Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see. Bleary eyes stared blankly through grimed windshields. Travel mugs moved slowly up to unsmiling mouths, then down again.
It was 6:30 a.m. and life was standing at idle in Charleston, W.Va. A chilly morning in late May with rain just itching to pour down from a sky as dirty looking as the vehicles below it. A great day to be on a motorcycle.
My husband, Chris, and I were joining the Run for the Wall, an annual motorcycle ride that originates in California and winds its way cross-country to the parking lot of the Pentagon. Thousands of motorcyclists gather there every Memorial Day to parade through Washington in honor of those who fell in the Vietnam War.
As we moved through the early light, curving down the entrance ramp and picking up speed, Interstate 71 came into view: a sea of nearly motionless vehicles. Nothing but brake lights.
On a motorcycle, this is a bad thing. It's not great in a car; but on a motorcycle, it's the worst. You ease out the clutch and creep a few feet. Brake. Ease out the clutch and creep a few more feet. Brake. Since your left hand is doing most of the work, this gets very old very fast.
Chris and I inched along. The light rain chilled us. Exhaust fumes hovered just above the ground. We slipped up to a couple riding double on a motorcycle, and it turned out they were headed for the Pentagon, too. It was almost impossible to hear the conversation over the rumble of motorcycle pipes, so I eased back and rode alone.
Interesting things can happen when a woman on a motorcycle chooses to ride solo. Every woman rider experiences it. Glances from passing cars become stares. Wolf whistles turn into shouts. Heads turn, and every now and then, someone wants to get "funny" and speeds up or slows down just to mess with you. It never makes me laugh.
I'd been keeping pace with a dirty semi for what seemed like days. I knew in my bones that the balding man in the tank top slouching in the cab was going to be one of the "funny" ones. He kept looking down and smirking. I nodded the first time he did it, and then ignored him after that. I played it tough and cool.
Suddenly, Chris waved me forward. I moved beside him and he yelled over the pipes, "Traffic's moving up ahead. Get ready to roll!" I put the bike in neutral, wiped the mist off my glasses, pulled in the clutch, and tapped the bike into first gear with my left foot. I started to move forward, the trucker forgotten. My goal was to stay alert in a developing situation.
Now the semi moved right up beside me, and the driver leaned way down out his window. "On, no," I thought. "Here it comes, What highly original quip am I gonna get this time?"
And then, with a decided twinkle in his eyes and one of the best British accents I'd ever heard, he politely asked, "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"
You can imagine: Brake lights are vanishing, engines are roaring, and cars are picking up speed all around me. And there I am at a standstill, laughing so hard the tears are pooling in my riding glasses. He sweetly smiled, gave me a little salute, and ground forward into traffic.
You just never know, do you?
For years I've complained about motel owners, restaurant hostesses, business associates everyone holding stereotypical views of bikers. Meanwhile, I'd prided myself in my ability to see past grease-stained leather and the unkempt beards to the people inside.
Yet there I was, boxing that trucker into a stereotype just like a shipping clerk with a staple gun. If only all my lessons about stereotyping could have been learned as easily as this one was.
That trucker taught me something about humor, too. Real humor. The kind that has no target, doesn't make fun of someone, disguises no bias. Humor that everyone can share.
So, Mr. West Virginia Trucker, Mr. Mustard Man Extraordinaire, thanks for the challenge and the chuckles on the rainy road to Washington. And no, I don't have any Grey Poupon. But I do have a wish for you: May every sandwich you ever eat be exactly the way you like it.