On the way from here to there, my husband and I see a fancy motorcycle at a stoplight. It is metallic teal with red spokes and wheel rims.
“Did I ever tell you about my summer with motorcycles?” I say to him, knowing that even if I had, he would no longer remember. We have a twenty-minute drive ahead of us. Why not tell him again–from the beginning–?
“So I met this French-American guy through a friend of a friend who was living in Paris. I’ll call him Jean-Claude. He grew up in Connecticut, but his parents were French and lived in Paris. Jean-Claude was tall and lean. He had a space between his front teeth, longish brown hair and hound dog brown eyes.
“I was in school at the University of Bordeaux, and when the semester was over, I moved into a Paris sublet with Jean-Claude. He had a job as assistant producer for a documentary film about the Continental Circus. That’s what the motorcycle racing season in Europe was called. It may still be going. I don’t know.
“Anyway, we shared this tiny studio apartment. I got a silly job as the gatekeeper at the American Center in Paris. I sat around on a bench by the front gate, reading a book, and occasionally letting approved people in or out. Of course, I slammed my finger in the gate, but that’s not part of the motorcycle story.
“The producer of the documentary was a young Frenchman named Jerome Laperrousaz. He had made a contract with Jack Findlay, a private motorcycle racer. Jack agreed to let Jerome film him for the whole season, everywhere he went. Jack was Australian. Private riders like Jack had to support themselves during the season. Jack’s girlfriend and manager was Nanou, a French woman. They lived in a trailer while they followed the Circus.
“The star of the Continental Circus in those days was an Italian playboy named Giacomo Agostini. He was dashing and handsome. Agostini was a factory rider, sponsored by Moto Agusta, the manufacturer of the winning MV model motorcycle.
“Jean-Claude brought me along to one of the races, somewhere near Lyons. We got press passes that allowed us to be on the track. Jean-Claude went off with Jerome. I wandered around and found a good vantage point on the median near the track’s edge. I must have watched a number of races, but I remember only two things. First, Jean-Claude was impressed that I was able to identify the sound of the Norton bike before it rounded the bend.
“The second memory still makes my legs weak. I watched the side-car racers come around the curve. These side cars were not the little capsules attached to motorcycles that we know from World War I films. Oh, no.
These “side cars” consisted only of a platform on which the driver’s partner knelt. It was the side car rider’s job to lean out over the track to counterbalance the bike as it dipped around the curves. The rider would be barely inches above the asphalt. How fast were they going? Seventy? Eighty? Ninety miles an hour?
“I was amazed to learn that many of the side car riders were women, the partners of the racers.
“What happened to Jack Findlay? He lost races that season. Then he crashed and was injured. The last scene of the film was Jack limping along the track with a cane.
“As for life in Paris, I had thought to stay there with Jean-Claude. But my father rather firmly pointed out that I had only one more quarter to graduate from U.C. Irvine, and that I should come home and do it.
“So I did. Jean-Claude stayed in France while Jerome finished up the film. Then he came to live with me in Claremont for a short while. It wasn’t so exciting, the two of us in California. I had a job making hand-forged jewelry. He eventually got a delivery job driving a van. A few days later, Jerome called from Paris with a new project. Jean-Claude left for Europe while I courted deafness pounding silver on an anvil.
“I heard later that he had an affair with the actor Terrence Stamp.”