Archive for November, 2006

Mercury’s Descent

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Weather: Cloudy and cold, 22°F (-6°C)

Well folks, I think this is it. Looking at our ten-day forecast, I see that our daytime high temps are falling below freezing into the foreseeable future. Winter is finally upon us, as we roll into December.

I’m still suffering headaches and a stiff neck from my get-off last week, but experience tells me that there’s nothing the docs can do about this. The damage will heal in time. Ibuprofen and patience are the indicated prescription.

I plan to be back on two wheels again next week.

This weekend, I will repair the damage to Scarlet O’Baron, as much as I can. The scuffed section of her bodywork will remain, I think, until the end of Winter. It’s a good reminder to always be aware of the road surface, even when the pavement has been warm and dry for awhile.

My Darien should come back from Aerostich next week, and until then I will wear my old Tourmaster over my Aero Kanetsu heated vest. My plain old silver HJC will be pressed into service, after a new hinge plate and visor-swap, because I’ve never crashed in that.

The helmet pictured below will be added to the pile in my garage, just another victim of my periodic hubris.

I should get out for a ride this coming weekend, and I will report back next Monday night. It will be good to get back in the saddle…

Highside! (The story of my life…)

Friday, November 24th, 2006

Weather: 43°F (6°C)

“Some of us have taken it straight over the high side from time to time – and there is always Pain in that…” – Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

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Battle-scars on my HJC. Tell me again why you don’t wear a helmet?

Pain indeed. People who drive around in cages expect to be exempt from pain. That’s why they have seatbelts and airbags and anti-lock brakes and full-coverage insurance… That’s why they drag two-tons of steel around with them everywhere they go. Pain, after all, is nature’s way of telling you that you should stop doing whatever you are doing, because it is Wrong.

So, you ask, if riding causes me pain, shouldn’t I stop?

Well, if you are going to accept that pure line of logic, then you need to zoom your lens back out a little and scrutinize life itself. Pain is a part of life. Life causes everyone pain, I don’t care who you are. If you are bound and determined to avoid pain, then the only thing you can do is to stop living.

Or, like me, you can accept Pain as a possible consequence of having so much FUN, and just get on with it!

Yes, that sounds about right, let’s start from there…

The one recurring pattern in my riding life has been an escalating series of steep learning curves. When I choose a motorbike, and a style of riding, I pursue it with relentless enthusiasm, until something happens which causes me to pause and evaluate my progress.

These evaluation events are known to some other people as “crashes”.

What a banal term. It suggests uncontrolled, unplanned encounters with the forces of physics. In point of fact, they are peak moments in my quest to understand Everything about the riding experience. They are cathartic in nature, similar to a religious or philosophical epiphany, and they need to be regarded as such in order to derive any benefit from them.

To do any less is to assume the role of Victim, and I refuse to do that. I take each one as a lesson, and proceed from there.

Last Monday, for instance, on our way home from work, Scarlet O’Baron and I had to run a few errands. These errands took us to businesses around Robert Street, in West Saint Paul.

Let me tell you about Robert Street…

Robert Street has more auto parts stores and garages per mile than any other place in the Twin Cities. This is where sick cars come to get well again. Sick cars, just like sick people, emit fluids. That sets the stage.

Coming out of the Menard’s hardware store parking lot, I wanted to turn left into the northbound lane on Robert Street. It was rush hour, and there were very few openings in the traffic flowing both ways.

Finally spotting a three car-length gap, I twisted Scarlet’s throttle to the stop and we shot across the road. As we entered the nearest northbound lane, we were accelerating through 35 mph. Scarlet is quick, as you probably know by now. We turned left, and that was when everything went sideways…

Things like this happen faster on a scooter than they do on a full-size motorcycle; smaller wheels, shorter wheelbase. If I had been on Frogwing, we would probably have low-sided, which is usually a much less dramatic event. But for some reason, Scarlet’s front tire held traction, while the rear spun up and slid through the oil recently deposited on the road.

Countersteering by instinct, I caused Scarlet to slide sideways across the lane. I even managed to get my boot on the ground to stabilize our slide, just like I have countless times on snow and ice.

But there was dry pavement, as we slid into the other lane, and we all know what happens next. Scarlet’s tires regained traction and she flicked me off her back like a mad bull in a rodeo. I landed hard on my HJC-helmeted head, and all the feeling went out of my body. I flopped onto the road like a sack of flour, and for the next few seconds could feel my helmet bouncing off the pavement as my body slid to a stop, abrading layers of Aerostich fabric in the process.

Now in a fuzzy state of slow-time, I imagined a stripe-shirted referee counting me out there on the side of the road: “…two….three!” -I tried to get up, but the damaged organism would not yet respond. I could hear the tires of passing cars spinning in the very same oil which had brought Scarlet and I to grief.

By the time the ref was approaching the eight-count, I was playing this silly movie in my head of a panel of judges, sitting on the curb, holding up cards that read 8.9, 8.5, and of course, that dour East German judge with her 7.4, totally unimpressed with my dismount. That really pissed me off, so I got up.

…And stood there, wobbling.

Three cars had now stopped, blocking both lanes. Five people had cellphones glued to their heads. Nobody said anything to me. They were probably taking pictures with their camera-phones to post for profit on the web. Finally, one guy got out of a car, without a cellphone, and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah.”, I said. I couldn’t manage anything more. Then I staggered over to Scarlet. She was lying on her right side in the road, thankfully not leaking any fluids. I picked her up like nothing, the adrenaline kicking in, and pushed her over to the curb.

The judges had fled.

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Scarlet O’Baron’s first battle scars. They probably won’t be the last…

After picking up all the pieces, I quickly began to assess the damage.

The right mirror was shattered, and the footpeg I had made for Emily was bent down at a 90° angle. The bodywork was scuffed, as you can see in the photo, and the luggage rack was broken. Still, the controls were intact, and when I pressed the starter button, Scarlet came back to life as though nothing had happened.

But now we had another problem…

Not three blocks away, an ambulance was raising hell with lights and sirens, heading in our direction. By the time they arrived on-scene, I had removed my helmet and taken a few deep breaths. Then I walked up to the passenger side, and told the EMT “I’m alright. There’s no business for you here.”

He looked at me sceptically, and said, “Are you sure you don’t want us to check you out?”

“Nope, that won’t be necessary. But will you please tell the cops that there is oil on the road in that lane right there?”

He gave me a look that said, “Yeah… right.” I’m sure he had his own assumptions about why I had crashed, and I could tell that I wouldn’t be able to convince him otherwise. My scooter was RED, after all.

By now I could hear the clock ticking. The cops were on their way, and I didn’t want to be caught up in all the bullshit which could only result in an insurance hike. I mean, who do you blame for oil on the road? Nothing good could come from waiting around.

I rode Scarlet home, parked her in the garage, and closed the door. Then I went into the house, where I promptly collapsed in bed. My nerve endings were all abuzz, but there was no serious damage.

Next morning, I was sore all over. I rode Scarlet to work with only one rearview mirror, and went through the day in survival mode. You working stiffs know exactly what I mean by that. Luckily, I had Wednesday through Sunday off, to fully recover and bring things back into the proper perspective.

The lessons learned should be obvious, especially since I have “learned” them before:

1) ALWAYS be aware of the condition of the surface upon which you are riding.

2) When turning in heavy traffic, move to a controlled intersection where you won’t have to contest position with larger, rapidly moving vehicles. (you hope)

3) CONFIRMED: Always wear the maximum safety gear that conditions allow.

I’ll be sending my Darien jacket back to Aerostich for repair, as I know that it’s water-repellant properties are certainly compromised in the abraded areas. I’ll also replace the mirror that was shattered, because I already notice a blind-spot in my awareness of traffic around me.

Finally, I will maintain a heightened awareness, even on supposedly dry pavement, of the surface of the roads I ride. This will slow me down a bit, and that’s probably a Good Thing.

Maybe it’s time to get back to the study of Zen…

Eating History: Mickey’s Dining Car

Monday, November 13th, 2006

Weather: Snow on the grass, Raining and 36°F (2°C)

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Service with a snarl? Not when John’s cooking.

Cold rain was falling from a black velvet sky, as Scarlet and I set out on our morning commute. We got an early start today, because I wanted to finally try breakfast at Mickey’s Dining Car, in downtown Saint Paul, when they were least likely to be crowded. Besides, it was high time that I did a morning Rush Hour Ramble.

For this review, I found out that I’d better forget lunch or dinner. I’ve ridden by Mickey’s at those times, and they are always packed. It’s hard to review a place when you can’t strike up a conversation with the staff, or take photos without bumping into somebody. But I figured I might just stand a chance if we showed up at five a.m. on a Monday morning.

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This is how Mickey’s Dining Car looked at zero-dark-thirty this morning.

Built by the Jerry O’Mahony company out of New Jersey, dining car #1067 was trucked to it’s present location at the corner of 7th and St. Peter Streets in 1937. They have been open 24 hours a day, 365 days most years, for almost seven decades.

Everything about Mickey’s reeks of authenticity. From the Art Deco, stainless-steel and enamel exterior to the wise-cracking staff, walking through the door of this depression-era diner is like stepping into a time machine, set to nineteen fifty-something.

The first time I stopped at Mickey’s was in the Spring of ought-five. I had just set out on another “Backroads Diary” roadtrip, and decided to try the coffee, since they didn’t seem too busy at the time.

7th Street wasn’t busy either, so I set up my camera on it’s little tripod, right on the three-foot-wide concrete island in the intersection.

While I was composing the shot you see below, bent over and looking down at the viewfinder, I saw the ramming bumper of a police cruiser pull into my peripheral vision to the right. I ignored him until after I had taken the shot and, just as I was beginning to stand up, he peeled away, leaving rubber for about fifty yards. Nice cop. He was probably a regular at Mickey’s, come to think of it.

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… and this is how Mickey’s looked in daylight, circa Spring 2005.

Featured in many movies, the latest of which was “A Prairie Home Companion”, Mickey’s Dining Car is a must-be-seen-at for all celebrities visiting Saint Paul. A list on the back of their menu is a veritable “Who’s who?” of contemporary American culture. It’s as if this were an interactive museum exhibit of the Classic American Diner, once plentiful out on Route 66; now all but extinct.

But don’t come just to stand around and gawk, or you might raise the ire of the notorious Mary, Queen of All Hash Slingers Everywhere. (This is a title I have just bestowed. She doesn’t know it yet. I’ll be sure to tell you how she reacts when she finds out…)

Much has been made of the whole “service with a snarl” thing, but that’s because some of the staff at Mickey’s have actually been around since the place was just another diner.

Back then, open all hours to cater to the fast crowd, their survival depended on filling `em up and getting `em out. Day-dreamers and coffee-sippers were harried until they either ordered something, or scooted out the door with their tails between their legs.

In 1983, Mickey’s Dining Car was granted National Register of Historic Places status. I’m not sure what that meant to the day-to-day operations of the place, but it couldn’t have hurt.

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Mary, Queen of All Hash Slingers Everywhere! (Photo by John)

Anyway, that trip back in 2005 was when I met Mary and John, the cook pictured at the top of the page. Mary has a piquant vocabulary and a very frank manner of speaking. John seemed more mild-mannered than he appears in his portrait. I was hesitant to ask Mary to pose for me, so John took my camera and made the shot himself. Central casting couldn’t pick a better pair to run a Classic American Diner than these two.

By contrast, this morning I was served breakfast by what I should call the Modern Crew.

Lashaw was my waitress, and the cook on duty was Eric, from Kansas City. These are nice, polite kids (I call anyone under thirty “kid” these days), who told me of their ambitions beyond slinging hash at Mickey’s Dining Car.

What I gathered from eaves-dropping on the banter between her and the regulars, Lashaw seems intent on trying on as many boyfriends as it takes to find Mr. Right. Eric is studying at a School of The Arts to be a jazz musician. Neither one, it seems, is content with the noble cause of keeping Mickey’s going long into the future. But I guess kids have higher expectations these days.

So, how was the food, already?

After I spent some time with the menu, I decided on the Chili Cheese Omelet, with raisin toast on the side. I know… most of my readers who commented voted for bacon and eggs, but how can you possibly rate a restaurant on something that is so hard to do badly?

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Mickey’s Chili-Cheese Omelet, a greasy-spoon classic!

Lashaw whipped me up a pan full of fluffy eggs, into which she tossed a slice of Monterey Jack cheese-food, fresh out of it’s plastic wrapper. (Yes, they cook this stuff right in front of you, over a roaring gas burner. It sure was warm in there…) When that had melted, she put it in a shallow bowl, and ladled a big scoop of chili over the top. That was the most unusual presentation I’ve ever seen for an omelet.

But it worked. I got exactly what I had come for: an authentic American greasy spoon breakfast. The chili was very mild, compared to what I make for myself, or what I seek out at other eateries. But the typical American palate of the middle Twentieth Century wasn’t quite as jaded as it is today. They keep a huge bottle of Tabasco handy, so you can season to taste. Then it’s your fault if you have to go running for the Alka Seltzer!

My stomach remained calm all day.