To my wife, I have become a medieval knight striding out of the house each morning with the visor of my helmet drawn. My sons, 12 and 9, have pronounced me a daredevil and would like me to transport them to school as often as possible.My neighbors have compared me to Darth Vader.
The secret of my perceived transformation -- for I am still chicken at heart -- is that I have acquired a motorscooter. Not a motorcycle -- a charging bull of a machine with a habit of spitting grease on trouser legs. Not a moped -- a twittering bird of a bicycle not strong enough to carry another passenger. My choice was a Vespa motor scooter, Sport 100 to be technical, known as a gentleman's motorcycle because sheets of metal cover its internal parts and one sits on it as if on a chair -- no straddling or crouching. The wheels are so small as to be toylike, but the chassis is as streamlined as a jet plane. The law requires that I wear a safety helmet when riding.
My conversion from four to two wheels was not universally applauded. One friend accused me of regressing to "high-school macho" and attempted to intimidate my wife by calling my early demise on the road a statistical probability. He threatened to boycott my funeral.
I have had my moments of doubt.
I decided to look for a scooter because I had enough waiting for the bus and then spending 45 suffocating minutes going to and from work. But after I bought the scooter and rode it home in the Saturday afternoon traffic on Wisconsin Avenue, I understood why the dealer insisted that he is not allowed to let prospective customers test-ride. I felt vulnerable, exposed to a wind that suddenly felt chilly, and threatened by the superior horsepower all around.It was a cold April day, and after 10 miles, I was frozen through. But my sense of inferiority vanished as I began to see the possibilities of scooting ahead, dodging four-wheelers.
Then there was the humiliation of failing the road test. I was told to make a left turn out of the road test area and drive around the block. But when I got to the double yellow line dividing C Street, I sensed a trap. I had always believed that double yellow lines are never to be crossed, so I made a right turn and went around the block. I was reprimanded for not following instructions and told to try again. I did, performing a perfect figure 8 in the parking lot of the testing station.
My new D.C. driver's license has code number 7 under the category "Restrictions." It means, according to the small print on the back of the card, that I am also allowed to operate a motorcycle.
On the four miles of road between home and office, I have become familiar with every bump, crack and ripple and aware of the angle of every incline. I have realized that a scooter can feel like a bucking bronco. But climbing a steep hill, the scooter is a lawn mower with a chair attached to it.
I try to avoid riding in the rain. A manhole cover is as slippery as ice, and on macadam, a combination of an oil slick and raindrops is guaranteed to make you skid.
Perhaps because I usually ride under sunny skies or because the Vespa is a graceful, lighthearted if off-balanced product of Italy, Massachusetts Avenue now reminds me of the rolling hills of Toscana, and the equestrian statues of generals Philip Sheridan and Winfield Scott suggest monuments towering over the piazzas of Florence. I have come to believe a family legend about a great-great-uncle who landed with Garibaldi in Sicily.
My posture has improved. What years of parental admonition failed to correct in my formative years is happening spontaneously in my middle age: Instead of slouching and slumping, I sit up straight. I feel obligated to do so. I owe it to the Vespa.
Riding a scooter is a motorized stroll, a trot on a placid pony. It is also like sitting in a sidewalk cafe, being both an observer and one of the observed. And at 87 miles per gallon, the exercise is only a little less ecologically kosher than pedaling a bicycle.
In April and May, the colors of dogwood and azalea looked far more intense than I remembered them from the window of the N-2 bus. As for the famous Washington heat, I have found that a scooter is a good place to catch a cool wind.
Spring was never as beautiful as this year, and summer has never been breezier.