March 22, 2010 — There’s something about riding safety that’s uniquely personal and divisive. In scooter circles, it’s almost like politics or religion. That is, you discuss it at your own risk on the message boards. Take a stand and you’re guaranteed to have both supporters and detractors. Insist that others follow your standard and you’d better brace yourself for all manner of righteous vitriol. Whether it’s helmet usage vs. helmet laws or ATGATT vs. ABATE, every two wheel warrior has to make choices about safety gear. The mistake many often make is in trying to make those decisions for other people.

The Mrs and I both ride. She has her Buddy 125 and I my Vespa GT200L. She comes from a family of motorcycle riders and it’s been an easy thing for me to bond with the in-laws over. Contrast that to my family, who refer to anything on two wheels as a “murdercycle.” When my parents caught wind three years ago that I’d bought a 1979 Vespa P200, they voiced their disapproval through graphic emails and back handed, passive aggressive well-wishing like “I just hope you don’t end up in a wheel chair.” Thanks? Anyway, as I learned more and more about the realities of riding safety, my equipment choices evolved. My longboarding and mountainboarding days convinced me of the need for a helmet, but the “pudding cup” half helment I originally bought for my P200 soon gave way for a proper, white full-face motorcycle lid. I bought a pair of Doc Martin boots just for riding. I own three armored jackets. Two pairs of armored gloves. Every time I ride, I make sure my brake lights, turn indicators, horn and headlight work — plus I squeeze both tires to make sure they haven’t gone flat on me. Bottom line, I take riding safety very seriously.

Yesterday I took it a little too seriously. More specifically, I tried to (albeit gently) impose my notion of safety onto The Mrs. To her credit, she would have none of it. The insinuating discussion (no seriously, we don’t fight about things — even when I’m being an arrogant asshole) was pretty eye opening. I needed to let go. For my own good, I needed to acknowledge that ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time) is not safe, but simply safer. Risk is at best mitigated, but never eliminated. And in the end, something is going to get you.

So what does that all mean? Do I leave the helmet behind and ride my Vespa in shorts and flip flops like the jackasses we make fun of on the message boards? No. The reality is that wearing the gear can save your hide, your joints, and your life. My outlook on that hasn’t changed. What’s evolved is my sensitivity. My previous point of view was that riding any distance, especially the just-round-the-corner sort of destinations meant wearing full gear. Gloves, boots, armored jacket, long pants, helmet and visor. What The Mrs helped me understand is that once in a while, it’s okay to just throw your helmet on and ride over to the damn car wash two blocks away. So that’s what I did.

My Vespa hadn’t been washed since I bought it, and boy did it look it. From engine grime to dirt and gunk in the floor boards, the ol’ boy needed a bath. So embracing my destiny, whatever it be, I donned my helmet and rode the two blocks to the local spray wash. No gloves, no jacket and just running shoes on my feet. It’s hard to articulate how out of character this was for me, but it was time to let go. Time to let go of all that parental baggage. Time to let go of my own notions of having control of the world around me. Time to let go of being so tightly ruled by the what-ifs of scooter safety. A handful of quarters later, my Vespa was much cleaner and dripping wet. Not wanting water to pool anywhere weird, I threw my helmet back on and tore off through the neighborhood. It was approaching dusk, which is statistically the most dangerous time to be out riding on two wheels. I know this, but I forego the return trip home to pick up my jacket and gloves. I needed to do this. I needed to embrace this danger.

It was thoroughly liberating. I let go of the risks. I banked my wet Vespa deep into the hilly curves of Denmark Avenue. I asserted myself at the 4-way stop sign at Wescott Rd. I may or may not have completely disregarded the speed limit. I didn’t ride recklessly, or even aggressively, I simply rode. I rode without worry of scrapes or broken bones. I rode without fear. I rode embracing my fate — almost daring the tarmac to rise up and bite me if it had the balls. Perhaps a good wreck would get the hesitation out of my system.

After 15 minutes or so of buzzing ’round the neighborhood, I returned for my jacket and gloves. Not because I felt unsafe, but because I was cold. I wasn’t done riding though. I could have run upstairs for my boots, but for this little trip…fuck it. With leather on my hands and torso, I tore back into the last lingering rays of daylight up Lexington Avenue and onto Hwy 55. I stopped at the valley overlook on Sibley Memorial Highway just as the sun was giving way to the horizon. As I scrambled to snap a decent photo in the fading light, I felt a tranquility I hadn’t felt in riding before. I felt the calm of a danger embraced, a fate accepted and a lesson learned.

Nathaniel Salzman