a journey on thayer

“HARD WORK”

At the start of the fall semester, I set out to write an article about the motorcycle riders who frequent Thayer Street, and let me tell you, it has been quite the journey. In researching for this article, I came across some interesting characters, receiving everything from crude date requests to Instagram direct message spams, and learned lots of things that counter popular opinion. For instance, there is no set motorcycle group or crew that comes to the street, and often, the riders revving their engines as they pass through campus are very different from those who are parked on the street and hang out on the sidewalk.

One Thayer Street biker of the latter category stood out to me as both a remarkable and strikingly honest storyteller. Over the course of half a dozen conversations, some intentional meetups, and other coincidental run-ins, I got to know this man: his lifelong relationship with this street, his tumultuous struggle with addiction, and finally, his refuge here on Thayer.

The first thing you might notice when meeting Sonny, aside from his motorcycle, is his ink—most notably, a tattoo of the words “HARD WORK” spelled out letter by letter on his knuckles. He considers it a symbol of his recovery: After struggling with heroin addiction for most of his young-adult life, Sonny is now six-and-a-half years clean. Through both addiction and recovery, Thayer Street has played a central role in the Rhode Islander’s life. “I’ve been hanging out here since I was 15,” he says. “I’m 42 now. You do the math,” he chuckles, the self-proclaimed jokester baring his gap-toothed smile and deep crow’s feet.

Now, Sonny comes to Thayer for a variety of reasons: after his 12-step recovery program meetings to grab a bite to eat with fellow program participants, on warmer nights to hang out on the sidewalks with other bikers, or during the day to walk his dogs. But his relationship with the street has not always been positive—at one point, Thayer was where he came to buy heroin. “This street has been in my life forever,” he says.

Within a year of his first sip of alcohol at age 16, Sonny was using heroin. The event that he believes precipitated his turn to the drug was his father’s divorce from his stepmother, whom he considers his mom. “I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings, so I started lashing out,” he says.

For the next 20 years or so, Sonny’s life moved in waves of addiction, punctuated by overdoses and arrests. And in spite of his current love of motorcycles, riding wasn’t what saved him. In fact, his early riding days only sucked him deeper into a cycle of addiction. Sonny had wanted a motorcycle since he was young, and when he turned 30, he could finally afford one. At the time, he was on methadone, an opioid intended to ease heroin addicts into recovery, but it didn’t stick, and he was soon back to using. In the midst of Sonny’s struggles with addiction, he experienced the thrill of his first time on a bike, an adrenaline rush that he describes as its own kind of addiction.

There is a “sense of youth and freedom that you feel when you first get on a motorcycle,” he says, like “being a kid on a bike, not having any responsibilities, and just going on an adventure.” But this life of adventure soon led Sonny into the trappings of gang-like motorcycle clubs, embedded in a culture of violence and reckless riding. Within a year of getting his first bike, Sonny became a member of the Redline Crüe, a Providence-based club that has since disbanded. The crime-laden atmosphere did nothing to help his struggle with drug addiction. “I wish I never got into the club,” he says. “We just fueled each other to be bad.”  Bikes lost the magic they once offered Sonny. At one point, “the only time I used to get on a bike was to go cop coke,” he says.

In the years leading up to his finally getting clean, Sonny served a few short prison sentences for assault, weapons possession, and domestic disturbance. He always chose to represent himself in court, and he got by with relatively lenient sentences due to his ability to negotiate, a skill he attributes to the “manipulative part of being a drug addict,” he says. While Sonny served a six-month jail sentence (bargained down from a sentence that was supposed to last years), not one of his fellow motorcycle club members reached out. “No one came to say hi,” Sonny says. “No one wrote me.” He decided to end his involvement with the club.

But even out of jail, Sonny’s life as an addict was plagued by solitude. “I was alone a lot,” he says, looking back on the holidays he spent by himself. When he was 36 years old, Sonny finally hit a low point while living in his ex-girlfriend’s grandmother’s house. Forced to sell his motorcycle for money, he struggled to get through each day and found no relief from the drugs that once sustained him. That year, the death of his estranged mother marked what he calls his “end of the road.” “I just wanted to die,” he says. “I wanted to kill myself, but I just couldn’t, so I got clean.”

Sonny officially began the journey on May 1, 2011. “It was just my time,” he says. He underwent about a year of in-patient rehab and continues going to multiple weekly meetings in a 12-step, where he met his current fiance, Kelli.

Kelli is a “speaker seeker” for her group, and the two first met when she reached out to Sonny, asking him to come speak at one of her meetings. “Sonny is really good at speaking,” she tells me. “He’s very honest.”

The soon-to-be-married couple lives near Providence College with their two French bulldogs. Sonny works as a union carpenter, and Kelli works as a branch manager for Citizen’s Bank, though she has plans to put her newly earned nursing degree to use with a career change. Neither wants kids, perhaps due to their own difficult childhoods. Kelli grew up with an alcoholic father who still refuses to get help with recovery; Sonny was born to a distant father and a mom struggling with her own drug addiction, though he eventually found guidance in his stepmother. Without her, he says, he “wouldn’t have known what love was.” To this day, long after his dad and stepmom split up, he still goes to her house every Sunday, and Kelli accompanies him when her work schedule permits.

Two years ago, Sonny decided he had recovered enough to handle the adrenaline rush of riding again, and he bought his first motorcycle as a clean man. He rediscovered life as a biker, and this time, unhindered by addiction, he was all in. Before recovery, Sonny says he “was always numb,” but now he gets “enjoyment out of motorcycles” because he is “able to feel.”

“I’m a totally different person now,” he says. These days, when he’s on his motorcycle, Sonny surrounds himself with much safer riders than he did when he was in the Redline Crüe. “The people that I choose to hang around with are more responsible riders that are basically motorcycle enthusiasts,” he says. “If you get a group of regular riders together, we all know how each other rides, so the chance of a fender bender happening is rare,” he says, the words coming out more like fendah bendah with his thick Rhode Island accent.

He still takes some risks on his bike, like racing and doing stunts, but he admits that he’s not as good as he used to be—probably because now he actually cares about living, he says. Sonny’s love of motorcycles has persisted through some bad crashes. Last year he broke both of his wrists in a motorcycle accident, but that didn’t keep him from getting back on a bike. Just last month Sonny wiped out on Interstate 295 and completely totaled his motorcycle, but he has already made a downpayment on a new one. “It’s kind of addicting,” he says. “I’ve never had a new car in my life, but I’ve had seven brand new motorcycles.”

Sonny rides whenever he has a chance. Kelli has even followed suit, buying her own bike and learning how to ride so that the two of them can do it together. “It’s freeing,” she says.

As Sonny re-entered the biking world, he also returned to Thayer Street, this time using the area as a place to hang out on his bike and meet new people. Now, he comes to Thayer “at least three times a week,” he says, to eat, walk the dogs, chat with other bikers, or hang out with Kelli and their friends from the recovery program after the weekly meetings nearby.

Sonny has built a community of fellow motorcycle enthusiasts on Thayer, making “friends who are passionate about bikes,” he says. “People who are really bike enthusiasts, that’s why they’re out on a Friday night on the side of the road, because their bike is their thing, not going to drink and hit the club,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle.”

There is also a touch of nostalgia to the impromptu gatherings of bikers on Thayer. “It’s just people hanging out on the corner,” Sonny says. “That’s one thing that I think we’ve lost through the years. When my parents were kids, they would hang out at the park,” and “that’s what Thayer Street kind of reminds me of,” he says.

It’s hard to believe that this man—athletic, confident, outgoing—once came to Thayer to buy heroin.

Students passing by on the campus thoroughfare don’t talk to Sonny much, but this doesn’t bother him. “I was young once, and I was just in my own little bubble,” he remembers. And in a way, now that he’s clean, Sonny is making up for lost time, returning to this youthful state of mind. “I’ve been through so much in my life, but I’m just enjoying my time right now.”