By Sebastian Maldonado
As I approached the clubhouse, my first impression was that it looked deserted. The sidewalk was a carpet of broken glass. There were remnants of a car out front that might have been dismantled by a rabid, baseball-bat-wielding Grizzly Bear. Above two black doors was a sign announcing EAST BAY RATS MOTORCYCLE CLUB. I shrugged my shoulders in confirmation — I was in the right place. I knocked.
A large, shirtless gentleman sporting a black beanie and a pair of boxing wraps around his hands opened the door and looked me in the eye with a bewildered expression, almost as if to say “Who the f@*# are you?” I would later come to know this man as Alfred, a gentle, albeit intimidating giant. After a short exchange of words and handshakes, Alfred let me into the club, where I waited in a cold sweat for the man I came to interview, Trevor Latham.
Latham is a man of many masks, but most notably, he is the president and founder of a notorious motorcycle club in Northern California, the East Bay Rats. The club is stationed in West Oakland, a city that area reviewing sites like Areavibes.com listed with a 260 percent higher rate of violent crime than the national average in 2016; this is where Latham and his Rats made a name for themselves on the asphalt.
Latham arrived, shook my hand, and sat on the stool next to me, next to the club’s backyard boxing ring. His backyard boxing ring. I could see Alfred behind the ropes, throwing hands with a gentleman who was smaller but no less intimidating. I turned to Latham and offered him a cigar. He was a man of herculean stature. As he extended an arm to accept the gift, I noticed his fingers were each as large as the cigar I was handing him.
“Thanks. I try not to smoke these things, but sometimes I get my hands on one, and I can’t help myself,” Latham said. He stroked his beard, pulled a knife from his pocket, and clipped the end of the cigar between blade and thumb like he was chopping carrot ends into a stew. I sat listening to Latham talk, and I found myself expecting an Irish accent to fight its way out of him.
The clubhouse had a vending machine, which I decided to confront about handing over a beer. After playing hot potato with my money, the machine gave in and spat out a can that was so dented it resembled Sloth from “The Goonies.” I took a sip. The beer was flat.
Before our conversation began, a thunderous rumble of motorcycle engines bullied its way through the front door and over our words. Three gentleman entered, each dressed like the cast of Kevin Reynolds’ Water World. There was talk of guns, knives, fights, strip clubs, hunting, and confronting mountain lions, talk that almost confirmed my expectations. F*$#k yes, I thought. This is what I came for. I live for this sh!#. I pictured bikers sizing me up, flowing bottles of whiskey, and Latham crushing a Budweiser, then slapping my back and saying “Hell yeah, brother,” with a hearty laugh, before his face made itself up into a heavy expression, as he leaned in and told me the secrets to a free life.
That wasn’t the interview I received.
I looked at Latham and said, “You’ve accomplished something that I admire greatly. At least from where I stand, it looks like you live a very free life . . . I think a lot of people, if they could, would drop their sh!# and buy a bike — do what they want to do, regardless of society’s criticisms. What I want to know is, how do you think someone can live a free life?” This was why I was in the dog pit of a notorious motorcycle club in West Oakland. I had a wild horse in my chest that wanted to be unchained. I wanted someone to help me unchain it.
After a short pause and another stroke of the beard, Latham planted his hand on his knee and said “The whole time that I was floundering in my early twenties, trying to get my life together, the motorcycle thing and the motorcycle club, building it and hanging out with my friends and throwing parties and drinking beer never was a positive thing.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed after hearing that answer. Were we not in the dog pit of a notorious motorcycle club in West Oakland? Black Sabbath was playing, Ozzy Osbourne was singing like he was about to summon Satan himself, Alfred was opening a fresh can of whoop ass in the ring, and Latham was telling me motorcycles and drinking weren’t positive things?
He continued, “It is possible that, in a way, chasing your dreams can work out, but . . . I still went to my job every day.” Latham tilted his head down as he said this, like my father does to impress something on me.
I felt like I needed to regain control of the interview. There had to be a wildness in his chest too. It just needed to be provoked. I said, “It’s interesting you say that. I absolutely feel like I’m floundering in my twenties. No matter how I try to tame myself, it feels like it goes against my nature. I want to figure out how to deal with this wild feeling I have. I guess that’s why I’m looking for notes on freedom.”
Latham closed his eyes in a signal of understanding and said, “The things that helped me, I stuck with. Boxing was great. Motorcycles were great; those things that, when you’re in the moment, you can’t think about why you’re doing them. Today we have less of those moments.”
I realized that, although it sounded like a contradiction to his previous statement, Latham was talking about two different things. Starting a notorious motorcycle club, floundering in your twenties, guzzling booze, fighting, and tearing through streets with your biker buddies may not be such a positive thing. But Latham used the meditative qualities of motorcycles and boxing to help with that wild feeling he had in his chest.
When I asked for notes on freedom, I received notes on self- control. He made references to the Stoic philosophers and the Samurai whom he praised for their training on “how to control your mind and meditate so that they weren’t emotional if they were in a fight.”
Latham also stressed the importance of community in liberating the feeling I had. “People tend to isolate themselves more and more until they get weird.” He clasped his baseball-mitt-sized hands together. “Having one night a week where you’re committed to your buddies . . . is super important.” I noticed he would often pause before finishing the significance of his thoughts. It showed he had respect for the ideas he expressed. It didn’t take long before Latham proved to be an exceptionally intelligent and insightful person.
Our interview took a break. One of the fighters in the ring had taken a good cross to the jaw that roused noise from spectators and purchased our attention. With a loud ring, a bell announced the end of the round. I looked around. My perception of the clubhouse had changed after the bell. Latham and the Rats weren’t feral. They were people with the same wildness and they found an outlet in the community of the clubhouse. They were providing the tools for a free life. The clubhouse was a medium for Latham’s blueprint: discipline, outlet, community.
We regrouped. Latham looked at me, and I said the only thing I could muster, “I have to be honest, I was anticipating a lot more of ‘I loved the freedom of having a bike and this lifestyle of saying f*$k you, I drive what I want, act how I want, party when I want, and I don’t have to apologize to people.”
Latham laughed, “I did all that.”
I asked him if he was happy, if the Rats were happy.
“The Stoics said, ‘you have to be happy with right now or you’re not happy,’ and I am happy right now . . . I think we’re generally happier than everyone else. We have figured out the ways to vent and have fun, and we have each other,” he said.
I got the notes I came for. I needed to find an outlet for the wild horse in my chest. I needed a sense of community that encouraged a disciplined mind. Ironically, living free was grounded in control. Our time was up. Latham shook my hand. I thanked him. Before he walked away, he asked Alfred to get in the ring with me. Alfred walked up and handed me a mouth guard.
I stood in the corner of the ring in my tube socks. I put the mouth guard in. The bell rang, and I couldn’t stop thinking about something Latham said about the advice he gives his kids.
It encompassed his notes on freedom through community and self-discipline.
“We have to protect people. We have to keep our sh!# together.”