My ears were ringing from the loudness of my motorcycle. It was a Kawasaki 250 that I’d modified with plastic fenders and tank, converted the front forks to pneumatic air, added a chain tensioner and of course I ported the pistons and polished the manifold. It was quite the screamer because I’d also replaced the exhaust pipe and muffler with a snail type resonator that dumped the exhaust right in front of my left foot. The bike went like a bat out of aitch-E-double hockey sticks. It now stood balanced on its kickstand under a shading oak tree next to my friend Sam’s bike. He owned a Hodaka 125 that had been similarly repurposed from a road toad into a dirt squirter.
We leaned against the tree smoking cigarettes when Sam looked at me and asked if I noticed the new guy who’d been tearing up the track lately. I said I hadn’t noticed. “Well, he kinda stands out, ya know. I don’t see how you could miss him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That black kid. Or am I supposed to say African American. Shit, I don’t even know what to call them people anymore. Used to be they were just Negros.”
I just looked at Sam for a minute, not knowing what to say. Then “Well, no. I haven’t noticed anybody, but then I focus on my own riding. That’s why I’m so much better than you are.”
Sam made an impolite noise. “It’s not that I’m prejudiced.” he said.
“Of course it is,” I told him. “If you weren’t prejudiced the guys color wouldn’t be an issue.”
“No, I really don’t mind them. I don’t. I jut don’t get what a black guy is doing riding motocross. I mean, those guys have basketball and football sewn up. A white guy is just about invisible because the blacks are so much better. But what they hell is a black guy doing on a bike? That’s what I want to know.”
“I suppose he likes to ride.” I said. “What do you care, anyway?”
“It just seems wrong. I mean, as people I guess they’re okay. I mean, you see what they can do with a chicken and a barbecue? Holy crap they can cook. But a black guy riding motorcycles, well, it’s just wrong. It’s like as if they were playing golf or something. It’s all, you know, what’s wrong with this picture.”
“Kee-ryste. You sound like my old man. At least he was from Alabama. You’re from Oregon for God’s sake. I thought it was genetically impossible for an Oregonian to be a bigot.” I said.
“Hey! I’m not a bigot. I mean, is it being a bigot if you see something out of the ordinary and comment on it? That’s all I’m doing.” Sam said.
“No, you’re complaining about the guy. That’s not observation, it’s discrimination. Personally, I don’t care if a pregnant lesbian wants to ride bikes. ”
“That doesn’t even make sense. If the walrus was lesbian, how’d she get pregnant?”
“Oh. My. God. I was just making the point that I don’t really care who rides. Everybody on the track is just someone I want to pass. They’re a challenge, not a threat.”
“Well, they kind of are a threat. Don’t you see that? I mean, they come and take over motocross, what do we have left?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Take over? What, they’ll rise up, take over the legislature and ban white people from motorcycles?”
“Go ahead and make fun,” he replied. “But don’t come whining to me when the only people famous in motorcycles is black.”
“You used to ride your bike without a helmet and fell down a lot, right?”
“Aww, up yours” said Sam, rising. He swung a leg over his bike and pulled on his skid lid. I got up and straddled my bike, both of us hitting our kick starters simultaneously. Sam took off first, peppering me with dirt and gravel tossed by his knobby rear tire. It took me only a few seconds to pass him.
Back at the pit, the place where everybody parked if they didn’t ride their bikes I stopped and headed to the gut truck. The gut truck was a rolling food merchant that sold stale sandwiches and a variety of drinks. The drinks were rarely cold, but their wetness worked well to cure dry mouth and wash away the silt and grit that invariably found a home in our mouths. I took a sip of what represented itself as lemonade and wondered why I spent a buck on it. It tasted like water that might have seen a lemon pass by at some point. A guy in red and black leathers strode up to te gut truck and got himself a drink. When he pulled off his helmet, I saw the guy Sam was talking about.
“How ya doing?” I asked him. He looked at me and then looked from side to side.
“Me?” he asked, sounding confused.
I laughed. “Yeah, you. Haven’t seen you out here before. My name is Bob.” I said, holding out my hand. He reached and shook it cautiously.
“Tremaine.” he said. I nodded. I looked at his bike, a Yamaha monoshock three-fifty. A very nice bike and I said so. “Thanks.” he said. “You Kaw looks like its seen some changes.”
“Yeah. It does okay for what started as a street and trail bike.” We stood around talking bikes for a few minutes and then Tremaine said he had to get going. He hopped on his bike and rode it over to an older Ford pickup truck with a ramp hanging off the tail. In a single smooth move, he zipped right up the ramp and parked the bike in the truck bed and tied it down with cargo straps. Hopping from the bed, he looked towards me and gave a wave, climbed into the truck and took off.
Sam came up behind me, pushing his bike. “I see you were talking to him.” he said, looking unhappy.
“Yeah, he seems okay. Knows his bikes, that’s for sure.”
“Did he say where he stole that monoshock?”
“Jesus, Sam. You just don’t let up. But I didn’t ask him where he got his bike and he didn’t ask me where I got mine. Now, give it a rest, will you?”
Sam said “Yeah, whatever,” and climbed onto his Honda. He started it and drove off up the street.
I saw Tremaine a few more times out at the impromptu track before the city of Vancouver shut it down. They cited safety reasons. But eight months later I happened to notice an obituary for a Tremaine L. Johnson, killed in Vietnam. The paper said he was an avid motorcyclist and was survived by his parents. He was twenty years old. The same paper announced the end of the Vietnam war. I don’t know for sure if it was the same Tremaine that I met that day riding, but it’s difficult to imagine it was a different guy. I thought about Sam and wondered if he would take the news with a sense of relief, knowing that this rider wasn’t going to be taking motocross away from him.