A 1965 Harley Chopper, an Overzealous Actor and I Play Dead

The first film of any size I ever worked on was a rambling, elaborate thing directed (and bankrolled) by a session drummer who’d made a small fortune when he angled away from jazz drumming in the 60s to play music for ads and jingles.  He had a Gold Coast estate, a farm in northern Illinois, and his own airplane, which he flew out of Miegs Field. He’d thrown some money at T. Coraghessan Boyle for a story called “Greasy Lake” which my roommate (the drummer’s partner) had adapted and was producing.  There was a lot of money for what was essentially an elaborate (we shot for two plus weeks) student film with an unwieldy projected running time of 40 minutes.  Since I was the producer’s roommate, I was made the script supervisor, though I never fully grasped exactly what that entailed and was prone when asked (for example) how far an actress’s cigarette was burned down in the close-up to answer “How the fuck would I know?” the New Yorker I had been just a year before coming out.

I was better at doing the kinds of odd jobs necessary to keep a small film production like this moving forward, driving vans and trucks and cast and crew, running to the store for emergency supplies, driving to Wicker Park to pick up a forgotten prop, even appearing in the background in a couple of scenes. For the last four days, a key job had been keeping the 1974 AMC Pacer (the main character’s car) in one piece and running. We paid $150 for the car, it barely ran in the first place and the night before, we’d sat just off camera and watched as an overzealous actor (who also happened to be our third roommate) trashed the Pacer with a crowbar while the main character stood chest deep in the lake where he ran to escape. Of course the car-trashing was in the script, but we’d told our roommate repeatedly to make it look good but be cool because we needed that car for a couple more days. He being the exuberant sort went at it with a fury once the cameras rolled and in no time, windshield glass pebbled the front seats, both side mirrors were on the ground, the driver’s side door hung by speaker wires and the dent in the hood was so big, we had to hammer it out from the inside to keep it from rubbing against the fan belt.  The three of us shared a house in Wicker Park built in 1851 with a huge yard with peach trees (we made pies in the Fall) that was so rickety, we joked if there was a fire, we could take a good run at any interior wall and end up on the outside. He was also part of the “anything that needs doing” crew and I’ll forever remember him standing on the front bumper of a Jeep Cherokee that wouldn’t start, air cleaner off, pouring a small Solo cup full of gas straight into the carburetor, lit cigarette dangling off his lower lip. 

When the director said he needed someone to go pick up a motorcycle for a scene, I volunteered immediately.  It sounded like an adventure and I’d owned a couple of motorcycles over the years. The next morning, I drove to the border of Wisconsin where I met his friend who owned the bike, which turned out to be a 1965 Harley chopper (see photo for a rough idea).  Suffice to say I’d never ridden anything quite like that.  His instructions were not reassuring.  Kick the bike hard to start it, he said, if you half ass it, it’ll kick back, either sending you head over handlebars or snapping your leg cleanly in place (“What?” I said. “What was that second part?”).  Don’t worry about using the clutch to shift gears, just blip the engine lightly before shifting. And be warned, the bike is good on straightaways, but turns are “more problematic.”

Fine, fine, I said, eager to go because I had to drive it to the far south side near Cicero, close to 100 miles one way.  The kick start was not a problem, the difficulty of turning was a steep learning curve and I nearly dropped it more than once going around a corner before I got the hang of keeping my speed up. The clutch was so stiff, my hand ached halfway to Cicero, even though I wasn’t using it to shift gears and was putting it in neutral at lights. But even with all that, it was a damn stylish way to travel. It was summer and Illinois had no helmet law so my long hair was in a doo-rag and I wore a sleeveless leather vest. Riding with my hands perched above my eyeline was a strangely dramatic way of moving through the world, like you’re leaning back in your recliner and watching the landscape spool out around you. Everyone stared as I drove by; pedestrians, bicyclists, children in strollers, guys in pick-up trucks, stoned teenagers standing on overpasses. At my first stoplight, a car with father, mother and three kids in the back pulled up alongside.  A little boy stared open-mouthed, I gave him a friendly wink and smiled at the mother who promptly and rather ostentatiously locked all four of the doors with a panicked slamming of the flat of her hand on the buttons. Years later, when I wrote about a hyped up couple driving through the countryside as part of the book that would become the (recently published) novel “Double,” I drew on this motorcycle ride:

We were charged, cutting a dangerous swath through the landscape.  When she pushed down on the accelerator, the clouds above seemed to part, the front end of the car lifted, wind noise screamed in our ears, children covered their faces as we passed, a rabbit froze in the road, then darted—too slow!, birds panicked and beat the wind with their wings and pickup trucks skidded sideways to avoid us.

There were two south side locations where the bike was needed.  First, I was to drop it off at a bar where we’d been shooting for a couple of nights outside Cicero, a real shithole type of place (neon signs with missing letters, one speaker shredded on the juke box, faint smell of piss and puke permanently soaked into the wood) with increasingly intoxicated south-siders who were pretty surly to begin with. We often joked on set that the Chicago city motto should be “You think you’re better than me?/You’re not better than me” to go on bumper stickers and t-shirts city-wide. We’d had an incident the night before where some customers, drunk and pissed off over what they saw as a bunch of snotty college kids shooting a movie outside their bar, made a scene, settling on the notion that we were mocking bikers. That they were more barflies than bikers (no motorcycles, though there was one beat-up looking bicycle chained out front, the kind of thing someone who has lost his license repeatedly might mount to hit the local watering hole) didn’t seem to matter, they just wanted a reason to disrupt us and would not go away. I was interested in seeing what the presence of a genuine 1965 Harley chopper might have on the rowdies, but they weren’t around.

Location number two was a small lake nearby where we’d spend the rest of the night shooting. The idea was that the main character would happen upon this lake after a long night of drinking and general trouble-making, see this chopper parked lakeside, then get run into the water by a couple of hooligans (this was the “attack the Pacer scene” shot the night before) where he’ll happen upon a floating dead body (me, my only cameo in the film that ended up making the final cut), presumably the owner of the motorcycle, the horror of a floating dead body the final straw in his night of debauchery, sending him careening towards some morning epiphanies.

And it all worked out, more or less. We saw the sunrise, three of us climbed into the row boat rented from a place on the far side of the lake, rowed out to the center, and promptly took naps in the warming morning sun. By the time, I got back to the chopper, I was literally the last person left. I had a panicked moment when it wouldn’t kick over – it was miles and miles to any sort of phone (this was 1989, cell phones were a decade away) – but it did and I had a (mostly) serene ride through the far western suburbs of Chicago to the border of Wisconsin, where I happily climbed into my quiet, anonymous Honda Accord for the drive back to the city.

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