A Harley Davidson engine is loud enough to set off car alarms.
I learned this delightful fact a few weekends ago, en route to the Brooklyn Invitational Custom Motorcycle Show. Tucked into a photography studio by the river, between warehouses and industrial parks, the annual one-day show draws hundreds.
Most come on two wheels, parking their polished Ducati Café Racers next to rusted retro Harleys. The line of bikes stretches along both sides of the street, and seems to create a barrier to block out the world of grocery shoppers and emails “sent from my iPhone.”
Inside, it smells like beer and leather and gasoline. It smells like 1969 and rock and roll.
The sun-drenched studios are full of motorcycles. Each with its own set of elegant curves and points that set it apart from the next.
There are bikes with long handlebars that sweep gracefully into the arch of the gas tank. Some have seat backs that taper into long, sharp spires, intended to intimidate. They’re painted in swirls of metallic color that undulate and change in the shifting light.
The walls are covered in photographs of burly, tattooed men on their bikes, buzzing down tree-lined county routes.
These same men fill the room, filing in around the bikes. Their faces are lined, tattoos faded. Their shoulder length manes have run to grey, but there
is some former glory that resides in the bow-legged stance, and the patches sewn on ragged leather vests. The women, clad in tight jeans and heels, lean artfully against the walls and watch the room with hooded eyes.
In one room, a huge steel battle-axe hangs on the wall below a flag sporting the winged skull motif of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. Barrel-chested men in Hells Angels garb mill around the exhibit, reading the testimonials of longtime riders posted on the walls.
“We are making art,” a rider named Wes writes. “The whole thing is evolving. Motorcycles, pickup trucks, history, different senses of right and wrong; different cultural senses. The guys I hang around with have their own codes. We don’t talk about it but we know.”
In the back of the studio, vendors sell t-shirts and jewelry made from scrap metal. In one corner, a tattoo gun hums while a scruffy artist draws a skull onto the wrist of a blond twenty-something.
One vendor, a wizened biker named Tom, sold his own handcrafted leather wallets embossed with pictures of motorcycles, and canvases painted with classic motorcycle art.
“Have you always been an artist?” I asked. “Well,” he chuckled, “I always drew flies!”
I arrived at the Brooklyn Invitational on the back of a lime green Harley, and at first, I thought I’d stick out like a sore thumb in my pretty tweed trench coat and neat ponytail. I wandered around quietly for a while, absorbing the atmosphere and generally trying to blend in.
After about 30 minutes, I realized I didn’t need to blend. At first I only saw the bearded men in grease-stained jeans, but slowly I began to notice the children. Well-dressed children with freshly scrubbed faces followed these men around, asking questions about the motorcycles. “Daddy,” they said. “Grandpa.”
The gruff bikers in their studded leather suddenly seemed softer around the edges. What brought these men here was not a desire to alienate themselves from the city around them, or from “kids today,” but nostalgia for their youth. These were men yearning for the America of open roads and electric guitars. In this out-of-the-way Brooklyn studio, they were gathering, remembering, celebrating.
As the sun began to set, men started to climb onto their bikes, tugging on gloves and helmets. One by one they pulled off, the noise from the engines
ripping into the air, setting off car alarms all the way to the highway.
Each time a bike started up, the peal grew louder, swelling into a salute, filling the air with the barely suppressed cry of freedom that seems to cling to these men.
Each rode off in a different direction, back to their everyday lives in Harlem, Manhasset and Hoboken. They rode back to their families, their jobs, rent-controlled apartments, sublets and three-bedroom houses.
I climbed back up onto the green Harley and headed toward Queens.
There’s a lesson here. On the surface, New York is a city for the young. We frequent swanky nightclubs and press our shirts for job interviews on Madison Ave. We swipe our Metrocards on hybrid buses and sway to indie pop hits.
These were people escaping the New York of congested streets and pedestrians in favor of a life where wheels turn fast and time moves slow. This is the lesson. It’s about a life spent languidly watching the miles pass. It’s about leaving something behind. It’s about nearing the destination. It’s about
having no destination. It’s about belonging somewhere, and nowhere. It’s about being proud of your history, and evolving into something new. It’s about the only city in the world that holds a place for both ponytailed college girls from Queens and old school biker gangs.
It’s about New York.