Portland, Part 7: "The Vespa"
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
"Four wheels move the body, Two wheels move the soul." ― Anonymous I've always been a fan of alternative forms of transportation when I travel...getting to my destination always seems much more fun when you get there by something other than a car or commercial plane. What I like most about places other than Phoenix is that gliders, ferries, dinghies, scooters and trains are a normal part of transportation. I don't really remember what made me want to get a scooter in Portland......I think maybe it was part of my first mid life crisis, but also I absolutely know part of my reasoning was because I hate my wife's old car we keep here. I mean, I really hate it, I don't feel good driving it, it sucks. I'm not implying that I need a specific car to feel better about myself, I don't have that fragile of an ego......I just don't need to drive a vehicle that screams "single 29 year old woman", which is exactly what my wife was when she bought it. It's a 2003 Nissan Xterra, but not the supercharged one, not the one with 4WD or advanced suspension or anything remotely interesting. It's the base model, the lowest rung on the vehicular ladder. It's gutless, its boring, it doesn't inspire anything in me. I feel my gender becoming more fluid every time I drive it. If this car was one of your neighbors, it would be the pimple faced, awkward 20 year old who never comes out of his parents basement and who freaks out when the WIFI goes down. Frankly, I didn't need another mode of transportation, the car was adequate, and even if I didn't want to take the Nissan, then public transportation in Portland is excellent. I think, in reality, I just wanted the scooter. I wanted something evocative in my life, and I thought the Vespa might be the vehicle(literally) to bring me to Valhalla here on earth. I'm being dramatic only because looking back, drama or emotion would be the only thing that would cause me to buy this. This wasn't a pragmatic purchase, it's not like I live in Europe with narrow streets, or Asia where these bikes are ubiquitous...no, this was an emotional urge. Something was lacking in my life 2 years ago, and now with the changes in my life that I've made, I can see what caused me to do that. It was such an impulse buy that I didn't even realize that I legally couldn't drive it off the lot. Oregon laws dictate that any bike over 100 CC's requires a motorcycle license, something I didn't have. I had to have the Vespa delivered to my house in Irvington neighborhood. Once I was back in PHX, I set about getting a motorcycle license at a local company in Gilbert. It was a 3 day training course, a total of 20 hours. We had 10 hours each of classroom and bike instruction, and my bike of choice was a 500 CC bike, frankly I can't remember which type it was. I passed, as did most of the class, but what stood out most to me was how proud everyone was of the "metal" that they rode, or planned on riding. The instructor asked each of us why we were taking the class, and what type of bike we were riding.There were "Harley Mommas", Sport bike riders, Cruisers....and then there was me, the little guy on a scooter. I even told the class that I wanted to wear a special scarf while riding it. It was certainly not the most manly moment I've had in my life.
I've ridden scooters before, many times in Europe and also in Africa. I am pretty comfortable with them, but I didn't want to ride any kind of bike in Phoenix. People drive way too fast, the roads are like expressways and there are tons of crashes and fatalities, plus many times of the year its simply too hot to wear a helmet, and with the lack of laws regarding helmet use, I didn't want to be tempted, My desire for thrill and adventure only goes so far. On the other hand, Portland is the perfect place to ride a scooter in the USA: People don't drive too fast, the roads dictate the speed, it's got a great pedal bike scene, so cars are used to seeing them on the road. Also there is very little parking in most places in Portland, and having a scooter ensures you can always find a place to park, even if it's on the sidewalk. There's something amazing to me about riding my Vespa in town. Through the magic of my bike, normal everyday errands become pleasure rides. I look for excuses to leave the house for any reason. Riding just for the sake of it is something very new to me. This sounds ridiculous, but I feel transformed, I feel alive. Instead of zoning out in a car, all my senses are alive and tingling. I feel the wind on my face and body, I hear things I normally wouldn't. I see sights and sounds and smells that escape me when I am in a car. I notice leaves rustling, music playing, wind blowing. It's a completely different experience. Maybe it's the threat of imminent death that causes me to be this way. Maybe it's the fact that I pass so many wine bars and interesting shoppes while I drive. Maybe it's the fact that I can't be on my phone, can't even look at it while I drive, I don't know. All I know is that I like it very much.
Transportation has always been about getting me from A to B as quickly as possible, but now it's all very different. I also didn't expect the community that goes along with riding on two wheels: people check out your bike, talk about it at stoplights or when it's parked. Even while driving, almost everyone on a bike acknowledges each other, either with a head nod, or a "peace" sign on their left hand(right hand controls throttle) pointed downwards. I have no idea what that means, but it looks really cool. When I first started noticing other bikes on the road, I waved pretty ridiculously, almost like Forrest Gump waving to Lieutenant Dan on the docks....now I'm a lot more cool about it. When I want to ride my Vespa, but don't have anything completely necessary to do, I head down to the dealership in SE Portland to hang out and look at new bikes and all their accessories. The owner of Vespa Portland, Andrew, is a great guy who is obviously passionate about riding, he always has time for me and my questions. I consider him a friend. I'm not sure if the other guys at the shop are really that cool or not, but they absolutely seem to be, just by association. This is how I know that I really like riding my scooter, the fact that I go hang out at the dealership. I have never done that with a car that I bought, most of the time I feel like I am getting scammed and can't wait to leave, but its completely different with the Vespa dealership. Lots of other riders come in and hang out as well. We talk about experiences and different routes to ride, talking shop. It feels good being there. My wife has always told me that I needed a hobby, and I thought that meant woodworking or gardening or something tactile, or something intellectual, like studying butterflies. Riding a vespa is simply transportation, but it's so much more than that. It's funny, I never thought that I would love to ride so much. Have I found my hobby? I really don't know, but it feels amazing. I'm genuinely surprised by my emotions regarding this, but isn't this the point of what I'm doing this year? To take a step back from work, try new things and see if I am really dead inside or just in a coma? I can tell by my reaction to all of this, that there's still life in me.