Men and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

My father who's not in heaven, damned be thy name: Paul Teutul Jr. and Paul Teutul Sr. with their "Black Widow" bike
Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel
various times

At some time or another, we all work for Dad, don't we? We schlep the tools from the truck to the basement; we run off copies, format crude spreadsheets, cover the phone during lunch; we jockey the front counter and smile lazily at the customers. We don't have to like it, we just have to do it. And if we don't work for the father whose lover gave birth to us, we toil for some unmistakably paternal figure whose rigid habits infuriate us and whose regular gestures of kindness never quite overcome the resentment we feel for the authority he senselessly wields. And then there are the hours of our lives that his job consumes, hours we could have spent doing something--anything--else. This enlightened despot is impatient that we don't do things the way he does them; he's hurt that we don't want to learn how.

Paul Teutul Jr. works for a motherfucker of a father. Paul Sr. is the proprietor of Orange County Choppers, an eight-man workshop that custom designs and fabricates motorcycles. The two are the subject of the Discovery Channel's documentary series American Chopper, whose name suggests a viewership of wide-bodied and long-haired men who blow $450 on chaps. I suppose Hell's Angels may be tuning in to fantasize about what another $80,000 might buy them in hog heaven. But I'd bet the actual audience is made up of bikers who want something to watch after the latest AA meeting where they found themselves bawling--again--about what it was like to come home to a father with an explosive temper, and to feel totally vulnerable and alone. Forget any notions of Sturgis debauchery--this show is a weekly version of The Great Santini.

A modest interest in motorcycles isn't a necessity for appreciating the program: I never graduated beyond a 50cc moped built during the Carter administration. But it wouldn't hurt, as a good portion of every episode is devoted to welding gas-tank covers and mounting pipes. The show's hour-long structure roughly follows the task-completion-under-deadline model of the Discovery Channel's Monster Garage and TLC's Junkyard Wars. ("Reality TV"--the dismissive phrase that pundits and people who don't enjoy viewing TV affix to any nonfiction programming these days--turns out to be especially good at conveying process. Bravo's Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within and C-SPAN's Road to the White House have both proven that watching other people pursue their goals is a particularly compelling thing to do on the couch while you're not pursuing your own.)

Here's a typical premise: The Teutuls will be setting up a booth at Daytona in just 10 days, say, and the shop needs to build a fantasy "Black Widow" bike for their main display. And so we see Paul Jr. ordering custom chrome filigree in the shape of a spider's web--an exoskeleton girding the whole bike--and then fusing the stuff to the frame. He's got a temperamental aversion to picking up a pencil, meaning that bike elements tend to go straight from his head into metal. This leads to a fair number of parts that fit about as well as the Teutuls would at a book club.

And that's where Father comes in. The old man knows how to do things right--are there any more dangerous words in employer/employee relations? And so he roils and fulminates and erupts volcanically--Dad is kind of a big baby--throwing tools and issuing threats. Then he leans back in a chair, plops his motorcycle boots on the table, and boasts about the motivational power of planting one of those feet in someone's posterior. Ah, Dad. The fact that no one in the shop seems to respond particularly well to Teutul's Jesse Ventura management style doesn't discourage him one bit. Nor does the high bluster content discount the central point of his rants: that Junior wouldn't know how to follow a production schedule if he were working on the McNuggets assembly line at McDonald's.

Every week it's the same story of stubbornness and crisis. And every week (save one) the bike gets finished. My favorite episode found Teutuls Junior and Senior seated on a couch in the family room progressing from verbal head-butts to borderline blubbering. They're men and they're talking about their feelings. And then the dramatic climax: a big father-son hug. I'd watch the show with my Dad if I could stand to be in the same room with him.

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