Rigas keeps his motorcycle in the house.
One of them, anyway. The other motorcycle, the Gamma, is parked just outside the door in second gear, chained to the stair rail with soft-plastic-covered two-inch thick chains. Another three or so two-stroke motorcycles lie scattered throughout the house in parts and duplicate parts, waiting to be assembled into the frames he has stored in other people’s garages and shops. A monster, he says. I want to build a monster!
He picks us up at the airport in Athens, Greece, in a rickety, rundown, twenty-five-year old Civic wagon. He smiles at it as he opens the hatchback and puts in our luggage. Erik, he says to my husband, this is my Ferrari. It’s more funny because the whole reason we are here in Athens is to ride sport-bikes with Rigas. To ride fast and furious. To ride like the expression he sometimes looks at you with.
He had been described to me by my husband as a crazy-haired guy who lives strictly on coffee and cigarettes and has amusing ways of phrasing things in English. Erik and Rigas met through an international internet mail-list that Erik hosts for people with a particular type of two-stroke sport-bike: the RG500 Gamma. It’s like a little family, this list—some people have subscribed for years; they help each other out with mechanical advice or experience and circulate parts between them, and relate their motorcycling adventures. The bikes are rare, originally built for grand-prix racing, and manufactured for production only during a few years in the mid-1980s, so there is an instant bond between people who have them. And we meet riders all the time who recognize the bike and say they always dreamed of owning a Gamma. The Gamma owners tend to be intensely devoted to their bikes, and to all two-stroke sport-bikes in general. Erik maintains the mail-list because the two-strokes are a hobby in his spare time. Rigas and his friends take a job in their spare time to pay for their two-stroke motorcycle obsession.
This is the president of the Gamma list! Rigas introduces Erik to each of his motorcycle friends, his several mechanics and part suppliers whom he took us to meet. I would like to look more at his eyes when he speaks, for they are so wild and expressive, but I’m so mesmerized by the one rotting tooth in his mouth. I just keep trying to imagine that happening in my own mouth, but I can’t, so I’m fascinated.
“I’m really just the caretaker,” Erik insists. “I don’t preside, I just maintain it on my server.” No, no! I tell them you are the president! He pats Erik proudly. The chairman! he declares with his accented but well-articulated English. Erik calls Rigas the two-stroke president of the planet because Rigas has met a whole bunch of the people on the mail-list. He’s a middle school teacher and in the summers he travels to meet and ride with other two-stroke enthusiasts. The previous year he came to our house to meet Erik but I was out of town. This year, after we leave Athens and he finishes grading his students’ exams, he intends to travel to Indonesia to ride with a guy who used to race grand-prix motorcycles in the 1960s and now rides around on an RG Gamma with monkeys on the back.
As we are riding in the Ferrari to our budget hotel, a short distance from Rigas’s house, he mentions that the only reason he has a car is to have a servant for his motorcycles. You think I’m kidding. I’m not! The car is the servant of the motorcycles. To carry parts to and from the mechanic, the painter, whomever. Pretty much everything in Rigas’s world is a servant of his motorcycles.
This is my cave, he ushers us into his personal space in his family’s house: the basement with separate entrance. Please check your email—we’re worried about our cat, staying with Erik’s mom, who had just had eye surgery before we left home. Erik and I turn our bodies sideways and shimmy through towers of motorcycle parts to get to the computer. We sit on a narrow bed in the corner of the cave, with just enough room for us to sit side by side with piles of two-stroke engine parts. Here Rigas reads every single posting to the Gamma mail-list each day. Yes, every one, his personal vow of allegiance.
The cave—in fact, the whole house—has an ironic austerity. A few days earlier in Italy, Erik and I had sat in the abbey of a small monastery listening to one of the several-daily sessions of Gregorian chanting the resident brothers mark the passing of each of God’s days with—the liturgical hours. “The chant is not a mere habit or ornament for us,” one of the brothers says. “It forms an integral part of our prayer.” The celibate, singing brothers live sparsely at their ancient abbey, dressing each day in plain white robes tied with cords at the waist. Erik asks Rigas how many Gamma tee-shirts he owns. Five or six. But we only see him in two. We only see him in two shirts, period. If he has a closet somewhere in his motorcycle monastery, it’s obscured by motorcycle parts. My guess is it’s more like a drawer, wherever it is.
Rigas sleeps in the dining room—the only room with enough free space in which to recline his tall, lean body. Every other inch of the modest house his grandfather built, outside of his mother’s bedroom, the bathroom and the kitchen, is crammed with two-stroke bike parts. Beyond the RD500—the bike he keeps inside the house—several motorcycle motors line the hallway and cardboard boxes of parts fill every reasonable space; the front bedroom is piled high with exhaust pipes, fairings and other body work. And it’s not just parts to the motorcycles he envisions building. It’s duplicate and triplicate parts for them and for the bikes he already has running, for you never know when you will need a spare, which are hard to come by. Plus different sizes of jets and carbs and cylinders to fiddle around with performance, variations on many of the motor parts. Fairings from stock or special editions of the bikes that he keeps for the restricted purpose of providing a reference for possible future paint jobs, for if he were to wreck a fairing, it could not be left to a painter’s approximation to recreate a new one. More parts arrive practically daily in the mail. Three packages show up during our visit: This makes me happy.
If you stripped his temple of all things motorcycle, he would be left with only a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“What does your mother think about all your motorcycles?” I wonder aloud. They’re just things with two wheels; they mean nothing to her. His entire nuclear family besides his divorced dad—three generations—lives in the family house. “She’s very tolerant to let you keep all this stuff in the house,” I say. Yes, Rigas agrees, and then admits, a little too tolerant, I think.
While Erik and I are in Athens, there is a solid ritual for our visit: Rigas putters his Ferrari over to our hotel. We’re dressed for riding and throw our leather jackets, gloves and helmets in the back. We drive to Rigas’s home, and he unchains the RG for Erik to ride. It has a paint job nearly identical to Erik’s bike, and it’s always strange to pull up to a house in Athens and see what looks like Erik’s motorcycle out front, for I’ve never in fifteen years seen another bike like Erik’s. (I’ve only seen three other Gammas in person, one of which is the other one we own, with a hideous yellow paintjob some guy in Minnesota thought either looked great or would be an anti-theft device.) We clear a small space for our gear in the front bedroom while Rigas extracts his RD from the hallway.
First he removes the pink and green striped bedsheet from the bike. Next he carries outside and sets up two wooden ramps, which he keeps stored in the hallway next to the bike, that he has custom-built to bridge the stairs that connect his front door to the sidewalk. And then he begins the series of maneuvers he’s perfected over the years to finagle the bike around the staircase in the entryway, out the door and down the ramps. Only I can do this, he says when Erik offers to help. He’s cut away a portion of the wall at the front door in order to facilitate the motorcycle’s entry and exit into his home, and still it’s like making a five-point turn in a back alley, only this takes more finesse, there are probably more than five points, and the bike never turns around—it’s all just to get it backed out the door and centered on the ramps.
His aging mother shuffles out of the modified doorway to greet us, and passively watches this unfathomable ritual.
The RD had been an invalid in the hallway for some time. Rigas has worked hard to get it not just running, but aesthetically perfected for our visit so we can go riding together—apparently, without the body painted and polished to perfection, it is unrideable. He doesn’t have another bike for me, so I ride as a passenger with Erik on the RG. At first I’m a wee bit sad at my passenger status, but after riding through dense traffic “Greek style” in order to get in and out of Athens, I thank God for it.
Sunday is a national biker gathering north of Athens. We suit up and ride out to meet Rigas’s Gamma Gang—his closest motorcycle friends—plus a bunch of other four-stroke motorcyclists. Our meeting place is a wide stretch of shoulder on the main highway out of town. A cop rides up to us on his motorcycle. Erik and I, conditioned in America, are leery of his intent. “Watch out for an old lady,” he tells us. She’s trying to cross the highway on foot—it’s a four-lane dual highway with a guardrail and a slope between the two directions of road.
We leave the outskirts of the city as a gang of five bikes, cruising at speeds around 100 miles per hour. There are basically no traffic laws that apply to motorcycles in Greece. There are, Rigas says, but the police are very loose. They don’t bat an eyelash at our speeds, and really, motorcycles are the only way to get anywhere in a timely fashion through Athens traffic because they’re allowed to lane-split and ride absolutely anywhere on a street. So we zoom out of town spread out among the dotted lines that separate the four lanes. For someone who’s not used to this, it feels deliciously naughty, though it’s perfectly normal behavior here. Three and four abreast, we shoot down the highway so that the cars driving in their lanes are surrounded on all sides by blurry motorcycles sling-shotting past them. At first, I’m just laughing inside my helmet, sitting behind Erik, leaned forward with my hands on the gas tank ready to absorb the neck-snapping acceleration and arm-compressing braking that go along with this sort of street frolicking.
Erik and I, at 37, are the youngest in the bunch. The gang has survived their kooky days; they’re experienced and mature riders, and yet they speed through the city streets at 120 miles per hour, pull wheelies, evade highway tolls. We are pressed, sometimes, to keep up. But they rebuff the four-stroke riders who tear down the autostrada at nearly 200 miles per hour for extended stretches, sometimes without helmets on.
First we stop at Thermopoly to see a big bronze statue, then we stop at a gas station near the big biker meeting, where word is circulating that someone just died in a crash on the way to the meet. The gas pumps are completely surrounded by bikes and bikers, it’s a swarm of motorcycles; we’re like bees and wasps milling around a gigantic hydrocarbon hive. A beefy red motorcycle comes screaming down the highway past the gas station pulling a four-foot wheely for the entire stretch of road that passes the station. It costs too much to attend the events, so we keep on riding, up into the hills. We ride to the small town where Giorgios was born.
Giorgios says he’s one of the lucky ones. He didn’t lose his wife and kids. When I see how he rides and I hear the stories of stunts he pulled, I can’t believe he didn’t lose his life back then. He’s been sober for four years now. He stores one of Rigas’s empty bike frames in his apartment garage with his own bikes. He’s not riding his RG at the moment because the fairings are not on it; they’re still in the hands of another Giorgios, “the Best Painter in the World,” on the other side of Athens. Naturally, he can’t ride a working motorcycle with its frame showing. It would be like attending a black-tie dinner in cut-off jeans shorts and flip-flops. He has a separate garage shop down the street to work on his own bike-in-progress projects. He hosts AA meetings there.
As our little gang drives up the cobblestones to the café where we’ll kick back for “coffee and a smoke”—the perpetual next thing on the agenda when riding with Rigas—we pass by a waterfall in the small river on our left, then another waterfall, and another, and another, a waterwheel on the right, and finally another waterfall and a turquoise pool on the left, above which the café is perched at the end of a stone bridge. We sit near the railing and the waitress clears a space in the middle of all the caffeine and tobacco for the two beers Erik and I order. Giorgios picks up our tab, though we’ve only met him today. “It’s my hometown!” he says as though the explanation for this generosity should have been obvious. After awhile I get up and walk back down the stretch of waterfalls, past our row of sparkling two-stroke bikes, meticulously lined up with artistic composition in mind. Strangers are looking and pointing, and one takes a picture. (We took our own pictures earlier.)
“Rigas never takes a picture without a motorcycle in it,” Erik said of Rigas’s visit to our hometown last year. One of the reasons Erik and Rigas, and probably most avid Gamma owners, like their rare bike is for the attention it receives from other motorcyclists. It’s like running across an albino animal in the wild. Look!
The sun is bright and alone in the sky but the trees along the banks of the creek make a shady umbrella. The water runs gently down the stone steps in its path; it is not a fast-running creek. Rather than tumbling and crashing, the water falls luxuriously, femininely, and the mossy trees and stones give the whole scene the scent of velvet. For a moment I feel like I’m suffocating. The softness is too much after cutting hard lines all day with motors and speed. It’s a hot day, and the thought of diving into the picturesque pools and spreading ripples through their circular perfection brings the breath back into me.
I walk back and sit among the leather and fiberglass of our gear, swallowing cigarette smoke in my beer, listening to the guys talk about the mechanics of two-stroke motorcycles—the subject which they can get as much mileage out of as talk of weather throughout the whole of human conversational history.
It’s with Giorgios that we talk the most about actually riding these beloved machines that have brought us to know one another. Giorgios has a lot of tales. One time he pulled a wheely so tall and held it for so long that the oil drained from the crankcase and the engine seized with the front tire in mid-air. He pantomimes, through convulsions of laughter, the jolting force with which the bike slammed back down onto the pavement. He laughs a lot with his stories, but his dark eyes lie calmly beneath his tall, tufted eyebrows, as if they are the anchor to a boat trying to rest on choppy seas.
It’s a full moon and well past midnight in Athens when he tells us this story. The moon is shining on the Mediterranean fifty feet away. All around us at this parking point, people are peeling out, screeching tires in Beemers and sport-bikes, drag racing down the narrow access road, making out in convertibles, posturing in adolescent groups. It reminds me of the movie Grease.
The moon is shining so serenely on the water; but I don’t think anyone else notices it inside their cars, in their group of friends, in their lover’s arms. I’m thinking perhaps this is where the word for silver comes from: Far, far, far before man knew metal, man knew the moon. He knew the moon on the ocean, how the wavelets of the calm sea push into the craters. He knew the glare, the glint, and gave its likeness to silver—the ocean-moon in the earth.
It’s about 2:00 a.m. when we leave the sea and head back to the city at about 100 miles per hour. Then we ride slowly up and up around narrow hairpins on a very steep incline. If I were on my TZR, I’d have to slip the clutch at nearly every hairpin, rev up to eight thousand rpm just to keep moving. Up and up, me and Erik, Rigas and Giorgios, three bikes shining in the moonlight, polished, spotless, reflecting back to the moon an uncommon perfection. At the top, we park and look out over the city lights. Actually it seems a little dim to me for a city of four million people. The lights are curiously sparse in the direction we’re looking. The night air tastes delicious, like a fresh, plump tomato picked up from the cool ground—the electric lights below are like seeds. Gazing at the night next to Rigas and his wild eyes, and the steady eyes of Giorgios, it’s a rare moment that we talk of something besides two-strokes—we talk of the view, of the city below; yet at this moment their Gamma-crazed passion is more tangible than ever.
After Erik and I get back to Colorado, Giorgios joins the Gamma list. His adolescent son will translate for him from English to Greek. He spells his name for the list as “gioRGios.” Rigas spells his name for the list as “RiGas.” Surely we can surmise that it was their destiny to love these bikes. Erik is doomed to a hobbyist because he has no “g” in his name.
It’s a challenge to keep up with Giorgios. He must ride fast. He’s always up for a ride, even in the middle of the night. I don’t know why he drank or why he decided to recover, what battles he fought on both sides. I know why I have the vices that I do, but I doubt we’re similar in this regard. One of Bruce Springsteen’s songs goes, “Some guys they just give up living, start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, then go racing in the streets.” In the tempered melancholy of the song—not quite sadness, but the rich tone of an understated defiance, a liberation from things which will never set you free—the racing man says, “we’re gonna ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.”
When we set off along the coast behind Giorgios and Rigas on the night of the silver moon, I’m singing that song to myself. “Summer’s here and the time is right; I’m going racing in the streets.” And I wish I never had to go back home, that I could wind along this road, wide open throttle, and chase the sea forever.
Rigas brings us to meet Panagiotis the Mechanic, who is storing in his shop the frame for Rigas’s yet-to-be-constructed diabolical monster. He had gone to the big biker’s meeting the day before, and. after a brief conversation with Rigas in Greek, Rigas turns to me and Erik like a kid with a flashlight and a ghost story, He’s going to tell us the story of the big crash yesterday. A four-stroke rider passed Panagiotis at about 200 miles per hour, missed a corner and slid underneath a bus. Panagiotis had to dodge the wreckage flying into the air; some of it hit his windscreen.
Talk turns naturally to the general subject of motorcycle crashes. Panagiotis rotates his tattooed arm to turn his wrist up and show us a thick scar that runs from the palm of his hand halfway up his forearm. Erik shows the scar on his hand which was once immobilized for seven months: “I hit a deer at eighty miles an hour.” It’s obvious Erik’s OK now; Panagiotis merely wonders what happened to the deer. Erik pantomimes a grizzly death.
“Did you take the meat home?” Panagiotis asks. Slightly taken aback by the question, Erik says, “No, I had to hitchhike to the hospital.”
Panagiotis asks Rigas if he took us to see the Spartan statue along the highway at Thermopoly commemorating the famous battle of 300 Spartans vs. 1,000,000 Persians. “Those guys were real men,” Panagiotis says. “Now we’re just a bunch of bullshitters.” He sets down a greasy tool and brushes at his cheek with his arm. His assistant hobbles by on crutches—a recent motorcycle accident.
Erik spies a TZR250 just like mine—which is also a two-stroke sport-bike—sitting out back in the rain in the junk pile. It has three pieces of bodywork we’ve been looking for for my bike. “Take them,” Panagiotis says. “You can have the motor, too.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Fifty euro.” Rigas raises his eyebrows to Erik. We could never find a deal like that back home. Tomorrow we’ll come with the motorcycle servant and pick up the stuff. Today it’s raining.
It’s raining hard. We had planned another long ride, south this time. But it has to be called off. Rigas is downcast. I am ashamed for my country. It’s unusual, such drastic weather this time of year. He shrugs his shoulders. What can you do? I’m ashamed!
In the afternoon it lightens up; we ride over to see Christos. It’s become apparent that the power-valve cables on Rigas’s RD are switched. So they are, in effect, “anti-power-valves.” This becomes the most prevalent joke during our visit, the revelation being reenacted again and again. At low rpm there’s no power. At high rpm, no power. Why? A brief pause for effect. Why! At low rpm the valve is open, at high rpm the valve is closed. It’s anti-power! Rigas closes his thumb and third finger together and gestures in the air like a conductor for emphasis: AN-ti-power! Christos is the best man to reverse the cables.
Rigas gets some beer for me and Erik to drink while we watch Christos at work. It’s oddly mesmerizing to watch his hands get blacker and blacker with oil and grease as he reaches into the ribcage of the machine, like a surgeon opening valves in the heart.
Christos is a slim man, no taller than me, who wears fashion jeans and carries pictures of his motorcycles in the photo sleeves of his wallet. One day at his house, Christos shows us half a dozen motorcycle magazines in which he appears in photos with his beautifully modified, candy-red Gamma and other bikes he’s modified. He shows us his personal photo album, in which he is posed very purposefully on each of the bikes he’s owned over the years, including a TZR like mine. Pages and pages, multiple albums, filled with nothing but photos of him with his motorcycles. His girlfriend, Despina, sits at the kitchen table in her pajamas while we look through the albums; if she was represented anywhere in them, she was too far in the background to be noticed. I think Christos must pay attention to advertisements for men’s clothing and cologne, for he has that GQ pose down pat. But he’s not a GQ kind of guy, despite the jeans, the square jaw and the crew cut. He’s got as much motorcycle stuff as Rigas, but has outbuildings (such as a condemned house next door) to store the stuff in, and a fenced-in courtyard, guarded by a dog who attacks anyone not accompanied by Christos, in which he lines up the bikes along the sidewalk. He also lives with his parents, and his mother is not so tolerant about machines in the house.
If he had his own place, he would take things a step further than Rigas, who merely keeps his RD in the hallway. Christos wants Gammas in the living room, wants to sit on them to watch TV. “That’s why he won’t marry me,” Despina says. “I won’t let him furnish the living room with motorcycles.”
“He’s famous,” she says, referring to Christos’s prodigious magazine appearances. Christos gives us one of his magazines to take home. His red Gamma is on the front cover along with two women in gold sequined tops and eyeliner as subtle as raccoon eyes, who probably don’t know a throttle from a clutch, sitting on a Honda CBR, and a guy on another sport bike doing a stoppie. It’s definitely one of the more tasteful covers. One of the other magazines has scantily-clad chesty women with huge snakes wrapped around their bodies.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table eating delivery fast food. “Is the burger really what a burger is like in America?” Christos and Despina want to know. (Basically—just different condiments.) Talk eventually comes to Erik’s past collision with the deer. “What happened to the deer?” Christos wants to know. Then in response to the simulation of death, he says, “Did you take the meat home?”
Is venison a delicacy in Greece? I wonder.
With the RD fixed, Christos rides with me, Erik and Rigas to Marathon, where there is now a lovely reservoir and a café at its edge where we stop for the obligatory “coffee and a smoke.” Which for me and Erik always means beer. You are not friends with the coffee, Rigas says. No. We are decidedly foreigners in Greece, as we are not friends with the cigarette either.
The water in the reservoir is dark gray, like the overcast sky that hangs down on top of the surrounding hills. Twenty six miles, the legend says, from here to the old center of Athens: a marathon. Rigas is dutiful in explaining any historical spots we pass through. On the patio of the café we listen to sound clips from songs Christos has stored in his cell phone; he wants to know which ones we’re familiar with. This activity is unreasonably engaging, and the ancient legend of Marathon is entirely intangible at the very spot where it should be tingling on our fingertips.
I feel that I’ve generally come across as rather dour to Rigas and his friends because I have nothing to contribute to a conversation about motorcycle mechanics. Sometimes no one even bothers to introduce me to the people Rigas has Erik meet. I’m a shadow in the background. Further, I have an unfortunately bipolar face—on a regular basis strangers come up to me when I’m standing in a line bored or sitting idly on a bench, and they tell me to smile, to cheer up, even though I’m in no way unhappy. On the other hand, they tell me my smile is magnetic—I’ve watched people almost jump back when I respond to their “cheer up” by pulling out a genuine smile. I am never anything but marvelously content while in Greece—even when my ears glaze over in the middle of conversations—but perhaps no one except me, and maybe Erik, knows that. Today Erik tells Rigas and Christos how I tricked him into buying an RGV250 for me years ago when I wanted to learn to ride. Back then I didn’t just want to ride, I wanted to race. Clever girl! says Rigas. When Erik claims I married him only because he had a motorcycle, Christos asks if I would have married him if it was a different motorcycle than a Gamma. “Of course not,” I say and think about the truth of it later.
“I’m beginning to like you,” Christos says.
Fog moves in; the temperature drops. Christos pays for our drinks. I try to pay but am too slow on the draw. He says, “You have to get your money out as fast as a Gamma in order to pay.”
Riding back from Marathon it’s cold and foggy. Erik and Rigas switch bikes so that I now ride as Rigas’s passenger on the RG and Erik rides in front of us on the RD. It looks so great! Rigas is pleased to see his RD from the back, just as earlier when Erik shot past him on the Gamma, he realized he’d never seen it in motion from the back. Beautiful! I love it!
The road back to Athens climbs high into the hills. Rigas points out an old stone quarry across the valley the Greeks used millennia ago. The yellow flowering bushes and leafy trees disappear into silky gray curtains; the road in front of us disappears into the fogbank like a rabbit slipping underneath a fence.
I realize that riding behind someone on a fast motorcycle is fundamentally different than interacting with them in any other way. I spent years as a passenger behind Erik before I got my own bike. And he was always transformed on the bike when all I could see was the back of his Shoei head and his leather shoulders as we tore through the scenery. All I could hear was his throttle voice, the shifting gears, his two-stroke breath screaming through four hollowed out cans. Everything he might be thinking, every look he might have on his face was expressed through the behavior of the bike. He was something much more powerful… strong, sleek, even sexy. When I am his passenger again in Greece, even though I know he is a balding middle-age guy with a beer gut and decidedly computer-geek facial features, once again in his suit of armor he transcends all that into something more mechanical, powerful, absolutely trustworthy like you trust the rebar in a building. And when Rigas takes the driver’s seat in front of me in his black leather jacket and Kevin Shwanz helmet, and opens up the throttle, I realize it isn’t just Erik who transforms, but everybody.
And the faster they go and the more they lean into the corners, the greater the transformation. As we top out one gear after the other and the driver hunkers down behind the windscreen, I hunker down, too; and we become less and less three discreet things—two people and a bike—and more like one single unit. One little packet, like a photon: we’re a particle—a thing, with our metal and flesh fused into a little glob; we’re a wave—a continuous undulating motion, bridging points in space.
Giorgios the Best Painter in the World lives on the land that has been in his family for generations. The first time we ride in, it’s dark and it seems he lives on the outskirts of Athens in lush farmland. Rigas tells us his family’s business is a nursery for small trees and shrubs. The Best Painter comes to greet us in overalls, his long, curly hair pulled back in a rubber band, shop glasses perched on the top of his head. He looks exactly like a farmer, a jolly farmer. Maybe it’s the overalls. His friends and cousins come out to greet us; they ask where we’re from, then immediately ask if we know anything about airguns. “Airguns?” One of them speaks perfect English; he was born in New Jersey. Yes, airguns. “Ummm, not much.” Erik says his grandfather gave him a beebee gun once.
Inside the garage we’re shown a shining collection of air rifles spanning many years in design and issue. “Airguns are our passion,” the New Jersey boy says. The Best Painter sits at a worktable hunched over a fairing, laboriously peeling off special tape from where he has covered up one section to paint another one a different color. Everyone watches him intently. He giggles at the things that people say (I don’t know what’s being said in Greek). A true giggle—some anomaly in his voice box that hasn’t changed since he was just a boy. Twenty times over during our visit he giggles as though it’s just been the funniest thing he ever heard.
Somehow it comes up that I once rode an RGV250 (a little brother to the RG500). Everyone wants to know why I ride a TZR now; why did I sell the RGV? I say that I didn’t sell it, I destroyed it. Erik pantomimes the spectacular crash, and with his hands simulates how my bike tumbled end over end over end to its unsalvageable demise. He holds up my arm for everyone to see the puffy z-shaped scar on my wrist. “Zzzuki!” Everyone laughs over the reference to Suzuki, the manufacturer of my ill-fated RGV, and gives me the thumbs up, as if wrecking a motorcycle is a rite of passage.
“The RG is the best,” Erik takes up the Gamma cause. “I hit a deer once at eighty miles an hour, and I’m still riding the same bike.” The Best Painter raises his head from the fairing and stops his meticulous work momentarily. Rigas knows the story now and tells him the deer died. Then he translates to us the Painter’s question, which still rather dumbfounds us: “Did you take the meat home?”
The second time we visit, unannounced, it’s daylight and Erik and I are astonished to realize this plot of jungle land is right in the middle of the suburbs, surrounded by tall apartment buildings. The Best Painter is working on the fairings again. He is a perfectionist, Rigas says of him. He blows kisses off his fingers toward the Painter. The best.
The Best Painter has a notebook in front of him in which he has sketched the design he is painting, and from the reference of an original fairing he has taken the dimensions of every minute aspect of the design—the width of each colored line, the distance between each line and shape, the size of lettering decals. He is working now on the fairings for gioRGios’s RG.
The Best Painter has his own Gamma, and he customized it into a kind of mutant-creature bike. Rigas explains that the Best Painter himself used to look a lot different. You know, like big muscles and beard, long hair and tattoos. He simulates each of these features as he lists them. Like a pee-rot. You know pee-rot? Without correcting his pronunciation, I nod. But the Best Painter is entirely too giggly to be a pirate.
His daughter runs around chasing kittens through the jungle.
One night we debate briefly on the side of the highway whether to ride to dinner at a local joint Rigas likes or to ride home, park the bikes and drive the motorcycle servant there. It’s barely 10 p.m. but we decide to just ride the bikes on over. Perhaps we can get the early-bird special. People can see the bikes that way! Rigas gets a little giddy over this. We park right next to the café and order suvlaki that is out-of-this-world delicious. Rigas looks over to the RD and RG parked one behind the other against the curb, gleaming beneath the streetlights. Look at my babies, he beams. Aren’t they beautiful? His paternal pride forms the cheekbones at the edge of his smile into little round knobs that push up the bottom rim of his narrow, rectangular spectacles. Though I can see the motorcycles just fine, I give a purposeful look at his sweet little bad-ass babies. I love them.
I smile. I’m thinking about my cats. Rigas shrugs, almost apologetically. I just love them!
I adore my TZR. “Little Red,” I call her. (Red and white paint job.) She fits me so well. If I ever crash her, I will likely be more heartbroken over her damage than whatever mine is. Even when I wrecked my RGV, while I was still sliding down the pavement after hitting it at 80 mph, I thought about the bike. It was a beautiful machine. My first thought was “holy cow, I’ve crashed.” My second thought was, “shit, my bike!” (And then, “oh, this is going to get ugly,” as I started sliding underneath moving cars around me…) After I was hauled up out of the boulders from the riverside, I could see the RGV lying in the river utterly destroyed. “Oh my god, look at my bike!” I whined. The people who had just watched me cheat death from the front row seat of their cars were palpably stunned, to the point of discomfort, by my mourning for the motorcycle while my right hand was in mind-numbing pain and blood was gushing out of a hole in my leg.
But I only ride my TZR. While the models who sit on a motorcycle for a magazine shot might not know the clutch from the throttle, I ride my bike not knowing what a carburetor or a piston actually looks like. I understand what jetting is, but I haven’t the faintest notion what one actually physically does to adjust this. When Rigas looks at his babies he knows everything about them from the inside out; he’s handled all their pieces, watched them grow up from boxes of parts into full-grown motorcycles, taught them everything they know.
One day Rigas takes us to a famous biker bar. It’s a bikers nest. He forms a little circle with his two hands to illustrate. A nest. We meet yet another Giorgios, and while Rigas takes the president of the Gamma list! inside the bar to show him the bar décor (a Gamma fairing) and to meet more people, I’m left out at a sidewalk table in the pleasant evening air sipping beer with Giorgios and several other guys. Giorgios speaks perfect English, but we haven’t much to talk about. When he learns I ride a TZR he asks which model. Model? I tell him what year it is.
“Yeah, but which model.”
I confess, “I don’t know; I just ride the thing.”
“But which model is it?”
I shrug my shoulders in desperation; I don’t even know how to fake an answer. He’s looking at me in disbelief; he seems to think I simply don’t understand the question. How can I not know such a thing? When I say I ride a TZR, there’s a slight flicker of respect for me—apparently even in Greece, girls are more apt to ride scooters and mopeds than motorcycles, plus it’s a two-stroke—but when I can’t name the model, I plummet down into an ignoramus, worse than a ditsy blonde. I’ve been drinking beer all day long and this is really tiring out my brain. Then he changes the question to multiple choice: Is it a 1KT or 2MA? By some miracle, only the day before I’d overheard Erik telling Rigas how my motor was a 1KT but my frame was a 2MA.
“Oh, it’s a 1KT.” Nonchalance. Oh, so that’s what you’re asking.
“Ah,” says Giorgios. Then the conversation is allowed to continue to something I can actually talk about—the performance of the bike. I can shoot this kind of shit for awhile, but eventually the performance comes down to mechanics, and again I’m floundering. But Rigas and Erik emerge from the depths of the nest to rescue me. To come spread the gospel of Gamma. Or more correctly, to come preach to the choir.
Erik’s standard testament: “Yeah, I crashed my Gamma into a deer at eighty miles an hour. I had to go shut it off after I crashed; it was lying in the ditch still running.” Giorgios, taking it all in, assumes the answer to the standard first question and goes straight to the punch-line, “Did you take the meat home?”
After we finish suvlaki and a discussion of Mars and aliens, we ride home to put the bikes down and pack up the TZR motor, and then Rigas will drive us in the Ferrari back to our cubby hole in the hotel. The RG is dutifully chained to the railing. Then out come the ramps for the RD, and Rigas navigates it into the hallway and puts down the kickstand. Brings in the ramps, closes the door, retrieves the pink and green-striped sheet. Erik and I stand watching as Rigas puts the sheet over the RD. I don’t know why I do this. Meaning, why he should cover up the bike when it’s inside the house. He can sense our amusement. But he doesn’t simply throw the sheet over; he positions it just right, so it hangs down evenly on each side, then he pulls it back so the headlight just peeks through. As he’s adjusting the sheet just-so over each of the handlebars, Erik says, “Are you tucking it in?”
I burst out laughing, “That’s so cute!” And Rigas realizes that he is indeed tucking in his motorcycle for bed, and he blushes. He kisses the gas tank ... It’s my baby!
At midnight I sit in a plastic chair in the front room of the Two-Stroke Palace that Grandfather Rigas inadvertently built. Rigas’s tolerant mother has gone to bed. I watch Erik and Rigas in the hallway boxing up the TZR motor and fairing pieces we got from Panagiotis, and I start to dread going home in the morning. Erik’s wrapping tape around the box. He starts in the middle of the box and works his way down. At the bottom, he cuts the tape and Rigas is instantly aghast at such a ridiculous packing job. “I’m just cutting it so I can start back at the middle and work up,” Erik reassures Rigas, who has trouble wiping away the look of concern from his face.
There’s nothing dreadful waiting for me at home. No people, no job, no responsibilities. Only the unsettling philosophical conundrums involved with these voids. What should I be doing with my life? What’s the point of my existence? Sitting here obscured by motorcycle parts, I feel no pressing need for answers. But as soon as I imagine myself being back home in my bedroom with a bed, walking clean uncluttered hallways, I feel bothered by these stupid questions. God help me, it will be many, many hours before I can pull Little Red out of the garage, hop on her back and say, fuck it—drive to the outskirts of town and drop a gear into the powerband.
Into the folded mountains, into “the twisties—” the hairpins and chicanes. Through the winding canyons, along the panoramic Peak-to-Peak highway. Though I am far, far away from the ocean, higher up than any sea bird is likely to go, Little Red and I are like an ocean gull skimming off the water, riding the air currents. I thought of this while I watched birds playing around the boat when we traveled to one of the Greek islands. It’s not that this is a sensation of flying—riding fast and cornering low—but there’s a certain weightlessness to it. Your body is not your own, it’s the machine’s. It’s gravity’s, velocity’s; it’s a variable in an equation about mass and the speed of light, a factor in a calculation of force; you’re not you, but an object of universal expression, universal truth about the laws of physics that hold us together. It’s the most transcendental thing I know. You’re freed into a stream of energy, there’s nothing but motion—motion for the pure sake of motion. Nothing can haunt you when you’re moving like that.
Our last day in Athens, we ride the coastline out of the city to the Temple of Poseidon—me and Erik, RiGas and gioRGios. I’m content to be a passenger, to let the road pass beneath me effortlessly while I look over the edge of cliffs, intoxicated by the blue blue of the sea. It’s perfectly calm and flat, there is nothing interesting about its motion in waves, only about its motion in color—the range of blues, the occasional green, a very subtle kaleidoscope washing over the sand below, far below where pieces of classical Greece surely still lie, where legends and myths have bedded down for an epochal sleep. Maybe eventually, like organic material, they’ll be compressed into some kind of hydrocarbon we can use to light torches in the forgotten tunnels of the past.
Riding along the twisted ribbon of shoreline, I think to myself how incredibly fortunate I am. How lucky I am to see these things, this beauty; to feel these things, this speed; to meet such people, these characters—this little band of brothers bound together by an unreasonable passion. I’m surely simplifying Rigas’s life, but it seems to me that if it came down to it, the only thing he would need to be truly, spiritually happy would be a pack of cigarettes and his Gamma.
Outside the ancient temple, once adorned in prayer and offering, I sit in the shade of a café awning, my ears still buzzing with the sound of pistons and cylinders working together in the name of speed. Looking out at the calm sea waters where Poseidon lies sleeping, I wonder if he’ll ever wake up. I wonder if he’s been napping contentedly or if his sleep is troubled with unsettling dreams, heaving waves into motion as he tosses and turns. I catch wisps of my reflection on the back of my black helmet, sitting on a separate table in the sun. Sipping a cool beer, half listening to the men talk about the innards of two-strokes, I contemplate the massive stone columns still standing sentinel on the cliff. I try to imagine the temple before it crumbled, try to imagine myself standing on the steps in leather sandals looking out to sea. I catch Rigas out of the corner of my eye gesturing to make a point. It’s anti-power! I try to imagine what it would be like to have all that I love in this world in the grip of my hands as I race along the cobalt coast.
Published in Prick of the Spindle
So what does my beloved "Little Red" TZR250 look like? With the 2MA and 1KT? Here we are together (with helmet-head hair, I must point out):