The rocks hitting my window woke me from a deep sleep. I sat up with a start.
I pushed my window open and looked around.
“Jill, Jill, it’s me, Angela. Let me in.” She stood below, her bicycle thrown in the yard’s rock garden. It was about two a.m.
Angela, whose name, like the others in this story, has been changed, hadn’t returned my voicemails in over a month. She didn’t have a cell phone or email account. The last time I had seen her was for breakfast at Ole’s, an old-time pancake house on Alameda’s main street, the East San Francisco Bay city where I lived. I had met her there with her boyfriend, Pancho, who was over thirty years older — a huge and imposing man of over 300 pounds, with long black hair and a mustache, dressed in the largest flannel shirt and jeans I had ever seen, the scowl on his face making me feel like he was not happy — with the restaurant, the food, me — or Angela, who, at thirty-three, could have passed for his much-younger daughter.
It was the first time I met Pancho, though Angela had talked about him since the day I first met her months earlier, at my fortieth birthday party.
Pancho clearly had no patience for Angela’s chattering.
“Hey Pancho, Jill lives just a few blocks away from here in this cute little apartment,” she said. “Did you know she learned to play tennis when she was little, like eight or something? Isn’t that right?” she asked me. “That’s why she’s so good! Hey, we should try to play this weekend.”
“Can you just shut up?” Pancho asked loudly, interrupting Angela mid-sentence. It was more like a snarl, teeth bared. So we sat in awkward silence, looking down at the table full of eggs, pancakes and coffee cups.
With her dyed jet-black hair and turquoise eyes, Angela looked otherworldly. But in her tight T-shirt, red lipstick, jeans and combat boots — and lines etched around her eyes and at the sides of her mouth — she also was tough. Almost ten years younger than me, yet from a much different world where she had learned to survive, she seemed decades older.
We couldn’t be more different. And yet, our friendship had blossomed. “Here, this is for your birthday,” Angela had said, handing me a small white box the night of my birthday party in early 2006.
“Wow, this is beautiful,” I said, when I opened the box and saw the gold tennis bracelet. It would become a symbol of all the time we would spend together on the dilapidated court with sinkholes next to the Merritt Bakery. She had picked up tennis somewhere — not in the same formal way I had, with lessons and ball machines, but by hitting against the concrete houses of wherever life found her.
We would sit there for hours and talk, watching the neighborhood kids batting the ball around, often up over the chain-link fence and on to the street.
I loved my job at a publishing house in Berkeley, but over the past year my life had taken a very different turn. I met Angela as well as John, a man I dated and then remained friends with. My nights were no longer filled only with workouts, after-work cocktails and editing manuscripts. Together, we hung out at dark bars filled with biker dudes and black leather.
I began to crave the balance this new place brought to my life. I welcomed the sheer slice of the wind that hit my face on the back of a motorcycle as I pressed my helmeted head against John’s back as we rode across the Bay Bridge at one a.m. The lights of Oakland were like a city of brilliantly colorful beads in the distance, the air cold and wet, the speed making everything pulse with life.
This world felt like an alarm clock jolting me awake to a life that had been invisible to me, one that was lived out in color and on the edge.
One day I was on the back of John’s motorcycle when he pulled up to the repair shop where he worked. I saw a low brick building with words spelled out in red and white: Hells M/C Angels Oakland.
“Is that for real?” I asked John, as we got off the bike. “I mean, are there really Hells Angels just, around here?” I recalled seeing them in a photo at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in my college class about the 1960s. I also had a college boyfriend who rode a motorcycle on campus and read Hunter Thompson’s famous book about them. But I didn’t know they were real people. Instead, I thought they were fixed in history, mythological beings.
“Yeah, I’d say they were real,” John said, laughing, taking off his helmet and gloves. “Come on, it’s O.K.”
This was Angela’s world — and her boyfriend Pancho, who I would meet for the first time that morning at breakfast months later — was its main character. He was, at sixty-five, one of its longstanding members.
Soon after Angela and I met, I began going to her house on Friday nights when Pancho was gone. We would lay in their bed watching movies, drinking Coronas, and talking.
“Pancho thinks you’re a nerd; kind of like a librarian, but he likes you,” she said. I wasn’t sure what to say. He hadn’t ever said anything to me and I was a little scared of him.
One afternoon, when I arrived at their house, Pancho was there and thought that maybe we were up to no good. “You going to a bar, or what?” he asked me. I was in my yoga pants, sweatshirt, and running shoes, ready for an afternoon of tennis. “A bar?” I asked. “Dressed like this?” I had to laugh.
“He likes you because he knows I won’t get into trouble with you,” Angela said.
Angela had other girlfriends she partied with, women who could drink all night. To me, they were creatures of an unknown world. They seemed confident, talked loudly, and cursed with authority.
Soon after we met, she invited me to the Hells Angels clubhouse for parties. With its red-upholstered bar stools and black-and-white checked floor, a framed poster of the documentary “Hells Angels Forever,” there was typically a line of people at the bar, a band playing, and the sense that at any time, something was going to jump out and grab you. I felt a mix of fear and exhilaration in the crush of black leather.
It was an overdose of so much testosterone in one place, which after spending a work week among women, felt bracing, a slap of another reality. My senses came to life, away from the dull glare of the computer screen and the muddle of words and worries in my head. It was the same feeling I got from running a hard trail in bad weather, or putting on a headlamp to navigate steep trails at night in the Oakland Hills with an ultra runner I trained with.
It was the edge, and I liked it there.
Pushing through the smell of cologne and leather to get outside, where there was another bar, a buffet set-up, and partygoers smoking, drinking, and laughing, I would usually find Angela. She would be working behind the bar and seemed to know everyone. Sometimes she asked Pancho if it was O.K. for me to work back there with her. I would fetch beers or soda, enjoying the easy familiarity everyone had with each other. But by midnight or one a.m., I was ready for bed, even though the party would still be going strong.
After one weak cocktail and a bunch of sugar from the largely uneaten table of cookies and cake, I was crashed out, pining for a hot bath in my clawfoot tub. As one member said to me once, seeing that I was practically asleep at the bar: “You haven’t hung with this crowd much, girl, huh?”
I could hang around them and get the contact high, but in the end I was still myself. I didn’t fit in with this crowd, not by the biggest long shot.
It was a warm summer night when I heard the rocks against my window. I sat up quickly in bed, ran down the stairs and opened the door.
“What’s going on?” I asked Angela. I was glad to see her. Our friendship had a strange rhythm where she’d go weeks without getting in touch, and she had never come over to my house on her own, since she didn’t have a car.
“Pancho and I got in a fight. I was gone for a while and should have told him where. So I took the bike and left,” she said.
“Do you want to stay here? Are you O.K.?”
“Yeah, I just needed to get out. I should probably go back,” she said. “But it’s good to see you. We should play tennis soon.”
“I know. I missed you. Are you sure you want to go back tonight? Will you be O.K.?”
“Yeah, it’ll be O.K.,” she said. “Pancho is probably wondering where I am and he’ll probably be pissed.”
I got dressed and we loaded her bike into the back of my car. I asked her again if she was sure she wanted to go home.
It was dark and quiet when we got there, except for the open door of her house, which was brightly lit. We unloaded her bike. Pancho walked towards us, a huge man three times our size. He didn’t look happy.
I could feel the adrenaline pumping like at the start line of a race.
“Angela! Where the hell have you been?” he hissed. I was terrified.
“I just rode to Alameda,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
He looked at both of us. In the stillness, it felt to me like a circuit was going to blow, the air around us was electric. “Jill, get out of here — now!” he thundered. “I mean it, get out of here.”
I got into my car, waiting for Angela to open the gate and let me out. We said nothing.
Angela once called me at work and told me Pancho wanted to run a letter he wrote to the editor of the Oakland Tribune by me. These years later, I don’t recall what the letter was about, just that I was struck by the precision and beauty of the language. It didn’t match how much fear Pancho had instilled in me. All I could tell him was that it sounded great, because it did.
I could never understand how a man like Pancho and other members of the club could have these two opposing sides: the explosive anger and fear for which they’re known, and the rational, intelligent and often genuinely friendly faces they wear just as comfortably. All I knew was that it was compelling, and that the undertone, the buzz of something about to blow, even in a friendly conversation, drew me in, as it did many women.
I was still single, having a few dates here and there with guys who friends had fixed me up with. Nothing stuck — till a weekend trip Pancho and Angela invited me on to a motorcycle rally in Reno.
Of course, I had never been in a pack of motorcycles before, and I rode on the back with a friend of Pancho’s who was not in the club. This meant that we rode behind the prospects — those in training on a quest to become full-patch members — and could see the twenty or so Harleys in front of us heading down I-80.
Angela rode with Pancho in the front. She looked like a small bug, arms and legs barely able to wrap around him. Cars moved over into the right lane as we passed. The pack moved with military precision, so that what I felt wasn’t so much the speed, but all the bikes moving together as one machine — the Big Red Machine, as the Hells Angels are known. I felt strangely safe, Pancho’s friend not moving an inch and sitting like the Buddha. It was surprisingly peaceful, even with all those engines and cars. At peace like that, it’s not unusual to feel like you could easily be lulled to sleep.
Later, when we all went to dinner in Reno, scores of members walked closely around Pancho as we walked from one casino to the other. It seemed odd to me then, but I later learned there had been deadly shootings at a similar rally in Laughlin, Nevada, a few years before, when a gun battle broke out between the Hells Angels and a rival club.
Later on we went down to the casino, a sea of Hells Angels: women dressed in tight jeans and bling, and gamblers filling up the tables, slot machines and bar. I stood there, feeling out of place and wondering when I could make my getaway. As much of a thrill as it was, it felt like I was on overload.
As I was looking around, the sounds of slot machine bells dinging a win, gamblers yelling excitedly, and laughter and hard rock pulsing, I saw a man crossing the room. He got my attention, as he was the type — described by a longtime girlfriend as blue-eyed and seafaring — that I often was drawn to. He walked over, as if by magic.
“Hello beautiful woman. Why are you standing here by yourself all alone?” he said, a quizzical look on his weather-worn face. “I’m surprised you aren’t surrounded by guys.” He smiled. Very charming. And wearing a Hells Angels patch.
“You’re a funny man,” I said. “Hilarious. I feel out of place here, pretty much. I’m here with my friends,” motioning over to Pancho and Angela.
“Well, maybe I could buy you a drink? I can let Pancho know. How about that?”
So we went to the bar and sat down. I told him I was an editor and runner, here with Angela. He said his name was Scott. “You seem like a nice girl,” he said. “Beautiful and smart.”
“And you’re very smooth.” I smiled. “I mean, seriously, you’ve been smooth for a long time.” He was sixty to my forty, and bore more than a passing resemblance to Kris Kristofferson. He told me he was separated, but I knew enough to understand it as code for “married but straying.”
“So you’re married?” I asked.
“We’re not together now; we live apart,” he said. “Is that going to pass the test?”
He told me he lived nearby, and that he was a member of a charter north of Oakland. “Maybe I can come to Alameda and take you to lunch sometime?”
“That would be lovely,” I said.
He scribbled my number down on a cocktail napkin, ripped it off and put it in his vest pocket. “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, Miss Jill.”
Later, when I told Angela what happened, she rolled her eyes and laughed, as if to say O.K., get ready.
“These guys can be smooth,” she said. “You need to be careful.”
He called a few days later, asking if I wanted to go to a party at the Oakland clubhouse. When he got to my house, he had a helmet for me. Before we pulled away, he asked over his shoulder, “You ready?”
“Yep, I’m good,” I said. And we were off. That same peaceful feeling that I’d had with Pancho’s friend.
But not five minutes after we walked in, he excused himself when his phone rang. A few minutes later, he was back, apologizing and saying he had to go.
I somehow knew not to ask why or where, since he wasn’t the only club member leaving. A group of them were headed out. But I was disappointed. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ll call you.”
So I helped Angela at the bar. At two or three, I was in the member’s room, sitting among coats and drinking a Diet Coke, waiting for Angela to get the keys to open the gate so I could drive home and dive into bed.
He called me the next night. “Listen, I’m sorry I had to go so abruptly,” he said. “I’d like to make it up to you. Maybe dinner this weekend? There’s a party at the Frisco clubhouse we could go to after.”
The following Saturday, it rained all day and evening. I didn’t think a bike would be the best idea, and Scott didn’t either. He showed up in a big pickup truck. When we got to the party, I was excited that Angela would be there. When I saw Pancho sitting at a table with another member, I went over and asked him where I could find her.
But as soon as I spoke, he turned away from me. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong. I walked back over to the bar and sat down.
“You’re not supposed to go up to a member when he’s talking to someone else,” Scott whispered in my ear.
“Oh,” I said, feeling confused. “I didn’t know that. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You didn’t know. And I saw Angela. It’s O.K. if you want to go talk to her.” He winked.
By this time it was mid-fall of 2006. I had been in California for nearly two years and sometimes couldn’t believe that I was the same person who arrived on a rainy New Year’s Eve with my dog, not knowing a soul. I had somehow built this new life, a much different chapter than I had ever imagined. But part of me always felt like I was only on a two-year tour of duty and would return to Colorado when it was over.
I made the mistake of thinking that I needed to get back to my real life — the one in Colorado, where I had lived for nearly fifteen years before moving to the Bay Area. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that what I had built in California was my real life. There was no reason to go back to something that was right in front of me.
But I didn’t realize this at the time. All I knew was that my job wasn’t going well — in part because it was being crowded out by the other parts of my life — but also because I had never felt California cool enough to fit in. I wanted to run back to what I thought would be the welcoming arms of the mountains and the friends that I had left. But I’ve since learned, going backwards never works.
“You’re going back to Colorado?” Angela asked, shocked when I told her. “Why? You can’t leave!”
“I need to go back,” I said, not really believing it myself but somehow thinking it was the right thing to do. “But I’ll come visit and you can come visit me!”
“I’ll miss you,” Scott said, the last time I saw him. “But maybe you need to go back to Colorado to find something you’re looking for. It might be right around the corner.” It sounded wise, but I knew what I was doing was retreating.
A year later, I was living in Denver and had found a job in Boulder, a nine-to-five editorial production gig that allowed me to do what I loved — teaching writing and doing some of my own — on the side. I was in many ways living the same sort of compartmentalized life as I had in the Bay Area — minus Angela, and of course, the Hells Angels.
But that was about to change.
I had been living in my neighborhood for nearly a year before I found out that the Hells Angels clubhouse, just a small white house — except for their trademark Death Head in the front — was not even a mile away.
One night I was in our local tavern playing pool with a girlfriend when a group of Hells Angels walked in. It was a loud Thursday night, and the music and buzz of people talking and occasional shrieks of laughter didn’t stop.
They seemed to take up all the space at the end of the bar, where they stood. The people who had been there moved off somewhere else. My first instinct was to go up to them and ask if they knew Pancho, or Angela or Scott. Because it’s such a tight network, I was sure they did. But I also knew not to. In their world, it would be disrespectful and I would be thought of as a dumb groupie.
But I missed Angela and was tempted to see if they knew her.
One of them sat at the bar and ordered a beer. He was tall and rugged, a sailor home from the sea, wearing a blue seaman’s cap and Carhartts.
I tried to appear casual as I sat next to him and got the bartender’s attention. He looked away from me, obviously not interested in talking. But there was a mirror that ran from the top of the bar to the ceiling, so it was easy for me to sneak looks at him. After a while, I went back to my friend, and we played pool with a couple of guys we met.
One day the phone rang. It was Angela.
“Hey! I’m in the Frisco clubhouse and there’s a member here who’s in the Denver charter, “ she said. “I told him my girlfriend Jill lives there and maybe he can take you for a ride or something. You wanna talk to him?”
“Um, O.K.,” I said. She was in a world far away from mine.
“Hey, how’s it going?” A deep voice on the line that didn’t exactly sound friendly.
“Good,” I said.
“So when I get back to town, I’ll give you call,” he said. “Maybe go for a ride. You single?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good, Me too, free and clear.”
Angela called me about a week later, seeing if he had taken me for a ride yet. “Nope,” I said. “Haven’t heard from him.”
“Hmm. I’m going to let Pancho know. I think it would be nice if you met him,” she said. “He’s your type. It’s not like you need to date him or anything; just go for a ride.”
Then one Saturday morning as I was doing laundry, my phone rang.
“Um, is this Jill?” It was a male voice I didn’t recognize.
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“Hey, it’s Jack. I met your girlfriend Angela at the party in Frisco a few weeks ago. We talked on the phone. Remember me? I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to call. Been busy and traveling. But I’d like to take you on that ride. You got some time?”
“That sounds fun,” I said. “I haven’t been on a ride for a while.”
“O.K., great,” he said. “Let’s plan it.”
The next afternoon, there was a knock on my door. I was poised for some adrenaline and adventure, even if it was just a short ride.
But when I opened the door, I was more than a little surprised.
It was the Hells Angel from the Highland Tavern, the one I had wanted to talk to that night a while back. Now he was standing at my front door, his bike parked at my sidewalk.
He looked surprised, too.
“Wow, it’s you, the girl from the tavern,” he said. “Nice to see you, mystery girl. Are you ready for a ride?”