A Rational Complexity of Organs and Elements
The answer to “How fast can it go?” is “How fast do you want to go on 10 inch tires?”
Let me begin by saying that this does not end well.
The 1965 Vespa SS180’s speedometer did not work, but then again, they never do. Even if it did, 60 years of sun has faded the numbers so severely that they are impossible to read. And even if all of those things were somehow remedied, I’d end up having to do the kmh to mph math in my head (divide by eight and multiply by five, I think), and by the time I figured out how fast I was going, I would have run out of road. I know that I was keeping up with traffic, headed south on Freeport Boulevard. My best guess is that I was doing something around 50 mph (80 kmh), well into fourth gear with the throttle all the way open. It was hot, and I was clipping right along.
Just past Belleau Wood, where that office building burned down a few years back, the Vespa’s rear wheel locked suddenly, and I went into a hard skid. I immediately realized that the piston had seized, but the rest happened so quickly I couldn’t reason my way through it. Maybe pulling the clutch would have saved it. Maybe not. I didn’t think of it fast enough. The rear wheel skated across the pavement and the bike started to swerve under me. There was a horrible screeching sound. I remember thinking to myself, Maybe I can control this skid.
The next thing I knew, I was standing in the median.
My right arm was painted with blood and dirt from the outside of my hand all the way to my elbow. My left palm was bright red with wet blood. A dark stain was growing on my knee. I was missing a shoe. Something was very off about the way it felt to put weight on my right leg.
Later, I would scrub a bloody handprint from my helmet. There wasn’t a single scratch or dent or scrape otherwise. Not even a smearing of dust or dirt. I only mention this because I know I didn’t hit my head. And yet I remember nothing of the crash itself.
This phenomenon — having no memory of a crash — is common. I have a similar memory lapse from a car accident in 1998. I watched a Ford F-250 run a stop sign and pull out in front of me and then, again, a gap. The first memory I have after that crash is trying to leave the vehicle, which was now pinned under a truck. The first memory after this one is standing in the gravel, looking over my shoulder at the bike. It is lying on its left side with the kick start lever sticking up awkwardly into the afternoon sky above it. It only occurs to me now, having seen where the most significant damage was, that the bike must have initially fallen toward the right, then caught the ground and flipped onto its left side, launching me forward. I have to piece it together from the evidence like someone who wasn’t there.
My memory loss is not some form of amnesia. In the case of the Vespa hitting the gravel in the median and my being thrown clear of the bike, there is literally no memory for me to lose or block. I realized I was in danger very quickly. The flood of noradrenaline released by my adrenal glands almost immediately re-wrote the rules for conscious thought, focusing my attention on what I needed to do in order to survive. In doing so, it destroyed my brain’s ability to create and store memories about the event.
The same adrenaline rush blocked my pain receptors and lasted for about 20 minutes. By the time a friend arrived on the scene, threw the Vespa into the back of his truck, and got me home, the stress-induced analgesia had worn off. My doorbell camera records me pushing a crippled Vespa into the garage, limping severely with every single step.
I installed the camera a few weeks prior. My phone vibrates with an alert to notify me any time someone approaches the front door. It doesn’t distinguish who exactly is at the door, so my own face occupies a significant percentage of the alerts. Sometimes I can see myself checking the alert in the alert itself.
These short videos always remind me of how I first came to understand the act of meditation — as a sort of observation of myself. When my practice was more regular and just starting, maybe 15 years ago or so, I learned meditation as an act of extracting my consciousness from the chaos of the moment. It was, and I’m not saying this is an accurate or even good description of meditation, a sort of escape. On a good day, I could meditate my way into a state where I felt like I was watching the doorbell camera of my own frenzied and disorderly life (instead of drowning in it).
I was devastatingly broke at the time, working a series of awful and low-paying jobs just to try and pay the rent on time (with limited success). I read and re-read Thích Nhất Hạnh, but didn’t understand it. On the way to the grocery store I walked past a giant spray painted “BE HERE NOW” (a deceptively simple phrase taken, presumably, from the Ram Dass book) on the sidewalk, but I didn’t understand that, either. On Wednesdays I would ride my blue Vespa out to the Unitarian church were about 20 of us would do a simple sitting meditation. I think I went there every week for almost an entire year and never learned anyone’s name. I remember that my thoughts were so occupied with fear that I felt like meditation had to be an escape from that or else what was the point?
It’s hard to be present when your present is so full of fear.
If there’s ever been an ideal time to figure out how to live a functional life with a heart full of fear, it was several decades ago, but if there’s ever a moment that required it, it’s this one. I will do my best not to digress into war or political ineptitude or SCOTUS or the climate, except to say that is has been exceptionally difficult to keep one’s head above water. I promise this is still an essay about Vespas.
I turned 41 about a month ago. I have developed, by now, a list of things that I enjoy without feeling the need to explain them. I love Murder She Wrote, but not out of nostalgia or because I think it’s a good show or even well written. I feel the same about Italo Calvino’s short stories and bicycles that are slightly too big and the entirety of George Harrison’s probably-too-long All Things Must Pass album and Dunkin coffee and Onitsuka Tigers. I just like these things. I don’t care to understand or explain why. I just do.
Until recently, I would have placed the Vespa in this category, but now it has made an attempt to kill me. To question my love now seems only reasonable. This death trap is still parked in my garage. Its persistence should be justified, and to that end, I am recalling our relationship to date.
There was the episode of a badly slipped shift cable, finding second gear in the parking lot of a Taco Bell with a borrowed screwdriver, and limping home. There was the episode of nearly sheering the bolts off the rear wheel hub while driving north from Clarksburg. There were episodes with the clutch, with the throttle spring, with fouled spark plugs and gas leaks and flat tires. There were rainstorms and it was too hot or cold and I was stranded or stuck or pushing the bike slowly home.
To say nothing of when it ran well. And it did. With some degree of regularity.
To say nothing about the time that the landlord sent his handyman to put my 1978 Vespa P125X into the back of a truck and haul it away. By some impossible stroke of luck, I happened to have been employed at a boutique ice cream shop at the time and was therefor (as someone who could quickly procure large quantities of ice cream) included in a number of summer parties that were attended by this particular handyman, Brad, who called me to tell me that he was on his way to pick up a Vespa parked from a property that was across from the Family of Life Church on Holdrege Avenue, and maybe if it was mine (it was), I should move it.
To say nothing of winding back down toward Sacramento through the outskirts of the Tahoe National Forest, or riding slowly down H street and keeping the revs low after a clutch rebuild, or learning to pull wheelies in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church, or twisting through endless switchbacks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or bombing through midtown alleyways with the moped kids, or feathering the clutch while I put along the sidewalk with my four-year-old son on my lap, or hearing the steadfast, two-note harmony of the wind and the engine on a long, straight, empty Nebraska highway.
To say nothing about the time that my 1976 Vespa Primavera was stolen and then recovered with the help of a significant neighborhood posse (whose affinity for me was based entirely on my not having called the cops on them on any number of occasions). We searched the neighborhood until one of them, Dave, rolled it back out into the street where the rest of us stood dumb-stricken. The mirrors had been folded in but it was otherwise unscathed. One member of the impromptu posse, a linebacker-sized samoan man, offered to drag the culprit, a deadbeat parolee who rented the small house behind mine, out into the street if I’d like, and Dave said I’d probably feel better if I “just went ahead and beat the shit out of him, because that way, you know, it’s even.” I did not take him up on the offer.
To say nothing of the phone call from a realtor friend, who had discovered something red and dusty in the garage of a paranoid hoarder who passed away from COVID. “We’re trying to buy the house, but it’s in probate,” He said. We swept the black widow webs off the bike and rolled it out into the sun, exposing a once-red paint, now faded to a matte maroon. A 1965 Super Sport 180 — last of the piston ported engines. Never intended for the US market. Everything as it was when it was last parked some 40 years ago. The gas in the tank smelled almost sweet — more like a can of paint thinner or varnish than gasoline. The original toolkit with its wooden-handled screwdriver was still wrapped neatly in the glove box. “You hear stories of stuff like this,” I told him, “but you never think you’ll actually see it.”
But I digress.
Let me return then to the beginning of the story and how we first met.
In the summer of 1998, just a few months after my crash with the Ford truck who ran a stop sign, I drove a borrowed pickup truck to a farm just north of my small town and pulled a royal blue 1978 Vespa P125X out of a barn. A small bird’s nest, which was neatly positioned in the small crevasse between the carburetor and the frame, had to be carefully removed and placed on a nearby hay bale. The “bike,” a term that gets loosely thrown around for just about anything with two wheels, rested on its side. I paid the owner half of the $1400 asking price with a small stack of 20s and made my way home, where I unloaded it clumsily and parked it in the sun. I sat on the torn seat, put my hands on the grips, and couldn’t do much better than to imagine it running soon.
I would spend the next four years trying to get it running with limited success. Ironic, considering how simple the engine is. There is only one cylinder and one spark plug. The fuel is delivered to the engine with gravity. It is cooled by the air. There isn’t even a fuel gauge — you simply wait for the engine to run out of gas and then switch to reserve, which should give you enough for at least another 20 miles to find a gas station.
All of this was beyond a 17 year-old who didn’t own a single tool. I delivered the bike to a lawnmower repair shop, where it was disassembled and ignored in the back of the garage for another 2 years. The garage was foreclosed on and when a friend at the bank gave us a heads up, we managed to rescue the bike. It seemed to be fully functional. With an unearned amount of confidence, I took it on an inaugural ride and it died on an empty, forgotten highway somewhere between Clarkson and Schuyler, Nebraska. I made a call on my dying cell phone (the infamous Nokia 3310 “brick”) and waited off the side of a small country road for almost four hours before I could load it up and take it home — apparently, not long enough for me to come to my senses.
That breakdown would be the first of many. The Nebraska barn bike would also be the first of several Vespas that I would own and eventually sell (I am not a collector). Unfortunately nothing of my first Vespa explains either the why or the how of my love for these rolling death traps.
The Piaggio company made locomotive and aviation equipment for the Italian military during the second world war. This made them a target for allied bombers and so, by the time the war ended, Rinaldo Piaggio’s factories were in ruins and slated for demolition. Less than a year later, Rinaldo’s son, Enrico, and an aeronautical engineer named Corradino D’Ascanio sought to find some non-military use for their remaining manufacturing capabilities, and they applied for a patent. I’m not certain which one of the pair was in possession of an apparently staggering gift for language. The patent describes “a motorcycle of a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame with mudguards and a casing covering the whole mechanical part.”
As a lover of language, this patent is irresistable. It’s the sort of phrasing that begs to be played with. You can drop two of the nouns (“motorcycle” and “mudguard”) and the whole thing suddenly becomes a sort of droll description of a human being: “a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame and a casing covering the whole mechanical part.”
I am all of those things. With the possible exception of the “rational” part.
It’s worth mentioning briefly that this sort of language isn’t typical of patents. The 1947 patent for Tupperware resealable containers is representative of the lot with language completely devoid of anything even resembling poetry: “E.S. Tupper Open Mouth Container and Nonsnap type of Closure Therefor.” It is as accurate as it is dry.
The Piaggio patent wasn’t D’Ascanio’s first design. The first design looked like a bulky-but-small motorcycle, but Piaggio insisted that the frame be reconfigured so that a woman in a skirt could more easily ride it (there is probably a joke here about prioritizing clothing and design over the functionality of a mode of transportation). When D’Ascanio turned this into the now-familiar step-through frame that one writer called “a comma lying on its back,” Piaggio noted that this made the tail end of the scooter looked wide, like the abdomen of a vespa (Italian for wasp).
It’s hard for me to think about the origin of the Vespa and, specifically, the fundamental design change that includes the feminine, without also thinking of motorcycles and this strange link they have to the notions of masculinity.
At a fundamental level, a motorcycle isolates the rider and places literal power between his legs—already the sort of metaphor for masculinity even a high school literature student could parse. The holy trinity of old school manliness, Steve McQueen, James Dean, and Marlon Brando, all delivered iconic film roles as motorcycle-riding bad boys (The Great Escape, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Wild One). It should be no surprise that motorcycles are central to what is sometimes called “Masculine Scripting” (a sort of performance to establish or prove one’s masculinity).
The few failed drafts I’ve had in writing this essay have always ended up in a drawn out discussion of gender. In fact, I’m surprised I made it this far before bringing it up. The performance of masculinity doesn’t exactly fit me like a glove. I was as comfortable in long linen skirts as I am in jeans. I pressed flowers when no one was looking and kissed boys when they were. I was called the f-word at the family thanksgiving dinner and out of the open window of countless passing vehicles (Nebraska, don’t you ever ask me why I left you).
When the dust settles, there’s an M on my driver’s license and the Vespa registration says “motorcycle.” Still, one of the reasons I love this silly little machine is that it seems to fall away from the macho ideal in exactly the same manner as I do. And I love it for that. But it’s not enough.
Some weeks after the accident now, my arm and leg are both mostly healed. There are a few archipelagos of pinkish skin on my elbow and knee, and not much in the way of any other physical evidence. I feel the crash in strange moments, though — reaching across the breakfast table for a pen or bending over to adjust the lawn mower height. Last night, I was watching a documentary about the Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher. I got sick to my stomach when the first-person camera shot showed his Ferrari go through the gravel trap and straight into the wall (Silverstone 1999). I had to turn off the television and go stand outside for awhile.
I wait in the dark for my pulse to lower, and I am silent.
For a moment, I think the noise is from the freeway, but it’s just the air conditioner humming along. Or maybe it’s the neighbor’s. It is hard to tell, and I am silent.
There is a small collection of red and green bunch of lights moving steadily in the direction of Sacramento International Airport. I wonder, as I always do when I see an airplane, if it is bringing someone home or taking them away from home, and I am silent.
The shadow of the wisteria vines has extended just above the top of the fence and I will need to find the time to either trim it back or coax it to grow in some new direction. I didn’t expect them to take as well as they have, and I am silent.
The light pollution makes it difficult to spot much more than the big dipper. I always look for the Pleiades, but can never find them. Tonight I try again, trying to recall the planetarium show I saw several months ago, but the sky is a dark blue instead of a consuming pitch black, and I can’t find The Seven Sisters again, and I am silent.
Even these small moments are so full, and I promise this is still an essay about Vespas.
In his 1972 book, Speaking and Language, Paul Goodman created a taxonomy of silences. There were nine of them. I have stumbled through at least six of them in the last several hours. The silence that hung in my mouth while I waited for my pulse to climb back down in to my chest that night was probably the second of the nine: “the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face.” There are a few others that are particularly difficult for me, but I seek them out. This includes the fourth silence. Goodman called it “the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, ‘This… this…’.”
It’s not enough that we’re both the same amount of queer. The curiosity of history or the patent isn’t enough. The miles we rolled across in unison and the ubiquity of my thumbprints that wallpaper every inch and moving part aren’t enough. Instead, it’s the silence. The fourth of nine silences is as close as I can come to understanding the “why” of a Vespa.
The immediate and overwhelming sensation of riding a bike is one of feeling fully exposed. I had only been riding for a few years when I first heard the term “cager,” referring to people who ride in cars. It’s not simply the sensation of not having a roof above my head and being, quite literally, in the wind — we still ride in a convertible, but we ride on a bike. When you’re balanced on two wheels and the wind hits you square in the chest, it feels like the closest to flying that you’ll ever get. You can’t help but get a bit dumbfounded.
The secondary sensation, in particular with an older bike, is of profound involvement. There is, of course, the manual transmission. Leaning one way or the other can change the trajectory of the bike. But there is also a sort of constant diagnosis going on. One listens, for example, to the amount of time that it takes for the engine to return to idle after the throttle is released, since a delay may indicate a fuel/air mixture problem or a timing issue. This and a hundred other sounds and pulls and smells. An old Vespa has this in common with Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman: “attention must be paid.”
Nothing about the ride is meditative, or, at least not in my earliest and simplest understandings of what that might mean. I am generally isolated, yes, but there is never the sense that I am removed from the moment. It is nothing like feeling outside of myself, recognizing the world that is happening without experiencing it directly.
Riding is none of those things. But it is silent. Hell, all of the work I do, from disassembling a carburetor to tightening the shift cables to replacing the headlight bulb is silent. It is a silence less in the sense of Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet,” (a silence that can “interrupt this sadness / of never understanding ourselves”), and more in the sense of Goodman’s fourth silence. I am seemingly always ready to say, “This… this…” I am attentive, not to the act of removing myself from the moment, but to everything in the moment itself.
This, finally, is the gift of this big, dumb, rolling death trap.
The quiet and the fullness of the moment. The rational complexity of it. Of me. Here, there is a boy with a large bandage covering his elbow. Here, there is a comma lying on its back. Be here now.
I am not extracted. I am immersed.