“I can build my own motorcycle.”

I suppose this is a departure from the original intent of the website… but at this point it’s a departure to post at all (last one was November 2018… oops) and it’s my damn page so there. I hope you’re keeping your chin up during the pandemic and you and yours are safe and sane. Hang in there, baby kitties. I love you. – george ellen 

Artwork by Yolanda Bustos ig @lollypop.hickey

San Diego, California. March, 2015. I’m at the DIY garage where I’ll soon move my ’76 CB550 for their monthly after-hours hangout. I’m there with my best friend “Michelle.” I’ve very recently broken up with my boyfriend of a little over a year, and it’s bad (it’ll get worse). I’m the skinniest I’ve ever been (I can’t eat, and I’ll get even skinnier when it comes time for the restraining order), and though I hate the cause I’m feeling the result, and I’m on a (temporary) high after finally ending the relationship. I’m single and ready to mingle… at least ready to talk shop and drink a couple beers.

Me & the Honda (then named ‘Geil’) in April when we moved into the shop

There aren’t a lot of people at this hangout, and Michelle and I are the only women. A guy around my age starts talking to the two of us and is hitting on me, hard. He’s exactly my type, down to his boozy overconfidence. Before long he demands my number. I explain I’m days out of a shitty relationship and I’m not ready (I’ve never subscribed to the notion that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else). He doesn’t accept this. “I’ll take you out to dinner, anywhere you want, and then I’ll help you build your motorcycle.”

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Old vs. new fork oil

My ex was going to help me build my motorcycle. That had been the plan, anyway. I’d brought it to his house in bins, the engine belted into the passenger seat, and in the 6+ months it was there he helped me change the fork oil, mount tires, and buy a bunch of cheap parts I ultimately had to re-buy. I quickly learned that wrenching with him was a disaster that often ended with him throwing a fit (and tools) when he got frustrated. He refused to return the moto after the breakup, and only allowed my brother to collect it after my dad (who was the registered owner) called him. As I told my ex at the time — don’t fuck with my motorcycle. Holding my Honda hostage was the final nail in a coffin that was already six feet under.

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The rolling frame I moved into the shop

So I looked this dude square in the eye and told him: “I can build my own motorcycle, thanks.” And to my vague astonishment I realized I actually believed myself. I hadn’t the foggiest idea HOW I was going to build this motorcycle, but the last thing I wanted was another man involved. He finally conceded to giving me his number instead of taking mine, and I excused myself to the restroom, where I had a sudden, clanging awareness. I knew this guy.

“Did you ever shoot a couch?” I asked when I returned. I knew the answer immediately by the way his eyes narrowed and his features hardened. “Oh, you’re friends with Xxxxxx,” he sneered. I didn’t recognize him at first. He’d gained some weight and wasn’t as coiffed as he’d been when I’d heard the story years earlier. Back then he had a penchant for mod suits and shiny oxfords when I saw him every so often at shows or on the campus of the downtown community college. I wasn’t friends with his ex-girlfriend, but someone getting wasted and shooting their partner’s couch was the sort of gossip that made its quick way around a town as incestuous as San Diego.

His tone flat and cold, he told me that incident was an isolated one due to too much cocaine, which he no longer used (well, aside from last New Year’s Eve). Just to get confirmation (he was pretty cute), I asked the owners of the motorcycle shop what they thought of him. I was told he consistently got sloppy drunk at their events and then rode his motorcycle home, and that he had a dog who apparently so abhorred living with him it broke through a glass window to escape. What was this bizarre occurrence — it was like I was actually SEEING the red flags that were smacking me in the face. When I dropped off Michelle and told her I planned to throw away his number, she took it “in case I changed my mind.” I probably would have, in the past.

I’m glad I didn’t.

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I Can’t Stand the Rain

Victory bolts

 

San Diego, California. The good news is — I have a lot of catching up to do here. The bad news is — I have a lot of catching up to do here.

Where were we… congealed fuel filter. I was instantly convinced that if the filter looked that bad the fuel lines and gas tank couldn’t look much better. And wouldn’t you know it, I was thrilled to have something to do.

As I researched replacing the gas lines I became relieved I was doing so. Every forum I visited had foreboding warnings of DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU with a photo of a bus engulfed in flames. Apparently it was exceedingly common for the rubber sections of a vw’s fuel line (which connect metal pieces) to become brittle over the years of sitting, leak, and cause an engine fire. Yikes.

Photo: The Spokesman-Review

 

I also read that the gas tanks were poorly sealed and rust-prone to begin with, and that gasoline separates over time and the heavier water settles to the bottom and… you get the picture. But it seemed a local radiator shop would be able to “boil it out” (fill it with an unsettling cocktail of corrosive chemicals to clean out the insides). I just needed to remove the tank.

The only mention of this process in the holy script which is How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is: “Remove it — it’s easy — and have it steam cleaned at a garage.” John Muir is a liar. Or, at the very least, he’s never witnessed a wrestling match like that between me and Norman’s gas tank.

A week after seeing the sorry state of the fuel filter Chris (my go-to guy for “wtf do I do now/htf do I do this”) met me in the garage. He dismantled everything that could be from the top of the engine while I prepared the fire wall for removal. Some screws, a couple bolts, a couple metal tabs bent open, and it popped out pretty easily.

The gas tank was strapped in place with metal suspenders that attached to the undercarriage of the van with bolts that were positioned in such a way as if to say: “Are you sure you’re supposed to be here?” They were tucked up and behind and in between immovable metal and were impossible to get to with a straightforward tool.

The gas tank with its suspenders, the firewall removed to expose decades of dirt roads

 

One of the two bolts securing the tank straps

 

I stopped at Home Depot to pick up the necessary elbow joint and Chris went back to work. I also picked up some chemical splash goggles; flakes of who knows what had been getting in my eyes while poking around underneath the van. I decided to detach the two lines to the tank before attempting the bolts. Just cut them, Chris said, since you’re going to replace them anyway.

In the carefree days before I was baptized in gasoline

 

It took a good amount of muscle to get through the line with a pair of dull wire cutters. The first line produced a scant dribble of gas. Cool. I was even more confident the tank was empty. The return line gave up much more of a fight, but a last strong squeeze severed the line.

And gas rained upon me.

Not a little dribble. A downpour. Those new goggles came in handy since some splashed in my face and would have gone in my eyes. I rolled out as quickly as I could and centered the oil drain pan I’d had ready just in case under the deluge as best I could, but the stream was running off the starter and other components and falling in a haphazard mess, splashing everywhere and soaking the cardboard under the van.

Pro tip: When faced with a flammable hazard be sure to take the time to post about it

 

I crouched at the back of the van willing the rain to stop. Minutes went by and it showed no sign of slowing. How much gas could the tank hold? At least ten gallons. Panic began creeping in. I grabbed a large dog dish and set that on top of the drain pan, which worked much better since it was closer to the source and had sides to contain the splashing. A few minutes later the dish was halfway full. I was going to have to transfer the gas into the two small storage containers I had. I scrambled for the containers and my oil funnel. The funnel wouldn’t stay secure without holding it and I needed both hands for the dish, so I propped everything against a bush.

The dish was 3/4 full at this point. I somehow managed to slide it out from under the van without spilling any but made up for it tenfold when I poured it into the funnel. It went everywhere: on me, on the bush, on the dirt, on the driveway. I filled one two-gallon container and part of the other and replaced the empty dish, gas still gushing.

Wouldn’t you know, this was the moment my mom came out to talk to me. She handled it extremely well. She had been planning to take a shower, but thought maybe she’d hold off using hot water so the pilot light on the water heater, which was about four feet from the gasoline puddle, wouldn’t come on. “Isn’t it always on?” I asked. We were quiet for a moment. I tried making a joke about how blowing up the van would take care of the tank removal issue, but it wasn’t funny.

Finally the gas slowed and then stopped. I filled the other container and the drain pan, spilling more in the process.

I still wanted to try to get at those bolts, so I climbed under the van. I spent a terrible amount of time, probably 15 minutes, trying every combination of socket handles and extensions and elbows with no joy before realizing I was using a 12mm socket instead of 13. Now I had ahold of it, but I couldn’t get the bolt to budge. Thinking maybe I’d have better luck with the other, I slid to the right side.

As I fit the socket over the bolt my back started to burn. I had thought to remove the gasoline-soaked cardboard before going under but immediately forgot in my fumigated and agitated state. For the second time that afternoon I scrambled out from under the van as quickly as possible. I had had enough fun for one day. I was sick from the fumes, hot and itchy from laying in gas, and really rattled after a potential calamity. I was embarrassed about misjudging the fuel situation and making such a mess. The garage and yard smelled awful, especially right next to the front door where I’d abused the bush. I felt dejected and incompetent — I thought this was supposed to be easy!


Two days later I returned to dispose of the gas and have another go at the bolts. I sprayed the bolts with PB Blaster, a penetrant, to help loosen them before taking the gasoline to hazardous waste disposal.

I’d mentioned to Chris that I couldn’t get good leverage on the bolt the other day; I was too close to the undercarriage to use a regular-sized socket wrench, and the mini handle didn’t give enough torque. He said he had a second extension to use — I did too! I popped it on and it gave enough space to use the full size handle. After a half-dozen or so tries it budged!

Screenshot from a video celebrating the bolt’s vanquishing, showing the tool I used

 

I gave it a few more turns, then hopped up to check that the metal straps weren’t stuck and twisting with the bolt, as I’d seen happen in a YouTube video. We were good so I kept at it. One came off, then the other.

I was elated. I felt better after taking care of the used gas as quickly as possible, and was empowered by the victory over the bolts. I was one step closer to removing the gas tank! How many blog posts does it take to remove a gas tank? I’m not sure, but three months later that bush is not doing well. Oops.


Norman Hits the Road

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Chino, California. The rooster crows his fool head off in the backyard as I nurse my mug of coffee. My cousin Ben graciously set the maker to start at 6am the night before, which makes being awake at such an early hour more bearable.

The Van is leaving my aunt’s garage for the first time in over 6 years to come home with me to San Diego.

This morning has been in the works for a number of months now, maybe six. While I’d been daydreaming about taking on The Van as my next project for a few years, I’d only more recently summoned the courage to talk about it with my family. The Van originally belonged to my Uncle Bill, my mom’s brother-in-law. He and The Van and an assortment of other passengers crisscrossed the country multiple times over the decades on adventures long and short. A school teacher, my uncle would take a month-long camping trip each summer during break with a variation of my three cousins and their friends. (My year-round school schedule was always at odds with his traditional, so I never joined.)

Uncle Bill passed away the end of the summer of 2008 during a solo canoeing trip on Mono Lake. The usually calm waters are sometimes suddenly and severely overtaken by high winds. Winds that day were clocked as high as 80 miles an hour. Making his way back to The Van, parked at the shore of Navy Beach, to return home for the start of the school year, his canoe capsized, and he drowned.

The Van was driven a few times after his death. My cousins, brother, and I took it to Joshua Tree National Park for my 30th birthday. But soon it sat, for longer and longer stretches, until it became a neglected fixture of my aunt’s garage.

It was summer last year when I observed the only time I genuinely felt excited was when I fantasized about taking on The Van as my next project. I’d only recently completed my first — a 1976 Honda CB550F motorcycle that had belonged to my dad and subsequently sat unloved in a backyard for 20-odd years. I’d never done so much as an oil change for my car or used a socket wrench. Having no idea what I was getting myself into I naively thought I’d “fix it up” and by the time I realized what all I’d gotten myself into (a complete rebuild) I was too invested and stubborn to quit. Three-and-a-half years later I was riding around town… and seemed to have something like post-project depression. The bug had bitten me. I wanted more.

A picture emerged in my mind: the moto (dubbed “Arnold” after we crashed in August and I used the insurance money to make upgrades — lemonade from lemons, and I prefer mine mixed with iced tea) towed in the back of The Van, a 1979 Volkswagen Type 2. Long weekends in the mountains or desert, season depending. I’d spend the day riding the moto, and return at its end to The Van, simply modified to safely and comfortably provide shelter for the night. I’d kick up my feet and put a record on the player (I’m happiest when fancying myself a character in a Wes Anderson movie, so record player is the logical source of sound), crack open a beverage and breathe in all that was good in the world.

I could never have gathered the gumption to ask to take on The Van without the confidence earned from the moto build, but even so it was sickeningly scary. My uncle is somewhat of a legend, not only among my family but in the broader community. He taught high school special ed math, and a regular incentive for his students was a trip in The Van to Joshua Tree; there are countless people with fond memories of my uncle and The Van. He was a prominent figure in his local Methodist church, and a mentor to former students long after they graduated. He is, to me, proof that life doesn’t owe you a damn thing or make any sense whatsoever in the way it shakes out. He was the kindest, most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and I am forever heartbroken at his absence.

I asked my aunt first, as I accompanied her to pick up Mexican food for the rest of the family. In the memory I’m awkward and halting, my nervousness tangling my words before they can leave my mouth. To my eternal relief she was receptive and calm, and nodded along with my plan. She liked it, but was very clear that it wasn’t her permission I needed so much as my cousins’.

I talked to them over the next few weeks, my confidence rising with each enthusiastic response. The youngest, Vanessa, had two qualifiers: don’t change the seats and don’t change the paint. I was vaguely offended at the second (change that paint job?!?? Are you kidding!!??!) but I was glad to have any expectations out in the open.

Everyone was on board. Not only were they on board, they seemed genuinely excited. My aunt and mom’s brother, Chip, was a life long car enthusiast who spent much of his time post-retirement at racetracks as a volunteer. I looked to him as the seasoned mechanic in my corner. He was glad to help. Thanksgiving morning we met at my aunt’s to give The Van an inspection. The battery was of course dead, but with a jump started right up. The excitement and emotion of hearing her running for the first time in years was exhilarating and sweetly sad. My aunt hooted, my cousins cheered and clapped. I declared we should start a mechanical project each Thanksgiving.

I expected AAA to tow us home, but I overestimated the package availed us. They would only cover 100 miles, and the distance between my aunt and mom’s homes was 123. At $10/mile over the initial 100, that made for a much more expensive trip than I’d counted on. (I live in a very tiny studio in central San Diego, with no space to store or work on… anything. My mom very generously donated a portion of her garage in Chula Vista for the moto, and is doing so once more for The Van.) But Vanessa had a friend, Thomas, with access to a trailer through his work and a penchant for moving vehicles.

And so here we are. Chino. Coffee. Early (so early).

I follow behind in my silver sedan, feeling like a protective barrier against the speeding Southern California drivers who whiz up behind us, going 55 – 60 mph. I’ve never driven so slowly on the freeway for so long. Around 10 am we arrive at my mom’s. She has a spot in the garage waiting — she’s relegating one of her vehicles to life outside. The guys push while I steer, and The Van is in my mom’s garage. Damn, it’s weird.

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I had promised Vanessa I’d take them all out to eat, but by this time I feel like I’m about to crack open from the emotion and expectation of it all. I meekly make excuses about it being 10:30 on a Sunday and how crowded it’ll be anywhere, and palm her money for food. I do the same with gas money for Thomas (who also gave The Van a bath! What a guy).

My mom and I sit for a while with coffee and gradually the lump in my throat subsides. I opt for the mildest yet most satisfying first task I can think of: scraping old tape from the inside of the back window. The remnants had stuck out to me the entire drive here. I climbed in, armed with a razor blade. I thought of all the times with the moto that I’d spent days doing menial tasks because I was too overwhelmed to do anything else. Once I was done with that I thought I’d just see how the seats were secured to the floor; I knew they bolted in and out and was curious how easily the bolts would release. Not a one gave an ounce of resistance. My mom came out to see midway through and when I told her how easily things were going she declared it “meant to be.” “Oh no,” I argued, shaking my head. “I’m not going there, because when things are more difficult down the road I don’t want to have to admit the opposite.”

 

It’s my first big step towards my dream of kickin’ up my feet after a day of moto-ing and putting on a record. The most precious part of the whole thing is the support of my family. I know it’s difficult for them, as it is for me, to be reminded that my uncle isn’t here, but I hope it’s worth it. And I can all but hear my Uncle Bill saying: “cool!”