Ponsonby Road

Ponsonby Road in 1974 was a strange and dangerous place – if you were a biker kid.

The villa at number 113 was occupied by a gang of bearded and long haired Harley enthusiasts. Winter through to summer they wore heavy dirty black leather jackets carrying the patch “Hells Angels”. Gooba was the ring leader, far from fearsome, a jester in leathers. Rumours were that his uncle, Mike Minouge, was a prominent cabinet minister in the Muldoon government. Some said Gooba’s real name was also Mike. It was the butt of many jokes which some said fuelled Gooba’s tendency to cause as much embarrassment as possible by wreaking havoc on Auckland’s city streets. Fact is, the media never got wing of the connection and the cops largely ignored the Angels. I remember one of the rare occasions Gooba almost made the grade. “Come on kids, I’ve got something to show you”. Ike, myself and a few other snotty nosed barefoot kids followed him like rats to the piped piper to our playground Mecca – the rubbish strewn and pitted Ponsonby sidewalk. Gooba scrambles around inside his rusty Zephyr and produces a large red tin can. “Stand back”. We line up against the fence. Gooba twists and flings the top from the can, it pings on the ash felt. He pours a line of strong smelling liquid about 20 feet down the sidewalk. He reaches the base of a small oak tree, displaying the first of it’s autumn colours. He looks up, ponders for a second, then douses the trunk. With jerking swinging motions he hurls the rest of the liquid onto the overhanging branches, comically leaping backwards as most of the liquid splashes back down to earth. Ike giggles, the rest of us watch in silence. Gooba walks back to us kids, produces a lighter, bends down. ‘Flick’. “Whoosh!” – flames rip along the sidewalk and engulf the tree. It’s a spectacular sight. Gooba jumps amongst the flames in his riding boots – whooping loudly – a few adults spill out of the villa and neighbouring houses. “What the fuck” cries one. The kids circle around the tree laughing as black wispy smoke pours into the morning sky. A few minutes later a fire engine turns up – now we’re in kid heaven. The fire’s out within about 15 minutes – leaving sooty black branches and the occasional green and orange leaf still attached. Now there’s a cop car, and somebody taking photos. The cop ignores Gooba and asks us kids a few questions. “Hi there kids. Did you see this happen?” (he points at the smouldering tree). Ike just smiles, the rest of us look at the ground. “How about you”. I see a pair of shiny black shoes next to mine, I look up. “Ummm…” I look sideways at Gooba – he’s sitting on the bonnet of the Zephyr having a cigarette. “Jesus”, the cop mutters. He wanders over. “Hey Mike – missing some gas?”. “Nope”. “This your car?”. “Nope”. “Any idea how this tree went up?”. Gooba looks up to the sky. “Probably lightening”. He smiles his jester smile. The cop raises his eyebrows and turns to the remaining adults. “You folks see what happened?” Old Sally from next door walks straight up to him “Take one bloody guess”. Gooba looks away. The cop slowly walks towards his bike. “Well, I hope you realise what sort of example you’re setting for these poor kids.” He hops on the bike and rides away. Sally glares at Gooba “Bloody idiot… next time set fire to your car, leave those trees alone… this used to be a nice street once…”. She storms back inside. Gooba lights another cigarette and seems to fixate on the blackened tree. Meanwhile us kids grow a fascination with the burnt pavement – scorched with rainbow colours from the heat, oil and water. I find a stick and scratch patterns into the surface. Ike puts his hand on the tree trunk, suddenly jumps back, then runs inside screaming. The other kids laugh. A few days later the local paper features a photo of the tree with us kids in the background – the headline reads “Ponsonby Biker Kids Set Tree Alight”.