Sunday, 29 April 2012

Give Me Back My Scooter

Getting my scooter ready for spring was the easiest thing this year. I didn’t have to reclaim it from a storage unit, find a shop that could give it a big tune-up or, as I did one spring, hunt it - and the man who’d absconded with it - down.

When I first bought a motorcycle I felt I didn’t have the mechanical savvy to get it ready for winter and then tune in for spring. Luckily, I’d bought it at one of the most respected and oldest bike shops in Toronto, McBride’s.  All I had to do was ride it there one fall day and pick up it all washed, shiny and tuned in the spring.  I did try, some years, storing it myself but our garage was damp and I was never confident that I was doing all the right steps. Besides, picking it up in the spring all ready to roll was a thrill. Trouble was just after I switched to a scooter the business shut down.

That first winter I found another dealer but it was a long commute on public transit from my house.  And it was expensive.  The next year I left the whole question too late. An early winter hit Toronto that year; the roads were covered with ice and snow before I figured out what to do with my scooter. I had to go on a work trip and needed to find a solution fast. A friend, who’d wisely found space in someone’s garage for her scooter, told me of a dealer in town she’d gone to for repairs, a guy who might store scooters. I called. He did and the price was right too.

He’d closed his old shop, he’d told me, before giving me a new address. I picked a day when the roads were clear and arrived at a unit in a broken down – and mainly abandoned - row of brick units in the city’s west end. There was no sign on his unit; just the number I’d been given.  No one had bothered to clear the laneway. The ice in front of the door was hard, sheer and shiny.  So I walked the scooter carefully across it. Even as I handed my keys and a cheque for half the amount over to the staff at a makeshift desk, I didn’t feel good about the place. I eyed the scooters stuffed into two small garage-like spaces warily.

“You’ll winterize and tune it in the spring, right?” I asked.  The young woman nodded. I still felt suspicious but didn’t allow myself to think about it anymore. The problem was solved. The scooter would be out of sight and out of mind.

But I would get another life lesson from my scooter. I was in a busy job at the time and too often I rushed through the necessities of life, compromising when I had to.  Sometimes, I just didn’t take the extra time to find the best way and I shut off the doubting Thomasina in my brain. I’ve since learned to listen to her more.

In early spring, still too early to pick up my scooter, I drove by the unit and noticed there was a piece of paper taped to the window.  I pulled in to read the sign.  It said that the scooters had been moved and gave a number for inquiries.  I peered in through the grimy window at the emptiness of the space and felt bereft. My scooter was gone and I didn’t know where it was.

I must have called that number a hundred times. I got an answering machine at first but later when, I suppose, there were too many messages on the machine, the phone just rang and rang.  No one ever picked it up and no one called back.

The journalist in me kicked in then. I started searching the owner’s name.  I found it, far too often and never in a complimentary light. The man had been a dealer for a lesser-known brand of scooters, had run into trouble with the company and closed up shop, leaving customers who had given him deposits stranded. The news wasn’t much better at the next business he’d owned. He’d left customers in the lurch and had to leave the premises.

I took my findings to the local police station.  I reported the scooter as stolen so an officer would open a case. The officer I spoke with was helpful and interested in the history I’d gathered about this man.  He promised to look into it and I did get a call saying they’d heard he was opening a shop nearby. But when I drove by that address I saw nothing but an empty building.  Around the same time, I was introduced to someone who’d actually gone out with this guy. It had not gone well but she had a number. I left several messages on that phone.  In the last one, I told him I’d gone to the police and the media. Nobody takes Debi’s scooter.

Days later, just after I’d spoken to my insurance broker, I got a call out of the blue. It was from him. His voice was all light and cheerful. He was sorry for the “misunderstanding,” asked if I knew someone else who worked where I did, perhaps guessing that was how I’d got his number.  I didn’t buy into the friendly act. He had only the vaguest excuses for why he hadn’t answered his messages: been away, setting up a new place was so hard, blah, blah, blah. Bottom line was I could pick up the scooter any time after that day. “Tomorrow morning,” I said in one quick breath.

I got to his new place early. It now had a sign; there were new scooters lined up inside on a clean wood floor. It looked authentic. But I couldn’t see my scooter and until I saw it and had it and rode it away from there I wouldn’t relax. There was another woman there waiting for her scooter. She said she was so grateful that she was ready to put the whole thing behind her; she had her cheque for the second payment ready. I was not feeling that forgiving.

The owner, a young, rather cool look man – again with the friendly act – arrived, ushered us in, gushed about his new business and pointed to my scooter at the back of the shop where a mechanic was tuning it up.  The other woman chatted with him warmly; he offered her a second tune-up when she wanted it. But my doubting Thomasina was still on high alert despite the weird normalness of the situation. I nodded at him stonily, took the scooter as soon as I could but, in the end, gave him a cheque for the balance. I reasoned I just wanted out of there clean, but as a rode away I felt duped. Later that day, after I noticed a mark that may or may not have been on the scooter before, I called to say I’d canceled the cheque until the scooter could be looked over. I never heard back from him. Months later, his shop had vanished again.

Since then we’ve made room in our garage, taken care of the dampness.  Now each fall, the battery comes out and goes on a charger.  I fill up the tank and add stabilizer to the gas, I put a pencil under the wheel that touches my garage floor, spray the bolts and cover the scooter.

But tune-ups still remain a problem.  When I was in Vietnam this winter I passed motorcycle and scooter mechanics on just about every city street. But then the larger streets are lined with businesses selling everything from Hondas to Vespas; the streets are clogged with scooters and small motorcycles. (More on Vietnam scooter culture to come) In Toronto, it’s hard to find a dealer that stays put or in business.

This spring I knew my scooter didn’t need much attention. So I called the mechanic I use for my aging Honda car to see if he would check the tires. The owner, the mechanic and a guy waiting for his car all gathered around my scooter. The owner, an older Italian man, talked had ridden motorcycles in his youth and had all sorts of questions about mileage, parking and licensing.  He was thinking of buying a scooter to get around town.

They fussed over my scooter and when they noticed a bolt hanging loose on the licence plate they tightened that. I felt no need to get on with the next thing in my life. I just enjoyed the moment, standing in the sun on asphalt in front of an old garage, talking to these men about my scooter.

The owner wouldn’t take any money. “You be careful,” he kept saying. No gushing, no lies. With joy, I rode my scooter away, back to its permanent home, in the garage, where it belongs.

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