Last night I rode home from work late, at nine thirty p.m., on glistening wet streets surrounded by a sudden burst of the year’s first thick snow flurries. They lasted only about five minutes—from when the motorcycle's engine warmed up as I stood beside it putting on my helmet and gloves, to about Lake Avenue…a distance of eighteen blocks. This crappy weather was an unexpected surprise. It had been sunny and gorgeous when I’d ridden in earlier. A crisp, bright, late fall day.
Every year I have only one experience exactly like this. It's singularly anticipated, but cannot be planned or expected. Wet streets and running water in the gutters. Air thick with irregularly clumping snowy whiteness. Thirty four degrees. Only a few cars. I've probably enjoyed this identical ten-minute ride twenty times in thirty years.
Emotionally and experientially, it is exactly the same each year.
The puffy snow dances in the bike's headlight and streaks around my arms and shoulders—each outsized cluster of flakes a tiny comet. They all follow a precisely smooth laminar flow like an endlessly darting school of phosphorescent tropical fish that stretches out before me forever. Otherworldly and surreal. I float forward through this illuminated ocean of rarely visible air, dreamily mesmerized.
A few moments earlier I’d been looking absently at the gaseous steam of pulses coughing from the end of the bike’s idling exhaust, anticipating this fun, and whatever unknowns were just ahead in the darkness. Somehow the pavement looked even oilier than it does during summer rains. A glistening black sandpaper of diamond-sparkles.
I was internally giddy pulling on my already-partly-wet gloves, anticipating what was both routine and idiotic…and now I was mounted and lowering the choke lever, then flipping on the low beam switch—a self-added control which produces a distinctly old fashioned ‘click-snap’ that can be felt as it toggles over though my glove’s fingertip. Unequivocally reassuring in it’s miniature spring-and-metal way.
White flakes in the headlight’s sudden brightness danced even more merrily—as if they knew they were on a stage, suddenly in a spotlight. Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas!
Closing the choke causes the bike to shudder, cough and die, so I thumb the starter a couple of times until the engine catches again, then tenderly rev the throttle to clean out the misfire. It had been idling on full-choke for too long while I'd fiddled with my helmet and gloves. A few smaller twists, then a bigger one and the engine clears and settles down to it's steady tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh idle. A complicated, comforting, reassuring old bass metronome. And finally I was ready to go.
But another late-leaving co-worker is suddenly standing in the middle of the street, five feet away, pointing her cell phone camera at me and the flurry of surrounding snowflakes. In the background her car is idling in the empty lane, it’s driver’s door wide open. An amusingly thick spindrift of whiteness swirled up between us, again almost as if it somehow knew to increase the flaky performance for her camera. "I don't have enough light.” she shouted just above the bike and wind. “It’s a cheap phone camera. I'll email it to you if it comes out." "OK. Great! Thanks! Have a nice night!..." She smiled and hurried back to the safety and comfort of the car. Nice lady.
I was anxious, and ready, so I released the clutch and rolled out across the car’s two yellow headlight beams, waving with my gloved left hand sweeping upward a few inches from the ribbed handlebar grip. Her open hand replied, waving back from just behind the car’s windshield. And then I was off like Zorro...or maybe someone else, just heading home from my job on a wet snowy night.