In ‘66 and ‘67, I was the parts manager at Honda of San Francisco, on Van Ness between Ellis and O’Farrell. I was responsible for ordering parts: OEM parts from Honda and aftermarket stuff from a number of outfits. Most of the aftermarket companies had reps who’d call on us.
Management trusted me, so I could buy aftermarket stuff, bungee cords to windshields and tires, from whomever I chose. I tried to save the store money when there was no difference in the products, but I could buy from some reps and not others based on which guys I liked best.
One of my reps was a man in early middle age named Sam. I honestly can’t remember which companies he represented, but I liked him immediately and he certainly never did or said anything to make me change my mind. I bought stuff from him whenever I could.
He was from New York state, but he was not aggressive and brash as the cliché would have it. He had that way about him that I think of as eastern and pre-baby boomer. He told jokes, is what I mean, a conversational art that has vanished over the decades.
Ask any senior you see shuffling down the sidewalk in his house-slippers. He’ll tell you that guys used to tell jokes. And not just, “Didya hear the one about…” kinda jokes. Sam told little jokes.
If you asked him if he wanted a coffee, he’d say, “No, thanks. I just had a bar of soap.” Or he might say, “No, thanks. I’m trying to quit.”
That probably sounds corny to you in 2018, but I thought it was funny in 1967. Even then it was a style sliding into the past.
Sam was a gentleman, and an empathetic person. He was kind, supportive and soft-spoken. He wouldn’t load you up with stuff he didn’t think you could sell to your customers. You were important to him as a person, not just a source of orders. He wasn’t all about the next sale.
He had no need to impress you whatsoever, to make you think he was something special. I came to think of him as a model for how a man should be in the world, a genuinely good guy.
I left Honda of San Francisco to be a rep myself in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where I was spectacularly unsuccessful. My wife and I were gone a year from the Bay Area, and when we returned, we lived in Belmont and then San Carlos on the Peninsula. I worked selling bikes for Honda San Mateo and then for Ray and John at A&A Motors in Redwood City.
Sam and I stayed in touch and stayed friends. My Moto Guzzi broke a vital part in 1973 and Sam loaned me his R60 slash-something, a sweet airhead twin with a giant, embarrassing Vetter fairing. I had the bike for months. Sam was not a dyed-in-the-wool rider, and probably didn’t miss it all that much.
In 1975, I moved from the Peninsula to Marin and for a time I became more of a bicyclist than a motorcyclist. I lost track of Sam during that time. He’d lived in Millbrae and I’d moved north.
I went to work selling bikes for Alex McLean at Motorcycles Unlimited in Corte Madera. I remember hearing from another rep that Sam had lost his wife after a fight with disease. I’d always known him to talk about her in loving ways. He valued her, was the feeling you got, doted on her.
I think he lost his way a little bit after she died. Or maybe he found a new way. I think he sold the Millbrae house and retired from repping. I think he moved up to rural Mendocino County and put his old life behind him.
I tried to find him, or to get back in touch with him. I heard he was living in Covelo, just a rumor, so the next time I was up there I dropped into the post office to ask the clerk if he’d heard Sam’s name. Nope, he said, and I believed him.
Years later, in the 21st Century, I saw a mention in a bicycle business journal of a guy who was partners in a bicycle company back east. He had the same last name as Sam. I found a link and wrote to the man.
Yes, he replied, Sam was my uncle. He’s gone now.
I told the young man what I’ve told you about Sam. I loved the guy, I said. He was the best. The young man said that his mother would be pleased to hear what I’d said about her long-lost brother.
He went on to tell me that Sam had been an outcast in the family, a black sheep. The family thought he was some kinda hippie or commie, and a damn motorcyclist to boot.
No kidding. A biker scumbag riding a blue, toaster-tank BMW twin with a white Windjammer fairing. A commie Millbrae homeowner, crazy about his wife. A trustworthy rep who showed up at the appointed time on the appointed day. A guy who’d listen while you told him how your own life fell short.
I sent the young man an email note about my admiration for his uncle with the understanding that he would forward the email to his mom. I don’t know what she thought when she got it. She didn’t know me or have reason to trust my feelings. Maybe she’d suspect my motive for reaching out.
All those years she and her family had thought Sam was a nut, a leftie, a weirdo. They were happy that he’d fled to California, where all those nuts, leftists and weirdos end up. In Millbrae, can you believe it?
Sam was not a nut. He was no more left-leaning than most of us. I thought he was a sweet, loving, considerate, forthcoming, honest man. His family, who ostensibly hadn’t seen him in decades, thought he was a creep.
I’m sure there are CityBike readers who worked in parts departments in Bay Area motorcycle shops in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some will remember Sam. I believe that guys who were in the business then will remember him fondly, even guys who repped for competing companies.
None of us would have dreamed that his family had been glad to see the door close behind him.
Home, I’ve heard people say, is the place that, when you show up, they gotta take you in. Too often, home is why your folks live at one end of the country… and you live a five-hour flight away.