Naxos is about 120 kilometers around, big enough to explore and enjoy for days on end. At every other streetcorner in Naxos-town, one finds rows and rows of gleaming scooters and ATVs and other like vehicles, carefree emblems of the modern opulence of this island. Colorful little chalkboards broadcast the Astounding Bargain Weekly Rates ("The Boss Must Be Krazy!"), jockeying for the careless glances of the passing Dutch and Swedish tourists. Renting these small, maneuverable little fossil-fuel guzzlers comes with the tourist package of cheesy cocktails and designer knockoffs that sours the Naxos experience. (Its like the Santana Experience, but without the Latino mysticism.)
Now, allow me to be absolutely clear about this; Everyone Should Spend At Least A Day Of Their Lives Whizzing About On A Motorcycle/Moped/Scooter/What-Have-You. Nothing, with the possible exception of a Randall Stuart production, even closely compares with the peculiar exhileration of speed and open road and ocean sunset seen from the seat of a motorbike, with the Top Gun soundtrack ennervating your accelerator. I spent about an hour-and-a-half or so flying about with Brenna riding behind me, and in that brief moment I glimpsed just how excellent it would be to live on this island for the rest of my life...
...and it very nearly was the rest of my life...
In Paris, I allowed myself to be coerced by Brenna and her friends Jim, Suzie and Ann into riding this twisted, infernal machine at a carnival in the Tuileries. Some sick, sick individual came up with the idea of mounting swings high above the ground, and married that idea to the merry-go-round, so that you have this towering instrument of doom revolving at unspeakably nauseating speeds, and, as if that weren't enough, you're supposed to willingly climb in and fly around up there like Icarus or Phaeton or something. I think a similar monstrosity was featured on the cover of the Dave Matthews Band album, 'Under the Table and Dreaming'.
Friends, you all know I'm a pretty tough cookie. I've wrestled 300-lb. 'clients' into Safety Rooms at Hooper Detox. I hold the all-time record of tools broken in the line of duty at AmeriCorps. I'm halfway through Gibbon's Decline and Fall. I've stepped into major roles with less than a week before opening. But so help me, it took everything I had and more to keep down the several scoops of ice cream I so injudiciously consumed moments before ascending the scaffold. "Wow, I've never heard anyone scream Shakespeare verse before," said Anne.
But apparently, Brenna's appetite for disaster was only whetted by the Twisting Cyclone of Destruction (she's trained as a trapeze artist, and other such heathenish practices). Scarcely three weeks later, Brenna the Danger Fetishist prodded and insinuated so subtly that I hardly realized the mortal peril lurking beneath the shiny little headlights and the plush vinyl riding seats.
"You never ride before? That's not so good." said Billy, the proprietor of Billy's Bikes, eyeing me suspiciously. I do my best to act nonchalant and tough. I swagger and mount the moped like it's a bucking bronco waiting for a strong cowhand to break her in. My toe catches on the seat and I stumble, nearly bringing down the bike on Billy's feet. Brenna rolls her eyes.
Billy smells money. "But it's easy. You take it easy like when you're going to fu-uh, make love to your lady, sorry, yeah, you relax and you ease the accelorator, yeah, easy." You ACT Greenies out there; I could have sworn Billy was Greg Dubin's long lost Greek brother. Billy and his Bike shop, staffed by Billy, a Greek ex-military man, Jim, a retired New Zealand carpenter, and an anonymous Cypriot teenage grease-monkey, is a David Mamet play waiting to be written.
Within a few nerve-racking moments Billy has passed along to me all that I supposedly need to know about driving a moped in Naxos ("Do I need to worry about one-way streets?" "No, you don't need to worry about them. Just don't get killed in them."), and as a test, he sends me on my way to find the nearest gas station. And, true to form, I promptly get lost in Naxos.
Twenty harrowing minutes later, I circle back to Billy's, where I conference with Brenna and touch bases with Jim about where this supposed gas station is. But more importantly, I start to really like riding this thing...
Twenty more minutes later, I do find the gas station on the other side of town, where the attendant watches me with that withering "You're not from here, are you?" stare as I sputter about trying to open the fuel cap. After a few long moments, he reaches down, flips a switch and the cap flips open.
Twenty more minutes later, with a full tank of gas, Brenna and I are flying down the road out of Naxos, wind and sky and the dust of the road our only companions.
We had no clear destination in mind. Only an ethereal vision of a quiet beach where the water is clear and the sun is welcoming, a vision quite near at hand in fact. Now, by this point in time, I was the Motorcycle Master, the Lord of the Open Road, a Deity of pure speed and purpose. I was handling the capricious little machine with the sure hand of a being wrought with decisiveness and expertise. That is, until the capricious little machine morphed into a howler monkey with a twitching disorder.
Motorcycles are hardwired into the American male psyche elbow-to-elbow with Marlon Brando and Tonka trucks and Jack Kerouac and Philly cheesesteaks. One doesn't learn to ride so much as succumb to a primal set of instincts, engaged in a part of the brain saturated in Hemingway novels. Twitching howler monkeys, on the other hand, have no place in the American male psyche. One might even argue they have no place on a dirt road in the middle of a remote island in the Aegean.
All I remember is that one moment we were beginning to descend a suspiciously steep stretch of dirt road, and the next moment I was sprawled on the road with my leg curiously supporting the weight of the moped. My first thought was, "Thank God Brenna's wearing a helmet." Followed closely by "Now which way is up, again?"
You see, the most unsettling aspect of That Twirling Thing in Paris was how potently it messed with my internal gyroscope. Up, down, around, within, without, all of my prepositions got mixed up in a blender set for puree. The Motorcycle/Howler Monkey was kind of like that.
I spent the rest of the day nursing some nasty burns on my knee and arm, and various accompanying bruises and cuts. Brenna, thank goodness, leapt away with impeccable timing, and so survived with but a touch of dust and a bruise or two. The salt water helped, I think, to salve my wounds, though my pride suffered beyond the power even of the sea to heal. All hopes of growing up to become a professional dirtbike Olympian were most ignominiously dashed that day. Jack Kerouac walked off into the sunset. My philly cheesesteak evaporated into thin air. The tonka truck tonked out. Marlon Brando turned his back on me.
We carefully rode back to Naxos at sunset. Passing Billy on the street, I gave him the "Well, if it isn't the man who's going to kill me tommorrow!" grin, complicated by the probable effects of a mild concussion. We returned the bike the next day, swallowing a 150 euro bill for the damages. "Good thing you've got the insurance plan, mate" said Jim.
I still can't kneel on my right knee, and the moving bits move about in a curious, unsettling way. And I have some permanent Naxos love-bites.
Still, with no major injuries or anything worse incurred, I cannot say that I regret the experience. I have tasted of the apotheosis of masculinity, and I am now certain my fate will lead me once more to the glorious world David Wilcox sang of in "Eye of the Hurricane."
(Say it with me, everybody. "Who's motorcycle is this?" "It's a chopper, baby." "Who's chopper is this?" "It's Zed's." "Who's Zed?"...)