Post-Industrial Grease Monkey

Jesse James and the gradual degreasing of the West Coast Chopper

Maybe it's the estrogen in the water or the fact that we lost Vietnam to a bunch of guys wearing flip-flops. In today's world—where water's for drinking, oil's for fighting, and a bunch of croquet-playing mitt-munchers are torching Hummers—Jesse James is just what we—the women of today—need: an accessible throwback to our oily, gasoline-reeking past. More than anyone since legendary former Hells Angels head Ralph "Sonny" Barger—now semi-retired and writing his own books—Jesse James has morphed the motorcycle outlaw into a responsible teddy bear of a man who's admired by his employees, counted on to cheer up sick kids, all with a tattoo on his right palm that reads, "Pay Up Sucker" (an abbreviation of "Give it up, you've been had") and a Viper Death Squad public-relations team behind him.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I have to make sure of a couple of things before I can give you an answer," Jackie Polaris writes back. "Can we get a letter from you stating that this is a guaranteed cover and if there is some breaking Orange County news, it will be the cover the following week?"

Wasn't that what I just said? I picked up the phone and actually called Jackie Crystal, but our conversation went about like our e-mails. Frustrated, I got my editor, Rebecca Schoenkopf, on her.

"Neither [Theo] nor I can promise cover placement," Rebecca wrote. "I can, however, say that it is almost certain that Jesse James would appear on the cover; there's just no reason he wouldn't. He's OC history . . ."

Polaris is tougher than anybody you'll meet at West Coast Choppers, the storied Long Beach shop where James custom-builds $100,000 choppers for LA Lakers, Hollywood stars and other celebs: motorcycles that are difficult to ride for people who may never ride them. They're the mechanical equivalent of a Frank Lloyd Wright house—resplendent in hand-rubbed lacquer, chrome and etching, but as tough to handle as Wright's Falling Water is to inhabit.

The toughest thing about West Coast Choppers is its annual open house, the No Love Party, and it's tough mainly because bikers roll from miles around to see and be seen being tough there. Last year, they held it the day before I got a cast taken off my arm, and I almost had it rebroken in the middle of a fracas between the Mongols and the Vagos.

Jesse James is tough to get on the telephone, but as the Long Beach mother of a seven-year-old with terminal leukemia found out last year, when you do reach him, he's all ears. Last November, James was juggling Monster Garagewhile producing the next installment in the Motorcycle Mania chopper-riding series he does with Garage producer Thom Beers when he got a call from the Rheault family of Long Beach. Their son Tyler had leukemia and wanted to meet Jesse.

Jesse James called Tyler Rheault for the last time on Thanksgiving Day 2003, as he and his daughter were getting on a plane for Japan. A few hours later, on his eighth birthday, Tyler Rheault died.

"My husband [Kevin], myself and Jesse James were the last people to talk to him before he passed, and that means a lot to me," Lynn Rheault says, trying not to cry.

They held Tyler's funeral a week later, and of course they invited Jesse James, the man whose great-great-grandfather's cousin was the outlaw Jesse James.

And, of course, Jesse James stopped what he was doing and came to the funeral. He dedicated an episode of his show to the boy, insisting a passenger seat be installed in the Monster creation in memory of Tyler.

"He called my son every single day for a week when he was in hospital," Lynn said. "Then when he visited, he spent two hours with him. He didn't have to do that. He's the most amazing man I've ever met in my whole life. You look at him, and you would never expect a sweet and gentle side."

Born in Lynwood, James lived in Long Beach, Compton and Cerritos—and was an all-star football player in high school. He moved out of the house at 15 and was sent to the California Youth Authority (CYA) three times, at ages 14, 15 and 17—stripping stolen IROC Camaros will do that to you—but three short jolts in CYA apparently straightened him out.

Having earned a bum knee playing football at UC Riverside, our hero became a bodyguard for the likes of Tiffany, Glenn Danzig and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He arrived at Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim around 1989.

"He came into the bar, and, um, I think we just started talking. I believe he brought Glenn Danzig in; he was bodyguarding Glenn," said former Doll Hut owner Linda Jemison. "He had that same mentality that musicians have, that free spirit, fun-loving, kind of childlike but positive [quality]. Innocent but very devilish.

"He was quite the prankster. Practical jokes on people—he'd ride his motorcycle into the bar. He was the only one who ever did that," she said. "He genuinely, genuinely is a very sweet person. He and I never had cross words."

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