As little as four years ago, I owned and rode a moped. The preferred name is “motor scooter” because I had 125 cc’s of weed-wacker hum between my legs, and the name “moped” is generally reserved for motorcycles with 50 cc’s or less. But the only thing more embarrassing than the name moped is “motor scooter.” So mostly I just stuck with moped.
Actually that’s not true because my moped was called a Buddy. That was model name: Buddy. Aww Buddy! My Buddy had bright plastic orange paneling with a black accents on the seat and floor mat. My Buddy got 80+ mpg, and could reach 60 mph at full throttle. My Buddy had a 4-stroke engine, not even a classic vintage 2-stroke. My Buddy had a compartment where I could put a squeeze in a medium soda without the lid coming off. It was exactly like 50 Cent imagined.
In truth, it was the Segway of the highway, the fedora of transportation, the e-cigarette of motorcycles. The moped is needlessly utilitarian like Meyer’s hand soap or kombucha. It is theoretically defensible, yes, until one day you park it outside of your Chicago apartment and it’s stolen in the night and you simply don’t file a police report. Its absence isn’t devastating, just sort of bemusing. You just let it vanish because life can quite easily continue, quite possibly for the better.
This all started with a call from the insurance company in 2007 while I was playing a singing, dancing dog in Call of The Wild: The Musical at a theater outside of Washington, D.C.
“Hello Mr. Larson? This is Whoever from So-And-So insurance and we’re calling to let you know that we’re moving forward with your claim. It was, in fact, deemed an Act of God.”
“Your car. The tree falling on your car was deemed by our Team Of Guys to be an Act of God.”
“The tree that fell—”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Mr. Larson, your car. You filed a claim on October 16th that stated a branch of tree fell on your car. In Wisconsin? It was deemed an Act of God. Are you not aware of this? Who am I speaking to?”
“I’m sorry, who am I speaking to?”
So I called my mom, stewardess to my 1998 Chevy Metro before it was untimely ripped from earth by God Himself, apparently. Last I knew, the car was sitting peacefully in the driveway at her house in Delafield, Wisconsin.
“Hi Mom what happened to my car.”
“Oh my god, Jer. Jer. I forgot to tell you, the car […]”
At the time, this was tantamount to forgetting to mention my grandmother had passed. Truly devastating. I loved this car, possibly more than my first car (a ‘93 Ford Taurus, all-maroon interior and exterior). I did not want God to take this car from me. But God found a tree near my car and felled the fuck out of it during a thunderstorm, smashing my Chevy Metro into irreparable bits.
“We filed a claim, Jer. It should be fine. I love you. How’s Call Of The Wild: The Musical going?”
I didn’t need a car until a few years later in Cincinnati, when my loaner car (‘94 Buick LeSabre, beige interior, deep green exterior, always smelled like stale caramel) stopped working suddenly on a sharply graded hill. I couldn’t afford a car because I was an intern at a Shakespeare theatre company where I could afford: beer and frozen burritos. But in a fit of internet research, I found that a 125 cc Genuine Buddy Scooter would be reasonable — preferable even! — for a city with poor public transportation. I convinced myself with the money I’d be saving in gas, parking, and insurance would be worth it.
This is historical for me: A kind of slippery justification of something needlessly utilitarian. You know when you’re a kid and you you convince your parents via charts or Power Points or doe-eyes, that going to Disney World would actually be financially responsible for our family — “hell, Dad, you can recoup the hotel and dinner at Epcot if you know what you’re doing, fiscally speaking” — well that’s what I did to justify buying a glorified toy. I do this a lot, still, with fine sushi and bodega health drinks.
“You’re going to want the full-faced helmet,” said the motor scooter dealer to me with a straight face and earrings. “If you don’t get it, you’ll regret it. Everyone regrets it.”
“Yeah but don’t you think that’s a little much for a… you know…”
I still couldn’t say “scooter.” I didn’t want to say it, because I knew I had just bought a punchline. But he convinced me because he’s a salesperson and I’m a rube. So I bought a Speed Racer helmet for my moped with 10” tires and automatic transmission that sounded just as intimidating with a bicycle with playing cards in the spokes. I still felt good. My first time buying something with a cache of money that, in a way, came from God.
I drove it home for the first time and crested a hill north of downtown where you could see the Cincinnati’s skyline. Something about this actually took my breath away for a second. The view, the wind, the control I sort of had. I could feel the air on my chest when I remembered not to slouch on the seat. It was summer, but I still wore an Italian scooter jacket (“You’re going to want the Italian scooter jacket. If you don’t…”) with a dense foam backplate and elbow guards sewn into the thick burlap exterior. If you could only see how I looked, prepared to do battle with a biscotti. It was thrilling.
Then, thwip, a bird pooped on my chest.
I didn’t care, this was initially and thoroughly a great investment. I loved riding my moped. Have you ever really “hugged a curve”? Shit’s great. I rode it on the highway in the right-hand lane with the throttle maxed, unsure exactly why, against all odds, I’m not dying.
There’s a social courtesy on the road with motorcycles, at least in Southern Ohio: When you see an oncoming motorcycle, one lifts one’s left hand of the handlebars for a second, like a “sup” of the wrist. This was dicey for me, because I technically didn’t ride a motorcycle, recall, I rode a “motor scooter.” So this game of waves had deep, psychological ramifications that could spiral out of control in mere seconds. Usually, one of three things would happen:
- I would lift my wrist, and the oncoming motorcyclist would also lift their wrist and it would feel GREAT. I was connected to a unspoken cultural bond and feel apart of a family who lived both dangerously and economically. In a brief moment we acknowledge each other, agreeing that we are both stupid and awesome.
- I would left my wrist, and the oncoming motorcyclist would DISREGARD my social nicety as if they simply couldn’t be bothered, and drive on down the road in breech of contract. This effectively forced me to view cyclists as a kind of caste system where I played the dandy fop on motor scooter sharing a taxonomical thread not with Harley’s or Husqvarna’s, but with Rascals, RollerBlades, and the moving walkway. In this moment would trade anything for a bicycle. Bicycles. There was the unity I craved, there was the group I belonged in. Christ, what I would give to peddle up this hill and feel my quads burn instead of glide along the asphalt like a mincing twit in a full-face helmet and a bag full of frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s tucked between my ankles.
- I would NOT lift my wrist because I’d rather DIE.
My moped pigeon-holed me into a group that I eventually became ashamed of. There were Scooter Rallies in town, the Rennaisance Faire of car shows. I never attended but I assumed someone piped in Blues Traveller from tinny scooter speakers while they drank organic lemonade. Sometimes I’d imagine taking my moped to Sturgis and just waving to everyone, “Hiya fellas! Like my hog? Oh I just call it a piglet!” just to see how long it would take before I got shivved.
To own a moped is to hold two things simultaneously in your head: This is good, but also this is bad. It saves the planet in a kind of bourgeois, Silcon Valley kind of way that feels really insufferable when viewed through a certain lens. I always came back to, “I could just ride a bike, which is slower but far cheaper and saves the planet even more.” Buyer’s remorse sunk in on a deep social level.
One day after a rehearsal, it had just started to rain and my friend needed a ride, so he hopped on. With two people on the thing, balance is tricky. Then it started pouring, like, deluge. It was about five miles from our house to the theater and we rode miserable, cold, drenched. He clung to my waist up the hill which I once crested, where my car once died. We stopped at a stoplight and just sat there drowning in this ridiculous scene, with people warm in their cars on either side of us laughing at me through my full-faced helmet and my friend, cheek to my back to avoid being pelted. This was, far and away, my favorite moped moment. Nothing felt truer to moped life than this.
I brought my Buddy to Chicago when I moved there, bungee corded to the back of the U-Haul. I rode it to work pretty often in the summer, and stored it in my basement winter. The utilitarian part loses its value when you can only really ride the thing six or seven months out of the year. After a dispute with my landlord about whether or not I could park it in the enclosed back porch area, I left it on the street, locked to the best of its own ability, but unchained to a thing.
A few weeks later, it was gone. I held two things, guilt and relief, equally in my head. And then I really started to miss my car.