Sunday, May 27, 2012
Memorial Day, 2012
It is the second day of an interminable Memorial Day weekend, and those without families to escape from, those who have not been invited to grilled festivities, who do not have a second home at the beach, on a mountain or near a stream, those who are, essentially, invisible, are gathered at a local Starbuck sipping ice tea and eating 300-calorie pastries that are strangely tasteless. They are on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop, where there are tables but not enough umbrellas, so some sit in the sun as their plastic cups sweat beads of ice water on exposed thighs and knees. They are male, they are female, young, old, and ageless, and they do not speak to one another because doing so would be an admission of loneliness. They read, they talk on the phone, they stare at an empty parking space until a car pulls into it, then find another empty space and stare at that. They are the holiday orphans.
Rolling Thunder is in town, tens of thousands of bikers, mostly on large Harley Davidson, who come to the Nation’s Capital to ride their bikes in a large loop around the Mall, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court and the Vietnam Wall to remind us not to forget the POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War. Are there still POWs and MIAs in Indochina? You’d think so, but according to internet sources, there aren’t, and so the gathering of the biker tribes is more of an occasion to show off the new bike, trike, or old lady. Since dawn this morning the rumblings of the motorcycles have dominated the day, a long, low, throaty snarl, an apocalyptic sound, as if the machines really have taken over, and their intentions are not goods.
The riders are mostly weekend bikers and some have trailered their machines from far away just to ride the four-mile loop. A lot of the men are heavy, as are their women, and their machines are festooned with fairings, chromes, antennas, American flags. Many have pony tails to keep graying hair from their faces as they ride. An entire cattle drive must have supplied all the leather on display. There are some real, old-fashioned bad guys there too, Hell’s Angels and Pagans, Bandidos and Vagos and other groups wearing filthy sleeveless denim jackets with club colors in the back and patches sown on commemorating other gatherings in Florida and Nevada and Texas. Some of these groups dislike each other intensely, and their rivalries have led to gang wars and death, but today there is a truce. There will be no violence in honor of those who have served and not returned.
Years ago I wrote a book about bikers and their rides, and I interviewed a range of people from the Motorcycle Maids, whose average age is in the upper 70s, to the Dikes on Bikes, whose club name is self-evident, to Hell’s Angels in California, who were a strangely orderly and conservative group. All had a love for their machines that bordered on the obsessional, and I remember speaking to one biker’s wife who said the one thing she really hated was the oil stains on her carpet. Her husband parked his machine in their living room every night.
Today is the unofficial beginning of summer. Pools and water parks open. So do miniature golf courses and the local one is mobbed. The holiday orphans go to neither. They clean house or apartment, do yard work if yard there is. They pay bills and catch up on their emails. They take long walks, ride their bicycles; they try to look as if being alone is perfectly OK but know deep down that it’s not. Behind the rumble of the motorcycles, there’s a deeper silence.