Irwin D. Dammers pilots his Harley Heritage Classic down the back roads of Highland Park, heading toward the oasis of the Highland House restaurant. The sky threatens rain, but Dammers is in a summer-Sunday state of mind--and that means hitting the road on two wheels. With the wind flapping his ponytail, and gunning his Harley past 60 miles an hour, Dammers shouts to his passenger that he sees--but does not fear--the cop up ahead on the right. Harley-Davidsons aren't the automatic fuzz targets they once were, declares Dammers, who's 33 and has been riding since high school. Hell, these days he sees cops patrolling on Harleys. It supposedly makes them come across as cooler.
After cruising by the cop car, Dammers motions forward John Blaine, next to him on a purring Honda CBR600. Twenty yards later, Blaine and Dammers lean into the turn that brings them to the Highland House parking lot. They pull up to a group drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups and dragging on cigarettes, laughing uproariously.
They call themselves the Zombie Squad: "Because at the end of the weekend, we're all dead," says Scott Noesen, a 28-year-old nicknamed "Burger" who's been riding for seven years. A patch sewn onto his leather vest reads "DILLIGAF," which stands for "Do I Look Like I Give A Fuck?" He describes the Zombie Squad as "a rare breed" who "ride every weekend all summer and sleep during the winter. Lose all the problems, just get on the bike and go." Leaving Fridays right after work, they might travel as far as Iowa for ice cream by Saturday afternoon. Then there's dinner and partying before the journey back. Come Sunday morning the Zombie Squad, who can number as many as 30, are nearing the welcome confines of the Highland House. After breakfast, they may find time for a nap in the parking lot. This has been the Zombie Squad's routine for the past five or six years.
And they're not the only ones. Since the late 1970s trekking to the roadside diner in Highland Park has grown into something of a sultry-weather ritual that now draws hundreds of bikers. They stop by for bacon, eggs, and conversation before or after their travels through the open, winding roads and hilly terrain in and around northern Illinois.
A love affair with Harleys has bloomed among motorcycle aficionados in recent years--particularly among the status conscious--and is in abundant evidence at the Highland House. The latest in shiny, top-of-the-line two-wheelers dominate the parking lot, but there are also some hard-ridden cycles that look around 30 years old. Their owners debate whose is best, socializing, preening, and checking one another out well into the afternoon.
"At first it was just a couple bikers who started hanging out here Sunday mornings. They told their friends, and it just progressed from there," says Highland House manager Frank Prokos, who owns a Harley Heritage Softail. It's a family business--his father, Mike, bought the restaurant with his brother-in-law John Filos in 1978. Back in the late 70s maybe 20 bikers would gather outside. Today the crowd usually tops 300, their slick machines and creative dress causing serious rubbernecking along Route 41: drivers tend to brake for a good, long look.
Leeza Mikhailova is attracting some attention on a recent humid Sunday as she delicately reclines on Burger's Harley. Leeza--who's 19 and grew up in Minsk--met Burger a month earlier at a tavern, Tales, in Mount Prospect. They've been together ever since, which means Burger has taken her riding every weekend. This one is the hottest, and she brushes the long, blond mane off her back so Burger can gather it in a hair tie that's leather, like her vest. "It keeps the hair together," Burger says. "Plus it's flashy, it looks nice."
Mikhailova had picked it out while Burger was negotiating on his first-ever Harley the day before. "We went up there to get a $3 part, and he ends up putting a down payment down on a bike," says Diana Jahns, who's 29 and lives in Palatine. Jahns has dated Shawn Scott, 28, the owner of a Honda Shadow, for about a year. Now she's instructing Mikhailova in the finer points of being a biker girlfriend. Browsing the dealerships, she says, "The guys look at the parts, and the girls look at the fun stuff."
It seems Burger couldn't resist the 1998 creamy white Harley Road King, 9,000 miles on it, recently dropped off by a local cop. He says it looks way better than the 1996 Yamaha he rode in on. "You should've seen the grin on this guy's face yesterday, I thought he was gonna pass out cigars," says Scott. "Yeah, Leeza spends 20 bucks on a hair tie, I spend $17,000 on a Harley," Burger says, laughing. Now he has to decide what to name it.
This is Mikhailova's first time dating a man with a motorcycle. She tells Burger she's "very excited" about the new bike, then kisses him. Burger's excited too. "I've always wanted a Harley," he says. "It's got a good rumble, good vibration." Well worth the money, too, because there's just something about a motorcycle that a car doesn't have.
Bill Wellhausen knew about that when he first rode his new Harley to fetch the woman who would become his bride. It was the summer of 1950. Bill was a strapping construction worker of 23 building an addition to Rose's parents' home in the Austin neighborhood. At first Bill and Rose admired each other from afar. But after she brought him a beer one day, he asked her out. "He asked me if I wanted a ride--it was a typical line, you know," says Rose, who was 20 then and working as a secretary. It was her first motorcycle courtship, though she'd gone for rides in high school and knew that the dresses she wore to the office wouldn't do. She wore slacks instead, and "looked just great," says Bill.
A half century later, the Wellhausens often reminisce with friends during weekend jaunts to the Highland House. Afterward the couple put anywhere from 50 to 200 miles behind them before arriving home in Des Plaines in time for dinner.
"Many people just ride a couple years and they're done," says Rose, smiling, as she and Bill describe places they've seen on the annual cross-country trips they've been taking since 1982, when Rose learned to ride. She aced her motorcycle-safety class on a Honda 450, but nowadays she and Bill ride BMWs that register 27,000 miles between them; Bill just took his in for new tires. "We like our motorcycles because they're comfortable," Bill says. "They have all the latest things that the automobiles have. They've got antilock brakes."
Rose recalls how her parents seemed a bit worried about her first date with Bill, watching their daughter go speeding off into the twilight. Bill and Rose saw the last leg of a motorcycle road run, which traversed some of the open fields then surrounding Chicago. "I don't think I was concerned about going on a motorcycle," she says.
These days, she and Bill rarely go anywhere by car. "On a motorcycle you see so much more. There's really no other way of traveling for us," Rose says. Two of their grandchildren are talking about starting lessons soon.
Juliana Perberg has been fascinated with motorcycling since age five but isn't old enough for lessons yet. Now 11, she's an authority on Easy Rider, watching it a lot at home in Glenview with her dad, Jerry. "But the thing is, it's so sad," she says while having breakfast at the Highland House counter one Sunday morning just before she and her father take off for Wisconsin. "I hate the end of that movie."
What Juliana likes is her status as a biker's daughter. "I'm on the phone with my friend, and she's like, 'Where were you yesterday?' and I'm like, 'I was out riding with my dad.' And she's like, 'That is so cool.' That's the best," says Juliana, reaching for a napkin to dab at her eyes. They got watery from the wind, even with her new sunglasses. "I don't care," she says. "I love riding."
In her three years as a passenger, Juliana has come to relish snaking along Sheridan Road in the northern suburbs. "It's awesome. And also what's cool is--if it's nice out, sometimes my dad will come to pick me up from school on his motorcycle." Jerry laughs. "Yeah, the mothers love that," he says. "There I am pulling up on my Harley right next to the minivans." Jerry, 49, grew up on the northwest side and started riding a Honda 350 at age 16. But he wouldn't go back to a Honda for anything. "There's a huge camaraderie among Harley owners," Jerry says. "Even the motorcycle gangs respect you."
Anticipating riding solo, Juliana is learning how a Harley runs. "I've been watching my dad, and I got the gears," she says. "You have to know how to work it really well, because if you don't you can get in trouble."
Jerry is firm about conduct on the road. Saddling up for their trip, he reminds Juliana: "Don't chew gum on the bike, always ride against me--and keep your hands inside." (When 'N Sync pipes from the stereo, Jerry says, his daughter tends to start dancing.) Juliana feels so at home on the Harley she's able to nap at 55 miles an hour. "She's an excellent rider, but on long trips she does occasionally fall asleep," Jerry says. "I can tell when I feel her helmet on my back."
After their long night partying and brief sojourn at the Highland House, the Zombie Squad is figuring out the best route to their next destination, a swap meet in Woodstock. "Route 41 to 176," says Blaine. "No, 22 to 14," counters Dammers. "Where the hell is everyone today?" a latecomer asks. "They were scared of the clouds," says Burger, seguing into a story about racing a tornado in South Dakota. "That's the biggest adrenaline rush," he says. "You hear a rolling thunder, the bike's just vibrating, and then you get this huge blast of wind in your face. I think we saw Dorothy."
Asked what he'd do if he could never ride again, Burger doesn't hesitate: "I'd put a bullet in my head." He lives in Buffalo Grove and works at the sprawling Avon factory in Morton Grove. "I make cosmetics," he says. "I mix all these colors together, and out comes the lovely honey beige foundation."
Dammers, a video producer also from Buffalo Grove, is shooting a training video for StreetWise vendors and his first feature film, a hip-hop story called Bytzh'z (pronounced "bitches"). Dammers is fond of his work and sometimes mounts his video camera on his Harley or films the Zombie Squad's antics, as he did on the trip to the naked pig roast in Wyoming last year. But take away that motorcycle, he says, and life would be a whole lot duller.
Dammers's hobby has occasionally caused trouble with a woman he's been seeing. Seems a party at her house slipped his mind. "I was out on the bike yesterday, and she was a little upset because I wasn't there a couple hours earlier," he says. "But riding is important to me. She should realize that by now."
Dammers looks like he needs to confess something. "See, when I'm on the highway, my feet on the pegs, I'll just end up meditating. I lose track of time. Sometimes I don't wake up till I get to the tollbooth." He's already put more than 8,000 miles on his Harley, which he bought in November. "I refer to her as a her," he says, playfully stroking the seat. "This is my baby, my girl."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Eugene Zakusilo. Scott Noesen, Lezza Mikhailova; Rose and Bill Wellhausen; misc. bikes; Judy and Gary Schrader; misc. back of head; the Zombie Squad..