Scooting Around Athens

Jim likes the Vespa, but it's not meant for him.


As I waited for the light to change on the way to church recently, I noticed one of those finely crafted Italian scooters parked by the bus stop across the street. And the sight of it brought back a memory as humiliating to me today as it was when it happened in the fall of 2008.

      I was taking courses in the UGA religion department in Peabody Hall (my friend, Milton, told me that some people refer to it as Peabodishattva Hall).  It is located next to the Main Library. I would often notice, when going back and forth between Peabody and the library, that there were scooters and motorcycles always parked helter-skelter, some legally and some illegally, in the parking lot and on the sidewalk. 

“What a perfect answer to the problem of getting to the library on weekends and nights when the buses aren’t running,” I thought.  I had long ago given up the idea of riding a motorcycle as too dangerous a proposition even though several friends rode them.  I also didn’t want to bother with getting a license and insurance.  Then, too, even if I could get over my prejudice about a motorcycle’s safety, my wife certainly could not and would worry any time I might mount up and drive off.

But the new, beautiful, sleek scooters presented me with a new option. 

Off I went shopping for one and, for a while, everything sounded better and better.  Since the engines that push most scooters are 50cc or less, you don’t need a special license and can simply add them to your regular car insurance. 

How convenient, I thought.  Truly this is the wave of the future, the answer to high gas prices, the way to end our dependence on fossil fuels, the most intelligent way to get to the library and Peabody!  But then, the pail of cold water in my face.

These practical little machines would not carry my 250 lbs. at acceptable speeds and probably would not carry me up the steep hill from Baldwin to the Main Library parking lot, period! I blushed as the dealer politely revealed the humiliating truth. 

The prices of machines with more powerful engines that could get the job done were much higher and larger than 50cc and entailed licensing and insurance.

I scuttled my dream of zooming from home to north campus and consigned it to dead dreams file.

Then came that magical day when I drove to the Kangaroo on Lumpkin. There, parked on the other side of the gas tank, was a motorcycle-like, military-ish, gray two-wheeled vehicle obviously of special design to carry a basket at its front and bearing a Vespa nameplate. The owner was, obviously, in the store. My mind flooded with questions. What was this unusual conveyance?  What size was the engine?  How expensive was it?  A young man wearing a helmet emerged and approached the mystery machine.

He said it was “a used cycle from Italy, where they use them to deliver mail in the mountains.”

 “Is it as powerful as a motorcycle?”

“Oh, no,” the young man said, “You don’t even need a license because it’s only 50cc.” 

“But it’s powerful enough to go up mountains?” 

“I guess so,” he replied.

My dead dream sprang to life. 

He gave the name of the shop where he bought it and said he paid $1,000. I learned the shop owner gets shipments periodically.”

      By the end of the week, I had test-driven the last Vespa the dealer had left from his last shipment.  I had test driven it first in a parking lot and then up and down the street. 

The handle, which controlled the speed of the engine and the gears, seemed a bit temperamental, but I drove it just fine. The dealer said he needed a few days to tune it up. Since my wife, Jane, and I were going out of town for a few days, I told him I would pay him for it and pick it up when I was back. I was beside myself with excitement.

When I got back to town, I was too busy to pick it up right away. Saturday came around and, as it got close to 5 o’clock when the shop would close, I got panicky about not having it to practice riding on Sunday before using it in traffic on Monday.

 I called my friend, Milton, on whom I could count to drive to the shop and ride the bike to my house and hide it out of Jane’s sight until I could get there.  He performed his part flawlessly.

I drove him back to his car, and he said he’d see me later.  I returned to where we had hidden the cycle. 

“Ah, at last!” I clucked. “I’ll just ride it around the neighborhood a bit and then show Jane how well I can handle this baby.  She’ll come around.”

It was all working out to perfection.  I rode up and down our long concrete driveway a few times then headed out onto our nearly deserted street.  Getting the feel of it, I cautiously turned onto a street that would have a few cars on it.  I was feeling a new lease on life as I turned into the alleyway behind our house, which has a slight incline going up to our driveway. 

I brushed against some bushes, stopped and steadied myself with both feet on the ground.  I twisted the accelerator/gear handle slightly but the bike didn’t respond.  I tried to twist it just a bit more but rotated it too far.  The engine raced and made the back wheel spin in some loose blue stone. 

For an instant, the bike with me aboard stood up straight with no forward motion. Then it fell over to the left side and the engine cut off as my hand came off the handles. 

I was, of course, startled but undeterred. Pinned under the bike, I attempted to push the bike from between my legs.  Pain stabbed my left ribs. I gave up immediately. I just lay there in an unbelieving stupor. 

“Great,” I said to myself.  “I don’t know where Milton or Jane are.”

 I couldn’t yell. I was in too much pain. I resigned myself to just lying there until someone happened by. 

      After 10 or 15 minutes, some sorority girls dressed in party dresses noticed me.  God bless them, they stopped like Good Samaritans to see if I was hurt and what they could do to help.

I explained what had happened and told them not to try to lift the cycle but, if they had a cell phone, would they please call Milton.  If I could get hold of Milton, I was sure we could restore normalcy to this whole situation.  We might have to stash the cycle at his house and delay the great announcement to Jane that I owned an used “scooter.” 

The girls obligingly phoned Milton, apologized they could not do more, and within another brief segment of time, Milton came to my rescue.

He moved the bike off my torso and legs.  I was able to stand with only a little bit of pain.  I began thinking, “Oh, this is all right.  I’ll bet if I just sit for a while, I’ll be fine. Milton can keep the cycle at his house, and I can fabricate a white lie about the pain in my ribs.”

Suddenly I felt faint and sat down on the driveway.  Milton noticed and asked, “Are you all right?” 

“I feel weak.  Can you help me get to the bench on the porch?”

With his assistance and a glass of water, I sat and recovered a clear head.  Milton sat, too, and I knew what he was debating in his mind—did he need to take me to the hospital.  I assured him that I would be fine, no cause for alarm.  Then I could see flash across his face the question of whether he should, whether we should, call Jane.  Milton verbalized the issue. 

“Oh, I’m sure I’m going to be fine.  Let’s hide the bike at your house. When I’m on the mend, I can practice some more. Then I’ll tell Jane.”

Milton agreed somewhat reluctantly and was about to hide the cycle somewhere in the neighborhood until he could move it to his house when Jane drove up. 

“What’s wrong,” she asked with distress in her voice. 

We were found out.  I told her the sorry tale.  Predictably, she was understanding and went right to the heart—or should I say ribs—of the matter. 

“You need to go to the Emergency Room,” she said in a voice which precluded any objection.

Well, long story short is:  by midnight the emergency room personnel knew I had broken two ribs and were concerned that I might have damaged my lungs and/or heart.  I was released with a doctor’s order to have an MRI of my left side done within a week.  The bill was in the thousands, much more than the cost of the bike. I scuttled my dream of zooming from home to the Main Library and consigned it to dead dreams file.

      Is there a moral to this story?

  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?  Act your age?  Don’t try to hide things from your wife?  Thank God for a good friend?  There are Good Samaritans in this world?  There’s no fool like an old fool?

 I will let you decide.  All I can say is that when I saw that fine looking scooter Sunday morning, I said to myself, as I have so many times when I see someone scootering to class, “Damn.”

Jane Kidd December 08, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Great tale, Jim. It's exactly the kind of thing I would have done given the opportunity.
Al Davison December 08, 2011 at 06:49 PM
Wow, Jim! I'm glad it wasn't worse than that. As a 20+ year veteran of motorcycles, I am a little spooked every time I see one of these li'l 50cc scooters - especially when they are quite obviously being operated by someone untrained and inexperienced. I like that more people are riding scooters but I'm not crazy about the fact that so many people are going with the 50cc option to avoid having to have the training, licensing, and safety equipment. Driving, riding, biking, and even walking on public streets carries a risk and we don't really have great driver training in this country so, you never know. It may not involve driver error - it can be a mechanical failure that creates a sudden and unavoidable accident. That's one of the scariest parts of these cheap Chinese scooters I see so often. Sometimes scooters break and it's not always just the engine that quits. Practice in a very safe place - empty parking lots, quiet neighborhoods, etc. before you ever venture onto the street. Most beginners are surprised to learn how hard it can be to make a right hand turn and stay in your own lane until you master that skill. Many people get on a scooter for the first time and think that you turn by using the handle-bars like a steering wheel - NOT! Rule #1: Assume you are invisible. Rule #2: Dress for the crash - not the ride.


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