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GOING THE DISTANCE
"HELMET IN BLUE"
Photo by Genghis
ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE?: Helmet too.
It was a hot and sunny day. As I rode my '68 XLCH, "Sally The Bitch" heading south on Manhattan's West Side Elevated Highway, the warm summer air billowed the cuffs of my jeans, and blew warm kisses into the open armholes of my sleeveless t-shirt. This distinct memory of a nature-caused wardrobe disruption, is the reason that I remember what season it was, so well. I can almost feel now, the tickling sensation of the wind on my armpits. The storied Westside Elevated Highway, was much different then, then it is now. Also known as Miller Highway, the West Side Elevated Highway was one of the first urban highways in the world. Built between 1929 and 1951, it served as the prototype for future urban highways, including Boston's Central Artery. This freeway within a city, was tremendous infrastructural achievement.
Too bad it wasn't kept up.
Because of deterioration due to sloppy and infrequent maintenance, the West Side Elevated Highway became highly dangerous, its history blighted by incidents of cars and trucks falling through the dilapidated structure onto the streets below.
It was closed for business in 1973, and fell victim to the type of telltale vacillation typical for city governments, until 1989 when the decision was made to totally dismantle the highway in preparation for a massive rebuild. This reminds me of Ronald Reagan, who was known for repeating these famous nine words dreaded by people, whenever he made fun of government's inability to work efficiently: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Yeah, right. Just look at the people on Staten Island and in New Jersey who are still without homes due to Superstorm Sandy's destruction, and you will apprecaite how these nine words still apply in the present day.
The West Side Highway (as it is now known) was eventually rebuilt and completed by 2001, as the eight-lane boulevard on ground level, with stoplights at every intersection, discontinuing the road's status as a high speed freeway as it was in its elevated days. Before the rebuilding though, the West Side Elevated Highway was a hazardous playground for bikers on their Harleys. As it was in the summer of 1970.
This narrow highway, which hugged the shoreline of western Manhattan alongside the Hudson River, featured sharp s-shaped exits, which abruptly ramped off of the elevated road, to the teeming streets below. Hit one the exits too hot, and you were toast, man. Navigating the egress from the West Side Elevated Highway demanded skill, and good spatial/speed judgement.
The maneuver was not unlike bringing a NASCAR racecar down from racing speeds, to enter a narrowly cramped, clumsy and slow pitlane entrance at 50 miles per hour.
On this day in the summer of 1970, I was blasting down the highway at better than 70 in the right lane, when I noticed a flash of blue on my left, in the left lane. The flash of blue was the baby blue motorcycle helmet of an NYPD police officer. He was glowering at me. Even with my peripheral vision, I instantly recognized the distinctive NYPD half-helmet, which was baby blue on its crown, and black along the bottom, with a one-inch dark blue stripe separating the two colors. As the cop pulled alongside me as he reached Sally's speed, he glanced at me and gestured "left" with a single nod his head.
His bike was a department issue Shovelhead-powered Electra Glide. He had his lights flashing. He wanted me to follow him. With his expectation that I would follow him, he pulled ahead of Sally and me. This was not something I wanted to do, to follow him to a stop at whatever destination he had in mind. There was more to it than the possibility of a speeding ticket.
I had Sally registered in Alabama, courtesy of my cousin Dewlipt Wong, my fictitious cousin under whose name I had Sally registered. Good 'ole cousin Dewey. Actually, Sally had Alabama plates for years after that. I rode Sally with Alabama tags until 1984, when New York State made an honest man of me. A Panhead riding friend of mine, Mitch "Hippie" Diamond knew a judge in Andalusia, Alabama named Leland Enzor. Judge Enzor would send legitimate registrations and license plates to any applicant, for the right price. There was no paperwork involved, except a money order mailed post-haste to said judge, following an abbreviated phone conversation, with instructions on where to mail the merchandise.
If I remember correctly, it was twenty-five bucks. The Alabama DMV system would show (if anyone cared to check) a 1968 Harley-Davidson XLCH, duly owned and registered by her owner, a Mister Dewlipt Wong. Good 'ole cousin Dewey. My motive for having the Alabama tags, was money, or lack thereof. In New York State, vehicle registration required having liability insurance. There was no such requirement in Dewlipt's state.
Sally and I 'd been stopped by New York cops before, and Sally's registration and plate proved to be incontrovertibly legal to their suspicious scrutiny. However, on a stop by a cop not too long before this hot and sunny summer day in 1970, that particular cop questioned the appearance of the VIN numbers of the left cases of Sally's motor. "These numbers don't look right to me. Did you stamp these numbers?" he asked? Now, this was tricky, as I had to respond truthfully, that this was the way that Sally's motor and VIN numbers came, when I bought her new from Manhattan Harley-Davidson. But, I had to qualify the explanation by inserting my story about how I sold the bike to my cousin Dewlipt, who was conveniently visiting from out of town, and who lent me my old bike to use. See? It was convoluted.
But I wasn't in the mood to do double duty on this day in the summer of 1970: To talk my way out of a speeding ticket, and to offer a reasonable explanation for why my (Dewlipt's) motorcycle sported an Alabama tag.
As the cop led me and Sally down the highway, I let his lead lengthen a bit. Then as we approached on of those tricky s-shaped exit ramps that the West Side Elevated Highway was infamous for, I waited until the cop and his Shovel got past the exit ramp, then I whipped Sally into the exit ramp, and dove down the ramp as I hit Sally's throttle. In a minute, I was on the streets of lower Manhattan, away from the clutches of the cop with the baby blue helmet.
Why do I bring up this anecdote now? Because.....
The UPS man delivered the package, a brown box large enough to hold a decent size wedding cake. Or large enough to house a severed head.
It felt hefty enough to be almost anything. Could I possibly have been stuck in a nightmare Storage Wars episode, with a mystery carton found in a foul-smelling unit? That I paid too much for? I expected Dave Hester to bid, "Yuuuuup!" any second.
I opened up the box, to discover an NYPD issue motorcycle half-helmet. It was baby blue on its crown, with a ring of black along it's bottom, and a dark blue stripe separating the two colors. It was obviously well-used, as it sported numerous scratches in its paint. This helmet had seen years of duty. With the helmet was an official envelope showing the emblem of a NYPD police badge, with this next to the emblem:
SERGEANTS BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATION
Police Department, City Of New York
35 Worth Street
New York, NY 10013
(Inside the envelope, was the following document:)
FROM: Sergeant Dennis Fanning, New York City Police Department-Retired
TO: Inquiring Law Enforcement Personnel
SUBJECT: Transfer of Ownership of NYPD Motorcycle Helmet
Please be advised that the aforementioned has transferred ownership of a regulation NYPD motorcycle helmet to Scott Wong.
This was the personal property of the undersigned.
If further clarification is required, please contact me.
Submitted for your consideration.
Photo by Genghis
PICTURE THIS: Me ridin down the highway wearin' a police helmet (with cops chasin' me)!
Dennis is an old friend of mine, dating back more than four decades. I greatly appreciate Dennis' gift, but do I dare to wear this baby blue NYPD helmet when I'm blasting down the new West Side Highway on my Harley 74? My head tells me it's legal, maybe as incontroveribly legal-appearing as an Alabama registration with Dewlipt Wong's name on it.
Can ya see it? Me, with this police helmet gracing my head while piloting my righteous Shovelhead, Mabel down the highway? Followed by flashing lights and ticked-off cops ("inquiring law enforcement personnel")? I don't think so. The impersonation of a police officer in New York City is a felony. No need for unnecessary traffic stops.
I'll stick with my black half-helmet. I think I'll just use the NYPD helmet as an interesting house decoration. Hey thanks, Dennis! Later.