Easygoing Riders

Easygoing Riders,” New Haven Advocate, 11 August 2005

The author and “Captain Boogie”

The wind’s in her hair and the bugs are in her teeth: Dayo Olopade rolls with the Flaming Knights, Connecticut’s freewheeling, upstanding, multiculti MC club.

I’m leaning into a turn on two wheels, hoping the 1,000 pounds of motorcycle beneath me will stay upright. The CD player automatically crescendos as the engine roars louder and louder still. Despite my most genteel instincts, I’m clutching tightly onto the near-stranger sitting in front of me, and I think I’m actually squealing. I peek over my escort Boogy’s shoulder; we’re nearing 60. Every sound is magnified; every bump and crack in the pavement feels like a not-so-subtle invitation to disaster. A fast-paced twist on the fairy tale, it’s the princess and…the hog.

Summer days, and the motorcycles are out. Almost daily, the thrum and snort of these two-wheeled beasts speeding down Connecticut main streets and highways gives my nerves a run for their money. Up at night and hearing tire sounds that belie velocities that seem well beyond the speed limit, or getting there, I wonder what gives. Who are these people?

I have a common-sense understanding that the body, if moving fast and unenclosed, meets other objects only with disastrous results; that belief has a lot to do with my assumption that motorcycles are scary, and that they will get you killed.

But if this is truth, what drives the motorcycle fanatic, the midnight rider romanticized in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and the early Tom Wolfe gem The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby? These works weren’t concerned with safety; they used cars and motorcycles to flesh out an idea of America, of rebellion, and of the eternal possibility of the road.

Hunter S. Thompson’s 1967 Hells Angels gave the most penetrating look to date at the theretofore underground community of motorcycle clubs in the United States. He started with outlaws, hard men who beat up rival gangs, robbed while they rode, and honored the “filthy few”: members who had actually killed another man. The legacy of danger, tassels, and the road-tripping freedom of the U.S.A. still exists. Under and Alone, federal agent William Queen’s recently released tell-all on the Mongols, a violent California biker gang, proves just that.

But the Mongols aren’t necessarily representative of today’s motorcycle clubs, as I discovered by riding with New Haven’s own Flaming Knights MC.

Temple and Crown, June 26: I see a bike and a man who do not disappoint the stereotypes. Black-vested and bandana-ed at the side of the road, he doesn’t blink at my approach. I’ve run into Tom Black, aka “TCB,” a biker who claims to “take care of business” from his origins in the woods of South Carolina to today’s road romps across southern Connecticut.

He has a kind face. I tell him I’m writing about motorcycles, and that I know nothing about them. After he looks me up and down, it takes only a second or two for us to begin chatting about his ridea long and classy Honda Gold Wing three-wheeler, white, with bilevel cupholders and a manual transmission. “You don’t see these bikes around here,” Black claims, beaming. “This here’s the only one in the Northeast.”

The bike is gorgeous, an attention-grabber even to the uninitiated. I am told later that the Gold Wing is considered the “Mercedes of motorcycles.” Across the street a flashy-looking Suzuki sits parked by the curb, sorely lacking in character compared to this elegant machine. I admire the clean lines and low-riding leather seats of Black’s motorcycle.

This is a bike to spend hours on. Black bought the Gold Wing in 2001, but has owned around a dozen bikes in the 20 years between the first and this newest incarnation of his love. The custom-made machine has three sturdy wheels, which Black insists makes the ride much safer. He frowns at the Suzuki. “I call ’em death traps,” he says. “Those are the ones that scare people, make ’em not want to ride.”

You bet your ass I don’t want to ride. Every year, about 4,000 Americans die while riding motorcycles, and close to 76,000 are injured. In Connecticut alone, the big bikes cause nearly 1,800 injuries a year. In late June and early July of this year, there were four Connecticut motorcycle accidents in a lone one-week span.

In the summer, it’s hard to ignore the ubiquitously flashy, high-riding models, extremely popular with younger riders, zipping down streets, with the occasional helmetless female clinging to the back.Not me, not in a million years.”I just came from my club,” Black, who lives in Bridgeport, says. “Why don’t we go for a ride?”

My face must visibly stew over whether this is a good idea, because Black pre-emptively assures me that safety is not a problem. Unfurling all six-plus feet of himself from the seat, he makes for the back of his bike. As he bends to show me a helmet in the surprisingly roomy trunk of this beautiful machine, I catch the full phrase embroidered on the back of his riding vest: Flaming Knights MC: Second to None.

The club represented on Black’s vest, dark leather with flapping tassels, is the Flaming Knights Motorcycle Club, one of Connecticut’s oldest, and a New Haven original. The chapter, founded in 1968 at 110 Hurlburt St., has spread across the nation, and abroad to Mexico. He sees me notice his colors. “I’m a Flaming Knight,” he says. “Better believe that.”

I’m intrigued. But I can’t ride just yet. From a pocket beneath the leather mantle, Black — a modern road warrior — whips out a cellphone. We agree to meet, talk bikes and clubs, and go for a spin.

Maybe.

A week or so later, Black collects me on a sunny day for what will be my first time on a bike. I climb on and try hard not to worry about my notebook and phone flying off the back, or having a leg crushed by a too-close car. As we start off from downtown New Haven (I am promised no highways), happy thoughts are soon easy to come by. Not even just happy–euphoric.

I like to ride.

The clutch is on the left handlebar, the gear shift is a foot pedal, and the click-click-vroom of the engine propels us down the sunny road. People are looking, hard; I feel empowered. I see our reflection through a storefront window as we pass, and I like what I see.

Black is polite to pedestrians, beeps at fellow riders on Whalley Avenue, and seems to know someone at every stoplight we pass. There’s no CD player, but the Notorious B.I.G. is on the radio as we head to Popeye’s for a sit-down chat. As if prearranged, another, older member of the Knights is already seated in the restaurant. He identifies himself only as Sir Fox.

There are nearly 60 official members of the Knights in the region. These riders form just a fraction of the nationwide effort, 40 chapters strong. Though individual chapters sprout up like weeds across Connecticut and other states, most motor clubs are nationally minded, and often celebrate this fact with major regional rides or events that celebrate the bike culture and club pride. Big “roundups” bring pilgrims from across the continent. At the sometimes days-long outdoor parties, prizes are awarded for best-dressed bike, farthest distance traveled (male and female) and best chapter representation, in and out of state.

Black and Sir Fox give each other a fist pound and exchange pleasantries. I’m introduced, and we start to chat. Black, retired and now “so old he forgot,” describes the sense of community he’s found with the Knights — the easy familiarity of group rides, and the exhilaration of cross-country efforts. “I was in Atlanta in 2002 with near 115,000 riders,” he says. “About the best thing you’ll ever see.”

I’m skeptical that the highway rides he describes–to Milwaukee, Denver, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Los Angeles and points between–are safe. He is adamant. “I got rid of one bike because it was too fast. Accidents happen because people act the fool. They don’t respect the bike. It’s like a woman; you treat your bike right and it’ll take care of you until the day you die. But once in a while, a woman get the devil in her. You don’t want that with your bike.”

Sunglasses still on (indoors), Black freely shares his experiences with his bikes and his metaphor, sometimes at once. “I rode down to D.C. one time and saw a girl, a fine girl. I followed her home, all the way across town, knocked on her door, met her mama and went to the movies the same night. That was something. A good ride,” he reflects.Some riding days are long and hard. To make a 1,000-mile journey with the sun above, there isn’t time for too much fun and games. “Breakfast early, no dinner, coffee and a little piece of cake when I buy gas,” says Black.

It can be difficult. He’s made multiple trips to California and back and says he once broke down 33 times in one ride. He speaks of desert stretches of the country where “I got so hot I had to lay down, just lay down right by the road. It’s the only thing you can do in a situation like that, just lay down.”

Black also riffs on the Pacific Coast Highway, road parties and the best stretches of interstate in the country. The kind of road experience one has “depends on how you want to ride,” he says, leaning back into the orange plastic seats. He praises the rain shield on his bike: “If you’re going fast enough, you never get wet.”

I assume the cross-country trips take days, weeks even, but Black claims the New Haven-to-Chicago (my hometown) route takes a day. He recruits a worker sweeping the floor of the restaurant to his cause. Asked how long the trip is, the man replies, “Thirteen hours, maybe.”I get a “told-you-so” smirk from the man who knows from experience. “These rides, you can go real fast,” he tells me. “I got to be known as a hard rider, you know. Once I left Canada near 1 o’clock and was in Harrisburg, Pa., before it was dark. All the way from Canada. That’s a hard ride.”

I’m skeptical, but charmed with the insight into what it means to ride across America on a bike, naked to the highways and sun.

Following the interview, Black, once more an ordinary retiree, goes to have his blood pressure checked. I am dropped off at the Advocate offices, more educated in the visceral pleasures of the biker afternoon. I adjust my hair and promise to meet up again for the club’s Sunday evening parties.

On Sunday I head to Chazmo’s Club at 819 Dixwell Ave., headquarters for the New Haven chapter of the Flaming Knights. Chazmo, or Charlie Bryant, sits in a corner, his feet up on the pool table.

He’s a little tired; his 53rd birthday party, attended by friends and Knights, was the evening before. The motor club operates something like a fraternity, with elected officers: president, vice president, secretary, business manager, sergeants-at-arms, and, of course, pledges.

“You have to earn your way in,” says Bryant, a “lieutenant,” adding, “but if you see someone says they love to ride, he’s probably a Flaming Knight. That’s all it takes.”

Roosevelt Andrews completed the six-month initiation process in March. He says the details are classified, but that pledging meant “helping around if the members need anything, some mandatory trips.” Bryant confirms that this year’s pledge ride took a dozen or so men up to Syracuse, one of several journeys members will take together as Knights. The men ride in formation, the “road captain” setting the pace and leading the way, as the others follow in twos down the highway.

There are five area chapters of the Knights, named New Haven, Bristol, Bridgeport, Connecticut and Southern Connecticut. Each has its own power structure, though interaction between the groups is frequent and fun. Phil Brooks, known in the club as “Sir Flip,” is president of the New Haven chapter, and says the Connecticut coalition convenes “every three months collectively, to meet, greet and eat.”

Another Sunday, I walk in on such a meeting of Knights from points all through the region. Members have come from as far as Philadelphia to hang with their brothers. Though the content is official Knights business, I gather that they’re here to organize for a group ride in the upcoming weeks. Black has offered me a spot in the caravan, which put out for North Carolina at the start of August.

Regional president and three-star general “Captain Boogy” has come up from New York for the assembly. He rides a slick red Gold Wing called Angel Ship Lola, named for his grandmother, trimmed with topless women and a killer CD sound system; it’s one of two bikes he has lovingly baptized. (The other, Baby Sweet Thang, didn’t make the trip.) We get to chatting and I ask when he left home. Boogy made the two-hour car trip in an hour and a half. How fast, I ask. Eighty? Ninety? “We were doing about a buck-ten,” he laughs. “We like to boogie.”

The members talk bikes and needle each other, chatting easily on a stinking hot day. There are around 30 Knights milling about, each in his colors. There are a handful of women, in leather and on bikes just as big as the boys’.

Liz Toro, president of the Southern Connecticut, all-female chapter of the Knights, shares with me a feminine perspective. “I had no idea what I was getting into. Because I was a woman in a predominantly male group, I felt I had to get their respect. I couldn’t trail behind.” Her first ride was five years ago. “I was always on the back of a bike,” she recalls. “But I took my safety rider course and on June 28, I remember this, I rode to Texas on a Honda Shadow 600.”

This inaugural trip marked the first of dozens of interstate battles Toro, 37, has since embarked upon. She has been to Denver (the site of the Knights’ other, and first, all-female chapter), Texas, Atlanta, Florida and in between. Holding her own with the dudes was a test Toro was glad to pass, if with some initial setbacks. One midwinter trip to Daytona Beach left her “crying by New Jersey. My hands were so cold! I was a mess.”

With time and experience, Toro has become a seasoned rider whose hard-riding lifestyle takes her miles farther annually than some of her counterparts in the Knights’ male chapter.

Toro founded the club in response to the male chapter’s reluctance to allow women into the organization. “I was like, ‘You can’t tell me no!'” she exclaims. In 2001, she and her vice president, known as “Lady T,” sat down with national organizers and after a heartfelt conversation about the aims and seriousness of the female riders, were given the president’s blessing.

At the outset, none of the members knew one another, instead relying on a mutual appreciation of biking to unite them. The group covers a range of ages and professions. One is a 20-year Army veteran, another is a police officer, while still another joined after the death of her husband, a Knight himself. Toro, a sales associate for Omni Hotels, says the newest Knights soon formed close friendships. “We’re very, very tight outside of the club. We go for drinks, or movie night. It’s kind of like a sorority.” The club has been eight strong for a few years now, and does not actively plan on expanding. “Strength is better than numbers for us,” Toro explains.

One lady Knight, who goes by “Platinum,” says she joined the Knights because “they travel a lot,” and her previous club, the local, all-female Elm City Angels, did not ride long distances as much. Toro initially wanted to join the Knights because of their close ties with the New Haven community. Though founded in Toro’s hometown, the group’s extended club ties were also a factor. “I went down to Greenville, S.C., in ’99, my first time with these people, and it was like a family reunion.”

In the family, the names “Platinum,” “Captain Boogy,” and “TCB” tell the story: Another prominent feature of the motor club lifestyle is the riding handle. As full members of the club, Knights either name one another or self-christen. Sir Fox explains, “It’s like a truck driver, a CB handle.” Black’s smirk as he discloses his moniker is matched by Chazmo’s old-school grin as he says, “I’m ‘Butterman.’ It’s my riding name, my DJ name. Some people say ‘Hot Butter’ too.”

I meet “Chuck,” “Uprising,” and “Bandit.” Toro goes by “Li’l Flame.” The pleasure of this alter-ego creation is evident. Earlier Sir Fox gloated, “the ladies gave me my name.” Andrews’ pride is no different. With obvious satisfaction he says, “Some people call me ‘Velt, some call me Ro’; but when I have my vest on they call me ‘Night Rider.'”

On the day after Bryant’s birthday party, Chazmo’s hums with unvested men, casually dressed, the occasional female rider and some neighborhood friends of the bar. Newports cloud the air with thin smoke, enough to focus the dark interior against the bold-yellow afternoon sun that barely penetrates the space. Fried fish and Georgia red-hots are available upon request. As people file in, a local band, Next Level, sets up speakers, mics and a percussion set with African drums.

Chazmo’s is a cultural center of sorts, a hub for musical acts and comedians, those who want to party and those who want to relax with a beer and a smoke. Sir Fox spoke of community sensibilities earlier: “We’re not outlaws. Look in the newspapers and you’ll see numerous things we do in the neighborhood.” Bryant, feet still propped on his pool table, discusses the attitude of civic responsibility within this particular motor club.

The Knights help out frequently in the New Haven area, holding charity fund-raisers, a turkey dinner, food and toy drives during the holidays, and sponsoring a local drill team and a little league baseball club. Toro adds, “We donate coloring books to Yale-New Haven Hospital around the holidays, and work with Hill Health Center food bank, which is in the area where the Flaming Knights got started.”

Brooks talks about their book drives, and Captain Boogy proudly displays a battery of metal plaques on his vest, saying, “Each one of these represents a toy run, us handing out toys to children every year.”

The club’s initial incorporation, by six riders in the late 1960s, was born as an idea of harmony within the biker community. No racial or gender or even bike-brand barriers were enforced, a practice novel for a bike club at the time. Today, the New Haven Knights are predominantly black, though members say that the racial makeup is not premeditated. Black, Bryant, Brooks, Andrews and several others are black; Toro is Puerto Rican. The club has chapters across the nation–some all-female, some mixed, but most with members as thoroughly diverse as the bikes they ride. Toro estimates that some three-quarters of the national organization is non-black. “In California there are many more Mexican and Asian riders, and the Phoenix club is all white,” she says.

In many ways, this is the point of the club. The national website insists, “Your choice of iron [type of bike] is your choice, not ours, so we accept all. Your choice of race/gender was God’s choice, so we ride with all.”

As a welcome result of the come-one, come-all approach, “we have a lot of professionals,” Bryant says. “We have lawyers, cops, state troopers, bank people. A lot of them are white- collar, they just happen to enjoy riding.”

Despite the do-gooding and laid-back principles of clubs like the Knights, hostility to motorcycle enthusiasts at large still thrives. Earlier in the year, East Lyme citizens called for the blocking of a new Harley dealership, and state senator Bill Finch called to ban entirely the sale of all-terrain vehicles (a classification to which Black’s Gold Wing belongs) in the state. The vast majority of non-biking motorists, irritated with the noise and safety risks, balk at sharing the road with motorcycles, and with drivers like Captain Boogy, with his “buck-ten” speeds on the highway. Biker advocates say that public dissatisfaction is with a minority of riders who ride recklessly and insist upon wheelie-popping daredevil antics, called stunting.

Some in the Knights crew don’t take very kindly to irresponsible riders with “a death wish,” as Black puts it. “Chuck” Robinson, from the Bridgeport chapter, has lasting memories of how dangerous riding can be.

A flat tire did it. Robinson and a passenger were cruising at 80 miles an hour when the front wheel bucked out of control and threw the two riders onto fast-moving highway hardtop. The crash was serious, he says.His passenger “got scars all over her face, I got scars all over.” He reveals his right arm–laced with burn marks. Others share tales of their own near-accidents and minor crashes. A Bridgeport rider named Charles, who would not give his last name, mentions a mishap during, ironically, his riding safety course. No safety class is required to ride a motorcycle in Connecticut, but Charles reiterates: “If you’re smart, you take it.”

Though Robinson always kept going, Bryant stopped riding bikes for nearly two decades following the death of a friend in a motorcycle accident. Despite his role as the business manager and weekly host to the Knights, he doesn’t want his own two children riding, because “they’ve got a career, you know, they got things to focus on, and I don’t want them getting hurt.”

But for others, the draw of the biker lifestyle is strong enough to face the risks. One female rider from the Harlem chapter laughs, “I rode my first bike at 17. I had five older brothers. I had no choice!” Andrews says, “When we were growing up we didn’t have nothing. I would watch people on bikes and I always had the fantasy of owning a motorcycle.” At 36, Andrews fulfilled the dream and bought his first bike. Today he, along with Black, Bryant, Platinum, Boogy and many others in the club, rides a Gold Wing; his version is a two-wheeled maroon beast.

Riding isn’t cheap; though many motorcyclists purchase and revamp older makes, the Honda bikes will set a rider back $20,000, other models cost between $8,000 and $15,000, and a new, fully loaded Harley can go for $33,000.The sacrifice seems worth the effort for some good-looking touring models I inspected during a visit to a local motorcycle dealership. Imagine riding a La-Z-Boy down the street, and you’re halfway there. “We’re older; we gotta be comfortable when we ride,” jokes Bryant.

Local motoring is all well and good, but the true experience, at least for most of these bikers, comes on the open road. I’d conquered a shaky 60 miles per hour on Dixwell with Captain Boogy, but the highway was a mountain I had yet to climb. During one of our final meetings, Tom and I head out on I-95 for a spin. Cars and scenery whip by and my pant legs flap noisily against my ankles. I’ve never been this close to a moving truck. I can’t hear or breathe too well through my helmet, but shouting insanely allows minor communication. It’s exhilarating; I can imagine doing this all the way to Alaska, gracing motels and friendly homes along the way, a return to the nomadic instincts of humankind. But we exit the highway and chug through town.

Black still gets honks and thumbs up for the Gold Wing, and I feel safer, and cooler than cool. I’ve made some buddies. Sir Flip introduced me to his son Jordan, age 16. “He’s gonna be a Knight,” he said. “It’s a family affair.” Tom will leave for North Carolina soon. But he’ll be back, and I’m certain the scene at Chazmo’s Sunday nights, with its chilled-out, old-time easy character and strong musical history, will last as long as the road.

The tagline in ads for Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider claimed, A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. In a community like New Haven’s Flaming Knights, I’ve found an update: a community of riders happy to find their America in the neighborhood. Music, backslapping times in bars and concerts, and the occasional group voyage to parts distant, yet familiar, are reason enough to ride. The collective dream is horsepower, and it can be achieved. The New Haven Knights know that, if the weather’s all right and the roads well kept, this version of America is there for them in a hundred places, each with a hundred brothers and sisters, all just a bike ride away.

Dayo Olopade

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