Pubdate: Thu, 12 Jul 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: National
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Egan


HOLLISTER, Calif., July 7 -- They came roaring into town this afternoon, 10 
miles or more of chrome, leather and thunder headed for this dusty locale 
that calls itself the birthplace of the American biker and sets aside one 
weekend in July to keep that place in cultural history.

They struck outlaw poses while revving their hogs to full throttle. They 
bared breasts and flashed tattoos. They drank beer, sometimes more than 
one, and passed along tips on how to soothe arthritis while sharing neatly 
rolled marijuana joints.

By nightfall, they were fumbling with bifocals trying to read the small 
print on a flyer advertising the all-you-can-eat breakfast and biker 
worship service, and complaining that the Hells Angels booth would not give 
a senior discount on Death to Snitches T- shirts.

"This one's a little tame compared to others, but we wouldn't miss a biker 
rally," said Patricia Paul, who, at 58, stretches the definition of biker 
chick. She is a grandmother of nine and walks with a cane. Her husband, 
Richard Paul, has a hearing aid, which he turns down when riding with bikers.

"I'll ride till the day I can't get on a bike," Mrs. Paul said.

She was limping along the very street in downtown Hollister, where a bit of 
excessive beer-drinking and brawling by motorcyclists in 1947 inspired the 
Marlon Brando movie "The Wild One," which did for the Harley and some 
members of a generation what John Wayne did for others.

But today, even the the most-thuggish looking, nostril-flaring, 
shower-deprived of bikers are complaining about hearing loss and achy 
joints. And their old ladies are actually old.

Harley-Davidson will be 100 in two years, and the average owner of a hog is 
45 -- up from 38 just 10 years ago. One in five Harley owners is 55 or older.

The feared former "maximum leader" of the Hells Angels, Sonny Barger, is 62 
and lives with three cats in a Phoenix suburb while hawking exclusive 
outlaw memorabilia.

Don't mess with his patented designs, or he will sic a lawyer on you, his 
brother bikers say.

As for the other Angels, who have proliferated in more than 100 chapters 
worldwide, it is the same story: the average biker bash now looks more like 
a slightly rowdy casual Friday than anything menacing.

"Face it, man -- we're all a bunch of dinosaurs," said Teno Star, with a 
wicked grin, his glaze-eyed face lighting up as a sea of Harleys engulfed 
downtown Hollister, a farm town about 30 miles south of San Jose. Mr. Star 
says he has ridden with nearly every big biker gang in the country, has 
spent more days in small-town jails than he can count and has had most of 
the major bones in his body broken in accidents. Now, at age 52, he is 
trying to cash in.

"Me and my buddies decided if all these people want to buy into our 
lifestyle, we might as well make a profit from it," he said.

Mr. Star and his biking mates Storm and Lord were selling skulls, knives 
and leather -- and doing a brisk trade, on a sidewalk in front of a store 
that usually sells frilly crafts 'n' things. They know their customer: a 
law-abiding, upper-income biker who likes to accessorize on weekends.

For in the way that American outlaws sometimes morph into cultural 
commodities, many bikers now are simply posing hobbyists whose biggest 
transgression may be nothing more than sneaking solo into the car- pool lane.

"It's all lawyers, doctors and mcdooglers now," Mr. Star said. "I prefer 
the old days when you had to earn your way into being a biker."

Ah, the old days. Once bikers were known only as cop-hating pillagers on 
two wheels. They were "the lowest form of animal," former Senator George 
Murphy of California once said. And at the start of the 1954 film "The Wild 
One," a note cautioned viewers that they were about to see something 
shocking that presented a moral challenge to all America. That behavior 
consisted mostly of refusing to say thank you, and wearing really tight 
leather jackets while making eyes at the small-town girls.

"We were depicted as Vikings on acid," Mr. Barger wrote of the popular 
image of the biker gangs, "raping our way across sunny California on 
motorcycles forged in the furnaces of Hell."

The writer Hunter S. Thompson spent a year with the Angels in the 
mid-1960's, and he said the image, though much exaggerated by a clueless 
New York press, was rooted in behavior intended to scare conventional America.

"The concept of the motorcycle outlaw was as uniquely American as jazz," 
Mr. Thompson wrote. "Nothing like them had ever existed. In some ways, they 
appeared to be a kind of half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the 
era of the Wild West."

Even as motorcycle gang members were sent to jail and as killings like one 
at the 1969 Rolling Stones Altamont concert, where the Hells Angels were 
hired as security, further soured the reputations of motorcycle clubs, the 
lure of the biker never faded.

Not that all bikers have given up the old ways. The federal authorities say 
members of the Hells Angels are involved in a variety of criminal 
activities, primarily having to do with international drug trade.

Still, evangelical Christians now have biking clubs, and they were out in 
force at Hollister with their "Riding with the Son" caps. Ditto the Boy 
Scouts. A flyer posted around Hollister advertised the Santa Clara County 
Boy Scout biker run to the hills later this summer.

But aside from the Scouts, most bikers seem well past the pull date for 
youthful rebellion. Yet they hold on, some reliving genuine days of rage 
and rebellion, others merely wanting to masquerade for a weekend as more 
outlaw than in-law.

"Look at this," said Tim Tuck, a business consultant and biker two years 
shy of his 60th birthday, as he stepped away from his showcase Harley, 
parked among thousands of similar bikes on the main street of Hollister. 
"This is the last frontier, the last real freedom in America."

Two-wheeled freedom does not come cheap. Mr. Tuck said his Harley, with its 
added buff and muscle, sold for about $35,000. And sidewalk merchants 
selling everything from unprintable tank tops to alligator skulls did about 
$5 million in business over the weekend.

Despite his profits, Mr. Star still misses the earlier times.

"Back in them days, you had the cops, the rednecks, and other biker clubs 
to worry about," Mr. Star said. "I had my head shaved three times by 
different sheriffs."

Now, the cops themselves have embraced biker culture. There are at least 
two police motorcycle clubs in the southern Bay Area.

"Most of these guys are too old to cause any trouble," said an officer as 
he eyed the graybeards in sleeveless leather. The officer had a shaved head 
and a goatee. His partner had dyed-blond hair and goatee. As the officer 
spoke, a woman in a leather halter pinched him on the rear.

"This could be the garlic festival -- except with a lot more leather and 
chrome," the officer said.

Hollister, a garlic-growing center getting fat around the edges by Silicon 
Valley sprawl, has embraced its moment in history. The so-called 1947 riot 
that started it all was in truth little more than a beer bash that got out 
of hand, town leaders say, with minor injuries and a few arrests. A Life 
Magazine picture of a thug sitting on a bike surrounded by empty beer 
bottles was posed a day after the fracas, the leaders say.

Four years ago, the 50th anniversary of the ruckus, Hollister played host 
to its first commemorative festival -- and braced for the worst.

"I was more scared of the police, the SWAT teams on the roof, and the 
riot-patrol members," said Ellen Brown, executive director of the Hollister 
Independence Rally. The bikers proved to be good for the burghers, as the 
event was no more tumultuous than a beery county fair. A happy annual 
collaboration has followed ever since, with the encouragement of the 
Chamber of Commerce.

"You're looking at a little town that gets taken over by 60,000 bikers, and 
they love it," Ms. Brown said.

Of course, there were a number of arrests for drinking and fighting over 
the weekend. Even geezer bikers still need to let off steam.

"But no rioting, no significant property damage, basically everything that 
we expected to happen did happen," said Capt. Bob Brooks of the Hollister 
Police Department.

Still, some acts of shocking delinquency proved that American biker culture 
is not all nostalgia and sagging flash. Mr. Tuck showed his wallet -- and 
one thing was missing.

"I refuse to carry an AARP card," he said of the signature ticket for older 
people handed out by the organization formerly known as American 
Association of Retired Persons. "Not as long as I ride a Harley."
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