Photo by Keith MayI hate Keith May. Oh, I don't hate him as a person or anything. It's just that Keith May got paid to ride across the country on a Harley, occasionally stopping, if the fancy struck him, to snap a photo. The motorcycle mag for which he's art director loaned him a bike, and they gave him a gas card. And aside from getting those, he got chicks, too—but, he says, only two of 'em. The best pieces of May's resulting photo essay depict all our favorite kinds of American trash—and after a five-month wait to get onto the walls of Alta Coffee, Keith May's America shines out from OC's own little slice of trash/heaven, the Balboa Peninsula. Really, what's not to hate?
May's small prints crowd the walls of the shabby and charming Alta Coffee, and they're gorgeous, and it's extremely difficult to remain pleasant when someone else can spend a month on a bike from Flagstaff to New Orleans. Some of his shots, like a large one of the old Stag bar, have appeared in or were commissioned by the OC Weekly, but most were taken on his road trip. May has a tendency to take shots of signage from underneath, so the angle that's supposed to be avant-garde or trippy is instead overused, but that's my only quibble. His portraits are exquisite—one, of an outlaw in Oatman, Arizona, shows an old, battered drunk who looks positively homeless. His job is to rob tourists in the fake 1 p.m. shootout. Another, of a trio of miscreants in the French Quarter, is outstanding: the bad old methhead in the foreground grins and flips off the camera with a scabby finger. And May's landscapes are purty, too. They'd better be. If you can't take a great shot of Sedona rock formations, you have no business owning a camera—or having someone pay your way across the country on a Harley.
"Photography's easy," May demurs. "You just point the camera and shoot; there's nothing hard about it. The camera does all the math for you." What was the best thing May saw? "My family," he answers, but that doesn't count. "All right, then. The French Quarter. I didn't like it, but it was a great photo op. It's dirty and depraved, and it smells like pee. I just don't like cities, I guess." Then why did he end up in OC instead of his home of Georgia? "I like Costa Mesa," he says, even though it, too, is dirty and depraved and smells like pee. "Yeah," he agrees, "but there's bike lanes, and I can ride my bicycle everywhere."
May changes his mind about the best place he went—he's hell to work with, dithering like Vizzini in The Princess Bride trying to decide if the poison is in his cup or the Man in Black's—and names Flagstaff. It was a place he hated, but he got stuck there in a snowstorm. He smiles as he says carefully that he met somebody, and she showed him the city. Aly's resulting portrait is blurry and sweet; she sits in an apartment barefoot, strumming a guitar.
The worst place he saw? At first the answer was once again the French Quarter, but he changes his mind and names Houston instead. "You can't go around it, and the traffic's unbearable. That's what I don't like about cities, I guess. You're like a rat in a cage."
We talk for a while about advertising, about whether he let the bikes be the focus of too many gleaming photos or in fact tried to keep them out of the way as much as possible. We talk about the germination of the idea for the ride, how he offered to be the one to go and how the mag didn't pay for hotels. Although he took a tent and a whisper lamp, at the end of a day of riding, he never felt like dealing with camping, so lodging was a big expense. We talk about Suzie Switchblade and the Saddle Tramps, a traveling band from Reno with songs like "Cindy Brady's Having My Baby." We say goodbye.
The next day, an e-mail from May kicked down with the rest of the story. Diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, May began having awful panic attacks; doctors were thinking about cutting him open. Instead of waiting for death to find him at home or in a bar full of panicked friends, death would have to grab him while he was doing something manly and profound—and you don't get much manlier than blowing into town on a Harley.
After 6,500 miles, he hasn't had a panic attack since, and his mother and sisters are no longer fighting over who's going to come out to California and baby him. I was too polite to ask if Aly would be taking over that chore instead.
Keith May shows at Alta Coffee, 506 31st St., Newport Beach, (949) 675-0233. Through Feb. 28. Open Sun.-Thurs., 6 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-sat., 6 a.m.-midnight.