I remember the cats. They were everywhere I looked, hidden away under bushes, huddled together in small groups on the stoops of the houses, prowling through the tall dry grass of fields, and emerging from the darkened edge of the forest where they paused for just a moment to check traffic before dashing wildly across the road. Perhaps they had always been there, I couldn’t be sure, but it was their presence, in combination with the new sensation of cool air sweeping over my body and sheer giddiness at all that had transpired, that defines my first day as a motorcyclist.
The decision to buy a streetbike was one that could only be born in the mind of an 18-year-old boy who is looking to, for the first time in his life; spend a large sum of cash. The money was a windfall, slightly over a thousand dollars made from the quick flip of an old Chevelle I had found sitting unloved and unwanted in front of a rundown house, and it was burning a hole in my pocket. The idea that I should put it aside for a rainy day or carefully parse it out one dollar at a time over a period of weeks was lost to me. Big money demanded a big purchase and, in the long hours before sleep finally reached me on that fateful night, I had finally decided that I would use it to buy a motorcycle.
It was a decision that made little sense. I didn’t know a soul who rode and, other than a few runs up and down the driveway on a neighbor’s mini-bike when I was a kid, had never thrown a leg over anything that didn’t walk on four legs or require pedaling. Without an experienced hand to guide me, there was no one to advise me, no one with any real knowledge of the perils that riding a bike would entail, and of course, I soon found that any non-riders I might ask had nothing but second-hand horror stories. With the internet still more than a decade away, there were no friendly faceless people to turn to for advice and so, in the end, I was reduced to hitting the local library where most of the books on motorcycles were aimed squarely at elementary school boys. Eventually, I decided to go straight to the source.
The bikes in the window were typical early-80s machines, and the chrome on their exposed, air-cooled engines gleamed in the light of the mid-morning sun. The single salesman in the otherwise lifeless showroom spotted me right away and greeted me the moment I stepped through the door. We spent a few minutes talking about the new machines in the front row and he gradually, after smoothly ascertaining the amount of money I had to spend, guided me into the dim recesses of the shop where the used bikes lived. Perhaps they were a little more road-worn than the machines in the window but to my inexperienced eye they all looked impossibly fast and I wondered for a moment if I was making the right choice.
The salesman, perhaps sensing my momentary doubt, pointed to a Kawasaki on the end of the row and gestured to the seat. Sitting on it wouldn’t hurt anything, I thought, and I clumsily clambered aboard, for some reason stepping across the low seat rather than leaning in and throwing my leg over the back. My first impression, as I sank to the seat, was of sheer ponderous size of the machine’s width and weight as I levered it off its sidestand but, much to my surprise, I found the sensation vanished once it was fully up on its wheels. From the seat, the bike felt natural and balanced beneath me and I spent a few minutes working the various controls as the salesman explained their functions.
Carefully resetting the bike on its sidestand, I slipped off the saddle, stepped away and took a good long look. Outfitted with a classically styled teardrop tank done up in red and black with gold pinstriping, a thickly padded stepped saddle and gold mag wheels with white lettered Dunlops, the bike was a pretty little thing. I noted the lack of chrome and the salesman explained that was Kawasaki’s top-of-the-line “Spectre” and the chrome, he said, had been replaced by anodized gold and the exhaust finished in high-temp black paint. He also mentioned that unlike many of the cruiser bikes, this one featured a 550cc inline four-cylinder engine. As we rolled it into the parking lot for my test ride, it sparkled and shined like a jewel in the light of the sun.
Without a motorcycle permit, I was confined to the shop’s small parking lot but was, at the very least, able to get a feel for the bike at low speeds. My ride confirmed that I was making a good choice and a few minutes later, I was inside the shop happily striking the deal for the bike and a “free” helmet. That afternoon I went to the DMV where I got a motorcycle permit added to my driver’s license and that evening had a friend drop me off at the shop for the long, solitary ride home. As he drove away admonishing me to “be careful on that thing,” I realized I was truly on my own.
In the minutes before the shop closed, the salesman carefully went over all the bike’s controls and ensured I understood the basics of operating it before he let me go. Finally, after a reminder to read the owner’s manual when I got home, he decided I was ready to solo. After ensuring I had my helmet on right, he slapped me on the back and waved to the street. I sat there for a moment on the idling machine and did my best to control my rising excitement. There were so many things to consider, so many unfamiliar controls I had to work and one burning question yet to be asked. Flipping up my visor, I leaned over to the salesperson and asked it: “One down and four up, right?”
The man laughed and nodded, and I, reassured but still hopelessly clueless about the enormity of what I was getting myself into, slipped the clutch and rode off towards manhood.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for nine years, Jamaica for two and spent almost five years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A longtime auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.