Click here for Home
GOING THE DISTANCE
"WHAT MAKES YOU TICK?"
PHOTO BY GENGHIS
I'm re-reading Sonny Barger's autobiography. Sonny is a fascinating man, who was and is charismatic and full of conviction. No matter what your philosophy is as a biker, you cannot deny that this natural leader is a seminal figure in the biker subculture. Whether you agree or not with the way Sonny lives his life, you can't say that he doesn't forge through life exactly the way that he envisions that it should be done, or that he hasn't had a tremendous influence on thousands of budding bikers who entered riding age in the sixties, including yers truly. He is legendary, and for good reason. As I read Barger's account of what he was like as he was growing up, I began hearing a faint ringing of the bell of recognition in my head, as if there was an extremely familiar bat flying around in my belfry. You know how it is. You sense something familiar in another person, but can't quite put your finger on it right away.
It finally came to me. Sonny grew up with a sizeable chip on his shoulder, just as I had during my childhood. I firmly believe that there is a common thread of innate alienation among bikers in general, and this was amply demonstrated in Barger's experience as described in his autobiography. I feel that bikers who read an autobiography like Sonny Barger's, can relate to his alienation from society, and his "otherness" compared to straights, just as I believe that most in the biker subculture have the same feelings of what was described in popular culture of the 60s as "anomie." I know that I do, and that's why I identified so strongly with Barger's account of his early life. I found the similarities between my and Barger's resentment of authority in its many guises, and feelings of alienation from straight establishment society, striking. The seeds of our discontent was quite different, but the end result is the same. Generalized feelings of disconnection with mass society, and the need to be oneself---defined as "different." Here's some background on my alienation.
Let me say at the outset, that I've always had a chip on my shoulder. I'll leave it up to the psychology majors, to evaluate why. Perhaps you can figure out the reasons why as you read about my younger life. Some of the reasons may seem fairly obvious, others obscure enough so that even I don't get 'em. Whatever. I was born with a chip on my shoulder, or so it seems from the view from my brain pan. From the earliest days in my memory----and I have a great memory, having recall to my days in the baby carriage---I always had some degree of anger in me that's probably innate. None of my other siblings were like this, only me. I mystified my family. They could never understand why I always seemed so angry and moody, as if the world---including them---were out to get me. I often felt like the proverbial black sheep, and it showed.
I've felt that way all my life, and although this feeling has mellowed as I age, I still have deep feelings of this anomie occasionally. When I read that Sonny Barger always resented authority, I recognized this trait in myself too. Is this a trait that runs through most in the biker subculture? I don't know, but I suspect that I may be on to something, here. I would like to fill in some of the blanks about my life to you, in order to reveal how this streak of alienation occurred with me.
I was born and raised in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York in 1947. I was the only sibling in my family to have been born in a hospital. All the rest were born at home. I was the youngest of four, and the gap between me and the others, truly made me the baby of the family. My next oldest sibling is my sister Nancy, who is fifteen years my senior. As a result of the large gap between me and my brother and sisters, by the time I was a preadolescent, the others were almost grown-up. It was in effect, like growing up an only child. Jackson Heights was a neighborhood of lower and middle class families. My family was perhaps one of four Chinese-American families in Jackson Heights, so right off the bat, I had to defend being "different." Jackson Heights was like many parochial neighborhoods in Queens, much like a small town in that it represented certain attitudes and prejudices, as you might find in any Smalltown, USA. Frankly speaking, Jackson Heights was a racist little town that didn't tolerate blacks well. The adjoining neighborhood, Corona, was a black enclave in which blacks mostly kept to themselves. There was a de facto segregation that operated as an unwritten law. Maybe it was just human nature. Realize that I'm describing the Jackson Heights of the 1950s. It is a much different and diversified area, today. This was the backdrop against which I developed as a loner who felt that it was me against the world. In biker society, the "world" is defined as mainstream attitudes and authoritarian regulation.
In the 50s, Jackson Heights was made up primarily of Italians and Irish, with a sparse sprinkling of other ethnic groups that slowly wended their way in. An influx of Jews accelerated in the 1960s, which further diversified the neighborhood mix. I hung out with the Italians. The Italians were recognized as the hoods and street toughs, the Irish to a lesser degree the same way, and Jews were correctly pegged as "good."
Not surprisingly, the kids I hung out with exhibited a bully mentality, which I shared. Fun for us was picking fights with kids from the other ethnic groups, who we considered lame eggheads, "good kids" who would rather study than fight, and when they wouldn't fight--we beat 'em up anyway. This made us feel good.
"They" were the kids that fit in, and did well in school. I always hated school. My earliest memory of school was when my mother dragged me kicking and screaming to kindergarten. I just rebelled at the idea of a regimented life in school. Unlike many kids, I never got over this hatred for school. I caused enough trouble in school for my mother's trips to the principal's office, to become routine fare. One time in junior hign school, my mother was summoned to the principal's office because I tried---unsucesfully---to throw another kid out of a third story window. You can see the trend that I was setting for myself.
Feelings of alienation manifest 'emselves in varying ways in different individuals. In Barger's case, his harsh childhood caused by having an alchoholic father, and exacerbated by a mother who deserted his family when Sonny ws very young, made him who he was. He was an individual who sought comradeship and self-affirmation among club brothers. In my case, which is very different, my alienation caused me to become just the opposite, becoming antisocial and increasingly self-sufficient as a norm. The last thing I ever wanted was to be involved in a regimented, super-social construct like a motorcycle club. That to me, implies authority as manifested by a pecking order. I'm not a joiner. The only exception to this rule in my life, was when I entered and then immersed myself in the martial arts. Ironically, martial arts etiquette is quite regimented, characterized by extreme discipline. This is the only area where I embraced super-socialization. Whatever the result, the motivating factors of alienation from society is what I recognized as common denominator in Barger's and my core feelings toward authority and conformity.
If you don't have Barger's autobiography, "Hells Angel--The LIfe And Times Of Sonny Barger And The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club"---I recommend you check it out. I believe that you as a member of the biker subculture, will relate to his experience and attitude tremendously. There is a prominent vein of alienation that runs through the subculture, an "otherness" that we feel as bikers, that sets us apart from mainstream society. Can't you feel it? Haven't you always felt that you were somehow different from the kids around you when you were growing up? Didn't you feel this seething anger rising from within, so normal feeling, that you never questioned why it was there---it just was? Don't you still feel that way at times? Maybe its beause it's Harley 60 weight oil coursing through your vasculature, which definitely makes you different. Hey man, this makes us bikers. Turn your head to the side. Can't you see that chip sittin' on your shoulder?