did not fancy the prospect of hugging the midsection of a tattooed and be-leathered Hun. Such a thing would crater my street cred. So I told him I’d ride a bike on my own. “Cool,” he replied, “you can pick one from Larry’s collection when you get down here.”
This was great, because I was gonna have my own bike, but also problematic, because I’d never ridden a motorcycle before.
Luckily, the valet knew how to ride motorcycles and he gave me a crash course on the finer points of biker skills, but only after insisting that I not call it a “crash course” because that was bad juju, given that the subject matter was in fact crash avoidance. We didn’t have an actual motorcycle to work with, so he used pantomime to demonstrate basic usage of the clutch, handlebars, brakes.
I felt I was good to go. Now all I needed was for that Guatemalan gangster to show, as he was running late.
He pulled up abruptly in a used, blue pickup truck, the kind where whiplash is especially to be avoided because the cab has no headrests, just the glass windshield behind your head.
He hand-rolled the right-side window down and asked, “you Christian?” I said “yup,” and he waved me in.
He had long-ish black hair, muscles, a dark Central American complexion, and a white t-shirt that revealed his tats, which were full sleeves on his arms, and flares up the sides of his neck.
He didn’t throw the transmission into drive right off the bat. He just looked at me. Engine idling. Then his eyes narrowed. This made him look even tougher than he normally did. And it was at that moment that I elected to pass on the opportunity to scold him for his tardiness.
He spoke. “You’re pretty. You’re going to get into a fight tonight.”
I wasn’t 100% sure A) that I was indeed pretty, or B) what that had to do with the likelihood of a brawl in the ensuing five hours. So I waited for further explanation. But for now, none was forthcoming.
He started driving. Fast. I sat quietly next to him as he aggressively challenged the concept of yellow lights. After about a minute, he hitched the caboose onto his train of thought: “Yeah, a fight. For sure. So stick close to me.”
And that was the last thing he said for the next forty-five minutes.
We approached industrial Long Beach through serpentine exit ramps that fed into warehouse and factory zones flooded with orange arc-lights. Nearby, you could see the tops of monster cranes unloading containers from the massive trans-oceanic supertankers. It reminded me of the urban legend that George Lucas got the idea for his At-At walkers from similar cranes he saw in Oakland.
The streets along which we rolled were quiet. Tucked in among a handful of barbed-wire-fringed properties was the home of someone I’ll call Larry. Larry was involved in a pretty significant way with Easyriders magazine. He was also one of my hosts for the night. His house was part warehouse, part living quarters, and part garage.
The group that I’d be riding with had gathered there. They welcomed me. Very nice guys. It kind of looked like the United Nations, if the U.N. diplomats were to shed their suits, acquire a week’s worth of stubble, and get in a few dust-ups. We exchanged pleasantries, with some of the guys trying to gauge me and my motives. One guy cut to the chase and said, “so what the hell are you doing here?” I knew that in certain climes, firm directness is your best bet. So I replied, “waiting for you to impress me.”
Then some laughs. A couple guys used some choice language to basically communicate the idea that they liked the cut of my jib.
Jake walked up and said, “Ok, now you gotta pick your bike. Then we go.”
They led me into one of the garages. It had about thirty motorcycles. They were magnificent, and varied. Big glossy hogs. Lean, stripped classics. All beautiful.
I was amazed: I was being told that I could pick one for the night. I perused the metal, thinking very little about style, but still trying to pick one that matched my mojo and sent the right message – which I was hoping would be “why yes I am in fact very at home picking which bike to ride, as I do this all the time.” So I picked a lean and mean one that looked like a meatier Triumph Thruxton but didn’t have any brand adornments.
“That one’s rebuilt by hand. Too much power. Not really street legal.”
Cool. That sounded like my speed. I selected it.
“One thing, though,” warned Jake. “If you wreck it, you buy it. And it’s worth about $40,000.”
Delightful. I’d never ridden a bike, and I was now liable for collateralizing a $40,000 insurance policy. I did a quick actuarial table on myself, rehearsed the “pull-clutch, foot-shift, open-throttle” routine taught me by the valet, and decided the risks were manageable.
“She’s beautiful,” I said, by way of sealing the deal, and wondering if, as with ships, one actually called motorcycles “she.”
Motorcycles make physics palpable. At zero miles an hour, they are unwieldy and if you allow them to tip a bit, they tip more, teaching you tough things about inertia. But at speed, they’re smooth, and turns are effortless and self-propelled. Balance comes naturally.
In the beginning, I was stuck at zero. I’d walked my bike out of the garage onto the apron where everyone was saddling up. The bike was a beast. Unwieldy. But I was careful to act like I knew what I was doing and vigorously refuse the offers of help I was given. Gotta blend in.
Fairly quickly, everyone fired their engines and tore off. Leaving me alone. I couldn’t afford to lose the group, as I had no idea where we were going. So I decided I was as familiar with the weight and displacement of the thing as I ever was going to be, and I kicked it into life, slowly and roughly engaged first gear, and tore off.
Jake was not kidding. The thing was a beast.
Complicating matters, it was raining. And I was having to find the group by noise alone. But I did. Only a small amount of tampering with the speed limit was required for me to find them.
Having honed in acoustically, I caught a glimpse of single tail-lights between buildings, and saw the horde disappear up and over the hump of a bridge. I followed, and discovered it was a steel grate bridge, not asphalt. Wet with rain, it made my tires squeak and squirt side to side. So I slipped as much as drove over it, and caught up with the guys, attaching to the back of the pack.
We then hit a highway on-ramp, and I remember feeling that this bike was the purest iteration of velocity I’d yet experienced in my life. A flat-out rocket.
Next thing you know, I’m rolling with the lads.
People have asked me what was the most noteworthy thing about riding with one-percenters. Well, one of the things I saw I don’t think I should talk about. But there’s another facet of riding with them that I can mention, which was truly unexpected. When riding, they actually used turn signals. They were pretty civil drivers. I hadn’t expected that.
We pulled into a side street in a part of town that had brick-faced buildings intermingled with a couple of ghostly unpainted depots fitted with some decrepit neon signs. We did a drive-by of one, and I noticed the guys vetting the bikes out front, and then, although some folks wanted to stay, the bulk of the group somehow collectively agreed to move on. Later, Jake would explain that going into that particular bar would have been “a bad scene,” based on the other bike club that was there. “I figured it’d be better to deal with that particular issue later. No reason to mix you up in it.”
We then went down a few blocks and found another bar, and into it filed my crew. I did as the other guys did and backed my bike into one of those symmetrical arrays you see at roadhouse bars which seem to declare “we came here together, and we are tough, but we also care about orderly display of hardware.”
I was wearing brown boots, jeans, and an orange Carhartt jacket. I had a borrowed brain bucket helmet with yellow flames, which I left on my cycle seat. And I walked inside.
It was a loud biker dive bar. Great place. Interesting crowd. Guys were ordering drinks. I had a Bud Light. When I was handed my second, I made sure to walk into the bathroom, where I poured it out and filled it with water. I knew the brown glass of the bottle would disguise the agua. It was my first night on a bike, and I sure as heckfire didn’t want to complicate things with drinking more than twelve watery ounces.
Over the course of the next hour, I went to the bathroom for water refills a couple of times. This worked great, until my fellas at one point bought shots and handed me one. This was a puzzler. I didn’t have time to go to the bathroom. So the only reasonable thing to do was shoot it back about five inches to the right of my mouth and hope that the contents pouring out behind me didn’t hit anyone with bigger muscles than I had.
I timed it well. Nobody noticed that my shot didn’t actually go into my mouth.
Seeking the full experience, I went to one of the pool tables and stacked four quarters on the bumper, indicating I had next game.
My turn came, and I started playing. I noticed the Guatemalan watching me out of the corner of his eye. And lo and behold, his prophecy came true.
It started to become clear that my billiards opponent was not from my clan. He talked a good deal of trash. He was referencing events and things that he assumed I knew about — because of the group I arrived with — but didn’t. I think it began to frustrate him that I was not savvy to his lingua franca.
Eventually, he took issue with a shot of mine. I do not know what I did to antagonize him. I’m no hustler. I think I just got lucky, calling a simple shot like “that ball in the corner” and then unimpressively executing it. But next thing I knew, he was breaking his pool cue over his thigh, into two pieces, and coming for me with the sharp broken edge of one of them.
Seriously. It transpired in a weird, dimly-lit, slo-mo.
Was this real? Or theatrics? Or bluster?
Doesn’t matter. I knew it was important to not show fear. Dogs and sharks can sense it, and so can guys with pool cue pieces. But really before I could do much, the Guatemalan materialized between us and threw the guy up against the grimy exposed brick, with his forearm and a knife to his neck. It was deft. One fast motion. He encouraged the pool cue guy to pursue a different line of parley. And it worked. Peace was declared.
The Guatemalan smacked my arm with a “good to go” gesture. I smacked him back with a “thanks, man” gesture. But the way he looked at me after I smacked him made me think that most folks in his world don’t make it a habit to hit him, even affectionately.
And then, no joke, the pool cue guy and I both went back to playing our game. Like old friends. He actually said “you’re up,” remembering exactly where we’d been when the little fracas disrupted our match. And then he said “no hard feelings.” But I still watched every move he made with his new cue, to make sure I wasn’t giving him any occasion to feel like breaking it.
It made me wonder if parts of this evening were a put-on. The Guatemalan had predicted a fight, and there was one, right on cue. Part of me felt it was too good to be true. Were they trying to impress with me with the world? So that I’d like their script and back their film?
I asked Jake. His eyes didn’t flinch. “That guy with pool cue was real. It’s just a good thing you had such a good chat and bonded with Gustavo on the way down here.”
The next day, as I reflected on the night before and the screenplay, I found myself asking “why make the fictional version of this particular world, when the real one is probably more interesting?”
Around noon, Jake called and asked what I thought.
I told him the script was good, but the night was better. And then I said, “thanks to you, I’m thinking of going into documentary films.”
Cross-posted from Scenes.
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