RIP Sonny Barger

RIP Sonny Barger.   

Sonny Barger, outlaw biker and founder of the Oakland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels, passed away yesterday.  He was a counter-culture icon, a convicted smuggler of drugs and explosives, a movie actor and an author.  He was pretty much everything I am not, but our paths did cross on two different occasions.    

The first time was in 1985 at the Full Moon Saloon in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district.  I was clerking at a law firm for the summer.  My apartment was near the Haight, and I noticed that Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were scheduled to play at the Saloon.  The Commander is largely remembered for his hits, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” “Mama Hated Diesels,” and the incomparable lyric genius of “Two Triple Cheese, Side Order of Fries”:   “ I can feel the grease drippin’ down my side.  Two triple cheese, side order of fries.” 

Walking to the bar, I noticed a long row of Harleys parked out front.  And inside was the largest collection of bikers I had ever seen, many wearing the winged skull logo of the Hell’s Angels.  It was a loud, rough crowd.  Near one of the tables, I noticed a Hells Angel attracting a large audience.  I saw the name “Barger” stitched into the side of his leather vest.  I knew who Sonny Barger was because a good friend of mine in law school had written his undergraduate thesis about the Hells Angels.  He had interviewed numerous club members in prison, and had told me about some of the key characters in the organization.   

After the Commander ended a rousing version of “Riot in Cell Block #9,” I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. As I stood at the curb, a motorcycle roared by.  A cold gust of wind blew the beret off a woman who was riding on the back of the motorcycle.  Her arms flailed as she struggled to grasp the hat, but it sailed into the air and landed in the street in front of me.  I picked it up, wondering if the owner would come back for it.  The motorcycle quickly circled the block and stopped in front of me.  I handed the beret to the woman, who thanked me.  The driver, who was wearing the jacket with “Barger” stitched into the side, also blurted out a quick “thanks,” and tossed a small bag of weed that landed at my feet. 

Almost 10 years later, my two-year-old son Nate and I were on a red-eye flight to New York, with an intermediate stop in Detroit.  My father-in-law had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day, and we were on our way to join my wife and her family.  The plane was packed, so I was forced to travel with Nate on my lap.  As we took our seat on the plane I noticed there were 3 other babies sitting in close proximity.  The two seats to my right were still unoccupied, but those seats were surrounded by the other infants.  I assumed the airline had consolidated all the babies together, and that we would soon be joined by another infant or two in the seats to the right.   

Then the missing passengers showed up – Sonny Barger accompanied by one the largest human beings I have ever seen.  Both were wearing Hells Angels vests and Barger’s name was stitched into the side of his vest along with the various titles he held in the Hells Angel’s organization.  The enormous guy tried to sit next to me but couldn’t fit his rear-end into the chair between the two armrests.  He leaned over to me and asked if it was OK to lift up the armrest between us.  I sure as hell wasn’t going to say no.  But there I was with my son in my lap and a Hells Angel in most of my seat.   

Shortly after takeoff the toddlers all started crying - stereo crying hitting Sonny Barger from every direction.  It then occurred to me that the seating arrangements weren’t accidental.  The airline knew Sonny was on board and wanted to make the experience as miserable as possible.  About an hour into the flight the attendant came by with some small trays of those horrible sandwiches they used to serve on planes – basically a stale bun with a piece of cheese and a couple slices of ham.  When the flight attendant handed Sonny his sandwich, he asked if he could have some potato chips.  The attendant said there were none.  Sonny, who had had enough by this time, began arguing with the attendant.  The babies around us then started screaming again and I thought all hell was going to break loose.  Just then, Nate reached into our travel bag and pulled out a small bag of Lay’s potato chips. He held it out to Sonny’s companion, who took the chips and handed them to Sonny.  Sonny looked over with a big smile on his face and said, “Gee, thanks, kid!”  It reminded me of that old Coca-Cola ad with Mean Joe Greene, where the kid gives Mean Joe a Coke and receives Mean Joe’s jersey in return.  Except that Mean Joe Greene was never extradited to Kentucky for conspiring to transport arms and explosives across state lines. 

Sonny and his companion got off the plane in Detroit, where there was apparently some kind of Harley event going on.  And we never saw Sonny again – which is OK – but I will always remember him when I open a bag of Lays potato chips or hear the Commander singing “Riot in Cell Block #9.”  RIP Sonny Barger.

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