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I knelt on what looked like a milk crate. Beneath my knees, in yellow letters against a black cardboard background, were painted the letters UMFA. I leaned against the pool table, dipping my head into the cone of light from the fake Tiffany shade, and looked at the denim, leather, muscles, club patches, tattoos, and shadowed eye sockets of two dozen men who stared past me as they’d just as soon bury me at sea as look in my direction.

“All right,” Uncle Frank, the bearded, baseball-capped man next to me called into the room. “We have a new applicant for membership. Let’s hear what he has to say!” He nudged me in the ribs, and I reached for my scotch, swallowed it, and chased it with a beer. I needed to get convincingly ugly, and fast. I remembered Uncle Frank’s instructions. I would say what he told me to say, verbatim. No deviations. Fine, but what the hell was I doing? How did I get here? I hadn’t bargained for this.

“C’mon.” Frank nudged me again, harder this time. “You gonna do it or not?” I nodded, took a deep breath.

At the top of my lungs, in a hoarse voice, I shouted, “I AM AN UGLY MOTHERFUCKER!”

The response came immediately, in unison from almost 30 throats: “TOO CUTE… TOO SHORT!”

Freedom. Wind in the face. Bugs in your teeth. Plus 1200 to 1300 cubic centimeters of American-made shovelhead engine gurgling basso, humming reassurances of power and U.S. dynamism between your legs. Eating up the hypnotic freeways of Southern California, droning a challenge to the road, the law, the world. Riding a Harley is probably one of the last things you can do to thumb your nose at the shopping-mall reality of ’90s Americana, wave your freak flag high, and write your own scenario, one mile at a time, for some personal antihero epic of the mind. But the price is high.

It can be figured in the cost of a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle, some $5000 to $15,000, but that’s just to get you on the road. And it’s on the road where the free rider or club member (not “gang” member, please) begins to pay real dues.

Ever since Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin smirked and swaggered menacingly across the screen in The Wild One in 1954, the sight of more than two motorcyclists on custom “hogs,” “choppers,” or “scooters” has been enough to make citizens grow faint with fear and trembling. It wasn’t until 1969 and Easy Rider that bikers were portrayed in anything resembling a sympathetic light.

On the heels of that film, in December of that year, came the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont Speedway, where the Hells Angels bludgeoned a number of people with pool cues and one member of that club stabbed to death a man brandishing a pistol at the stage. I attended that concert 20 years ago and had my hand stepped on by one of the Angels as I mounted the roof of a rental van for a better view. I fell 20 feet back into the crowd, looking up at the image of a deranged, bearded man with several teeth missing and Viking horns protruding from an animal-skin helmet, waving a fist the size of a cinder block at me.

While Hells Angels and bikers are synonymous in the minds of large segments of the public, the fact remains that the Angels are a specific club about which there are as many legends as facts. But this is not about the Hells Angels. The bikers I was interested in are the independents or free riders. My concern was not bikers as outlaws, but bikers as people. Something other than stereotype.

Walking into Dumont’s A Tavern Etc., on El Cajon Boulevard, in El Cajon, past the rows of parked Harleys out front, my heart was sounding a little loudly in my throat. I had been riding for a couple of years — a 650 Triumph and a 750 Honda — but these are not Harleys. Inside Dumont’s, shouldering past guys, some the size of Coke vending machines with faces that ranged from mean to weathered, I felt like Woody Allen among Barbary pirates.

With me was Eileen Bradford, a legal secretary from the law offices of Richard M. Lester, an attorney who is a champion of bikers’ rights. Eileen has been around bikers for years and seems as comfortable in Dumont’s as other women might be at a tailgate party after a Chargers’ game. As my eyes adjusted to the light, or lack of it, I noticed one guy playing pool using a broom as a cue. He looked as if he might have been an extra in a movie with a title like Chainsaw Rapists on Wheels, but then so did almost everyone else in there. He gave me a cool look and turned back to his game. The only illumination was from the backbar, the pool table lights, and the jukebox. An overhead light at an empty back table made that part of the room look for all the world like an interrogation chamber. It was a Sunday afternoon. Maybe two dozen men and a half dozen women sat at tables, leaned against the bar, or milled around in groups of twos and threes. There were more biceps and steely glances than I felt happy about, and I wondered if my voice would crack as I ordered a beer, when Eileen introduced me to the owner, Rich Dumont.

Dumont came over, shook my hand, and said to a few people around, “It’s the guy from the newspaper!” Turning back to me, he said, “At least you dressed all right.” He looked at my fatigue shirt, black T-shirt, and boots, smiled, and handed me a long-necked Bud. “Let me buy you a beer,” he said. A paint salesman for 25 years (“The best,” he said), Dumont is a lanky, gray-wire-haired man in his 60s with a quick smile and an enthusiastic, staccato manner of speaking. We went to the empty table in the back of the barroom where he showed me a framed clipping about his place from an El Cajon paper. The article seemed to be a retraction of an earlier hatchet job on bikers in general and Dumont’s in particular. Rich Dumont insisted I read the whole thing. I scanned it, and the writer ended the piece by describing what it was like to ride on the back of a Harley. Suddenly the scales fell from the writer’s eyes as he grokked the primally simple exhilaration of riding. His insight into the mind of the biker was complete.

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