Little Pat’s shiny motorbike is parked in front of the door, blocking the entrance of the Paris chapter of the Hell’s Angels, as a non-welcoming sign. Standing by the door is Fred… or “Fred the rapist”, says the man without a smile, yet mocking the stereotypes around the infamous motorcycle club from California, which recently sent the boss, the father of it all, in the French capital.
The “rapist joke” sounds even more ironic considering that Patricia, Fred’s wife, an American woman who stands by her dog – a cute sleepy white hairy thing who could be a white terrier – takes me aside to talk to me about the threatening climate towards women in this neighborhood of Paris.
Indeed, there’s been some recent reports that women were almost not allowed to show up in the public space around the nearby metro station, La Chapelle, or if they did, they were exposed to all kinds of sexual assault. Such stories sparked off counter reports in reaction, minimizing or denying the situation (the tricky point being that, in this district, there are a lot of men from foreign origins, mostly Middle East, Asia and Africa, and defending these specific women is seen by some as accusing all foreign men, in a racist way).
Anyway, Patricia comes as very suspicious at first. Am I a cop, or something? When I say ‘no, I’m a journalist’, Patricia requests to see my credential. Once she realizes it’s true, she brings up the subject, obviously important to her, because she fears that I might be the kind of reporter who doesn’t believe these women’s allegations. So when I say I don’t just believe it, I know it, she opens up, and we become friends. The mutual connection with America helps.
Maybe that transatlantic bond is also why the top Hell’s Angel, Ralph “Sonny” Barger, likes coming here, from Arizona. He’s such a mythical figure that his visit attracted thousands of bikers wearing the easily identifiable death’s head insignia, in the middle of the rue Louis Blanc.
This lovely signature has Fred and his friends be “fichés S”, which means they’re considered a serious threat to national security. Fred brags about it with irony as well. “Not SS”, he notes, although at this point, being flagged just like any other potential terrorist, he doesn’t care. But in 2017, “Fiche S” is not the best label to carry with you on a road-trip, and the guys can’t even consider going to the US, the motherland of their “family”. That’s why the US come to them, through the persona of Barger.
I knew that name from Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, published 50 years ago in the US. Reading it, I wasn’t surprised by Fred’s rapist joke. Whether or not there has been some cases of rapes by some Hell’s Angels, that’s a reputation they endure everywhere. And it seems like they don’t care, because they like coming up as tough cookies. But this is an act, a game. These guys are fringe elements, rebels, “free freaks”, like Sid “the vicious”, the one responsible for publishing a fanzine, says. They’re not part of the “politically correct” world, although they love talking about politics, and about some politicians known for being involved in sexual assault scandals.
After an hour of chaotic chit-chat, I left with a feeling of broken heart, like I made new friends and it was over already. An impression which doesn’t mean they’re pure angels, they’re just like what they say they are: a little diabolical, a bit angelic.
On the angelic side, another biker came to ask me politely if I wanted something to drink, while his comrades were playing with me and my clichés about Hell’s Angels. When I replied I wasn’t afraid about the rape thing (whether a joke, a threat, a fact), Fred continued by saying he was a nazi. And Little Pat (Petit Patrick, in French) asked : “Do you know how many countries don’t let Jews in ?” I got uncomfortable, because I didn’t know where he was going with that question, especially after what Fred just told me. It turned out, he’s jewish, and he thought I was too.
So his point was to tell me that, as a “Fiché S” and a Jew, he is excluded from many places on this planet. Even from the country which produced the counter-culture he’s been a part of for more than 30 years, the United States!
Little Pat, who opened the Hell’s Angels chapter in Paris in 1981 with Fred, tried to go to San Bernardino, in California, in 1998, to celebrate the 50th birthday of the movement that originated from there. But he was arrested at the airport, spent two days in jail in Los Angeles, and was sent back to Paris. He can’t go to Brazil or Australia either, he says. “So, how does it feel being a Hell’s Angel, if you can’t mingle with the Yankees and do a little pilgrimage once in a while”, I wonder?
“Well, fortunately, France is not as narrow-minded with them as they are with us, so they can come here”, Pat responds. And that’s how, just a few days ago, the colors of California filled this little corner of north Paris.
“He has a special connection to France, and Paris ; he just likes it here”, Fred continues.
But at 78 years old, it was “Sonny” Barger’s last trip to Europe, he warned. The Oakland Hell’s Angels chapter veteran, who spent several years in prison and now lives in the neighboring state of Arizona, travelled overseas to celebrate his 60 years in the anti-peace and love, more like booze-and-tattoos, business. But the furious biker, who appeared in the TV series “Sons of Anarchy”, is old and tired now. He’s been sick with a throat cancer for decades, so for him, it was time to say goodbye to his old pals from Paris. The end of a chapter, not the end of the chapter.