Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hells Angels Apostrophe

Many people have secret things about their past that no one knows about, and if brought out into the open, would shock and dismay all who knew the person. I have such a secret, kept for more than thirty years. And sometimes, when eating lunch with co-workers or at a fancy party where they serve hors d'oeuvres' on toothpicks and tiny little napkins, I think of my secret and how everybody would be shocked out of their safe little worlds if the secret was uncovered.

It started in a small town in Northern California, Petaluma, where I lived for a couple of years while in my early twenties. Petaluma is a quaint little town, reminiscent of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, where everybody knows most everybody, and people will wave hello for no good reason other than to recognize a fellow human being. It was not uncommon to engage a total stranger in a conversation that might last for an hour or so. Highway 101 ran along the edge of town and provided a never ending supply of visitors, seeking gas, food, or directions to the coast or other such scenic locations.

My little house, a cottage, really, was about three miles outside of town, and I used to ride my bicycle into town on a daily basis, seeking supplies, food, and friendship. During the summer, the ice cream parlor, located in the center of town, was a favorite stop of mine as well as for people passing through. It was where my secret identity was born. While pedaling into town that day, past the Petaluma Egg Stand, I sensed that some big stuff was waiting, though it was a mystery as to its revelation.

I pulled up to the front of the ice cream shop on my ten-speed, swung my foot onto the kickstand in a very self-assured manner that only comes with youth and a sunny day, and two guys on Harley Davidson motorcycles blasted up next to me, parking a couple of feet from my bike. If I was to be completely honest, I'd have to say the roar of their engines took something away from my arrival. And they weren't just any guys on Harley Davidsons; they were Hells Angels with the well-worn leather jackets, chains dangling from everywhere, and the unshaven swagger. When they shut their bikes off, the silence announced their assemblage like the moment after a lightning strike, before the thunder hits. It seemed like the entire street froze in their presence. People stopped in mid-lick on their ice cream cones, apprehensive about what was going to happen next.

I, of course, was standing right next to them and in an effort to make the fellas feel welcome, it was my duty to break the ice. So I quickly glanced at their colors (that's what they call their club's emblem) and reassured them that they needn't worry about the lack of an apostrophe on their jackets. They were still straddled on their bikes and stared at me in silence while I went on to explain that the way Hells Angels is written on their patches is perfectly acceptable if that's the way they want it. No apostrophe is needed after "Hell" if that's what the owners of the name desire. That's the simple the rule of grammar, and all those writers who spell it with an apostrophe (Hell's Angels) have got it totally wrong. In short, I told them they were right, the reporters and writers have it all wrong. The owners of the name decide how it's to be punctuated and spelled.

When I finished my explanation, there was a pause while they looked at each other and then back to me, and the one closest to me said, "That takes a load of our minds. Name's Frank and my partner's Jerry. How 'bout a cone." We got our cones, compliments of Frank, and were enjoying them outside the ice cream shop, while I maintained my position as diplomat by waving to the folks in town, showing off my new friends. Then Frank said to me, "How 'bout we make you the official guy in charge of spelling for The Angels." Jerry remained silent. Despite his rough exterior and a penchant for tattoos depicting a variety of frightening skulls, I think he was shy, and I've since come to think of him as "The Bashful Angel."

I said, "You mean the official Hells Angels Grammarian?"
They both agreed and we shook on it (not really shook, but they tipped their cones in my direction), and I could sense their relief about the grammar clarification as they hopped on their bikes and roared back towards highway 101. And from that moment on, I've been the Hells Angels Grammarian, revealed to no one up till now. Not even my wife knows.

My mere association with Frank and Jerry made it through the gossip network in town, temporarily elevating my status to the point where the red-haired Linda Lynn, who rarely spoke to me prior to the incident, offered me the loan of her yogurt maker, a highly prized piece of kitchen equipment at the time. It eventually led to my bicycle being decorated by Cub Scout den number six and included in the Fourth of July parade.

I can't tell you how many times over the years I've been dying to tell someone about my association with the Hells Angels. I almost blurted it out once at a Bar Mitzvah when I got stuck at a table with some guy bragging about how he knows Laverne from Laverne and Shirley. But I held back, thinking it's not my nature to boast and I'd only be sinking to a level unbecoming of my secret identity. So I nodded my head in pretend fascination until it was time to make a graceful exit. I'm glad I waited, but it's gratifying to be a part of history, to have some sort of legacy, and that's why the story needed telling.

Here's something else: the Hells Angels have an official flavor of ice cream: chocolate chip. Plain vanilla with bits of chocolate, and no substitutions; no fancy toppings or sprinkles. Since that day in Petaluma, in honor of Frank and Jerry and their generous appointment, it's been my flavor, too.