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GOING THE DISTANCE
"MY MENTOR PART 1"
Photo courtesy of Denise Biondo-Kees
STEVIE BIONDO: My mentor and my big brother.
I was seven years old at the time. I stood by my Ross bicycle that my parents gave me, in front of my parents building in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. This building was in the middle of the block on Northern Boulevard between 87th and 88th Streets. Northern Boulevard is a main thoroughfare that runs the entire length of Long Island, as Route 25A. Northern Boulevard begins at the Queens side of the Queensboro Bridge, where the mouth of the bridge empties traffic leaving Manhattan, onto the halcyon streets of Queens. The boulevard first wends it way sequentially through Long Island City, then Woodside, and then the neighborhood of Jackson Heights where I lived--before the wide four-lane road winds its sinuous way through the other Queens neighborhoods of Corona, Flushing and Bayside before it reaches the border of Nassau County. Nassau County is Long Island proper. Northern Boulevard then enters the farthest county of Long Island, Suffolk County---where it ends its tortuous trip at the very eastern tip of Long Island.
I was standing in front of my parents building with my Ross bicycle, but there was something wrong. The rear tire of my bike was flat. Stevie Biondo came along, and read the distress in my guileless child's face. Stevie was quite a few years older than me, being in his teens. I must have looked obviously forlorn to him, because he said, "What's the matter Scottie?" I pointed to my bike's flat. He then came over and put an arm around my skinny, little shoulders, gave me a hug and a big smile and told me, "Don't worry, Scottie, we'll take care of that." I'll always have a memory of this.
He walked me over to the corner of 87th Street where Feldherr's Hardware Store stood, and we went in. He asked Mrs. Feldherr for a tire patch kit. Mrs. Feldherr knew exacly what we needed. These patch kits came in a cylindrical container with a cheese-grater like top. It contained various sizes of rubber patches, and cement. The top of the container (the "cheese-grater" part) was used to roughen up a tire tube at the site of the puncture, so that the tire patch applied there with cement, would have a grippier surface for the patch to adhere to. Once the seal was made secure, this effectively fixed the flat.
Stevie and I then went up to his family's apartment, which was in the building right next to my family's, and we retrieved the tools for the job. Stevie then took his time and disassembled my bike tire, showing me how to extract the tube from beneath the tire, for the patch repair. We then went through the steps necessary to fix the flat, before inserting the tube back onto the rim, and re-mounting the tire. This my earliest memory of Stevie showing me something or teaching me something, and he did this with the utmost patience.
I was standing in front of my parents' building on Northern Boulevard, between 87th and 88th Streets in Jackson Heights. I was still living at home, as I was a 21 year college student. I was standing next to my recently purchased, 1968 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLCH motorcycle. It was my first motorcycle. I'd just picked up my bike at Harley-Davidson of Manhattan a few days ago. I was a complete novice at operating a motorcycle. Before I picked up my motorcycle, I had a quick lesson from another Harley-Davidson of Manhattan customer, on how to work the controls of the bike. That was it.
On this fine summer day, I stood by my motorcycle, somewhat perplexed. I had just spent the last half-hour trying to kickstart (my bike came with kickstart only, no electric start) the beast. I was sweating a fine sweat, without the final payoff of my motorcycle actually starting. Stevie Biondo walked by, and noticed my consternation. I guess that my guileless face hadn't yet hardened into a poker face, at the age of 21.
Stevie said to me, "Hey Scottie, what's the matter?" I told him that the motorcycle wasn't starting. I told him that I was kicking the kickstarter as hard as I could, but all I could manage was the occasional cough from the motor. The motor was teasing me. Stevie then asked me to try again, so he could watch me. I straddled the bike, made sure that the ignition was turned on---and began kicking down on the kickstart lever with everything I had. My sweat was flying fast and furiously, yet, nothing. Stevie smiled his big brother smile at me said, "Don't worry Scottie. I'll show you the best way of starting the bike."
Stevie demonstrated for me. Instead of straddling my new Harley, he stayed on the right side of the bike and gently placed his left knee on the bike's seat, which allowed him to place his right foot delicately on the kickstart lever, while remaining elevated. Stevie looked as cool as the proverbial cucumber. He said, "Scottie, what you want to do is stay relaxed through the whole technique." He then pushed down gently on the kickstarter with his right foot, until he felt a resistance. He had all of his weight resting on his left knee on the seat. He said, "You see that? What I did was rotate the engine until one of the pistons hit top-dead center. You can tell you're there when you feel that resistance. That way, when you really want to kick 'er through, you'll get a full compression stroke. Now, watch this."
Stevie then let the kickstart lever up all the way with his right foot, letting the return spring of the lever do the work. Then he said, "You see, by letting the lever all the up again, you're giving yourself the full range of motion and more leverage, when you kick through to start her." Then he said, "Now, watch. I'm staying relaxed, and bringing my full body weight down on the kickstarter. I'm not trying to muscle it through, I'm just lifting my body off of the seat, raising my body, and coming straight down with the kick. I'm letting gravity and leverage do the work for me." In one fluid motion, he pushed off of the handlebars with his arms to hoist himself up in the air, and then he kicked through by dropping his body weight directly down on the kickstarter and the bike started! Once again, he taught me something valuable in my life. This was a a lesson that has impressed me with it's value to me as a biker, from an older biker to a younger biker. The circle was completed.
This article is ostensibly about the biker subculture, and the role of an older biker, in my life as a biker. It is however, more than that. It is an article regarding how much Stevie Biondo has influenced me, starting at the very young age of seven. It is an article revealing how he has helped to form my life as a biker, and in other ways as well. Stevie did this for me by teaching me directly (such as the two examples cited), or indirectly, by example. Stevie Biondo has always treated me with respect and affection. It is because of his emotional largesse, that I've always respected and treated him as an elder in the culture. This article is also a celebration of my affection for the man. The terms "brother" and "brotherhood" are often cheap, verbal throwaways in the biker subculture. Not with Stevie Biondo and me. Stevie has been my mentor in the biker subculture, and it is no secret that I have always viewed him as an older brother. I've certainly stated that often enough in my writing.
This name is one that readers are familiar with in my writing, first in my columns in David Snow's Iron Horse magazine in the 1990s, and then online on my websites. I was prompted to devote an entire article on Stevie, because of an event that occurred, yesterday. Yesterday, Stevie's daughter Denise found and contacted me through Facebook. She expressed how important her memory of me as part of her childhood past, was to her. I haven't seen Denise since she was a toddler decades ago, when she was draping herself all over my Harley as a kid. She and her brother would hang around me when I washed my bike. When Denise related this to me, it brought back the memory of these little kids that made me feel good.
Also, I'd lost track of Stevie, since he moved several years ago. The last time I saw Stevie, was about, I'm guesstimating, about seven years ago. I ran into him, as he was coming out of an Italian bakery on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, with a bagful of pastry. Through the years up until that point, I would run into Stevie, or I would call him on the phone to catch up. He would always excitedly talk about his motorcycle, or ask me about mine. It always made me feel gratified, to exchange words about our respective bikes, with my motorcycle mentor. I was thrilled when an adult Denise contacted me, and brought all this back to me. It almost felt like I'd come across a long-lost relative, when she found me on Facebook.
The Biondos lived in a second floor apartment, that actually abutted my family's second floor apartment, even though the apartments were in different buildings. The two apartments were conjoined like Siamese twins, because the sides of the two buildings where our apartments met, were contiguous with each other. Our respective railroad apartments in these two buildings, mimicked each other, and were identical in layout, but in mirror-image order. There was a place common to the two apartments however, where the buildings widened. These long, three bedroom apartments had a large air shaft at the midpoints of the apartments, where the apartments opened up to each other. This air shaft was twenty feet long and ten feet wide. There were windows of the two apartments that faced each other in this air shaft, like two neighboring houses in the suburbs a few feet apart, but minus the picket fence. One could climb out of a window from my apartment in this air shaft, walk the few feet to the Biondos' windows, and climb into their house. We could also talk across the air shaft at these windows, which we did.
The Biondo family consisted of Stevie's father, who I called Charlie (his real name was Salvatore), his wife, who I always called Mrs. Biondo (she was the only member of the family who I didn't address with a first name), and then there were the sons. In descending order of age, there was Stevie, the oldest. His given name was Steven. On our block, there were two "Steves." One was my father (his name was Stephen), and the other was Stevie Biondo. Next was Patty-Boy, whose given name was Pasquale. Patty-Boy was the only non-survivor among the brothers. When I saw Stevie at the Italian Bakery seven years ago, he sadly told me of Patty-Boy's passing. Next was Charles, who I always called Charlie, as I called his dad---but his mom always called him "Charlesie." Next and last, was Nicky, whose given name was Nicholas, and who was the youngest.
Mrs. Biondo was a true saint, and quite possibly the sweetest woman I've ever met. When I was in the Biondos' house, Mrs. Biondo made me feel like I was a relative visiting, greeting me with open arms and likely as not---a plateful of food. Not surprisingly, many of my associations with the Biondos, and Mrs. Biondo in particular, revolve around food---typical for an Italian family. Mrs. Biondo always wanted to feed me when I was in her house. I confess to a weakness for her fantastic manicotti. If she wasn't feeding me delicious Italian dishes, then she would treat me to White Castle. After awhile, I began to feel Italian, if you can imagine. I might have had to change my last name to "Wonginelli" at this rate. An interesting fact about Mrs. Biondo, who had an identical twin sister who I confused her with all the time, incidentally---was that in her youth, Mrs. Biondo had won a local beauty pageant. She was crowned Miss Something Or Other, having to do with a Queens locality somewhere---although the name of the place escapes my memory now.
I was friends with all the Biondo boys, although it was with Stevie that I felt the most special bond. The way he acted toward me, his compassion and his innate urge to nurture me in a brotherly way, all these attributes cannot be understated as the reason I feel as if Stevie is an older brother of sorts. Stevie was my prototypical elder biker brother, understanding and patient. Stevie also has an unerringly accurate moral compass. He always seemed to intuit what was right and what was wrong. This is one of the most impressive things about the man. Stevie Biondo is a true gentleman.
It is sometimes hard to define why people feel like brothers, but not in our case. With Stevie and me, there were countless examples of why I feel like he's an older brother to me. That sort of bond between mentor and the mentored, was established early in my life, and the pattern of mentorship, especially when it came to being a biker, came through loud and clear to me from Stevie. The traditions and history of the biker subculture have been important to me in my life, and Stevie Biondo was one of the early enablers of my participation in the culture. For this, I am ever grateful. Bikers often reminisce about older bikers who've brought them up, and along the two-wheeled path. For me, that was Stevie. Almost every true biker has a Stevie Biondo, a biker elder who gave them guidance, when they needed it. Would Stevie be like an older brother to me, if we weren't bikers? I'm convinced that would be so, because of Stevie's inherent generosity and expansive nature. I would have great affection for the man, even if we were stamp collectors, instead of bikers.
Stevie has been an inspirational entrepreneur, all his life. To illustrate how motivated and dedicated an individual he is, all one has to do is to look at what he undertook as a teenager. When other teens were goofing off, Stevie had projects like organizing a Christmas tree selling business at Christmastime. He procured the requisite trees, set up shop on the corner of 87th Street and Northern Boulevard, in front of Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro's candy store, and did a healthy business. I's been said among our friends, that Stevie could have run General Motors, if given the chance.
Admittedly, Stevie made the greatest impression on me as my mentor, because he preceded me as a biker, and passed on traditions and techniques peculiar to the biker subculture to me. He taught me about the venerableness of Harleys in the culture, and how to treat these unique machines with respect and love. We share a love of motorcycles, a love that for both us, has withstood the test of time. The 80 year old biker subculture, has always enjoyed an informal familial structure, where one generation of biker would hand off the secrets of the life to a younger generation of biker. This is the way that I've felt about my relationship with Stevie.
As I got older, Stevie came to perceive me as a mature biker like him, more of an equal rather than a younger brother in the culture. That however, hasn't altered my perception of him. I'll tell you what. Stevie Biondo to me, will always be like an older brother. The relationship might have been set in stone, that day when he tutored a seven year old boy, on how to deal with a bicycle's flat tire. Whenever I think of Stevie, I'll perhaps always feel like the little kid watching a big brother blasting down the street on his righteous Harley Panhead! He is my mentor and my friend. Stevie, with respect and affection, I salute you. By the way, that picture of Stevie on his Harley was taken in the alleyway that bisects the block, from Northern Boulevard to 32nd Avenue, between 86th and 87th Streets in Jackson Heights. This was the alleyway, where my father rented a garage for his '64 Chevelle Malibu SS, and where I rented a garage for my '64 Corvette in the '60s. In its own way, this alleyway is a Jackson Heights institution---at least, in my family---a family that includes my brother Stevie Biondo. Later.