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GOING THE DISTANCE
Photo by Genghis
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY: She's a Harley-Davidson.
JOHN W. SCHOUTEN, UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND
JAMES H. MCALEXANDER, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
ON THE HARLEY MYSTIQUE:
"Our findings indicate a strong sense of brand identification among Harley owners that translates to extraordinary brand loyalty. Furthermore, we find that very strong brand identification often precedes the purchase of a first Harley, sometimes by years, manifesting as a desire or longing that results in highly motivated brand reference. When discussing their first Harley purchases informants commonly report always having wanting one. Some report memories of their fathers or grandfathers on Harley-Davidsons, and intergenerational and family-centered Harley ownership are featured regularly in publications like Enthusiast and Hog Tales....One thing is certain: among Harley owners a sizable share is fiercely loyal. One key informant categorizes loyalty to Harley-Davidsons in the following manner: 'Their are two types of Harley riders, those who if Harley-Davidsons were no longer available would just stop riding altogether, and those who are devoted to motorcycles first, and who happen to like Harleys.'
The most Harley-loyal group appears to be those people closest to the core of the traditional biker subculture, i.e., those who most likely approximate the look created by outlaw clubs. Signs of their loyalty frequently include Harley-Davidson related tattoos, bumper stickers on their other vehicles....A common pattern is to have begun with a "basket case" (a bike in need of extensive repair) and to have traded up several times to newer or more desirable models. Their predominantly blue-collar status ofter precludes the purchase of a new Harley; however, their tendency to customize their bikes makes them a good segment for after-market parts and service....An ironic twist to Harley loyalty is that much of the customization of Harley-Davidsons involves the removal of stock Harley parts and their replacement with other, non-Harley parts that are perceived to deliver high performance. For example, according to several informants (and born out by observation at rallies) it is standard procedure for Harley enthusiasts to replace the stock Harley exhaust pipes....
Lavish spending on custom accessories is also typical of RUBs, or upscale, baby-boomer enthusiasts. Having come lately to Harley ownership, however, their longevity as owners can not be determined....Such signs of peripheral affiliation with the biker subculture would seem to suggest a passing infatuation indulged by relatively high discretionary incomes. If Harley ownership were to pass out of vogue, maintaining the loyalty of such owners might present a significant challenge."
Ride it like ya stole it.
Many would've envied me my job. I was the medical photographer for the Pack Medical Foundation, and among my many work duties was to photograph young women in the nude. These women were to undergo plastic surgery to either reduce (why?) or increase their breast size. You see, the Pack Medical Foundation was a group of plastic surgeons who dealt with serious cancer operations such as head and neck surgeries to excise deadly tumors, but these extremely skilled surgeons also performed more routine procedures like breast reductions and implants to increase breast size. Can you imagine the luck in finding a job where the prime directive was to photograph women's breasts in all their seductive glory? It was a truly uplifting experience, a job that made me see double for a long time after. Instead of finding a job as a bouncer, I found a job photographing the bouncey.
Little did I know that Doctor John Conley, the head of the Pack Medical Foundation, would a few years after the Foundation closed up shop, would do a radical neck dissection on me, for the thyroid cancer that I would develop. Dr. Conley was a great man I admired very much, who is now deceased. He was the most amazing surgeon.
I shared a funny moment with Snow and Rob Sager, who was Iron Horse's crack staff photographer. During the 1990 photo session when Snow and Sager did the photos of Mabel and me for Snow's article, "Genghis Rides A Harley,"
The shoot was done in front of a Chinese takeout kitchen on East Broadway, in the Lower East Side, and in my dojo which was nearby. I guess Snow wanted to exploit the obvious angle.
Sager and I discussed the fact that we both had beaten neck cancer years ago. Snow, sensing the common denominator between Rob and me of us both being professional photographers said, "What the hell is it, something in the darkroom chemicals you guys use?"
Besides shooting cancer patients before and after their surgeries for clinical purposes, I also had the gawdawful task of photographing the aforementioned young women naked, who were slated to have their breasts either made smaller (again, why?) or larger by surgical means. To say that these compliant young patients who presented themselves in front of the camera held in my sweaty hands, made me swell with pride about my job (my pride wasn't the only thing to swell during these sessions) would be an understatement. Many times I thought the room's thermostat was stuck in the 105 degree setting, but it was just me. Funnily, in many of the pictures of these topless patients, the patients' gaze would be captured looking in the direction of my crotch for some reason. You've heard of employees stickin' their necks out for customers, in this case it was a more prominent anatomical component drawing their attention. Some patients' gazes were unabashedly admiring in the final prints, accompanied by wry smiles.
This job had to be only a poor second to being a gynecologist. However unlike the latter, I couldn't get my hands dirty on the job.
Let me set the scene for you. I'd be waiting with bated breath for these patients to enter my photo studio at the Pack Medical Foundation. A nurse would accompany each woman down from the doctor's office, and upon arrival, the patient would change into a sheet from her street clothes behind a screen in my studio. Then the patient would come out for her pictures, and the nurse would leave. Keep in mind, that the purpose of the sheets that these women wrapped 'emselves with, was modesty. After the nurse left, I'd ask these women to drop the sheets, leaving 'em naked as jaybirds.
Modesty definitely took a holiday, after the sheets hit the floor. With my subjects in this unprotected state, I might've extended these sessions, shooting extra rolls of film to make sure I got the...ahem...best results possible.
I'd shoot every woman first from the front, then for the side for medical posterity and clinical accuracy.
That was a fine job I enjoyed very much. The Pack Medical Foundation was situated on an idyllic and tree-lined 36th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in a tony part of Manhattan. The building itself, was an art deco masterpiece worthy of being featured in an Ayn Rand novel. It was a beautiful job for a young guy with a wife and a young son, with a decent salary for the time, and unforseen benefits of the type that were unrealized in the job description.
Unfortunately, the fun ride of this job came to an abrupt end when the Pack Medical Foundation declared bankruptcy. I'd only been there for a year and a half, when the breast milk stopped flowing into my bank account, so to speak.
It would be a while until I found another photography job, and in the meantime, I became a motorcycle messenger for the Quick Trip Messenger Service. The Quick Trip Messenger Service was first located on 25th Street between First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, and was owned by an ex-cop named George Shaw. George was a gruff but soft-hearted boss, with whom I actually kept in contact with over the decades until he died from the complications of diabetes. His nickname for me was "The Indian" because I had long hair back then that I left hanging loose. George would say for example, "Let's give this job to Philadelphia to The Indian..." Must of my jobs were within the confines of the five boroughs of New York City, but a few were out of town. I used my Sportster XLCH, Sally The Bitch for the job.
I later talked George into letting me use company vans instead of Sally.
One day Sally was parked outside the Quick Trip offices on 25th Street, and I walked around to a Second Avenue deli to get some coffee. When I ghot back to Sally, there was a biker standing next to her, studying her intently. He wore a coonskin cap and colors with "Aliens M.C." on it. I walked up to this guy and said, "Hey. What's up?" The Alien said, "I was thinking about stealing your bike. I have a Sportster too." He was dead serious.
His frank admission about his intent to steal, and he was not joking, for some reason made me laugh out loud. I liked this guy. I found his honesty refreshing. His name was Mario, and his club would soon be absorbed into the HAMC as the New York chapter. Mario said to me....
"How could you use your Harley for messenger work? She's too good for that, man. This work's for japbikes. I'd never use my Sportster for messenger work.
In fact, I'd only steal a Harley. Japbikes aren't worth stealing."
There was only one other Harley rider besides me at Quick Trip, and that was Patch, who was a sullen Pagan who had a panhead.
Herein lies the true meaning of the Harley Mystique: Hardcore bikers' conviction that Harley cycles are something special, so special that bikers would commit their entire lives to being loyal to 'em.
These hardcore Harley loyalists would as soon have the words "Harley-Davidson" indelibly tattooed on their epidermises, as anything else. Bikers are more likely to have Harley-related tats, than family-related tattoos.
These tats would for the lifetime of the biker, declare to the world where the biker's deepest thoughts and allegiance lie: With his Harley motorcycle. When's the last time you saw anyone with "Yamaha" or "XS650" tattooed on his skin? Maybe never?
Nothing illustrates the Harley Mystique and the brand loyalty and respect for the marque, better than David Snow's recent full-force return to a Harley cycle. Snow's come back to the Orange & Black, with a vengeance. His H-D fire's burning bright, a conglagration I can feel in NYC---and Snow's in Arkansas.
David recently got himself a hardcore and righteous 1969 Sportster XLCH. Snow's as excited about his 'CH as a little kid would be about a brand new coveted Christmas toy. I asked David about his renewed H-D enthusiasm:
"I can't recall you ever being as excited about your other bikes. Is this true? The XLCH has an H-D authenticity and righteousness, that could only have been matched by your shovel. It has a true pedigree."
You see more and more customs in biker magazines, using clone H-D motors. It seems to me that these clones outnumber bikes with real Harley motors in featured bikes. Here's what I believe a biker is doing by using an clone of an H-D motor: He's settling for convenience sake. It's all too easy to plunk down bucks for a new ready-to-run clone motor, instead of building a righteous old Harley mill the right way. It's the easy way out for many. These clones lack the historical tradition and palpable gravitas of a real Harley motor.
Harley-Davidson's reach in the history of the biker culture, goes back far and deep. The Harley cycle is the veritable backbone of the subculture, make no mistake about this. Without real Harleys, there wouldn't exist a biker subculture as we know it. Here's what Snow said in response to my question:
"Hey Scott---I think it's been that I've been away from Harleys for so long! Sold the Wide Glide when I left NYC in '97 and the S & S "F.U." was way cool and fun, but we know that it wasn't a real H-D. The XLCH is as real as it gets, eh?"
To that I said, "It's like coming home, man. Welcome home, where you've always belonged. See, you can go home again."
Apologies to Thomas Wolfe, who was wrong and apparently didn't know any hardcore bikers. True Bikers will always return to Harley Brand Loyalty. It's in our DNA. While Biker Lites may talk about "the Harley Mystique" to justify their brief and temporary fling with Harleys, and celebrate their fake biker bona fides with 26 pounds of tin rally badges on their leather vests, hardcores in the culture will forever be branding their unflagging loyalty to their Harley-Davidsons on their skin. Bikers' skins are their canvases for the performance art of Loving Their Harleys. Unlike vests festooned with a hundred tin badges, tats can't be taken off.
I'll take this a step further. True bikers may be loyal to Harley cycles, but a select and lucky segment of them find The One that they were intended to be with, forever. I had to go through my Sportster, before finding the bike was meant to Go The Distance with, my '71 Super Glide Mabel. It sounds like Snow has found his "intended." One hears these stories from bikers that outline how they met and acquired their "meant-to-bes." Take a listen to Halfway-To Hell's ("HTH") story:
"My '85 FXRS is named Herc. That's not short for Hercules, but for Hercimer. I'll try to explain as concisely as I can. When I was a kid, Captain Kangaroo used to run one of his animation things (they weren't cartoons, but weird, almost cardboard things against black backgrounds...hard to explain). This particular one was called "Hercimer the Homely Doll" from a record that was voiced/sang by Sterling Holloway in the late '40s. In the story, Hercimer was such a homely doll, he sat in the toy shop for years, while newer toys, and fads flew out the door. Anyway, (I did use the word concise, right...too late.), at my local HD shop was this really nice '85 FXRS. Perfect factory paint, and obviously well maintained. An original owner bike. This was in 2008. I was in the market for a used Harley. An FXRS was not really on my radar. Every time I went to the dealership, which had a real good selection of used bikes at all times, I kept noticing the '85. Carb and all. After about a YEAR, I'd go into the dealer just to see if the bike was still there...it would be moved around within the inventory, but there it was. The Softails and Road Kings, etc. weren't on the floor long. But the newbies walked right by the perfect '85 FXRS. Remember that Twilight Zone episode where the old guy and his wife go to Vegas....he's totally against gambling, but then, a slot machine keeps calling his name.."Franklin". Ultimately, it's his undoing. Same thing with this damn FXRS. I watched the price fall over a year and a half. I bought it in the fall of 2009. Yesterday, with the leaves turning, Herc and I went for a trouble-free 300 mile ride. I love my bike."
These stories are related in hushed and reverent tones in the like company of other true bikers, to speak of unlimited respect for their Harley-Davidsons. Demeanors are serious, which reflect the life-changing experiences that meeting The One are. There is a quiet desperation shown by a biker, once he realizes that he's met the motorcycle he was fated to be with, AKA "The One." It is not unlike trying not to lose the girl who you realize with grim finality, is The Love of Your Life. You would move heaven and earth to win her heart, to make her yours.
Check out what Tim had to say regarding this, which he related at The Seedy X-Bar:
"It's funny you say (which I guess,is not so unusual)'I have to hear it run'. That's exactly what I said when I went to buy my knuckle. I think it was on a fall holiday ( thanksgiving I think)when I went to check it out. It's not often you hear about a knuckle for sale, especially one practically around the corner from where you live. When my good friend Don told me about it I jumped all over it. I set up a time with the guy and brought cash ($9,000.00)he was asking 10 Gs for the bike. It was set up as a bad version of a 70's chopper, stock frame with 10 over wide-glide on the front. All I said was what you did. Now this bike took 3 guys (and my friends 250lbs.) a 1/2 hour to kick it over. I've learned a lot since then and can see how badly the whole bike was set up. Carb, points, plugs, timing every thing was off. BUT, I will never forget my friend Don's fateful words (it was his turn on the kicker) 'If it doesn't start on this next kick I gotta get home to the family.' Up his big ass went and down went that big foot of his....KA-POW! That baby roared to life and sounded STRONG! I KNEW right then and there that I would take it regardless of ANY other atrocities that were done to it (and there were plenty). The owner needed money for Christmas and that knuckle found a home that would give it all the respect it deserved."
The university eggheads' findings in their study of brand loyalty to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, was right on the money, if expressed in quaintly intellectual verbosity. As Snow once said of the British biker rag "BSH," "It's wordy and self-important." This applies to this study. It's also weird the way the two college professors use the word "informant." It makes the whole deal sound like a police or FBI operation. Perhaps the equally obtuse "reporter" could've been used to a less legalistic-sounding effect. It at least would have sounded less threatening.
Mere words however, can't truly convey the depth of emotion and fealty that bikers hold for their beloved Harley cycles. What's funny is that this phenomenon of biker loyalty to Harleys can be better encapsulated by some random t-shirt cliches from forty years ago:
"If you have to ask you wouldn't understand."
"If you don't ride a Harley, you ain't shit."
"I'd rather have my sister in a whorehouse, than see my brother ride a Honda."