Tales From the End of the Bus Line is a long-distance collaboration between daughter/father Megan and Bill Broughton to collect the many adventures of Bill’s young adulthood in Van Nuys, California. Installments (and photos that should or shouldn’t see the light of day, if we’re lucky) will be penned by the two of them.
In 1982, B.J.’s Motorcycle shop was on the south side of Oxnard Street between Van Nuys Boulevard and Kester, not too far from where I worked swing shift at Delta Litho. I rode my Nishiki past it most days, looking in the picture window at the bikes and salivating just a little. They had some very expensive iron sitting in there, Ducati Darmahs and 750 GT’s, Mick Hailwood replicas, Moto Guzzi El Dorados and LaVerda Jotas, super serious stuff. One day, however, I noticed an abnormality – a KZ 900 sitting in there with all the Italian jobs. It belonged to the owner’s son, and he was selling it to raise the money to move up to a BMW lifestyle. I tried it out, but something held me back from buying it. I couldn’t figure out just why, so I went and got my friend Bob from work and had him look at it in a “second opinion” frame of mind. The owner kept telling him to start it up and “jump on it.” It was apparent that this was the way he’d been riding the bike, and the straining motor and ratcheting noises emanating from its guts proved it. I passed.
We helped him push the 900 in the back door of the shop, and there, way in the rear of the shop, far removed from sight of the street, I saw it. An Ugly Duckling. This is not a metaphor; this is what most folks who knew them called the 1975 Ducati 860 GT. Ducati’s are known for their beauty, speed, and their endurance. Even now, sixty years later, it is still their stock in trade. In the case of the ‘75’s, well, two out of three isn’t bad. Sometime in late 1974 the designers must have gone out for a quick beer and got struck in traffic, because the ’75 860 GT’s came out looking like the box you ship the motorcycle in. It was a little too heavy, a little too strong for the tires that we had back then, and not good looking (Hell, I could relate). Still it was a Ducati, and rare enough that I was interested.
The bike was on consignment for $1700. Yeah, I know, but this was 1982, remember. I had been looking at buying either a dissembled Norton 850 Commando or a slightly pulled apart Austin Mini Cooper. Both were priced at $800, but I shouldered thoughts of them aside and offered B.J. $1600 for the Duc. He told me that was the lowest the owner would go, so I told him it was the highest I’d offer, and we made the deal and he signed over the pink.
It was set up as a cruiser, with big high wide handlebars, and Krause bags on the back. A very comfortable bike to ride long distances on, I took it up to Las Vegas a few times. Once Bob came along on his 750 Honda and I almost killed us both when a sudden severe gust of wind pushed me fifteen feet sideways across the highway at eighty miles per hour to ride so close to him we could have extended our arms and patted each other on the back. When we returned the following Monday someone at work asked him how bad the truck traffic was on his trip. “Truck traffic was no problem,” he said, “but I did almost get killed by some idiot on a motorcycle.”
Once it almost went to Mexico. I’d stopped at Sullivan’s one night, on the corner of Woodley and Vanowen, to find a group of friends looking at a photo album with pictures of a very good looking girl in jeans and bikini top standing next to a Kawasaki Spectre in Mexico City. I asked them who it was, and it turned out to be the bartender. Over a few beers, she told me she worked nine or ten months out of the year, then traveled through Mexico on her motorcycle, staying with friends and going new places. By the end of the night, she told me she was leaving in three months, and surprised me by asking would I like to come along this time? I still don’t know why I didn’t go.
Like all unusual bikes it was not without it problems. The wiring had been burnt out by a power surge long ago, and someone with little imagination and only one roll of wire replaced every electrical line in the bike with the same red and white striped colored wire. The only way you could tell what wire went where was to trace each wire to its origins to see where it came from. Trial and error electrical repair was nothing short of amusing, I once hooked up what I thought was the rear brake light and the horn started blaring. I took about six months and many beers of patience to get everything sorted out properly.
Luckily for me I had stumbled across Wood’s Motor shop in Glendale. Jim Woods was a mechanic without equal, and even though my machine contributed more than a few grey hairs to his head, in the end all the problems were sorted out and it was purring like a very large and hungry cat. Everything was going so good in fact, that, being an idiot, I decided to start messing with it. I’d been planning things for awhile, buying bits and pieces and saving them up for when the bike was tuned and ready to be set up as a café racer.
On my weekly trips up Mulholland Highway to the Rock Store in Cornell, I’d fallen in with the crazies; guys who rode by the theory that if you didn’t occasionally crash then you weren’t riding hard or fast enough. These were the same guys who had their blood type stenciled on the back of their helmets and the words “Proud Organ Donor” set in a crescent above it. They were a fun bunch. I still remember the blast we got going up to the crest of Stunt Road in Malibu, turning the bikes off and then coasting all the way back down to Mulholland. This may not sound particularly dangerous, but all control on a motorcycle is about power and speed (hence the revered motto, “When in doubt, gas it out.”). Coasting, you have neither; you’re completely dependent on gravity to make things work. I had listened to their advice and gotten a one-third fairing, a set of clip-on handle bars so low I was lying on the tank, with Bar End mirrors, (that attached to the end of the handlebars and folded down and in for line riding) and Bub tail pipes from San Francisco. The latter were just straight pipes with silencer material wrapped around the inside; you could look right through them. Then someone told me I could take the governors off the 36-millimeter Dell’Orto’s carburetors.
God, I loved that bike. It handled so well.
Once Bob and I left the Robin Hood at three in the morning, riding down Burbank Boulevard to Denny’s to get breakfast. I was kneeling on the saddle, steering by balance, when he passed me standing in the saddle like the good guys in a Western. Fun times.
I’d kept the Krause bags on it, and would carry tools and some heavy duty rope with me all the time, just in case. They came in handy lots of times up on Mulholland when someone would break down (read: crash) and we needed to pull their bike back up to the road and repair it. Once I’d just pulled up to Weber’s Bar and Grill in Northridge where a bunch of guys were looking at a broken down Suzuki. One of them pointed over towards me and said, “Hey, I know that guy, he’s got all kinds of tools, he can fix this.” It’s nice to have your reputation precede you like that.
We would also ride up to Newcomb’s Ranch in the Angeles Crest mountains, which is as near the summit of the 2 Highway as no never mind, have a few beers and Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches, and then come tear-assing back down the hill passing everything in sight. I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t the bravest rider on that road, though. That title went to Neon, who would ride his BMW 750 up to his job at the Waterman Ski area in the dead of winter, sliding back and forth on the black ice. He got his nickname from the bright orange neon jumpsuit he wore over his riding leathers. We never asked him why, but figured he wore it so if he went over the side of the road they would be able to find his body easier.
There were stories of guys that went off the edge and were never seen again. Over the next few years I did get in a few accidents, but they were mostly because someone turned in front of me without signaling. One morning on Sepulveda just south of Vanowen I had to lay the bike down on the left hand side when an old man turned left and went across six traffic lanes to go into the Alpha-Beta parking lot. I walked away from that with a snapped off gearshift lever and a ripped pair of jeans. Got off lucky that time. His insurance paid for both. Some of the guys at work wanted me to sue him, but the damage was minimal and he was also a printer, so I let it go. His insurance paid me the fifteen dollars to have Jim weld the shift lever back on and twenty bucks for my torn Levis immediately, saying they had never seen such a low payout. The lady who handed me the check was cute, and I asked her if she wanted to go to lunch on my windfall. She said there was probably a rule against that. I didn’t ask her if it was a company rule or her own. Oh well.
I had ripped the seat a little too, not in the accident but just from use, and needed to replace it. Someone told me about a local man with a shop on the corner of Victory and Sepulveda, who repaired and built saddles for both bikes and horses. I told him I just wanted a plain cover and left the bike there for several days. When I came back, the saddle looked just like the original. He had done an incredible job and only charged me $50. I thanked him and he smiled, saying “Did you know I repair the saddles for the CHP’s Kawasakis? I had a couple of officers in here yesterday; they were looking at your bike and commented they recognized it. Funny thing is they were only looking at the back of it. I thought you’d like to know.” I considered it a fair warning, and slowed down some around town.
Part of the problem was of my own doing; I had added enough to this innocent Italian cruiser that no one could really think of it as anything but a café racer. Some nights after shutting down a bar at two in the morning a loose gaggle of us would meet at the Tiny Naylor’s on Sepulveda and Sherman Way. After pounding down one of their famous Long Burgers, we’d assemble just outside and choose a location to race to, like the Santa Monica Pier or the Court House in Santa Barbara. It was sport at its purest. The rules were: there ain’t no rules, first one there, wins. Get set ready go. They were fun times, and at that age, I thought they would continue forever. The end, when it came, was almost anti-climatic.
As I was coming home from the Rock Store one Sunday just before Thanksgiving, a kid on an off-road motorcycle pulled out in front of me. I swerved to miss him, winding up in the oncoming lanes just in time for a red sub compact to come flying around the corner at me. I turned left, hit the gas, and rode off the edge of the pavement. Mulholland has patches with arroyos down the north side, and here was one of them. The Duc left the road, hitting a dirt berm and bounding into the air like a steeple chaser. I stood up on the foot pegs, hurled myself upwards (the first rule of crashing is, let go of the bike) and got my arms up in front of my face. This is the last thing I remember, as the Coastal Oak tree I plunged through smashed my fists into my forehead (yeah, no helmet, it was not the law back then) and knocked me colder than a New Hampshire February.
I woke up eighty feet later at the bottom of the hill to hear someone say “Shit, he’s still breathing!” This, ideally, is what you really want to hear in these kinds of circumstances.
The ambulance had come, so I must have been out a while, and the EMT’s guys were telling me I shouldn’t be moving, because there may be all kinds of things wrong on the inside of me. They assured me they would get me to the hospital and said they had to ask me some questions to see if I was concussed. I said I felt fine, but how was my bike? “First thing they all ask” one said. “I think that means he’s fine.” said the other. So I asked if I would be able to play piano, and he said, “Yeah, we hear that one too.”
They took me to a West Hills hospital, where I got a visit from the CHP asking if I’d been drinking. No, I said, just a beer with a couple of hot dogs at lunch, but that was three hours ago. The fact that I could tell him every detail of the accident, including the makes of the dirt bike (Bultaco) and the red subcompact (Toyota) impressed him I was sober. He was a nice enough guy, and was happy I wasn’t dead on his watch. He even gave me an honest answer when I asked him if I had enough of the Duc to rebuild. (“No.”) Honest, but not over-wordy. The hospital had asked me whom they should call and I gave them Kathy’s number, both because she was closest and because she was the most level headed. I must have looked worse than I felt though; she came into the emergency room, took one look at me and passed out. I yelled for the nurse, who came running in, picked her up and got her to a chair. Later she told me that my face was pretty much a mask of blood, facial cuts tend to bleed more, I don’t know why. The hospital insisted I spend a week there, but I left the next day, I knew I’d get more rest at home than in a place they wake you up to give you a sleeping pill.
I called Bob, and a few hours later a red El Camino pulled up outside. We went to the tow yard to see my bike. If anything, the cop had been kind. Then I took him to see where the accident had been, and we saw the two holes in the tree branches, one up high for me, the other down low for the bike.
Some months later, when I could get down that hill by myself, I went back to the crash site. There I found a piece of the molding from the tank, the part that said “860.” I still have it.
Circa 2000awkward, I had a debilitating crush on a boy that was intensified and fueled with some considerably unhealthy hope when dad met his father and thought he was one of the Blood Type Helmet Men. Dad never asked him, but God I would have been so thrilled. Reunited friends! An instant connection. Nothing but beneficial for me. As casually as possible for a 14 year old, I’d check up with dad on his hunch like, “Hey dad, you know that guy? That dad? Of that boy I know? Have you asked him, you know, if you know him?” And dad would say, “Oh, I doubt he’s one of them but he could be” and I’d lose it and stammer, “MAYBE YOU SHOULD ASK.” Thankfully I grew up and over, but am still so taken with the act of parading around with one’s blood type displayed. Like “Yeah, I do dumb shit.” I mean really, the bravado. I love it. But also, let’s be fair: that’s a lot of stylish foresight.
There’s the faint memory of telling mom that I was going to do the same thing when I got a motorcycle and I think she was like, “Ok cool” left the room and all I heard was, “WILLIAM LOUIS!” followed by some petrified, albeit proud, giggles from him. But this visual detail has remained with me; lodging itself so snugly in my brain that I occasionally catch myself checking out motorcyclists’ helmets in the hope that dad’s stories will become my real life.
Growing up, Dad’s Mulholland Ducati crash was my favorite tale (save for tales of the clumsy neighborhood dog of Boscawen, Toby). Out of all the Los Angeles mythologies, Dad told this one with the most love and passion; it was the king of stories. I’d ask for it twice in a row for the doubly intensified rush of him living through it, and delight in him asking about his bike. (When Dad read us The Return of the King a few years later, I equated him with Merry when he comes to after helping Eowyn kill the Witch King of Angmar and his first words are “I’m hungry. What time is it?” That equation is more convincing than any paternity test.) With tears of laughter and loss piling in his eyes, he made me feel as if I were flying off the cliff by his side, frozen like frantic illustrations in a children’s book with cartoonish motion lines drawn around our legs. Later, that mental image transformed into more of a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid still (and I also have dad to thank for that cinematic education) but that’s another story.