At 17, my cousin is better looking and light years more athletic than just about anyone in our small, western Pennsylvania town. He’s also cocky, dishonest, and given to racism—but it’s his ability to pretend he doesn’t give a fuck in the way most people just can’t help that’s got me out here at the end of a dirt road in the middle of the Pennsylvania State Game Lands. I’m holding a 16-ounce can of Budweiser, letting him introduce me to a bunch of hangers-on and maybe a half-dozen actual members of a group I feel safest describing simply as a national motorcycle club with a particularly strong presence in the northeastern United States during the 1980s and no real qualms about expressing their outlaw status via large, brightly colored patches sewn onto the backs of their faded denim vests (among other, more energetic ways).
There’s a large bonfire. I have no idea what they are burning. If my cousin is involved, evidence is a safe bet. It’s nearly dusk. The clearing, chock-a-block with Bondo-ed beater cars and gleaming motorcycles, smells like wood smoke, burnt plastic, beer. Out of the open door of a rusting, blue Impala, Vince Neil loudly enumerates clubs where attractive, half-naked women can be seen dancing. A knot of big-assed blonde girls in their late teens/early twenties stands near the fire. They bounce their heads not quite in time with music. Shouting along with the chorus, they seem to collapse the line between subject and object as they offer each other suggestive smiles. For this ephemeral party moment, they are the “girls, girls, girls” they’re singing about to each other, to the wild men around them. Maybe some have the same motivation for being here that I do—hang out just long enough to get a look at the whole business and attempt, in a way, to dine out on it later. But likely, that’s not it.
In three months, I will continue to have trouble fitting into The Pennsylvania State University’s well-regarded creative writing program. Two of the girls, the two who’ve ridden out with my cousin and me—girls who sport hair the size of standard poodles and whose wide, shiny eyes and slack mouths hint at amphetamines chased with cough syrup, girls still chewing bubble gum but whose eyes suggest any fucks they plan to give are heading quickly for the rearview, these moon-faced girls who follow my cousin around thinking some of his charisma might just rub off—they’re not really going anywhere. Both a few years older than my cousin, they’re kicking around after high school. Maybe they have part-time jobs. By the time I write this essay one will be dead of a heart attack and a Google search of the other brings no precise matches—just a list of relatives involved in shit (some petty, some not) with the police.
As the sun drops behind a stand of red oaks and more hangers-on arrive, the biker club guys keep pretty much to each other. They’re mostly large, to some degree bearded, not especially clean men decked out in dark t-shirts and denim that bears little evidence of familiarity with Maytag, Speed Queen, Tide or anything, really, that one could find in a Laundromat. Downing beers, they talk purposefully loud about their hatred of cops, the awesomeness of explosives and motorcycles, various petty crimes, tight, wet pussy, and dope. All of their gestures are stealthy or outsized. These are not people for whom a lot of middle ground exists.
What I’ve told myself about being here is that I might get some material to write about at this intersection of anomie and 1100cc motorcycles. I’ve read that Hunter S. Thompson has done this kind of thing, read that Ken Kesey has done this sort of thing. When one of the bikers—a tall, thin guy with arms like tattooed tree limbs—starts chatting me up, I’m thinking, okay, what’s the potential takeaway from this? After a minute or two I realize I am not the only one who has come to the conversation with this mindset.
“You have a great car,” the guy tells me.
He drapes his arm over my shoulder, pulls me toward him in way that can be taken as proffered camaraderie or subtle menace. Y’know, depending.
“We should take it for a ride,” he smiles.
I move my head slightly without speaking, incomprehensibly attempting to seem stoic, mysterious to this motorcycle outlaw.
“We should go on a hell ride,” he says.
“Hell ride, eh?”
“Hell, yeah. Hell ride.”
“Not sure I’m too cool with that.”
Maybe five minutes later half a dozen bikers are chanting, “HELL. RIDE. HELL. RIDE.”
They’re holding up beers, pumping fists. Across the clearing, bikers on either side of the car are pushing its whole front end up and down as far as the suspension can travel. This can’t last. I’m looking for my cousin—who is likely buying a medium-to-large amount of drugs from these people—to help me talk my way out of this. But I suspect one of the things that he is not giving a fuck about just right now is the well-being of the vintage, olive gold Pontiac Lemans my father has garage-kept for the better part of a decade and grudgingly loaned me for the summer.
“I can drive this car,” the guy tells me. He watches the other bikers bouncing the front end of the car like a basketball. He smiles at them. He pulls me closer. “I’m an excellent driver,” he nods.
What I have, in a fit of dumbass bravado, somehow failed to recall the writers who’ve done this sort of thing is this: Ken Kesey was both famous and had the skills and physique capable of making him of one the leading wrestlers of the Pacific 10 Athletic Conference. Hunter Thompson was likely armed. I am not these things.
Muscled arm now fixed fast around my shoulders, the biker, at least eight inches taller than me and an easy 50 pounds heavier, steers me past a line of customized Harley Davidson motorcycles—Sportsters with ape hangers, chromed ElectraGlides, chopped Softtails gleaming with candy paint—past two bulky guys with more ink than a print shop discussing the best injection sites for methamphetamine, past a row of girls with their white asses hanging out of cut-off jean shorts talking about how they would suck the dick right off of Nikki Sixx’s body, toward the shining, antique Pontiac.
That’s when we hear the Boom! My ears are ringing and bright green maple and ash leaves are flying everywhere. One of the hangers-on comes running out of the woods where most of the leaves are coming down. He holds his jeans up with a fistful of denim. He screams, “I was taking a shit, you motherfuckers!” Two bikers laugh into their hands. One holds a Zippo.
“Don’t be a bitch,” he says. “It was only a half-stick.”
This cracks everybody up. While the bikers are laughing and throwing full beers at each other I grab my cousin and the girls and we slip away, back down the dirt road through miles of state forest, before the hell ride concept gets a chance to regain any momentum.
Pissed that we left before they could get into any real trouble, the girls insist on singing along to RATT as we head down State Route 56 back into Windber, the dying coal town we’re from, the town where my cousin is finishing high school. Listening to “Lay It Down,” we drive past the rusting tipple of Eureka 42, some storefront windows covered with plywood, the abandoned movie theatre that takes up an entire block of Graham Avenue. At the light in front of the Miner’s Park bandshell, the girls talk about hitting someplace they can get fucked up before they get fucked. They ask me to drop them at a small bar near the tracks known for cheap liquor and little inclination to check ID. My cousin follows the girls out into the street, slams the car door. He says, “Keep on truckin,’” through the open passenger window. I turn down RATT and wonder what the fuck is wrong with me.
What I cannot yet comprehend is that my cousin’s good looks won’t last, and his posturing will, over decades of hard living and two serious motorcycle accidents, lead to him not actually giving a fuck about much of anything—a condition he will revel in/suffer from through a couple stints in the county jail and an assload of methadone, until the birth of his daughter years later. My own inability to keep my head out of my ass will get the better of me often enough to derail a host of good things, jobs, relationships, you name it.
My cousin will work as a roofer and I’ll move to California to not do very well at screenwriting and we’ll pretty much lose track of each other. We’ll never really talk about why we made the choices we did, or how growing up in a town on its knees helped some of those bad choices along. In the middle of all this a photograph of the main street of Windber will appear on the cover of a national news magazine with a caption labeling it “the Oxycontin capital of Appalachia,” and the bar the girls headed for that night will go full on biker, its Friday night line of gleaming Harleys stretching from the front door to the second best funeral parlor in town nearly two full blocks away.
Years later, I will find work in another Pennsylvania town—this one larger and 80 miles northwest, but with similar architecture and pretty much the same problems. The lives of the community college students to whom I teach freshman English will sometimes look a lot like those of the girls who sat in the back of the Pontiac that night. Driving to campus, I pass what’s left of the town’s steel plant, past its methadone clinics and frame houses—faded election signs moldering one after another in tiny yards. Sometimes I have to catch my breath, to remind myself that growing up in a place where a preponderance of available evidence suggests things will simply get worse often means the blinders one has to wear might be unwieldy, the risk taking one can succumb to is likely treacherous, and the detachment one may have to embrace can be isolating. But in the end (and it’s the end that matters) these are the things that can keep you alive.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jon Dawson