Being a woman of a certain age, I’ve indulged myself in browsing red hats. I’ve resisted the impulse purchase so far, having failed to find the perfect wide-brimmed number to make me feel like a ’40s movie star on the prowl. I haven’t yet fully embraced the notion of being “a red hat lady.” Even so, whenever I come across such a group, I feel an up-welling sisterhood with those women of my age cohort, maybe because I respond to the almost ironic in-your-face quality of the smiling troops wearing red hats. And, yes, I’ve never seen a red-hat-wearing woman who didn’t look happy. But not all women over 60 wear red hats when they go on excursions. Some wear motorcycle helmets with a panache that would do any red-hat lady proud.
One such woman, Joyce [not her real name], wasn’t wearing her helmet when I met her, and some of her hair was tucked into a stylish black fabric cloche. She was part of a group of six bikers sheathed in black leather sitting in the big round booth close to ours at the local family-restaurant-cum-roadhouse Sunday breakfast buffet. I figured they might have been the owners of the colorful, sparkling line of Harleys we’d walked past on our way in, though several other bikes were parked among the pickups, SUVs, and BMWs.
When the six got up to leave, I left my half-eaten omelet with a quick apology as I abandoned my companion who, when I’d asked him earlier, had said he hadn’t noticed the older woman I wanted to talk with, adding, “I don’t stare at bikers.”
Understood. I try not to stare, but I sure do look.
I scrambled down from the raised booth, made my way over to Joyce, and introduced myself as a writer.
When she asked what kind of bike, I realized she’d heard “ride,” not “write.”
My experience with motorcycles? I’ve been in Sturgis — though not during the rally. I toured the Harley-Davidson factory in York, Pennsylvania with two 14-year-old boys in tow, and I’d once ridden on the back of a cycle. I stifled these autobiographical details and, taking care to improve my articulation, said that I write about “women like us.”
I went on to explain that I was interested in finding out about her riding. Joyce said she was 67; I responded that I was going to be 67 the next month. It was a little like claiming “15 going on 16” from back in the day when ages, like shoe sizes, included fractions.
Sisterhood is powerful, as we used to say, and Joyce was forthcoming, introducing me to the two other women in the group, both of whom rode their own bikes. We shook hands, as formal as at any ladies’ tea. The men went un-named, and they disappeared, maybe to settle the restaurant bill.
Joyce told me that she rode with her husband until she was 60. Then she got her own bike. Behind her plastic-rimmed glasses, her eyes flashed, highlighted by blue eye shadow and spiky mascara-enhanced lashes. Otherwise she was in black — T-shirt and leather pants.
“What made you decide?” I asked. At the time, I wasn’t considering the possibility of what are called euphemistically “life-cycle changes” — death, divorce, or other separation. Just as well, or I wouldn’t have asked.
She gave a one-word answer: “Control.” The rest was commentary.
“I’m not home in the kitchen, cooking and washing dishes,” she said. Instead she was on the road.
She told me that now she can look at the scenery when she drives, slow down when she wants to look at something closer, and she can stop whenever she wants. I wondered how that worked when she was riding with five others, but I knew what she meant.
Though I’d learned to drive as a teenager, and passed my driving test at that time, I didn’t really drive until I was in my 40s. After all, we have adequate public transportation — where we all go at a speed determined by someone other than ourselves.
I’d never thought much about the literal meaning of the phrase “to be in the driver’s seat,” but I’d been aware of how in popular culture a woman learning to drive a car has been symbolic of her becoming emancipated — which may be why some countries forbid women to take the wheel.
Even in America, by custom, men do the driving. My mother-in-law had left all the driving to her husband; then, after he died, she took lessons and began to take the car out for short distances to the store and other errands. Until then she’d been dependent upon him. In her generation women let the man drive, often long after they should have stopped. [Using the word “let” indicates a less-obvious power structure.] In his last years, one woman used to tell her husband when he should stop the car at a red light and when he should go when the light turned green again, not because she was a back seat driver, but because he couldn’t see well enough to discern the color of the traffic signal. She reported to her children that after a fender-bender she and the wife of the other driver got out of the car to yell at one another, each asking why the other “let that old man drive.”
A tall man, wearing a blue and white check shirt with his black leather pants, shifted his weight, a signal that he was ready to leave. Nothing in his body language betrayed discomfort with Joyce’s comments about “control” or her not being “in the kitchen washing dishes.” Odds were good that he wasn’t the husband behind whom she’d been stuck. Nonetheless, I understood that our conversation was over.
I wish I’d had time to discover what it was that she wanted to slow down to see.
When we said good-bye, I added, “Ride well,” and she smiled. I’d had no impulse to say, “Be safe.”
A man leaning against the wall nearby had been listening to our conversation. “Ride far and long,” he said, with a genial nod. Until he spoke, I hadn’t noticed him standing there, waiting to assume the role of Greek chorus.
I don’t know if he was correcting me, but I returned his nod. After all, it’s what I wish for myself as I write — as I live, may it be “well, far, and long.” • 1 June 2010