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Guest Thinkers

Of Motorcycles, Mozart and the Nature of Tolerance

The motorcycle gang pulled in to the parking lot in a small town in upstate New York. They put down their glistening kickstands and sauntered into the grocery store, one after another after another. They were a sight in their black t-shirts and military looking helmets, and some of the nervous store clerks snickered. A couple of bikers, eyeing each other and making a show of their lack of interest in what the burghers thought, snickered back.

So far, it’s a page out of The Wild One.Except that this motorcycle gang was paunchy and middle aged. Their bikes (and a trike or two) were spotless—the lovingly maintained treasures of well-established people of means. And they weren’t raiding the town for high-school virgins or liquor. They were on a 120-mile ride to raise money for cancer research.

The mix of Brandoesque menace and happy-hobbyist satisfaction makes for a weird vibe: “The Mild One: Driven Only So Far By Their Hot Desire to Help Charity!” I didn’t like either strain—neither the pudgy, gas-guzzling self-satisfaction nor the “we’ll make as much noise as we want” teen menace thing. I just wanted to buy a chicken. Why did I have to put up with these people?

Motorcycle hobbyists are easy to hate on, and plenty of people do. But then, who of us doesn’t happily spend his free time engaged in some activity other people detest?

Me, I’m partial to kayaking. If you think nobody hates that, check out what this guy has to say about sharing his waters with us. And we’re in Cooperstown in the first place to go to the opera. Since most of the town’s other tourists are here to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, we and our fellow opera fans are the closest thing this pretty village has to local weirdos.

A friend of ours is singing (wonderfully, by the way) here in The Marriage of Figaro, which is a comedy that leans hard on the idiocy of self-righteous anger. Whenever a character in Figaro sings alone about what s/he thinks, wants or feels, it’s all wrong and the singer’s making a fool of himself. They only come near the truth of things when they sing together, in ensembles.

In that spirit, I am trying to resist the drug-like temptations of shaking my head at the motorcycle people. After all, “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” Our details vary—maybe you’ll never paddle a kayak, wear drag, change your gender, collect ceramic shoes, or spend a sunny afternoon driving a Harley around the countryside—but the human condition is universal. Real tolerance isn’t saying “I’m going to try my best to put up with that jackweed.” Real tolerance is saying, “that could be, will be, me.”


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