The Wild Life – A Golden Time in Brooklyn

Story: Michael McCabe 

Images: Michael McCabe &  Bobby Gary 

Before the shift to trendy upscale, motorcycles were a part of the wild DIY (Do it yourself) lifestyle mix on N.14 Street and Wythe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Brit bikes, Harley, German, Japanese: A bar-hopping, two wheeled blast around town, day to day similar to the Ton-Up days in London. Work all day at your studio doing creative stuff, then scream off to Ray’s Union Pool, Jessie’s Lady Day’s or Erik’s Matchless Bar to tip a couple pints with your lads. Life was good.

That alt-creative scene hit its sweet spot between 2007 and 2012 but then big developer money moved in, fucked everything up and imposed a ruthless zero sum game tipping point of rapid gentrification. Creative people who lived and worked on the cheap in big, rough, cold in the winter, unorthodox studio spaces were immediately priced out. The whole place went to shit with luxury condos and clueless interlopers who tried to suck up the last authenticity. Today in Williamsburg a middle-class luxury condo life demands a yearly salary north of 200K.

Bobby Gary had a studio at Works Engineering on North 14th where he painted fine art canvases and also utilitarian commercial signage for business owners. He surrounded himself with his art and his motorcycles

Bobby reflects about his bike and his Brooklyn DIY life… The history and culture of his machine.

“Motorcycles are an esthetic thing. I can be objective about it but there’s something about these old bikes- The castings, the chrome that they used; the engineering. They are beautiful. Old tools are the same way. A machine like this is the epitome of all that. I have had this bike since 1988. I started riding when I was in my early twenties. The first bike I had was a 1972 Sportster.

I built this bike. The frame is original and the motor is a 1966. I built it from a bunch of parts. In my mind I built this bike to look like what a Sportster is supposed to look like. It’s tough, it’s fast and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful mean machine.

Old tools and old metal. The shape of it. For me this look comes from the era I grew up in. I was always fascinated with cars and motorcycles. My Dad had a 1961 MGA. I used to work on that with him. We did all the work on that together. The first car I had was a 1949 Plymouth. I bought it for seventy-five dollars. The compression was gone so it couldn’t go up hills. I pulled the motor out, got a manual and learned about that engine by wrenching on it. There’s something about a continuum in my life with old motors and old cars and motorcycles that just feels right. I came from a family that was gifted mechanically.

My Dad was a chemical engineer. A smart, talented dude. Ace mechanic and an amazing artist. He was a WWII fighter pilot. He raced British motorcycles when he was back from the War. My grandfather had a cabinet shop. I worked in it as a kid. I have always made a living doing things that I learned as a kid. So there is something that ties me to working on things like this motorcycle. A life-long love of it. Painters from the WPA period. The esthetic goes back and this motorcycle’s design is a part of that era. The shapes of it, the way it rides. I have lowered it about four inches by switching the rear shocks and rear tire size. That decision has to do with outlaw style bikes.

I was brought up in the south and all we ever rode was Harley Davidson’s. The chopper and bobber style bike. That whole esthetic was a part of my growing up. Strip it down to the bare essentials. Louder, ruder, meaner. There were some groups down south and in the old rust belt states that helped to form the outlaw styles. We would see these guys and their bikes. These guys had seen bikes from the west coast. The style traveled with the bikes. Today a lot of this has been reduced to a “look” but one of the things I like about this motorcycle is that it predates all the bullshit.

This motorcycle represents how I feel about the whole thing. It is nuanced and subconscious but when I made it I was really just thinking about building a bike that runs. Something that I could use to get out there on the New York streets that runs mechanically and safely and is in tip-top shape. Particularly if I was going to ride the hell out of it and that’s how I like to ride.

Riding in New York is an intense thing. I like the intensity of it. Jamming the bike, splitting lanes; it’s exciting. The adrenaline pumps. It gets hairy. So many close calls. It’s constant. I always have this thought of breaking down in the middle of the Holland Tunnel. Riding through that tunnel is actually pretty nice. It has this long curve and late at night or early Sunday mornings when there’s no traffic it’s quite nice. Or I’ll take the FDR to the Harlem River Drive and then down the west side. Make a big loop all the way around Manhattan. That’s a real good ride. I appreciate things like that and this Sportster helps me to appreciate things like that.

Recently I went on a night ride with Ray (Abeyta). We hit the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) and Ray was gone. I was probably going sixty miles an hour. I could still see the potholes and I was dodging them, my eyes were tearing and all I could see was Ray’s tail light off in the distance way ahead of me.

The stance of this Sportster is important to me. I have rear shocks but they are tied down and have no travel. There is a reason why this works. When it is lower down in the back like this, the front end changes the angle and gets a perception of a little bit of rake. When I hit the throttle with this bike it squats down like it is getting ready to leap. I don’t know if you can articulate that but that’s what it looks like.

The look of early outlaw bikes looked like this and this was a statement. These guys were exploring how to make things look fast. They might not have been able to put it into words but this is why they were doing it. These guy’s bikes looked like they were going fast even when they were standing still. They looked like they are going to blast-off. Like when you look at an old photograph of a race car driving around a track. All the cars are always pitched forward. So these San Francisco outlaw stance bikes were exploring this same perception of velocity. They might not have been able to talk about it but that’s what they were doing. This had to do with blood knowledge and muscle memory. These guys were riders and they were building fast bikes. They knew what it felt like when they hit it. So they were building a bike to look like that. They had an internal knowledge about this and blood knowledge of what the machine should look like.

So then, were these guys in San Francisco thinking about what and how they were making their motorcycles? Maybe; but maybe not. They just made them like they wanted. I just made my bike like I wanted. But the stance and the look of these bikes had come from someplace. Nobody could even talk about it but their machines just affected people in deep ways. 

In terms of motorcycles, people will talk about east coast-west coast styles and I think a lot of the east coast style is in New York. Narrow bikes that you can cut through traffic with. But that style goes back to the California outlaws and their bikes. Frisco style tanks. The Sportster tank was the prototype for that style. There is no motorcycle tank that comes close to it. Two and a quarter gallons of gas. I can run for about an hour and then I need more gas.  You can change the tank a bit. Raise the cap and add a petcock so you get about a half-gallon more gas. Guys in San Francisco invented that style tank. That’s an esthetic I like.

I finished building this bike about five years ago. It took me more than four months to build it. My friend Billy Phelps the photographer was working on something for Harley. He called up Ray and me and asked us to meet him over on Front Street. He did a photo shoot set up of us and our old bikes and he sent it to Harley. So, Harley went for his idea and then he set up a big shoot for the advertisement. There was a tractor trailer full of new Harleys that he used in the shoot. The representative was there from Harley overseeing the shoot. My bike was parked there and the representative looked at it and said, “Ah, there’s that bike- Whose bike is this?” The rep said that he had showed a photo of my bike to the president of Harley and the president said, “This is what a Sportster should look like. This is it.” 

I am a southerner; I love to ride down south. That’s where I grew up riding. Country roads with smooth surfaces. It’s relaxing. I am very aware of my connection to a region. And from that I have an understanding of other regions in America- southwestern, Appalachian culture. As a kid I hitch-hiked all around the country. I am acutely aware how in America there are these great epic stories: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, John Steinbeck, and the Civil War. I am aware of this and I try to explore this narrative approach with my painting.

My painting style and how I like to paint has a lot to do with craft and a sense of tradition. My Sportster also has a lot to do with a sense of craft and tradition. I’ve been drawing and painting for a long time. I’ve been making pictures with people in them since I was nine years old. Now I see a lot of this kind of thing disappearing. I have done all these paintings of people and places in New York and it dawned on me sometime during the process that I was painting things that were going through a process of disappearing.

This space at Works Engineering where I had my studio was an important place. There were some creative people there. It was a golden time. A lot of the mood that surrounds motorcycles is going through a gentrifying process now. But the people at Works were just living their lives. That place was a stronghold for the people that worked there. There was work being done there that was really creative. It was not a part of the ham fisted ham-bone motorcycle sensibility that is out there.

A few years back I went down to South Carolina to take my motorcycle license test. I talked to the gal in the window and she asked what kind of bike I had. I told her a 1959 Harley Davidson. Everybody in the office got all excited. The motorcycle trooper lady who gives the test said she wanted to see my bike. She took a look and asked me to turn on my head light. I told her I had to kick the bike over to do that. “You don’t got a switch for the light?” she asked. “No Mam, all I got is a magneto,” I replied. “Where’s your turn signals? I don’t see none,” she asked. “I don’t have any.” I replied. “Well I don’t know about that.” she said. She asked next, “Where’s your speedometer?” I replied I didn’t have one. “Well I don’t know about that.” she replied.  She asked me to toot my horn. I told her I didn’t have a horn. She asked me how the heck I was expecting to pass this test? She said she was going to call her office and see how to handle this. She came back in 10 minutes with a big smile on her face and said, “My supervisor up in Columbia just told me that if you want to take the test on a 1959 Harley Davidson then you deserve to take the test even if you don’t have no horn, no speedometer or no turn signals.” “Thank you Mam,” I said. She passed me on my test and stamped my license. As she was giving me my license she looked at me real serious and said, “That’s one fast looking machine; I bet it runs fast as hell.” “Yes Mam,” I said.” 


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