“Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way, in order to come back a short distance correctly.” That line, from a play I saw once, certainly applies to what happened to me the summer after graduating college. I was a hapless, self-absorbed 22 year-old stud, ready to take life by the antlers and plant my seed. I had too many ambitions, but no real direction. I had been accepted into grad school, but had not yet decided if that path was for me. Rather than stay up north in Massachusetts, I opted to spend the summer with my relatively young Aunt Angie in Florida. My dad was strict, disciplined and thought life was systematic and planned. Like me, Angie was carefree and spontaneous. She lived right near South Beach and this seemed like my best tangible option. South Beach at the time equaled debauchery, long nights and living life to the fullest. I was ready.
Shortly after arriving, Angie hooked me up with a job working at one of the beach’s several kosher butcher shops. I knew nothing about cutting meat. When she mentioned it, I laughed at the prospect, but like everything else, I thought, ”Why the hell not?” And so, I started working for Pee Wee Slater, the butcher. Pee Wee was a hulk of a man. His muscles bulged through his white, always stained with God knows what, apron. He had a high voice, which made you instantly wonder if there was more than irony at work with his nickname.
Pee Wee and I hit it off famously. He had no kids of his own and lived life like a rock star. He was always drinking and making jokes with everyone who came into our shop. He did the actual butchering. I managed the crowd. And we had quite the crowd – lots of locals who adored our chickens and sausages. Pee Wee began to instill in me a certain reckless love and lust for life. One of the things he had not done yet and wanted to do was travel across the country. I quickly adopted this as my new lifetime goal. And I figured what better way to go than by motorcycle. The only problem, I didn’t know how to ride one.
Motorcycles and scooters were abundant in South Beach. There was a Rabbi, who often came into our shop, who had several different vintage bikes. We would often talk about religion (and my lack of it) when we were waiting on Pee Wee to fill his orders. Rabbi Jerry and I had deep talks about existentialism and other lofty topics. Then I would give him his lamb mutton and he would go on his way. I had been making a lot of money and finally decided to ask Rabbi Jerry about purchasing one of his motorcycles. He agreed to sell me one and teach me how to ride. I ended up with a sky blue 1965 Triumph Twin 650. It screamed coolness.
Pee Wee was ecstatic that I was taking this step and offered to go with me on Saturday morning for my first riding lesson. No one wore helmets then, but Pee Wee insisted that I wear some sort of protection and produced this promotional monstrosity he had received from one of his vendors. On one side it said, “Who says size doesn’t count” and on the other “XXL Pepperoni”. Lovely. We went down to the Spanish section of beach where it was relatively uninhabited in the early morning hours and Rabbi Jerry started teaching me the basics. I kept eating sand. It was no fun learning on a beach, especially a pristine white beach where you could blow the sand around with your mouth. It created quite the slippery surface. At first I was very frustrated. Quickly I started to understand the concepts, but I didn’t seem to have the dexterity or the motor skills for operating my ultra cool Triumph.
To make matters worse, these packs of wild dogs would come out of nowhere and start chasing me. I’m not sure they were actually wild as some of them had collars and looked relatively well groomed, but it felt like I was an antelope on the Serengeti being chased by lions. Also, because we were on the Spanish section of beach, the dogs didn’t speak English. They paid no mind when you yelled, “bad dog”. They at least looked up at you for a split second when you shouted the same command in Spanish. Rabbi Jerry and Pee Wee rolled over with laughter, spilling their drinks watching me get chased by the “perros malos”.
The dogs didn’t actually maul me when they caught me, but they would knock over the bike, start licking my face and pretend to bite me. Some of the more aggressive dogs would dry hump my leg. Tourists found it hilarious and small crowds would often gather. Pee Wee came up with a solution that was brilliant. He put aside meat scraps from the shop. I carried them in a plastic bag. As I started to get better riding the Triumph across the sand, I would throw the meat at the dogs as they approached. It was perfect. I could accelerate without the fear of running over a dog, crashing over the handlebars, or getting some unwelcome “perro” love.
After several Saturdays, I finally got it. My balance was better. I was worried that I would be as bad at riding a motorcycle as I was at driving a car. When my dad was teaching me on the family station wagon, I ran over the mailbox, not once but twice. Now, I was definitely getting the hang of the bike and having fun riding with the wild packs. Getting my motorcycle license was the easy part. Rabbi Jerry was my sponsor. He wore his wide brimmed Rabbi hat and his full decorative dress, so no one ever thought of failing me. All I had to do was show up. Pee Wee and Aunt Angie threw me a huge raucous party in full South Beach tradition.
Two days later, all my fun and debauchery came to a grinding halt. My father, upon hearing of my plan to drive across the country to California had boarded a plane and was on his way to sunny Florida. Angie called me at the shop and Pee Wee let me out a little early so I could help her make our place respectable enough for my dad. No matter how much we tried to tidy up the place, he still walked through the door with a serious scowl on his face, a look that I had spent most of my life trying to avoid.
He laid down the law. He told me in concrete language that I was not allowed to travel across country, and that the only choice that currently made sense for me was graduate school, which he was willing at this point to pay for, but not if I decided to throw away my future and ride a motorcycle across the country. I never really understood my dad. He actually knew how to drive a motorcycle, so you think he would have, at least, appreciated my plan. I had never seen my dad have fun. I could only remember him working and looking serious. He was fifteen when my Aunt was born, so she didn’t have a recollection of him ever enjoying himself either.
My dad instantly despised Pee Wee, but seemed to respect Rabbi Jerry enough to at least listen to him. They worked on softening my father over meals and touristy outings. Aunt Angie enjoyed showing her older brother around and my dad was impressed with Rabbi Jerry’s collection of motorcycles. And as he grew fond of a 1970 Harley Sportster, an idea began to form in the heads of the conniving Pee Wee and the cunning Rabbi. The first step was to let my dad actually ride the Harley that he had been almost drooling over. The next step was to use his arrogance against him and challenge him to a duel or, in this case, a race – a motorcycle race. This was Pee Wee’s ridiculous idea. My dad and I would race and if I won, it would show that I was independent enough to handle myself on the road. If I lost, then at the end of the summer I would report to grad school as part of my father’s twelve step plan to make me a productive member of society and my dad would get to keep the motorcycle. I nearly choked on my margarita when my dad agreed.
The race was set to be on Saturday morning and the butchery hyped it up with banners and pamphlets. All of our clientele had been very supportive of my upcoming trip and had been offering advice of where to visit. So, on race day, they showed up in droves. We agreed to race on a one-mile stretch of beach and my father was given some practice time to revive his motorcycling skills. We did have one secret weapon: the roaming Spanish dogs. When my dad practiced on the beach, I stayed on another part of the beach and fed the dogs scraps so they would leave him alone. That way he would not expect them on the day of the race. Also, just to be sure the dogs chased him, Pee Wee rubbed animal entrails all over my dad’s prized bike early Saturday morning. Minutes before the race, my dad sniffed at his motorcycle with a disgusted look on his face and Rabbi Jerry assured him that it was just new motorcycle grease giving off the odor. We then all warned my dad about the dogs and gave him a bag of scraps, just in case. Unbeknownst to him, there were several holes in his bag, which would make it fall apart when he grabbed it.
We had our own official drag queen to start the race. She stood in the middle of us and dropped her feather boa. We were off. It was a dead heat. Suddenly the dogs appeared. This time they looked to be foaming at the mouth. They didn’t know which one of us to chase, so they split into two packs. I threw some meat and my dad watching me, reached for his bag as well. His bag fell apart and about seven dogs tackled my dad and his motorcycle. He fell into a heap of fur, chrome and meat. The crowd roared as I finished the race. I quickly rode back to check on my father, who was being unexpectedly humped by Sloppy José (our name for one of the more lusty dogs). Surprisingly my dad was laughing and smiling as he was trying to fight off the dogs that were licking his face and smothering him with love.
This was a turning point in my relationship with my father. Things between us were much better after the race. Rabbi Jerry gave my dad the bike anyway and he drove it back to Massachusetts with Sloppy José in a sidecar. Pee Wee and Aunt Angie told me that they would miss me terribly and that I was always welcome on South Beach. And for the first three miles of my trip to California, I had a pack of wild dogs following steadily behind. Eventually I did get to grad school, settled back in Massachusetts and had a couple kids of my own, which brings me back to the Edward Albee quote, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way, in order to come back a short distance correctly.”