Monday, September 3, 2012

A Dance To The Music Of Time

I heard James May say it for the first time and he got it right. "Batteries are crap." James May is the nerdy presenter on the BBC's "Top Gear" program, an English motoring show that skewers everyone and everything in a way US television would never tolerate for fear of causing -gasp!- offence. In this instance May was testing a couple of electric cars and the crap he was talking about referred to rechargeable batteries. He's right batteries are crap. My Bonneville stuck by the side of the road is proof of that unarguable fact. Batteries lose their charge, their chemical composition changes and charges inside them mysteriously vanish when you most need them. Batteries are the most unreliable links in the chain of our tenuous civilization and when anything fails the best thing to do is blame the battery, if there is one. There is a battery in my Bonneville and I am squinting at it very old fashioned at the moment.

Or maybe not. Maybe five year old alternators become crap after 68,000 hard fought miles and stop charging the potentially crap batteries. Either way the lack of a spark brought forward progress to a halt Saturday afternoon as much of South Florida was pouring into Key West for a night of riotous drinking and subsequent public intoxication, fighting and general bad manners. I was riding the Bonneville in the general direction my desk at the top of the police station girding my loins to take a few dozen calls from the mentally impaired and verbally incoherent good time charlies on Duval Street as the holiday weekend progressed. I anticipated a lot of calls, a lot of headaches and a lot of activity requiring my close attention. Dealing with another dead battery in my life was not on the list of weekend activities.

It happened that black clouds closed in over Highway One near Mile Marker 13, between Baby's Coffee and Big Coppitt Key. I could see the rain spattering the highway up ahead so I pulled out of the long line of cars rolling toward Key West and stopped on the shoulder. I turned the engine off as one does, a small inconsequential decision that altered the course of my afternoon and impaired the start of my rather stressful work night because once the engine stopped, and I had pulled my waterproof Frogg Toggs out of the saddlebag, the engine remained mute even when I pressed the starter button and expected the 900 cubic centimeter powerhouse to burst back into life. All I got was a whirring noise from under the seat. Most unsatisfactory.

I think it was last Thursday, I have worked a lot of overtime lately and the days are merging into a long blur, when I stopped for gas at the Key Haven Shell and I put my credit card into the pump and the pump failed to respond. I stood there like an idiot waiting for the usual prompts and commands, zip code and so forth, and when none were forthcoming I had no idea what to do. I could have moved immediately to one of the several other pumps not in use, but I tried again, and again and used another card and nothing happened. I was stumped by the failure of technology.

It was the same problem I had with the starter failing to start. I pressed the button and got nothing more than a whirr from the machinery that has never previously given me a moment's trouble. I did the only thing I could do and called for help.

Chuck arrived minutes after the downpour reached my stretch of the highway but he raced to my workplace in most un-Chuck-like haste and I arrived with 50 seconds to spare. Chuck is one of those drivers who thinks speed is the devil's work but for me he sinned, grievously, and he got me where I needed to be. Praise Chuck! Meanwhile the problem of the recalcitrant Bonneville remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle, as the Man said about the Soviet Union's leadership, many decades ago. I returned to my abandoned Bonneville after work with a battery pack, fired the dead engine up and followed my wife home, she in the car. Ironically the Fusion with its own three year old battery did the same jiggery pokery to us just last week when we were the Ramrod Pool swimming. We faced the prospect of a three mile walk home in our salty wet skivvies until a kind youth connected his functioning car battery to my jumper cables and set our Fusion alight once again. I hate batteries!

The quick solution is to replace the motorbike's battery but my question is why did my month old battery take a dump? Is it defective? Or is the system charging it on the blink? I told Jiri to put a new battery in the Bonneville not because the old one was broken but because I wanted to preempt any problems! Irony where is thy sting? It seems to me the most likely solution is that the alternator has grown weary but to try to check this theory I have put the battery on a trickle charge in the hope it fails to take that charge. That would lay the blame fairly on the battery - cheap quick solution... BUT if the battery does take the charge I will have to take the bike to Mechanic Jiri and ask him to paw my love with a multimeter and check the charging system. If that is the problem then I can finally admit my Bonneville has at last left me stranded by the side of the road with a mechanical problem.

Five years and 68,000 miles with not a single issue is a fine track record, but I cannot help but remember that my new/old Vespa doesn't need a battery to run, starts with a kick start and in the event it needed a bump start it only weighs 230 pounds. The bulk of my 500 pound Bonneville on the deadly flat bicycle path defeated my every effort to bump start it.

One way and another it's just one small headache taking up tons of time in a world filled with far more serious issues. Yet it is a reminder of the infamous conclusion James May came to when he tested the electric cars on Top Gear: batteries are crap. Even when they aren't.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dahlonega, Georgia

I was looking forward to seeing Rider's Hill the Moto Guzzi and Aprilia dealership said to be the largest of it's kind in the US, a country not noted for it's appreciation of Moto Guzzis.

Coming from South Florida where motorcycles are toys, overpowered racers for juvenile delinquents or chubby old cruisers for chubby old cruisers it was slightly startling to see a shop like this, a massive investment in a way of life on the fringes of everyone else's hobby.

Of course there was a price to pay for all the fun of riding The Dragon all day and swooping up and down and over Highway 129...I arrived after closing time! They aren't Triumph dealers so I wasn't there for help or anything. Just curiosity.

Six pm had come and gone but there was still activity in this enthusiast's oasis. A man I later discovered is called Steve armed with the reputation of being one of the top Moto Guzzi mechanics in the country was taking a customers ride for a...ride.

The customer was buried in a book outside the mechanic's shop. We talked but we never shared our names. He lives in Knoxsville Tennessee, three and a half (lovely!) hours away and he owns the black Griso in question and also a LeMans, oh lucky man. He made an appointment for a tune up, left home with a room reserved in then local Motel 8 and was waiting for his bike to be finished.

"You live in Key West?" it was too hard to explain where Ramrod Key is. "I've never met anyone who actually lived there. I know lots of people who vacation there." He looked at me as though a traveling zoo had dropped a truly weird specimen on his doorstep. "What do you do?" Mostly spend a lot of time riding the freeway back and forth seeking interesting roads, I wanted to say as the 20 hour ride home was at the forefront of my mind at that moment.

Steve came back and I stepped away, as I heard him ask the owner "...does it always do that?" I love Moto Guzzis but they aren't rock solid reliable like my indefatigable Triumph. I saddled up and rode away in an effort to keep my dream intact of one day owning a V-twin Italian Stallion.

Dahlonega was unknown to me until I was told they had this huge Moto Guzzi and Aprilia dealership. I found out they rent bikes and the cost of the daily or weekly rental can be deducted from the price of a purchase...the customer above spent the day riding an automatic Aprilia Mana 850 while he waited for his service to be completed. What an interesting place. I shall return.

But not for the little college town, pronounced: Dal-ON-egg-ah which has a pretty downtown square devoted to the genteel pursuit of middle class pleasure, within the bounds of polite society.

Luckily I needed no Himalayan Salt Crystals because the shop like most everything else on the square was closed. But there again I have no clue what they might be for if anything.

The sun was setting on a deserted ville so I clumped around sweaty and disheveled in my heavy motorcycle boots and snapped a few pictures.

They found gold in these here hills in 1828 and built the square and courthouse for Lumpkin County in 1836. Civilization had arrived in the wilderness north of Atlanta. Nowadays this little town is voted a great place to retire. Ho hum.

Students attend North Georgia College and State University and apparently old folks like it here because the living is cheap, Atlanta's an hour away and lots of senior-like activities are catered to here.

There are times and places when the chaos and lack of vision in Key West come as a relief. I got that feeling in Appalachicola and here too. These small towns lack the drawing power of Key West and as much as the empty bottles, vomit and running street fights on a Saturday night irritate me the sight of a moribund town can be a healthy reminder that you need some kind of a schtick to have prospects for your economy.

I have no doubt when school opens the town will ring to the happy sounds of well behaved students and their wealthy parents. If you suddenly feel the urge to buy a sexually explicit t-shirt or women's underwear with instructions printed on them this is not going to be the shopping district that will meet your needs.

On the other hand Key West does not boast any coffee shop anywhere with a classic Lambretta parked in the window.

Nice town. Time to go home and trip over a few drag queens and legless tourists, in Key West to drink themselves insensible to get away from the boredom back home. And to buy one of those t-shirts that read "I'm not a gynecologist but I can take a look." On the whole it's always good to be home.

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Barber's Italian Collection

When I was a child this was the way race bikes looked and I sat in my country bumpkin kitchen miles from the action down on the farm and read my motorcycling magazine and dreamed.

These days anytime I visit Birmingham, Alabama, I get to spend a few hours at the Barber Museum just outside town in the suburb of Leeds off the Atlanta freeway. And there I have the chance to be alone with my memories of my youth. MV Agusta, famous for building helicopters is still in the motorcycle business after several decades of varied ownership and near terminal bankruptcies. These are specialized bikes and not everyone wants one. That my first motorcycle was an MV 350 has given the brand a special place in my heart.

In the US Italian motorcycles are viewed as weird exotica because only the premium models made it out of the country, but in the sixties and seventies the Italian government had a policy of supporting local industry with severe import controls. Gasp! government interference!

As a result Italian industrial output blossomed, people worked and Italians rode Italian bikes. Above we see a Benelli 250 two stroke twin, brilliant and simple and below a Benelli four stroke four cylinder, the worlds smallest production four cylinder motorcycle.

These were the days when outside Italy Japanese motorcycles were decimating motorcycle production. Britain and the US, former giants were reduced to penury, with Triumph collapsing last among the big names and Harley Davidson being saved by sporting goods maker AMF, an inglorious chapter in the Motor Company's history.

Italy, protected by tariffs, import quotas and taxes kept on building. Above the Benelli 500 a copy of the Honda below, but in the US the Italian bike was an exotic as it cost 30 percent more than the Honda.

The Benelli six cylinder 900 was designed to outdo the Honda 750 but price was always a factor, along with quality control issues. Good enough was never good enough for the Japanese factories.

Below we see the Honda 750 the machine that started the modern revolution in manufacturing, quiet, reliable, with modern conveniences such as electric start and disc brake, the 750 Four was recently voted, rightly so, as the Motorcycle of the the Century by Motorcyclist magazine.

Yet Benelli and others were making bikes behind Italy's protective tariff barriers. These days the Benelli factory is still building bikes, employing Italians in Pesaro, even though the company is owned ironically enough, by the Chinese.

MV Agusta built impressive four cylinder machines before Honda but was unable, or unwilling, to market them widely or sell them at competitive prices. They were luxury sport touring bikes for the lucky few. They are still viewed with awe by lovers of old motorcycles.

Ducati survived hard times thanks to the protection of the home market and even though today has been purchased by Audi the factory is alive and active and setting standards for high performance quality motorcycles at affordable prices.

They too started small selling single cylinder bikes after the war and gradually moved into sport bikes led by this funky unprepossessing Sport 250 single. Not much to look at by modern standards but it rocked it's world with a 90 mile-per-hour top speed.

The Monster series of Ducatis were entry level sport bikes that introduced a new generation to the brand, and they are still going strong, built in Italy.

This Ducati circled the world:

And this two stroke single was built in Italy and sold in the US as a Harley Davidson together youngsters onto home brand starter bikes. The Italian protectionist market made this strategy possible for the venerable Motor Company which bought Aermacchi in Italy and used it's small bike technology to brand small Harleys for the American market.

Italians also had a thriving 50cc market in the Seventies when I was a kid. The museum labels this moped as barely better than a bicycle but we had go faster kits in Italy and our motorized bicycles could be persuaded to go 50 miles per hour on a good day. They were street legal for fourteen year olds, no tags, no licenses and no inspections. What a childhood!

Italy after World War Two was a mechanized desert and these small bore motorcycles got the country commuting at 45 miles per hour. They were the basic motorcycle industry that grew and flourished in the Sixties and Seventies behind the trade barriers of which I have spoken.

It's unpopular these days to talk of protectionism as a way out our crisis but I wonder how it is that skilled American labor stands for the exportation of jobs to the Third World to profit the bosses. I find it especially odd when you consider that the cost of labor amounts to a mere 15 percent of the cost of the finished product.

Icons of Italian two wheeled industry set standards like the Lambretta scooter above, the Innocenti rival to Piaggio's more familiar Vespa. Or the rare Cagiva carbon fiber sport bike below, built to make a point, and a very expensive one too. Italians can build bikes.

We know Americans can too and we know that the level playing filed is an industrial myth. Japanese firms have always received government help to dump products and we know China does the same but we for some reason can't protect our own industries and our own jobs for some reason.

It saddens me that US products aren't built here by well paid American heads-of-households turning out machinery and I austral products as they used to. If they can't compete with Chinese salve labor let's level the playing field so they can, and let's bring real jobs home. I find it tantamount to treason to suggest this is fantasy.

Above we see the Pegaso 650 designed by Phillipe Starck, a lovely bike by Aprilia using an Austrian Rotax single. Below the Gilera 125 a technological marvel never seen on the streets of the US.

Moto Guzzi founded in 1922 with the green 500 single seen in the background below is now part of Piaggio Group, Europe's largest motorcycle manufacturer which includes Vespa, Gilera, Aprilia, and Moto Guzzi.

This rather dark picture should show my favorite Moto Guzzi the 1100cc LeMans sport-tourer tucked away on a shelf in the museum's recesses.

Barber has massive workshop operation to repair the bikes on display and cars as well which are often seen racing round the track.

The have 1200 or more bikes in the collection with 800 or so on dilly at one time. It's $15 to visit all day long you like and you should like. I don't know what I'd do with my money if I was Mr Big Bucks of Birmingham but Barber has done a fantastic thing here for posterity and for old farts like me, with his wealth.

It really is a place where you can go and dream. Dream perhaps of a resurgent American industrial heartland once more. Is that really such a subversive idea?

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Audience Indifference

Every week the blue paper KWTN offers hardcore news ("Where Journalism Is A Contact Sport" they say) along with biting commentary and a useful listing of live music around town. This week in addition to some very interesting stuff on the future of Wisteria Island, known as Christmas Tree Island to locals, the music listing had a headline out of The Onion.

Gibson plays at the White Tarpon in the Key West Bight waterfront and he has a playlist of his music that he admits is a challenge for listeners. Good for the Blue Paper for highlighting him. It's what one comes to expect from this sometimes irritating and always unpredictable paper.

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A Strange Night Out

I've heard it said that a meal in a restaurant is a piece of performance art. Diners are there for the food of course, that part of the meal that gets most of the attention but service makes or breaks the meal in my opinion. On that basis eating out in Key West is a hit or miss affair, as professional wait staff are in short supply. The worst of it is that the negative experiences remain in the back of the unhappy diner's mind for a very long time.

I hesitate to recommend a place to friends because in Key West taking pride in your work is a tenuous concept. Alcohol, partying (ie: getting into an altered mental state) takes priority in a town that is home to people who ended up down here for a number of reasons and rarely is that work. Emigration is often viewed as a cure all for those reasons that caused to leave home in the first place, but as they say you bring the cause of your misery with you to the island. And then try to drown it in between spells at work at an eatery.

With that in mind how can I recommend a place to eat? Go, spend your money and hope the staff showed up, sober and ready to have a good night working that will translate into a positive night out for the guests. If any of them flaked for whatever reason there is an excellent chance my first class meal last week will be a crap experience for you this week. And the cost of the performance remains the same.

So when my wife suggested we stay in town last week for dinner I protested immediately and asked why not go to Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key? Four miles from home and with a perfect record of superb food properly served by a crew that has a record for longevity on the job in the Lower Keys, Square Grouper epitomizes value for money when eating out in the Lower Keys and Key West.

But my wife wanted "something different" so I said fair enough with a sinking feeling. I sank even further when our first choice, Santiago's Bodega proved to be closed for the week for renovations. The tapas place on Petronia is actually a fine choice to go for dinner with interesting small dishes, proper service a convivial atmosphere and a great wine list which I define as interesting wines at affordable prices. Had Santiago's been open this essay would never have formed in my head.

Nothing deterred my wife had a second Good Idea so I pointed the bows of the Bonneville across town at the Santa Maria resort at the southern tip of Simonton Street. Had Ambrosia not been closed we probably would have got away with a slightly delayed dinner and from all accounts it would have been good. Their schtick primarily is sushi and though I am no great fan of not cooked seafood I can appreciate a decent meal Nippon style. I grew up in Italy so udon does me fine and properly crisp light tempura makes up for raw eel and pink slabs of dainty fish meat served on seaweed.

This setback stymied my pillion but she rallied valiantly and we rode the Triumph up Duval to 915. This a street front Victorian with indoor seating which is okay and an upstairs area which some diners like for the view down into the street but I prefer sitting next to the street surrounded by banana palms and flicking candle light. It seems very exotic for some reason and reminds me of The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It's just one of those mental associations I permit myself from time to time as irrational as the fantasy may be. Me in Saigon in the French era. Not very likely is it.

Given that sitting out and eating a whole Thai fried snapper would give you heat stroke on an airless August evening I was not completely enthusiastic about sitting indoors there, but I'm a good sport (I'm told) so there we stopped. Well, I needn't have worried, they weren't open for ten more minutes it turned out and rather than lure us with a glass of wine while we waited or some other thing they were a bit unceremonious so we buggered off.

Sometimes you just know you're not wanted. I knew I wanted to be heading toward Square Grouper at Mile Marker 23, but my headstrong wife checked the menu at Martin's and gave the thumbs down. Café Sole got the same treatment because my wife, who likes the café was still pressing to try something different. The record was stuck on the theme of somewhere different to eat.

I know, she said brightening up considerably. Let's try Two Cents on Appelrouth Lane she said. So we did. And we both wanted to like it. I did like the funky little wooden house when it was Martin's before the German eatery lost it's funk and went upscale in it's bunker on Duval. Now the place is just weird.

The tables were set high at chest height requiring seats that are as tall and as uncomfortable as bar stools in a room that is about as warm and enticing as a ships engine room, and as noisy too. The music speaker mercilessly spewed loud classic reggae directly overhead making conversation with my wife impossible. The waiter arrived wafting bonfire fumes of recently burnt tobacco and whispered the specials inaudibly to us so we decided spontaneously this was a mistake and limited ourselves to a couple of starter dishes as my wife finally caved and admitted we should have just left town and gone to Square Grouper instead. Told you so.

The rich odor of burning rags announced the imminent arrival of two small glasses of eight dollar Tempranillo an inexpensive Spanish wine that packs no surprises usually. We sipped very slowly and waited for the duck nachos and scotch egg to arrive. The sun was setting and the view across Appelrouth Lane would have won no beauty awards in a travel magazine contest for Inspiring Sunsets I Have Seen.

The Quack Quack nachos, laboring under a nursery room name were a disappointment, a small dish of whole wheat nachos a big lump of inexpensive sour cream a few vegetable bits and some insipid gray pieces of greasy meat, it looked like the product of a Soviet military kitchen. Fourteen dollars please, hidden under a coating of cold grilled cheese. The scotch eggs were okay, three quail eggs hard boiled, coated in sausage meat and fried in bread crumbs. A Scottish delicacy, enough said. Eight dollars please. All this delight came to something close to fifty bucks with tax and tip. Phew! The music was still loud so we grumbled once we were back in the street and could hear ourselves think.

The whole Key West thing was such a bust we went to Square Grouper anyway just because, and had two six dollar glasses of Tempranillo, fried eggplant with goat cheese and fried calamari appetizers and took home a slice of peanut butter chocolate pie to eat with Netflix. Corey our waiter mentioned the place was closing for the month of September which made our decision to stop by all the smarter...

We mentioned our evening fiasco in Key West and he was interested to hear our take on Two Cents. "I was wondering why I hadn't heard anything about them" he said. I had hoped Two Cents was going to be the vanguard of a wave of new and interesting places to eat in Key West, but so far I'm disappointed with two visits under my belt and no more. I'm glad we have a few old reliables to fall back on but at a time when eating out is a rare treat I have no interest in wasting money on places that don't get the function of a restaurant, a place where the food and service represent hospitality and a welcome to a hungry traveler off the street. The number of places I trust to get that right I can count on the fingers of one hand. And I don't give two cents for the rest.

(Pictures taken at Ohio Key)

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