Scooter saves gas money, at expense of pride

Scooters belong in the city, not the country. You will not find this rule in any state-issued manuals or literature, like you won't find mandates barring hookers from church. The limits of scooting must be learned through trial and error, in the places where cultures collide.

I learned this the day I got my motorcycle license, somewhere near the Pasco County line.

I was headed north on U.S. 41 to visit my friend Michael, when a car roared past in the fast lane. It was a mess of a vehicle, with a message scrawled across the rear window in white shoe polish: "I LOVE YOU RACHEL!!!" I wondered who could love this "Rachel," knowing full well that she could afford only a sputtering heap to haul her books back and forth to high school.

A few yards past me, Rachel mashed the brakes then fired the gas so we were cruising side-by-side at 60 mph

This speed in an automobile is no big deal. On a scooter, however, especially one made by children in China, 60 mph feels like fuzzy fear, like you might suddenly warp.

If I could have seen myself reflected through the filth encompassing Rachel's car, I might have seen an excited man in his early 30s on his first high-speed motorcycle ride, clinging dramatically to the handlebars, hunkered low against the wind, as if in prayer. It would not have mattered one bit that the man was wearing child-sized sunglasses (he couldn't find any normal ones at home) and a large half-helmet, which made his head look like a shiny mushroom.

Look at him! I might have thought. He's having such fun!

The passenger window slowly lowered to reveal a girl, no older than 16, with hair the color of roasted corn.

Had I dropped something a mile back, and were these good Samaritans returning it? Were these cheerleaders from the local high school who wanted a closer look at the hunk on the hog?

The passenger poked her head out the window until her hair was a whirling mess around her cupped hands.

"Kitty cat!" she yelled. Except it was another word for the same thing.

Her window went up, pinning the cackles inside the car. Rachel stepped on the gas.

This is how it is with scooters. They are the peasants of the road, the sheep herders, the homeless vets, the put-upon hobos who sleep on the steps of the Catholic church.

I gave a thumbs-up to a man in a pickup with a "Motorcycles Are Everwhere" bumper sticker. He just laughed at me.

My daughters, who are 4 and 2, have begun calling my scooter "Scootie," as in, "Daddy, are you gonna ride Scootie today?"

"It's scoot-ER," I say through clenched teeth. "Not scoot-EE."

I bought the thing out of sheer logic, giving little thought to the complexities of riding it. My Pathfinder gets about 2 miles to the gallon, and I must drive daily from my house in Tampa to the Times building in downtown St. Petersburg, which was stealing food from the mouths of my children. I also like the idea of helping the environment, mainly because I can't shake the memory of a photograph I saw in elementary school of a bird ensnared by plastic six-pack rings.

I should get a scooter, I said one day to my wife.

At first, she stood opposed. What if you wreck? she kept asking.

Cars wreck, too, I kept telling her. And think of all the ice cream you could buy with the extra money!

My mother was concerned, too. This is a woman who has used personal anecdotes for years to frighten her children. When we lived near train tracks, she told a story about her Uncle Marty, who lost his leg while trying to board a moving train. She knew people injured in every way imaginable. Diving into shallow pools. Choking on hot dogs.

"We want a trampoline!" my brothers and I would shout.

Not so fast, she'd say, whipping out some tale about a quadriplegic cousin.

My wife and I went shopping one afternoon at a motorcycle store on a seedy stretch of Nebraska Avenue, Wheels-N-Deals or some such place. Several bearded men were sitting under a carport in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and swatting mosquitoes. I inspected the scooter selection, pretending I was checking on certain things like gaskets and cogs and whatnot.

I set my eyes on one at the end of the row.

"How much for this one?" I asked one of the men.

"You want the pink one?" my wife interrupted.

"That's not pink," I whispered. The sun had bleached the red seat into a softer, more friendly red. Definitely not pink.

One of the men cast me a look that seemed to say, You're gonna make me stand up? And for what? A scootie?

After some negotiations I rode away on a slightly weathered Jmstar, I think (the name brand uses a symbol, sort of like @, which I don't know how to pronounce). When we got home, I dove into the owner's manual, but all I found were some illustrations and confused sentences that attempt to explain "HOW TO RIDE MOTORCYCLE."

• Add gasoline slowly with throttle grip and then motorcycle will move forward smoothly.

• Do not add much gasoline suddenly with throttle grip to prevent motorcycle out rust unexpectedly.

• Brake or turn around abruptly many case slip-up and fall-down. It is very dangerous.

• RIDE CAREFULLY ESPECIALLY IN RAIN

• The road surface in rain is different from which in sunshine.

I picture the authors of this booklet standing around a computer in Shanghai, pencils behind their ears, sleeves rolled up, trying to make life-or-death instructions translate for people on the other side of the globe.

There are so many things to say, one of them says, but we know so few English words!

In the end, they bridge the gap between two cultures the best they can.

I wanted to shout at Rachel and her friend that day, words that would penetrate their souls. I wanted them to understand that I am not a wimp, but a man who cares about birds and other creatures, who loves his children enough to subject himself to ridicule from homely-looking high-schoolers hurtling down the highway.

I thought about flipping them the bird, but I was too scared to take my hand off the handlebar.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Scooter saves gas money, at expense of pride 06/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 5:58pm]

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