The playground where I take my three-year-old son to blow off steam is called Astro Park, but aside from a large asteroid-like climbing structure, you’d never guess why it has that name. That’s because about 15 years ago, a crew from the City of Oakland hauled away a large steel flying-saucer shaped play structure that had been there since 1968.
The saucer – paid for by the local Kiwanis Club, bless their hearts – is fondly remembered by old-time Oaklanders, but the fact that it remained at the playground in all its tetanus-harboring glory until the late ’90s illustrates Oakland’s lawlessness. In a more… um… homogeneous… community, that thing would have been scrapped as soon as Yuppies started having kids in the ’80s.
I’m sure every generation thinks the current generation of kids is coddled and overprotected. If you’re middle aged, you may remember jumping your BMX bike helmetless over piles of rusty scrap iron and broken glass, or catching frogs in what is probably now an EPA Superfund site. And you were fine, right? Okay, maybe not, but when did they start putting down foam-rubber mats everywhere a kid could possibly fall down? Bumps, cuts, scrapes and bruises are a part of growing up. My offspring broke his collarbone falling off the couch. He was completely over it in a few weeks.
But we don’t just hyperprotect our kids, do we? Airliners have multiple safeties, system on top of redundant system. Escalators have giant red emergency stop buttons on them, just in case my mom was right and a barefoot rider could get sucked down into the mechanism. My favorite oyster bar has a warning posted on the wall about eating raw shellfish, and there’s a tag on my hairdryer and my toaster informing me via pictogram to not use them while bathing (there goes my Saturday night!). To do anything more dangerous than tying your shoes, you have to sign multiple waivers. My kid has to wear a helmet to ride his tricycle. His tricycle. That I push. At least there isn’t a law requiring infants to wear one of these during walking training. Yet.
Cars used to be pretty hazardous things, but now they’re so safe it’s affecting driving behavior, if you ask me. Used to be, 50,000 or more Americans would die in traffic accidents every year – and that’s when the population was two-thirds the size is it now. Crumple zones, seat belts and airbags make the most horrifying accidents survivable, so why drive carefully? Sometimes I’ll get passed by an SUV at night in the rain and I have to check if I’m still in gear, it went by so fast. The drivers of these things must feel invulnerable, and outside freak rollover incidents or IEDs, they’re probably right. I’d like to remove the seatbelts and airbags and put a big spike right in the middle of the steering wheel of every large pickup truck and SUV. I’ll bet they’d drive a little more carefully then.
Unluckily for us idiots, motorcycles are still incredibly dangerous, and there’s not much you can do to make them safer. Training – at least the way we do it in this country — doesn’t seem to work, nobody wants to wear helmets, and antilock brakes and traction control are still viewed with suspicion by some riders. Seriously. If you compare vehicle miles travelled, motorcycles are over 30 times more dangerous than cars. Hell, you’re seven times more likely to die sober on a motorcycle than drunk in a car. Tequila or cheap gin can drop that to just six times, but even then, what sane person would want to ride a motorcycle more than occasionally? Who would tolerate this kind of risk every day?
Hooligans, that’s who. Now, I know there are some of us who ride motorcycles because they are practical, cheap and affordable, and only because they are practical, cheap and affordable. I don’t personally know anybody like that, but there are 15 or 20 of you out there, I’m sure – wave your yellow reflective vests so I can see you. The rest of us are hooligans of varying levels of intensity.
You may not like to be so labeled, but I’m afraid it’s true. A “hooligan” is one who “does noisy and violent things as part of a group or gang,” according to Merriam-Webster, but it may be the legal definition that’s in Article 213 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code: “…a gross violation of the public order which expresses patent contempt for society” that applies best to us motorcyclists.
Contempt? Violating the public order? I’m afraid so. Just our presence on the road creates a disturbance. After all, we’re only one vehicle out of 30 or so, which makes us stand out, and since we have so much more maneuverability, our differentiated movements draw the eyes of other road users. And if your bike (like mine) has a modified exhaust system, they’ll hear you above all the other road noise, too. If you live in California, you get to jump the line and get in front of traffic jams, further attracting jealous ire. And who doesn’t like to perform an occasional wheelie or stoppie? Maybe a nice rear-wheel skid? Maybe a little extra downshift in a tunnel, so you can enjoy the sonorous roar of your aforementioned modified exhaust? Making friends every time, of course.
Those things aren’t heinous crimes if you’re a motorcyclist, but then again, shanking a snitch in the throat with a hand-sharpened spork is just another Wednesday for a prison thug. Just as anyone who’s in front of me in the passing lane is a dull-witted moron while everybody tailgating me in that same lane is a careless maniac, our criminality is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m blissfully unaware of just how reckless my riding appears to others. When I blast past some hapless minivan driver at 90 mph on my chopped-up, barely muffled Multistrada, she has no idea that I’m a small 45-year-old man who trembles with fear when I have to return something at Trader Joe’s without a receipt.
And it’s not just me who’s an unlikely hooligan. At just one event – the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride a few months ago – I observed many, many acts of hooliganism. There were unleashed dogs, hazardous wastes dripped onto the roadway, sidecars up on two wheels and enough non-EPA-compliant emissions to negate all Clean Air Act programs since the mid 1980s. My friend Jenny – a lovely middle-aged woman with such a kind and pleasant temperament you’d never guess she works at a parts counter – did her part to accelerate global warming by buzzing all around San Francisco on her demonically loud two-stroke Yamaha scooter, while Wendy violated the Vehicle Code with her Honda Fury so many times I wanted to loan her my small bottle of personal lubricant.
Face it: we are hooligans. We may not elbow grannies in the face at football matches, or set fire to homeless people, or shoplift cases of Schlitz, but we do get a small thrill when we break the law and get away with it, when we shake up some deserving dullard’s peaceful life. That we can still do it without being shunned, arrested or lynched is a tribute to how tolerant our society can be.
So enjoy it.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is launching a new enterprise that leases underutilized jacket warmth to cold people by shipping winter coats to the northern hemisphere when it’s summer in the southern hemisphere and vice-versa. The company, called “jackt,” has been initially valued at $11.3 billion dollars.