When Motorcyclists Can’t Feel Solitary Anymore



The Javits Center, 10019

Neighborhood: On the Waterfront

One of the children’s favorite holidays is now past, the heart-warming annual Recycling of the Desk Calendars. This followed hard upon the Transfiguration of the Christmas Décor, when inexplicable magic occurs: wreaths and lights, trees and cheery blow-ups quivering on lawns in vast profusion are overnight divested of hope and suddenly take on a forlorn, soul-sickening aspect that makes them unbearable to behold. But between these two events is inserted another that we look forward to with a mix of glee and resignation. This is the yearly Motorcycle Show at the Javits Center in New York, a rousing celebration of mercantilism and hope eternal that warm weather will return once more.

First, though, one has to venture to the more wind-swept precincts of Manhattan, on the far West Side, toward the great glass Oz of the convention center. And then traverse acres of lobby–the building is composed largely of lobbies, it seems, upstairs lobbies and downstairs lobbies and upper upstairs lobbies–and you see that without any strain at all the center is also housing the annual boat show, where patrons may ogle tons of fiberglass surrounding engines that will effortlessly suck up a year’s pay in petrol and just as quickly release it as greenhouse gas. Sort of a two-fer.

When finally you locate the ticket windows assigned to relieving your pocket of seventeen dollars (for the privilege of viewing the wares of other companies whose interest is to similarly lighten your load), your brain might flash you an image of Sam’s Club. It, too, is a commercial enterprise that makes you pay them in order to be able to pay them. A singularly late-twentieth-century concept.

Lest you stand there dumbstruck by the possibilities of this notion, here comes a tide of leather-clad humanity to sweep you down the stairs and into the carpeted hall that for one weekend becomes a temple dedicated to the worship of internal combustion, in all its two-wheeled manifestations. And there are many, many.

The staff that belongs to the machines only recently unloaded from the semis parked end to end up 35th Street and down Twelfth Avenue look on with worried smiles as men and women throw legs over shining gas tanks and pull up 490 pounds of dry weight to balance it precariously between two feet. One dropped bike can mean a broken side mirror or a cracked fairing, and everything translates quickly into numbers. This is surely evidenced by the endless rows of tables full of aftermarket parts from small companies, clip-on handlebars and exhaust systems and foot pegs, saddlebags and custom seats (raising the question of why Moto Guzzi doesn’t just affix comfortable seats to their products in the first place).

One would have liked to see what Breughel would have done with the three fellows sitting by the refreshment carts, together yet alone in their silence, dourly dispatching soft pretzels and Cokes as if they were peasant reivers at lunchtime, downing their warm ale and cold mutton.

Around the corner from them one finds a contemporary example of the painter’s art, an airbrushed scene from Easy Rider, over which hover the disembodied faces of Che, Hendrix, and Jim Morrison. The wondering viewer can tease out only one possible theme: early, violent death.

Such is exuberantly celebrated in other items for sale: miles of patches showing skeletons riding motorcycles or skulls with flags, proclaiming adherence to either American nationalism or the credo of Ride Fast, Die Young; perhaps they are the same thing. The uneasy thoughts raised here are quelled farther down the aisles, where one encounters pleasantries like massaging insoles, ear plugs, wheel chocks, jackets, helmets, boots, and gloves, sunglasses, cleaning products, shining products, insurance, custom paint jobs, tires, bumper stickers, jewelry. The longing eyes of those manning the tables follow the streams of people who wander past, nearly empty plastic shopping sacks flapping from their hands. (These provided courtesy of Progressive, #1 in Motorcycle Insurance, to all comers at the entrance.) By the end, hundreds of bags will leave the show containing only glossy brochures of the 2008 model lines of the major manufacturers, no doubt because that seventeen dollars was a serious hit on the finances of many motorcyclists, who are squarely located in what was once called the working class. They have come here to dream, and dreams are free. As are brochures.

Those to whom “free” is not a concern, however, might be found at the BMW display. This is good, since a K 1200 R sportbike costs as much as many new cars. (Still, these are liberals, one feels certain; the conservatives buy American iron, and are thus to be found walking among the Harleys and Victorys.) Stand and watch a moment: like metal filings to a magnet, the literally well-heeled (see those handsome Italian loafers!) gravitate to the impressive and rugged German engineering, the bikes with the reputation for attracting riders who really ride; BMW Motorrad has cornered the market on long-distance touring and those specialists who think it amusing to ride hundreds of miles in a day, and through the night, during the aptly named Iron Butt Rally. BMW’s large, one almost wants to say gigantic, or maybe wide as a truck, enduro bike is the choice of those who dream of crossing Tibet on two wheels, or winning the Paris-Dakar.

This being the world, or a world within the world, things soon appear to fracture. The colors refracted from the crystal of a unified idea of “motorcycling” dance alone. The sensual Italian Ducatis draw to them the thrill- and the status-seeker; technology majors stare at the cutaway of a Buell, whose gas tank is not actually where you think, in that bubble that touches your stomach as you lean down and lean over to take a curve; it’s still there, but now subtly translucent plastic, as if to say “fooled ya,” and the gas is in the frame.

The factions here, as in all our worlds, are really political, financial, finally social, and in this, perhaps, ultimately biological. Here on the floor of the Javits Center is represented the tribal history of man.

Ten years ago the show was half this size, and half this complexity. Now there are so many things to buy, so many things to understand about what we build and why.

The select few have become the overwhelming many. In this, the motorcycle show reflects what is beginning to scare the visitor: a planet teeming with too many of us, and too much of the stuff we need to buy in order to differentiate ourselves because we sense we are about to disappear into the squeezing hordes. When spring does arrive, we will go out for a ride, and we will be too numerous to feel our solitariness, that which draws us together again. And next January, the motorcycle show will be bigger than ever.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s first book, The Perfect Vehicle, was about motorcycles. She never managed to actually live in Manhattan: she only got to look at it from both sides, Hoboken and Brooklyn, before decamping to upstate.

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