The Biker Word: BROTHER

I have 3 three sisters. I am grateful to God for each of them. Patti, Coleen and Kerry, three more Irish female names you couldn’t make up. Three better sisters, you couldn’t imagine. They each have quirks and traits and habits that reflect our collective upbringing. They are not bikers nor married to bikers although will jump on my bike on a moment’s notice. There were no brothers in my house growing up, except me. I was the lone ‘male child’ and always yearned for a brother. I was sometimes saddened by my lack of one.  At times I pretended to have one and sometimes even imagined that my play friends were, in fact, my brothers. But this was folly, as my parents had no other male offspring. It was not until adulthood that the word ‘brother’ was liberated from its genetic confines in my head. I found brotherhood during adolescence often in the competition of the sporting arena, and later in the camaraderie of motorcycling and ultimately in the purest form of human loyalty. All too often we as bikers throw the phrase ‘brother’ around with abandon. I question the intent of the stranger who addressed me as brother, like; “Alright Brother, do you want cheese on that hamburger?” – or “Thanks BRO…” when I hand the valet my keys. It may just be me, but the phrase ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ alike are reserved by myself for a relative few in my life. I hear it so often in the motorcycling world nonchalantly. Mainly, I hear it in the peripheral biker world of biker bars and biker businesses and at biker rallies, rides and fundraisers. Most apropos I hear it in the motorcycle club world. Although I’ve hear it phrased as “true brother” there as opposed to “blood brother” most often in an introduction of one club brother by another to a stranger. I pay careful attention to its use and regard the term with respect and loyalty and do not use it very often or carelessly. It is serious word, deserving of deliberate consideration before invoking especially in the biker world. Its origins are simple and Webster defines the word as a noun, describing it as “a male offspring”. Surely it’s more complicated than that. Ecclesiastically it is reserved for a “lay member of a religious order that has a priesthood who devotes himself to religious study without taking Holy Orders”. I fondly remember many “brothers” of the Catholic faith who led my sports teams in school and taught us lessons in class and guided our religious studies as youngsters. I called them “Brother”, but simply as a title. Further research on the origin of the word “brother” describes its use in the Urban Dictionary as “the address of one black male to a fellow black male”.

This led me to think back to one of my earliest memories of childhood and it coincidentally contains the use of the word. Long before motorcycles were part of my life when perhaps a ‘big wheel’ was my transportation, I was on a bus somewhere in hot and steamy New York City with my mother. I’m guessing I was 5. The bus line was most likely the ‘Q-5 Hillside Avenue Express’, which we often took shopping. It ran at the top of our street (213th) from a bus stop filled with strange faces that my Mom advised me not to stare directly at, ‘strangers’ she warned me. This was 1960’s New York, not the current cuddly post Giuliani New York. I remember seeing a black man stride up the steps of the bus we had boarded a few stops before and drop his metal token into the glass box at the top of the steps. No ‘swipe’ card in those days. He sat next to me in the first seat behind the driver and of course I stared at him. His Afro hairstyle was as wide as a 10-gallon hat, complete with pick comb protruding therefrom. He smiled at me and must have known his great hairdo had caught my childish attention. It intrigued me and in my youthful innocence I could not help but stare. My family was very ethnic Irish and surrounded by the same, and black people lived in a different neighborhood a few stops down the Q5 line. I think it was about 1968 or 1969, as my family had not yet migrated north to exchange the Q-5 for a backyard and cleaner air. In the commotion about me I remember the man jump to his feet to help his brother up the steps of the bus at the next stop. I knew it was his brother because the boarding man was laden with tool bags and the ‘Afro Man’ reached down the steps of the bus and stated for all to hear: “Hey BROTHER, let me help you up with those tools”. The oncoming passenger was happy to have the help and smiled and nodded thankfully. At the very next stop the man with the tools standing even closer to the steps, stepped down and helped a woman with a grocery buggy and three small kids up the steps who was obviously his sister. I knew this to be true because the tool man said to her: “Hey SISTER, let me help you with those bags” – or something like that. I thought to myself that if the lady was sister to the 2nd man, then that made her sister to the first man as well! I wondered what the chances were that three siblings lived on 3 consecutive bus stops right here in Queens, New York? I was so intrigued by that fact that I recall asking my mother about it and I remember her earnest explanation of the cultural custom of people of color who addressed each other as “Brother” and even “Sister”. I recall being shocked and upon reflection envious. I was smitten with the idea and remember a sense of jealously that my culture had no similar custom. We had some cool stuff like kilts and St. Patrick’s Day and support for the IRA (Hell, I was 5 in 1968 – cut me slack), but no one called each other brother. In my childhood innocence I yearned to be black just to engage in such ‘brotherly’ interaction with my peers, none of who happened to be black. It was not to be. I was not black, I had no blood brothers, no one outside my sisters called me bother and I likewise could say it to no one. I would have to wait 30 or more years to use the phrase in earnest.

Eventually I set out on the open road and learned the way of the biker. The freedom of the highway and the linguistics that came along with the biker lifestyle were absorbed by me like a sponge. I came to understand the difference between a fat boy and a soft tail. The nuances of ‘the wave’ to other bikers passing in oncoming traffic, the proper way to park curbside and the details of interacting safely in the ‘club world’. All details that were learned over years and miles and have become second nature. I’ve loosened my internal restrictions on the ‘brother’ thing. I am less uptight about it now. If the bartender wants to call me “brother”, well – that’s his prerogative. I have even taken to calling my three brothers-in-law “brother”. After all, they are married to my sisters. Out on the open road, when the time is right, and the curves are right, and the company is right, you may just hear it from my mouth. If you do, remember it. It was a long time coming.

Well, signing off for now.  Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home.

Leave a Comment