Friday, September 28, 2007

Hopping Nostalgia

My wife and I try to take advantage of our layovers when we travel. We have eaten Greek in Detroit and explored snowy Windsor, Ontario, on layovers between California and the Caribbean. Amsterdam is the European hub of Northwest Airlines and that's an opportunity to eat genuine old fashioned Dutch food on a stop there (marrow bone peas anyone? rijstaffel? Yum...), and a few years ago I spent a happy day wandering Nice waiting for my onward flight to Corsica. Layovers can be the most memorable parts of flying.

On our return from the wedding in the snowy fastness of the Sierra Nevada mountains we took our first tour in many years of Alameda, California. Alameda is an island city connected by bridge and tunnel to neighboring Oakland, and for many years was a forgotten suburb, a Navy base with straight, tree lined streets and funky Victorian homes laid out like a stereotypical Mid Western town.

We got to know Alameda because we kept our sailboat in Marina Village and we spent happy weekends sailing the freezing San Francisco Bay. After yet another brisk journey across the Bay, alone or on a club cruise, we would repair to a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant and eat pork chops, lemongrass and shredded pork omelette. We were determined to eat at Vo's once more but there was only a hole where Vo's had once stood on Webster Street in Oakland's Chinatown.

Standing on the sidewalk in the last rays of the sun, feeling the cold, fog laden breeze I felt a mixture of sadness and comfort. Its not just Key West that suffers from incessant change and renewal. I doubt I will return to the restaurant that will arise in place of Vo's -"remodeling" the sign in the window promised- but I like to hope other people will make a stop there a routine in their busy lives.

We found a Chinese restaurant packed with Chinese diners and we took our place among them. We skipped the sizzling tripe and white chicken feet, for we are paid-up members of the bourgeoisie, and we took shrimp, ribs and chow mein.

We prefer the Szechuan school of spicy Chinese cooking and this adventure returned mixed results. The ribs were cut the wrong way and the slice of bony beef was covered in brown gravy over white Italianate pasta all too reminiscent of my English boarding school childhood. The shrimp were fried whole and smeared in...mayonnaise? That's what it tasted like, and the chow mein was littered with chunks of scallop too large to fit on the fork and pink pieces of what I suspected after I ate one, were cow hearts. It didn't taste bad but it wobbled horribly and pinkly when I speared it on my fork. One was enough, with my wife protesting "Don't tell me what it is- don't! Please!" as she bravely downed her piece. I remained silent and focused on the mayo.

We took a post prandial walk through the manicured grounds of marina Village, admiring the lawns, the order and the silence. Unlike the Key West Bight,which is always full of people and activity, Marina Village appears to be enforcing the no live aboard rules and of sailors there were none in evidence, just a thousand still and unattended boats, neglected by their owners who were nowhere to be seen on this sunny Sunday evening. The Gemini catamaran on the right looked just like ours all those years ago and it set off all sorts of memories, sitting there waiting for a sail. We sailed ours to Key West and I wanted to jump aboard and do it all again.

We walked and talked and remembered the excitement and fear of preparing to cast off on our epic sail to the Panama Canal at the end of the century. We walked the dogs, we sailed the boat we learned to trust each other. I was sad and I couldn't quite understand why. Nostalgia is all very well, but we are happy in the Keys, we don't miss the cold and the fog and the crowding of California, but a part of me wanted to roll back time and be ten years younger. I wouldn't change a thing but I wanted to re-live those crazy days. I wanted another go round. That's the first time I have felt that unreasoning, unreasonable demand for more time. For a man like me who has tried to live each phase of his life to the fullest, the feeling was unsettling.

The day was drawing to a close, and it was time to head towards the airport. We took a drive through downtown Alameda, a hopping place these days, fully recovered from the abrupt departure of the Navy. There were lots of stores and restaurants, lights, and people. It was charming.

On our way to the Oakland airport across a bridge, nostalgia struck another low blow and we turned into a business park where we used to take our dogs for long aimless walks after they had been cooped up on the boat all day. Debs, our husky, loved this field, it was wide open and filled with tall dry grass in which lived dozens of jackrabbits. I have this abiding memory of him leaping through the grass, ears flying wildly as he sought his prey (which always got away, luckily for my bourgeois sensibilities...). Emma the portly yellow Lab, followed along at a distance, running a bit and coming back to pant at my feet.

The field showed an open window on the Bay and across the grasses years ago we could see the illuminated San Francisco skyline as Debs wore himself out in the chilling Bay breeze. The sun went down in concert with the temperatures as the illuminations went up. It was magic and we never tired of walking the dogs in the jackrabbit field.

On our return last week we found the industrial park paved over, anonymous warehouses and blank faced offices occupying almost all the open space. The central area was bulldozed ready for any new tenant ready to buy the space. I sat in the car bundled up and stared out in the beams of the headlights at what was left of Debs' field. All gone I thought. Nothing stays the same. I'm slipping off into oblivion. The past can't come back. I was feeling nostalgic for my younger self.

We turned the car to leave and find our way in the darkness to the newer, improved and bigger airport. More land built over, more noise, more people, cheaper fares.

"Look! Look!" said my wife. And there on the grassy sidewalk hopped a big eared, gray jack rabbit. He paused, stared at us and loped out of sight into the brush between two office buildings.

"See," my wife said squeezing my hand. "He came to give us a message. They're still here, holding on." Aren't we all...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Broad Horizons

"I've never seen a beach like this!" Diggy's slack-jawed amazement took me aback a bit. He is a lifelong resident of Key West and in all his 24 years he had never seen the endless sands of Fort Lauderdale? It seemed impossible but it is true.
I drove on along the waterfront and Diggy's eyes widened enough to escape their sockets as he observed the broad, clean sidewalk, the perfect palms and the strapping men and women flexing themselves along the waterfront.
Bathing conditions are better than "OK," they are perfect for visitors who actually have their swimsuits along with them...

"Look at those lifeguard huts," Diggy noticed the air conditioned, perfectly painted towers, housing more strapping youths no doubt, sitting ready to run down the ramp. grab the boogie board stuck in the sand, and then into the modest surf to save a life or two before lunch.

"Smathers Beach should look like this," Diggy breathed, imagining a Key West never before seen, bum free, tidy and organized. That's the thing about Key West: newcomers want funk and character, Conchs prefer order, cleanliness and modernity. Its just another paradox. Riding the mainland with Diggy is a healthy reminder of the value of change.
Playing the tourist is a new role for us but we dive in cheerfully, and we decide to take a stroll on the Pompano Beach municipal pier,which charges a fee for entry, a concept unknown on Key West's White Street Pier, and draws comment from my Conch colleague. Something to the effect that an entry fee keeps the rif-raf out.
Furthermore Pompano Beach takes care of its height impaired anglers, and neither of us has seen this neat trick before:
The point of this tour of the mainland was to deliver my still ailing Vespa to the dealer for a fourth attempt at repair. After that we were free to peruse the offerings of machines sold to be ridden. Diggy has moved past the always useful moped and is now riding a reliable Honda cruiser. He feels 750ccs aren't enough and he is seeking, as all good motorcyclists do, a roadgoing expression of his inner self. He's been thinking about an 1100cc V-Star as sold by the Yamaha shop in Key West. I am looking further afield for my riding satisfaction. We started at the Triumph dealer where I tried to introduce Diggy to a Bonneville Cruiser. I like the standard Bonneville, on sale for about $10,000 (deep sucking intake of breath).Diggy sat on the America and judged it unsatisfactory. We wandered into the back and I looked at the classic Ducatis (too tall in the seat) while Diggy proceeded to shock me by mounting a Monster and falling in love. He leaned into the handlebars, tucked his feet up on the standard pegs and decided this was the bike for him.
You can take a Conch to water and be shocked by how rapidly he will leap in and revel in the new, the unfamiliar, the better. I really think Diggy might end up on a Ducati.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Vespa Blues Part Three

I find it odd that I am inching closer and closer to the all American motorcycling ideal that there is "no substitute for cubic inches." I have long held the belief that less is more, and have frequently chosen the simpler path. Every time I came across Yogi Berra's fork in the road I usually declined to pick it up, on the grounds my backpack was already overflowing with junk.
Even on the streets of Rome a 500cc scooter seems the bare minimum to escape the gravitational tug of the traffic circling Piazza di Torre Argentina.

Times change and I suppose that reluctantly so must I. My decision to commute on an engine between 650 and 900ccs is based on the eighty percent rule. Frankly I like speed, and I like commuting during odd hours when the road is clear, but on those days when Highway One is bunged up with traffic I still enjoy the cut and parry of passing. It seems my habits are bad, and they must be punished. No Vespa for me!
I believe the Vespa is entirely capable of maintaining a brisk pace on the road, of passing as I like, of staying healthy for years to come. But I am tired of being a rebel, or riding too many miles, using my two wheeler as real transportation, of enjoying the limitations of CVT transmission, of feeling no fear on "small" wheels.

So I am toying with my choices to replace my Vespa GTS which is still being tested by Vespa Ft Lauderdale. The Vespa is paid off, I shall sell it at my leisure, but in the meantime I am unsure which exact path to follow. And in an age where "mid sized" is 1300cc, I still propose to increase my cubic capacity in a smaller measure than most riders. I have always found my greatest pleasure in smaller capacities- 350ccs when I was a youth, the splendid kick starting Yamaha SR500 later and a Yamaha 650 Maxim complete with huge fairing and shaft drive when I rode from Florida to California 16 years ago. I remember the dogs of my life, overweight, tall and principally represented by a Honda Goldwing that made me feel inadequate when facing corners together.
My buddy Giovanni loves his elephantine 1200cc BMW and squeezes it through small Italian towns where mopeds sometimes fear to go, even in Spoleto as the small hill town shrinks to accomodate the Two Worlds festival.

I shall restrain my impulse to oversize it, but I shall seek reliability, and as much simplicity as the 21st century offers. I checked my diary entries and I note my Vespa was inoperable almost six weeks ago.That's a long time to be bereft of my favorite past-time, especially for so insignificant a cause. Its time to enjoy life by riding once again. Thus time on some big Hog that will dwarf my puny efforts at daily riding by quarter liter. I hope to be in the saddle next week if all goes well. Risking a ticket perhaps...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In And Out

It happened not so long ago that a member of the Key West City Commission asked a lobbyist to bring him home a t-shirt from Las Vegas. When questioned about the propriety of the gift the City Commissioner, a man who owns strip joints and hard-drinking bars on Duval Street, defended himself plaintively: "But I like In And Out burgers!"

Much though I regret it, I have something in common with the city commission's bon vivant in our little town. I like the burgers as well. Very much in fact.We spotted the sign from a distance, shining like the Star over Bethlehem so long ago, this time "In-N-Out" led us across the median strip of a very long, very straight drive across the San Joaquin Valley of central California.
The menu is short at these drive throughs, no chicken tenders or salads or other low cholesterol concoctions:

The staff wear little jockey caps or old fashioned masons-type paper hats and white shirts and they pump freshly peeled potatoes through a slicer and fry them in front of your car. Its all an old time Burger Joint should be, and they are all over the American West, those delicious little meals

I woofed mine down and thoroughly enjoyed fortifying myself for the vegetarian celebrations to come, high in the mountains, distant on the horizon. Our resort destination fried a mean parsnip, its true, but the milk shakes are to die for at an In-N-Out.

For my part, all I brought back from this quick stop in Merced, California, was the memory. I prefer the burgers to the t shirts, and there are generally no questions asked about a simple but satisfying road meal.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Young Lumberjacks Convention

I stood at my window and looked out across the open space that could have been a parade ground, and watched the refugees tramping through the muddy gravel. They were people hell bent on getting away, and taking their possessions with them, no matter how much effort it took to haul the little cart along, filled to overflowing with bags and boxes and packages. They leaned and strained and eyes glued on their feet they tugged like oxen bending to the yoke. They reminded me of pictures I have seen of Polish peasants fleeing the Nazi invaders, caught in black and white prints, fuzzy and faded by time; those pictures marked an epoch. And so did these overloaded guests staying at the Evergreen Lodge, a luxury resort high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I turned back to the gas heater hissing at my elbow, next to the Sirius satellite radio which sat next to my cup of tea. I was reading In A Sunburned Country, and laughing and waiting for the curtain to go up on the new epoch in my wife's family. Her youngest nephew, the last of the small brood, was getting hitched. And I was a guest. An honored guest, for I am the groom's favorite uncle. It is a family joke as I am his only true uncle, and I find my presence at these events is de rigeur. Even at 6,000 feet in late September.
The bride and the groom are of the new generation, both raised to be aware and to live life greenly. He is a park ranger and she studies to be a nurse; meat passeth not their lips, and every burned hydro carbon is an offence against creation. I hope for once that the new generation will be able to pull off the magic trick of converting high ideals into practical reality; something my generation signally failed to do. I wonder how many generations of almost-but-not-quite-accomplished high ideals our over-engineered world can cope with.

The marriage was a robust affair, as it had to be, thanks in large part to a storm that produced light snowfalls, black thunderclouds and cold heavy rain. We cheered the young couple on, and they are so perfectly paired it seems certain to me that they will have little difficulty holding their vows up to the test of time. I witnessed both sets of parents escort their offspring down the aisle, both sets of parents still married, still setting a singular example to the parents-to-come. That's not a sight one sees too often in a world rendered complex by multiple families and tangled relationships. These two are families that appear to mate for life. It is clear from this picture that two happy people are getting married. A celebrant holds the book, the groom's older brother looks on, as the witness-in-chief. It is a scene that is reflected around the world in all human cultures and a marriage is a public event that, like a funeral, has a purpose that is immediately discernible to any human observer. We all get married, in more or less the same way no matter what our language, history or even religion. I enjoy that multinational subtext at weddings. I have seen Europeans marry, Berbers marry, Hindus marry, Africans marry and Americans marry, and its all pretty much the same. I even understood my Jewish wife's traditions at our own marriage...
The ample fireplace was also the theme of the weekend, in a place where daytime highs grazed 60 degrees and nighttime lows hovered near freezing; temperatures decidedly not suitable for my Florida-thinned blood. The young people who attended the celebration were not one whit deterred. They reveled in their loud plaids, their hairy shirts and even hairier woolen Andean caps, with long flaps over their ears and puffy down jackets insulating them from Nature's fury. Some few of them slept in tents for want of $175/night to sleep with gas heat and satellite radio. We took pity on the Preacher and his own soon-to-be-wife and encouraged them to sleep in our spare bedroom. Our cabin was as large as our modest Florida home. Everything is ample in California, not just the fireplaces.
I looked on and shivered and not just because of the cold. I became more acutely aware of the passing of time as I watched the robust youth busy themselves with all the social activities that these occasions demand. They strode and organized and huddled and planned and laughed and I was glad I was in the second tier, at the back of the marriage party.
Uncle Chuck was not at this wedding, a first since I married into the family. He was killed by a heart attack a good few years ago. In the old days he stood and smiled and sang when called upon at Jewish gatherings, prayed in Hebrew when needed and toasted all who needed a reminder of why families are families. I missed Uncle Chuck this past weekend, I mourned the absence of a generation older than mine and I cannot but help feeling that I was an inadequate substitute, no matter how old the passing of the generational torch made me feel.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Seeking Perspective

In a few hours I will be herded into a plane and launched westwards at 500 mph to arrive in Oakland 2 hours after I leave Fort Lauderdale... and I am then going to be cheerful and polite to what will seem like the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, but will in fact just be a large bunch of relatives gathered to witness the marriage of two young hopefuls. Time to say goodbye for a few days to all this:I am very happy they have decided to make the commitment, and all that, and I don 't even mind hanging out with assorted relatives. After all I did marry into the family 14 years ago and they have all been nothing but wonderful to me ever since (the prevailing sentiment at the time was that at least my wife hadn't married "Ed" even though I was an unknown quantity compared to her last boyfriend). I do wish they weren't tying the knot at 8,000 feet in a place where temperatures drop to 40 degrees. I haven't seen my breath in years.
Its just that I'm feeling grumpy at the moment and I've got things I want to do to move on and make a fresh start. This weekend is my scheduled weekend off but the days surrounding it are swapped out so I will be repaying my colleagues in the weeks ahead for covering for me, which means my time off will be shredded for several weeks to come. That adds to my sense of a lack of closure.
So, in order to seek a balance I went to the movies yesterday afternoon. I had a hair appointment earlier in the day but in a moment of keys disease the hair dresser had apparently forgotten so she came late and dealt with my mop in short order. Which was very good of her as I needed it, but she wasn't dressed to cut hair and I could only think that she had something more interesting on her plate before her daughter got out of school in a few hours.
The movie was a documentary titled No End in Sight which laid out in stark detail the chain of events that led to the destruction of Iraq after the US invasion. And the destruction of lives:It was detailed blow by blow account of the lack of planning, the lack of attention paid to details, the lack of discussion, about what to do with an entire country once you own it. "The Pottery Barn rule" as Secretary of State Powell put it at the time. It is clear in the film that the US was hell bent on breaking Iraq with no idea how to take responsibility for dealing with the breakage after the invasion. $1.5 trillion down the drain.
Worse than that was the stark human cost, brought home once again by the implications of the lack of planning. The film pointed out that in World War Two the allies planned for two years how to rebuild Europe. The US planned for 50 days how they were going to govern Iraq, and then threw the plans out the window and went with political whims.
George Slocombe, to his credit, agreed to be interviewed and he came out of it very badly. The senior advisor to the Civilian Provisional Authority, he was a political hack who never visited Iraq and made decisions that the film argues were disastrous, and their consequences affect us today. He looks entirely normal and all I could think of as he spoke was that old phrase "the banality of evil." Perhaps in his case it should be re-phrased as the banality of stupidity but his motivation for wrecking post-invasion Iraq will never be known.

In the grand scheme of things I have it pretty good. On today's daily images on the BBC News page we see men trolling for trash in a canal in Indonesia and street children idling in India.This is where I live and what I have to come home to; I can't let myself forget how lucky I am: A Broken Vespa really doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Time to take stock and get over myself.

Monday, September 17, 2007

For Sale- Vespa GTS-Runs Well

My Vespa is fixed, according to Joe at Vespa Ft Lauderdale but he's keeping it for a few days until I get back from California just to make sure the scooter really is working properly. Then I will be able to sell it and wash my hands of this whole unhappy period of my life.

The problem with the Vespa was apparently a loose fuel injection unit which the computer would have revealed immediately had Vespa Miami done as they promised and taken the scooter all the way to the Ft Lauderdale main store 45 minutes away and tested the scooter. Instead they buggered about and made me return three times to get the job done. Each time I was polite and more frustrated and though they discovered the broken check valve in the evaporative system they failed completely to discover the original cause of the stuttering.

Joe is a piece of work and he it is that forced me to decide to sell the scooter. he told me that the Vespa shouldn't go beyond 70 miles per hour or it would die a premature death, which if true makes a nonsense of the water cooling and the rev limiter and so on- all the precautions Piaggio has built in to the scooter to assure long and useful life. Then he said riding the Vespa flat out sucked "too much fuel" into the engine so that when you roll off the gas the engine is starved for fuel and hesitates. Then he suggested that I was shortening the life of the scooter by daring to ride the scooter at wide open throttle. I know its all rubbish and I also know the Vespa will now run smoothly and reliably but I don't want to go near South Florida's only Vespa dealer again.

Joe may know how to read a computer print out but he epitomizes to me a man who services machines but understands neither riders nor scooters. He also confirms me in my belief that the Modern Vespa is not a machine to be ridden. It is to be admired ( and it is beautiful) and purchased by inexperienced riders who want something cool in their lives. Joe reminded me more than once that I have ridden my 250 further than anyone else he has come across, and at 11,000 miles I don't really feel that that is very far at all.

If my style of riding is too much by Vespa Fort Lauderdale/Miami standards then I need to accept the fact that if anything happens to the scooter after the warranty expires in November I will be on my own, and it will be a world of hurt with these bozos smirking and saying "I told you so."

I went to Pure Triumph down the street with my buddy Diggy who had been turned on by his first sight of the "gangsta" MP3 ( Diggy is 24 and his vernacular is quite an education for this old man) where he fell in love with the Ducati Monster and I confirmed my lustful feelings for the Triumph Bonneville. My wife sounded relieved when I called her and said I was moving on from the Vespa. Diggy looked me as though I was mad when I asked if he wanted to look at Piaggio's three wheeler. We had just finished being verbally abused by Joe and Diggy said: "No Dude. I will be worrying all the time about over revving the thing and then I'll end up starving it for fuel." And we laughed together all the way to the motorcycle shop. I don't think Diggy had ever seen me so angry as I was during my confrontation with Joe, and that revelation brought home to me how upset I have been over this broken Vespa mess.

$5600 obo.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thinning Blood

This is the tedious time of year when newspapers run comic strips promoting the notion that Fall is Good, whereas I live firmly rooted in a community where any season that isn't warm, is bad.
There are some people who live on a planet where cold weather is a good thing and cool crisp days and longer nights are harbingers of better things to come. Not so. Not for me at any rate. I don't miss snow and rain and brown leaves and winter storms that quick freeze your toes and ears and nose. Winter blasts that freeze your breath in your beard are a distant memory and long may they stay that way.
Living and working in Key West occasionally produces the unexpected benefit of hanging around true blue Conchs. Conchs (pronounced "konks") are people born and raised in Key West and though the definition is not open to interpretation, I would add anyone who graduates Key West High School qualifies for the term. To be a Conch can be as much a bad thing as good, and sometimes those of us who came later to the Conch Republic will say dismissively "he's just a Conch..." as though to say "he knows no better..."
Conchs actually are a little odd in a world populated by travelers, highways and jets all humming to the tune of constant change. Conchs don't like change much, and they label themselves as locals by their untiring efforts to hold on to the past. Listen to them talk amongst themselves and they spend hours recalling what businesses operated in this or that location, who lived where, and who is related to whom. It is the typical small town sense of place that requires endless grasping at fleeting straws. Particularly fleeting in a tourist trap like Key West where change is rapid and mandatory. Particularly odd as the conchs were the ones who enabled the Great Land Grab in Key West, by selling off their island to the highest bidders, as fast as they could.
One of my colleagues was looking out the window at a dark summer rain cloud and announced: "I want to take a vacation in snow. I've never seen snow." This is not as odd as it sounds. I know several people who have never risked their fragile Conch skins in a blizzard. I know one man who married a woman who had never in her life been off the island chain, but that's another story.
Anyway, my snow-obsessed friend was pondering what to do about this short coming in his placid life. My other colleague in the room suggested Colorado as a destination suitable for fulfilling the dream.She lured him with exciting pictures of mountains and canyons and thrills. All I could think of as a suggestion, was a quick trip to Hawaii, get to the top of the mountain, fall in a snowdrift and make a snow angel and bugger off pronto to tropical sea level as fast as possible thereafter. My suggestion fell flat but I think its merits will become apparent after he meets Snow for the first time. Especially if he gets stuck in some frigid alpine cabin in a Colorado wasteland.
Blood thins. It just does, and I guess people have adapted over the centuries to all the different climate ranges there are on the planet. For lots of unfortunates cold weather is a fact of life half the year. We just make our own cold weather by feeling sorry for ourselves, on our small island, when winter nips here at a chilly 65 degrees for a whole week at a time. I got to the keys late in life which is fine by me, but the prospect of never seeing snow again fills me with joy. Hell if I never have to live through another cold damp California winter I will be deliriously happy. Lacking a functioning scooter I need to go for a swim before the water drops below 80...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Poker Run or V Twin Lemmings

It's lemming weekend in Key West:
I find, thanks to the abundance of information on the Internet, that in real life lemmings do not actually throw themselves into the ocean, en masse, off cliffs. However in popular imagination the label "lemming" carries a negative connotation, and like 'em or not, the lemmings have been massing in Key West this weekend. For merchants, who are the backbone of our tired tourist economy, Poker Run is an economic boost at a time of year when visitors are flagging and hurricanes are strengthening. So the residents of the city suffer hundreds, perhaps thousands of motorcycles to come roaring onto the island and make noise, clog streets and allow their riders to strut their lack of imagination.
In labeling these poseurs as lemmings I know I am denigrating them and I find myself doing that not because they are unworthy tourists, or feeble spenders, but because they aren't motorcyclists worthy of the name. And that's a minefield I have laid out for myself, sure, but "lemming" is a label that just won't get out of my head as I watch them rumble around town in our blinding white sunshine.
They ride large bright expensive machines, almost all of them Harleys, many many of them too impractical to ride to Key West, and the big v-twins come to the Keys on trailers so their owners can rumble down the Overseas Highway at 40 mph free from the cares of road grime, road dirt or road aches. And to my purist "motorcyclist" way of thinking that is pretty feeble.
As the rider of a modest Vespa (pictured here: my wife's even more modest 150), I am not exactly in a position to put myself at the head of a pack of "motorcyclists" but I ride a lot. I fear I ride many more miles than most of the lemmings. I know this because mileage is not something one covers wobbling around on a showroom clean motorcycle, daily riders need to know how to ride, turn, deal with traffic, slow down, stop and start without wobbling stalling and generally riding like a putz, to use a term my Jewish wife would understand. Key West downtown looks like a carnival ride, not a gathering of road-hardened motorcyclists.
Many people who don't ride Harleys despise the machines themselves but don't count me among their number. The Harley Davidsons that come out of the factory are fine machines and I've tried my hand at riding them, and propose to rent them again in the future as they are quite enjoyable and surprisingly fast. However to see them kept and polished as toys instead of a means of getting around, or even as a way of life, is a shame to me. Harleys don't light my inner fire as other machines do ( Vespas, Moto Guzzis, Triumphs for example) but they do the mundane job of transporting people very well and with flair too.
I wish Poker Run (a worthy fund raiser by the way) attracted a real variety of riders, people with motorcycles that are truly interesting, unusual machines ( I saw one classic Triumph all weekend), machines worthy of inspection that would turn Duval Street into an outdoor bike show, not a backdrop for some gruesome Urban Cowboy leatherette backdrop.
I guess watching these weekend warriors dress up in fancy dress and ponce about on the Highway abusing these thoroughbreds and treating them like lap dogs, plain pisses me off. Hell, I need to find something more worthwhile for my ire!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Vespa Blues Part Two

I called the main mechanic in Ft Lauderdale and spoke with Joe at some great length. He's the chief mechanic for all three Vespa stores owned by one man between Palm Beach and Miami. I wanted Vespa Miami to take the scooter to him in the first place, an idea they agreed to but never followed through on. So, back I go on my next day off, Monday morning at O-dark-thirty, with the Vespa strapped back in the trailer... for another go at fixing the wretched thing. I really can't even begin to sell it like it is now. I keep hoping someone really can fix it and allow me to feel good on it once again. This electronic marvel is beyond my abilities to understand and perhaps that in itself is a weakness. Fuel injection, pollution re-breathing equipment, ignition CDI etc etc...marvellous and incomprehensible.

Yesterday Vespa Miami promised me they had ridden the scooter long and hard on surface streets and the freeway, yet it was obvious to me the idle was low and there was a pick up hesitation around both 35 and 60 miles per hour. Plus the dreaded vapor lock in the fuel cap was instantly evident- a loud hiss when the fuel cap was unscrewed. I removed the gasket to allow air in and I disconnected the battery to see if that would re-set the computer. The scooter then ran a lot better. This morning I zoomed in to work, hitting 85 miles per hour ( on the speedo) in the wide open reaches of the Saddlebunch Keys. It was exhilarating, though annoying, because I knew something wasn't quite right.
As soon as I hit a red light at Stock Island, 20 miles from home, the engine died and there i was in among cars, in the dark with a dead scooter. It looked a bit like this, a picture I took on a previous commute: I'm a cautious man by nature and I had set off a little early for work so I had time in hand to bleed the fuel line and re-start the female dog, and arrive at work perfumed with 93 octane and a really bad attitude. Honestly, it was scary having the engine stop without warning in the middle of traffic and I am not normally a fearful man.

What's worse is that its bike week this week and Key West is crammed with poseurs on shiny Harleys ( and a handful of crotch rockets) all running perfectly, and though my idea of Hell is spending time with riders-with-attitude, I can't help but feel doubly annoyed to be reminded all the time of these people riding happily around town.
Whats more is just that I am plain annoyed. I no longer trust the GTS and am angry that I have to sell what is a great piece of machinery. When it runs, that is. My wife is livid and she doesn't want me risking my life or limbs on a scooter that dies suddenly. She knows I like to ride fast and she knows I am often to be found passing cars and I love the joke of the unexpected-"where did that moped come from?" implicit in my red buzz bomb outrunning complacent cagers, but...I hope to god Joe can tell me something so good and reassuring on Monday that I will be able to sweet talk my wife for"yet another go..." but it looks grim.

Why a Bonneville if the Vespa has to go? Well, its a classic like the Vespa from a classic company. Its relatively small and handy and performs well, by my standards. With almost 40 years in the saddle (since I was 12), I have come to value ease of use, light weight and simplicity in my ride. The Vespa ably covers the first two but substitutes comfort for simplicity, a compromise that suited me when things were running well. I'd like an air cooled, valve accessible ride if this isn't going further on the Vespa. I have considered a BMW of older years,perhaps a 1997 850 or 1100, in the R series, but I like the Triumph's looks and size better. Plus a final drive belt is available after market to replace the horrid chain.

Why the Bonneville over the other models? The America/Speedmaster are cruisers and I dislike sitting with feet thrust forward, its hard on the tail bone and impedes proper control of a speeding motorcycle. The Thruxton? Ooh yes but I'm too old and paunchy for clip ons anymore, though the Thruxton best resembles the MV Agusta and Moto Morini of my youth... The Scrambler? I burned my inner legs too often as a kid on scramblers with high pipes. Plus the Scrambler doesn't carry saddle bags real well either. The Tiger is too tall, as is the gorgeous 750 triple and the other Triumphs are too, dare I say it? modern.

I am trying to put a good face on a bad hand Piaggio and Fate have dealt me, and I keep hoping for the best. beside what do I do with the name of this blog that I chose originally for what was to be an experimenting i was sure i wouldn't enjoy. Key West Bonneville? Bonneville Chronicle? Southernmost Bonneville?How does one change the name of a blog anyway? I need my Vespa...

Vespa Blues

I got the Vespa back after a 6 hour round trip to Miami Beach, and it is still stalling so thats the end of the Vespa experiment. I plan on hauling it up to the main store in Ft Lauderdale on Monday and telling them to fix it so I can sell it in good conscience.
Vespa Miami also charged me $500 for a rear tire and a new drive belt installation, so aside from not fixing my scooter they made sure I'm not going back there again...
Lightly used Triumph Bonneville for sale?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Broadcasting the Blues

Soon to be...on the road again:
My wife goes nuts every morning as she crosses a few miles of Highway One, and every day its along those few short miles where the reach of "Morning Edition" is weakest on her car radio. A few days ago she called me at home and told me to turn on the radio and hold the telephone receiver close enough for her to listen. She teaches in the Juvenile jail in Key West and there was a story on NPR about juvenile justice and recidivism in post-Katrina New Orleans and she didn't want to miss a word.

The stretch of road between Cudjoe Key and Bay Point has always driven my wife crazy because its exactly there that the Big Pine Key translator runs out of steam but the Key West translator doesn't kick in. So it was a red letter day when the Citizen ran a story announcing confirmation of a new public radio station to be set up in Key West. WHWY should be up and running on 91.5 next year, as a satellite station operated by WLRN in Miami, which would promise a strong signal all the way from Marathon to Key West with no religious interference along the way. "I'll have to subscribe," my wife said and I know she will.

Unlike my wife I find myself indifferent to the blandishments of radio news. I worked in the medium for many years and it used to be a big black mark against Key West that public radio was inaudible in the southernmost city. I think it must be evidence of my perverse nature that now its coming to town I don't much care. With municipal elections weeks away the city is in one of its periodic ferments about over development, and I suppose the arrival of public radio could be seen as evidence of gentrification of the city (the presence of expensive Vespa scooters on the streets could be another). Ergo: a bad thing.

On the other hand I have to admit that I enjoyed living in California very much during the years when Key West was a cultural wasteland and little more than a Navy base with a fishing village attached. So when I look in the mirror I have to acknowledge that I am just another agent of change, like all the other bloated plutocrats that come down for the refreshing climate and sparkling (fecal infested) waters.

History helps me avoid total self loathing, though. The library has helpful shelves loaded with books on Florida's past and every time I look through them I turn back time and I see the same stories, the same fears, the same doom and gloom about change and loss and gentrification. Change is inevitable and on rare occasions it is good, and even rarer occasions it can be stopped, but in a transient town like Key West where most residents are escaping something or other, creating the collective will to stop determined, powerful interests can be more demanding of determination than local sybarites can muster. So we get what we fail to resist, for good or ill.

The good news is my Vespa is running again and will be available tomorrow. Dante at Vespa Miami told me they changed the check valve in the evaporative system that helps recycle polluting gasoline fumes. Its a royal pain in the rear but for now, its in place on my scooter and working properly. I just can't wait to get back to commuting on two wheels again. I am like a child waiting for Christmas morning.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Nera Marmora, or the Pursuit of Happiness

Gina Palmucci, 1891-1924. She took the stage name of Nera Marmora, and sang like a nightingale according to contemporary accounts. She was my grandmother.

The news that Luciano Pavarotti died last week made the rounds, reaching out so far as to impact my sister in Italy whose computer literacy is so low she doesn't really trust e-mails to arrive at their destination. Yet she was moved to send me one about that piece of news. She has never heard an opera sung in person or on a recording, she has no knowledge of the world outside her small village where she has lived for most of her sixty years and she only thought of me when Pavarotti died because she knows I have traveled far and wide to hear those roles my grandmother sang. Unlike Nera Marmora, Luciano Pavarotti sacrificed everything to bring his music, and himself to the masses, even unto those like my sister whose idea of music is nowhere near Cavalleria Rusticana,
even though she has practically lived the story herself...
My siblings and I grew up with the knowledge that we had a singer in our family but we knew next to nothing of her, just a stage name and some tidbits from her life: that she had sung with Enrico Caruso, a man who rivalled Pavarotti's ability to reach a non-operatic audience. Yet Gina Palmucci, my grandmother, who lived and died in the early part of the twentieth century never made a recording or gave an interview and would have vanished were it not for her niece who made available photos and posters and programs that allowed the city of Terni to create a book marking one of its most talented offspring.
Terni, an industrial city in the pastoral Umbrian region doesn't have many famous antecedents, its Roman roots in the city of Interamna are largely forgotten, and the city was bombed flat by the Americans in World War Two thanks to its steel mills and its Beretta arms factory. Apartment blocks and streets built to a grid, American style, mark the modern city nestled in a region famous for its medieval hill towns. My grandmother's brother Pasquale worked all his life as an accounts clerk in the steel mill, and I see the old man I knew inside the happy youth on the left in this picture, standing next to his already famous sister:
The city was moved to put up a monument to my grandmother where she lived in the city's old section which has been gentrified and rehabbed, as is the way worldwide in the twenty-first century.
My mother, who died when I was a teenager, never ever spoke, as far as I can recall, of her mother, and I believe that was in large part because her father blamed her for his beloved wife's death. Nera Marmora retired from the stage to live the decorous life of a wife and mother in 1923, and she died in childbirth a year later.Her husband, my grandfather, never did recover from the blow of her sudden death and the secret family legend is he never learned to love his only child as a result of that misfortune. Now they are all dead and only we, the generation that remembers none of that drama, remain alive.
I am now older than my mother was when she died, and my own life has slipped into middle age alongside the career of the great Pavarotti whose talents were on display from when I can remember. I saw him sing in assorted theaters around the world and I heard the praise heaped upon his voice, the voice of a man who pumped his talent for all it was worth. He divorced his wife and settled down with his secretary, he ate prodigiously and sang as long as he could. I guess he enjoyed life. And now its done and he is no longer a living legend.Though still a household name even in farmhouses like my sister's where neither a book nor a libretto ever crosses the threshold. Thats a hell of an achievement, no matter what the cost we observed at the Maestro's two-family funeral.

My own sister in her e-mail reminded me of one night at La Scala in Milan, when the performance commemorated in the frontispiece of the program the first night decades before, in the same theater. And there she was, my grandmother, listed for all to see and none to know. I should have known better, because in the book I now own there is a reproduction of the front page of the score of a new performance of an opera by Giacomo Puccini, signed by the composer himself to the distinguished artist, suave voice of Mimi.
In considering my grandmother's career one sees she had the seeds of greatness sown within her. She sang with Caruso and went on tour with him in South America in 1917. She was selected by Arturo Toscanini, a conductor who left his mark on the world at large, to sing in the premiere of the re-opening of La Scala after World War One, she was praised for her beauty and her voice wherever she went. And she gave it all up to get married to a country squire of little account and thence to sink into obscurity. He wasn't a bad man at all, and got a piazza named after him. He also got his own monument put up after the war celebrating his bravery helping partisans and allied fliers escape the clutches of the Nazis. A good man he may have been but not famous. My grandmother's choice to marry him was the sort of choice that in a media obsessed world would get one labeled insane.
She was just insanely unlucky that her choice led to her premature death and the gradual dismemberment over two generations of the family that was to be descended from her. I suppose a stone plaque to mark the passing of a human life is no bad thing, especially when the life lived has been a perpetual struggle with unhappiness. But when all is said and done, how could I not be drawn, with all this pent up history of family sadness behind me, to the only land where the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the rules to live by?