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GOING THE DISTANCE
Photo by Genghis
SALLY'S BILL OF SALE: Cheap.
SNOW AT THE IRON HORSE WORLD SYSTEM FACEBOOK PAGE:
"Excellent, Scott! Man, I never tire of reading your accounts of riding in NYC during the '60s and '70s---I mean, just the words 'Harley-Davidson of Manhattan' are incredibly evocative. I saw an H-D of Manhattan license plate at Sarafan's but he'd never part with it. A request: Your account of walking into the Manhattan dealer and buying Sally...."
You can't go home again.
I recently rode Mabel, my Harley 74 to the site of the now-defunct Harley-Davidson of Manhattan on East 76th Street. I felt like Thomas Wolfe was taunting me from the grave. The store that used to be H-D of Manhattan, where I bought my first Harley, is now an air conditioning business. Reinforcing this feeling that Wolfe was having a laugh at my expense, was the fact that the roll-up garage door that fronted Harley of Manhattan in the dealership's heyday, was still there. Now, instead of motorcycles rolling in and out of 352 East 76th Street, HVAC units floated in and out on dollies and handtrucks. It felt like a bitter pill to swallow, that this storied Harley-Davidson franchise, was no longer there. It created a pang in the pit of my belly.
As I sat on Mabel in front of what had been the historic Harley-Davidson dealership, with Mabel's motor idling, "rumpity...rump......rumpity...rump," I felt a deep nostalgia, that is sometimes evoked by visiting Places From My Past, that sent a shiver through me. This place, this Hallowed Place where I began, this was special. Mabel even sensed it. She sensed that this was the place where my Harley History began without her. She sensed that this history began with an older Harley sister, a sister whose whereabouts are unknown. I sat there thinking, comforted by her sound. As I blipped Mabel's throttle in a raucous salute to the former Harley-Davidson of Manhattan...."RRRROOOOAARRrrr....RRAAAaaackaaa...".....I knew that Mabel felt this nostalgia too, in the depths of her S & S stroker flywheels.
I admit that I'm a sentimental person. When I feel a nostalgia like I do about 352 East 76th Street, I know that I will return here again, just to sit here and contemplate what had been, and how my motorcycling future had evolved from that point, in this place. This is what I do, because in my core, I am an introspective person who by dint of being alone on my Harley, have tons of time to think and reflect. What better place to think and reflect, than where it began. Loners think, while others converse.
MAY 20, 1968:
Harley-Davidson of Manhattan was unusual, in that it was not only narrow, but also short. It consisted of a storefront about five yards wide. It sat between First Avenue and Second Avenue on 76th Street. closer to First Avenue. The Upper East Side of Manhattan where this dealership plied its business, is a well-heeled, high rent district, where trees abounded in the side streets, like 76th Street. Out-of-towners who are from more suburban and rural places who visit Manhattan for the first time, are surprised by the number of trees in Manhattan, a clear divergence from NYC's public image of a concrete jungle. Like the rest of Manhattan, retail space comes at a premium, which may have accounted for the smallness of this dealership.
H-D of Manhattan was narrow, but also short. I estimate that its length was roughly half that, of my parents' Chinese laundry in Queens, which was narrow, but very long. The Harley dealership was perhaps 15 yeards long. It was divided in half, the front half being the cramped showroom where bikes were on display. The back half was the shop. The two halves were separated by swinging doors, which could be swung out and latched open. I did see bikes ride in when these swinging doors were closed, and open the doors with their front tires.
I think that Harley-Davidson of Manhattan was unique, because motorcycles had to drive through the middle of the showroom to get to the shop.
This dealership had a roll-up garage door, which when opened, revealed an inner door whose width was sufficient to allow motorcycles to pass through. Whenever I spent time there, bikes would whiz in and out, going into and out of the shop in the back. Stand in the way of these Harleys blasting back and forth, through the narrow showroom at your own peril! On this day, May 20, 1968, I was there to buy a Harley. A Harley Sportster. While looking at the bikes on display, a shovelhead dresser with straight pipes blasted out of the shop, and through the showroom where I was standing. The sound was deafening in that small space.
I was prepared to order my Sportster. I'd read so much about the hottest of the Sportsters, the XLCH. By reputation, the XLCH was alone in its status as the Biggest Bully On The Block, shredding Britbikes and rending Big Twins, as they passed these others on streets and strips with a blast of arrogant air. That's what I wanted, an XLCH, and that's what I would get on this day.
Parked at the back of the showroom near the swinging doors to the shop, was an orange XLCH on display. It shone with a fine confidence, knowing that she was the best, and the baddest, bar none. She had the stock bench seat. Her orange tank had a broad black stripe running fore and aft of the gas cap. She was beautiful. The owner of the dealership, Augie, came up to me. I asked if this bike was for sale. Augie said, "Yes, are you interested?" I said that I was there to buy an XLCH. Augie told me that if I could leave a deposit, then I could buy this bike. I asked him how much of a deposit he needed, and he said, "Fifty dollars will be enough." I handed him the fifty dollars.
Augie said, "What kind of bike do you have now?" I told him that I've never owned a motorcycle, but had just gotten my motorcycle license. He was amazed. He said, "Wait a minute, you've never ridden a motorcycle, and you picked the XLCH as yout first bike? I don't think that's good idea." The explosive XLCH was indeed, a very poor choice as an entry-level bike, but I wanted it, and that was that. Augie asked me what kind of bike I took my motorcycle license test on. I said, "It was a Honda 90." He was incredulous. I had taken one lesson on the Honda scooter, and then passed my test on this driving school's scooter. You have to understand that the motorcycle media in 1968, considered the Sportster XLCH a bike so explosive, that it was ridden only by experienced riders who were used to more powerful machines.
A few weeks before, I sold my beloved '64 Vette to get the money for the Sportster I was planning to buy. It happens that I sold the Vette back to the used car dealer on Queens Boulevard, that sold her to me. This hurt me very much, but I was so smitten with XLCH FEVER, that I was willing to sacrifice my car to get the bike. I needed the bread, and I wanted the bike, like now. I couldn't afford to keep both.
In that interim period, I also took a motorcycle driving lesson from a driving school in Jackson Heights in Queens. I chose this school because it would allow me to use its Honda scooter for my test. The school instructor would accompany me to my test.
Augie told me that he couldn't sell the XLCH to me. He would consider it an irresponsible act on his part, because of my inexperience. He came up with a compromise. He told me to come back in a few days, and he would arrange for one of his customers, to give me a lesson on the Sportster. We agreed, and then he kept my $50.00 deposit. In the meantime, Augie asked me if I wanted any changes made on the Sportster before I picked her up. I told him I wanted a solo seat and pillion pad, and he said he would take care of it.
As a sidebar, I got to know some of the people at the dealership. Augie's two sons, the older of the two who would later inherit the business and relocate it to the corner of Northern Boulevard and Steinway Street in Queens (and renaming it "Harley-Davidson of New York") rode bikes. I can't remember their names. The younger son rode only Sportsters, and in 1968, he rode a '65 XLCH. The service manager was named Chuck. Chuck was a affable, stocky man who stood about five feet five, who was a heavy smoker. Every time I saw him, he had a cigarette in his mouth. He, like the rest of the staff who weren't mechanics, was very buttoned down in his dress. The owner, sales people and Chuck wore dress pants, white dress shirts and dress shoes, but no ties. Chuck had an unusual kickstarting technique. He would stand by the right side of the bike, and kick it over with his left foot. I've never seen anyone else do this.
The chief mechanic who was named Charlie, was a crusty 'ole guy who seemed to be in his 60s, addressed me either as "kid" or "Prescott." He did this kindly, but with an air of an elder addressing his obvious junior. I liked Charlie. He told me that he was close to retiring. I never liked my given name, and people, including my family, have called me Scott since infancy. Aparently, these people never liked my given name either. It made me wonder why my parents named me Prescott, since they never called me this. I'm told that my mother took the advice of one of the nurses at Physicians Hospital in Jackson Heights where I was born, to name me Prescott.
All in all, you could tell that the people at H-D of Manhattan cared very deeply about Harleys. It was a point of pride in their lives, yet except for the younger son, they didn't fit the mold of "biker" with any neatness.
While the younger son wore clothes more typical of bikers, the older one, even though he rode, always wore dress clothes when he ran the dealership in Queens.
The arrangement with the veteran rider was made for him to instruct me on the Sportster, and I returned to Harley-Davidson of Mahattan four days later for my lesson. I also paid the balance I owed for the bike, which was $1,724.50. The $2,500.00 I received for my Vette covered that, and insurance for the bike. I don't remember the name of the customer who was my instructor, but I do remember his bike and him: It was a shovelhead dresser, with straight pipes and was painted black. The man was in his forties and had a pleasant demeanor. He had short, neat hair and a small goatee.
Here was the plan: He would pack me on the Sportster, and drive us to a deserted parking lot in Long Island City where I'd get my lesson. Long Island City is the first Queens neighborhood one encounters, when crossing the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan.
He kickstarted the XLCH, which took a few minutes (I was getting an inkling of how difficult it would be for a beginner, to start this beast), and we took off over the 59th Street Bridge, to the empty parking lot in Queens.
When we got there, he went over the basics of where the clutch, throttle, gearshift and brake controls were. He gave a didactic lesson before I even got on the bike, on how to coordinate the different functions with my hands and feet, to operate this "beginner's bike" (ha!). Then the moment of truth. I got onto the Bates solo seat, and my instructor got on the p-pad. Now, this was a brave man. He'd decided that the only way to properly teach me, was to coach me from in back of me, talking into my ear as I drove the bike.
I managed to get the basics without stalling the Sportster or dropping the bike (thank God). After several circuits around the spacious parking lot, my instructor deemed me fully formed as a motorcycle rider! He told me that he wanted me to drive the bike over the 59th Street Bridge, and back to the dealership. (gulp!) Man, he was a brave man. This was a weekday, and the traffic in Manhattan was as typically heavy as it always is on a workday. I managed to get us back to the dealership in the same number of pieces that we left with. All the way, I could sense my instructor squirming (and probably heavily sweating) on the p-pad.
On May 31, 1968, a day that shall live in infamy, I went to pick up my Sportster! But this time, I had my friend "Big Mike" Mercurio, accompany me, just in case I had a problem on my first solo ride on the bike. Big Mike was an older biker who rode a Harley. He thought it was more practical that day to take me in his car, so we went in his Mercury Comet. I'll tell ya what. I had a helluva time starting the Sportster. With my inexperience, my technique was less than efficient then. But start her I did, and off we went, Big Mike watching my back from his primer-gray Comet.
I'd be lyin' if I told you I wasn't nervous about my first solo ride. This departure didn't take place from some remote Harley dealership in a quiet town, where traffic is slow. Nooooooo, this had to be in the epicenter of heavy traffic, New York Bleepin' City! After I got her started, I pointed her to First Avenue. In order to get to the entrance of the 59th Street Bridge heading to Queens, I had to go around the block, so I turned west on 77th Street, and hung a left on Second Avenue which led me to the bridge. Just riding my new Sportster around the block on my own, was a tremendous thrill! I felt the potential of the motor, its power waiting to be unleashed by an unafraid hand. She was like a tiger waiting to leap, held in check by a conservartive-riding, rookie owner. I sensed that this machine was so much more volatile than even my 365 horse Vette, because the power would be hittin' the pavement on one tire, a tire that was screwed to the rear rim. I was told that the XLCH had so much instant power, that the motor could rotate the tire on the rim, unless the tire was firmly screwed to the rim.
Once we got over the bridge to Long Island City, I breathed a sigh of relative relief, because the traffic thinned considerably compared to the crazy traffic in Manhattan. Big Mike was staying in back of me at a healthy distance, but did not allow any cars to get between us. Mike was a good friend. I miss him. We drove down Northern Boulevard until we reached our destination, which was my home at 87th Street on Northern Boulevard. I'll tell ya the truth: Some of my friends who were not bikers, were waiting for me in front of my parents' Chinese laundry. I was treated like a conquering hero, because I was the first in our age group (bikers who mentored me like Big Mike Mercurio and Steve Biondo, were older by a decade) to actually get a motorcycle! Man, that felt good. The rest is history. Later.