When the bikers come to town

HOLLISTER, Calif. — At Irma’s Fashions just off the main drag, Irma Bertuccio greets customers as she has for 66 years in this town on California’s central coast.

In a print blouse and skirt, her hair curled into a prim cap, Bertuccio steps forward from another era, when the town’s ladies bought only dresses off her racks _ and when young toughs tearing around on motorcycles were about as sinister as you could get.

Bertuccio remembers when, back in 1947, men just home from the war roared into town on motorcycles. The ensuing party for several days launched a legacy of biker badness that still imbues almost every corner of Hollister.

“They were really wild,” says Bertuccio, softly giggling like she was recalling bridge players who got a little tipsy around the card table.

Years later, the annual revelry is bankrupting the town, some say, which led town leaders to pull sponsorship of this year’s rally, traditionally the first weekend in July.

But rally fans say nothing is going to stop their iconic pilgrimage that harkens back to that post-World War II landmark year.

That year, with monikers like the Boozefighters, the interlopers atop motorcycles ended up in the pages of Life magazine and as the inspiration for the 1953 Marlon Brando film, “The Wild Ones.”

The annual gathering never really ended, insist some of the most die-hard fans, and it picked up steam and city backing on the 50th anniversary in 1997, boosting it into a traffic-stopping annual rally that drew about 120,000 people into the town of 36,000 last year.

The event _ which fans say shed its lawless leanings years ago _ closes several blocks of the main street. Parked motorcycles jam the curbs and the median while the owners shop vendors hawking everything from T-shirts to Brando posters. They linger for burgers and beers and, of course, admire other bikes.

Now, though, facing what the majority of the City Council believes is a $600,000 bill to host and police the rally, a majority of the council has nixed official ties to the event.

But that hasn’t stopped it.

“The faithful, they want to be here,” says Charisse Tyson, proprietor of Johnny’s Bar & Grill, Hollister’s main street homage to all things biker.

A bigger-than-life wooden cutout of a leather-clad Brando guards the front door, and just inside, the ashes of the man known as “Wino Willie” Forkner, founder of the Boozefighters club, rest enshrined inside a lighted shadowbox near where a hearty evening crowd bellies to the bar.

Through Internet buzz and word-of-mouth, Tyson figures at least 40,000 people will roll into town for the rally _ with or without the City Council’s blessing.

That’s 40,000 people without benefit maybe of enough city-rented portable toilets, city-paid daily garbage sweep-up, and city-fortified police muscle.

“That’s the only thing that scares me is the garbage and no Porta-Potties,” says Tyson, 46, who’s co-owner of a Harley Davidson Road King.

In this farm town _ the local high school fields the Haybalers _ the pending rally, or non-rally, promises to become a showdown of sorts between city leaders strapped for cash and rally fans who defy any whiff of cultural disdain for the roar of the road.

What’s a city to do?

“It wasn’t an issue of not liking the bikers,” says City Councilwoman Monica Johnson, who voted against supporting the rally in February. “It’s more an issue of representing the city of Hollister,” a city that could go broke in three years.

There’s a Plan B, she assures, a scaled-back one that anticipates maybe only about 20,000 people downtown for the first weekend in July.

Any vendors who do come and rent on private property must now provide portable toilets, she said.

Police Chief Jeff Miller won’t talk about what his plans are for policing the non-event, except to say his 29 officers and 27 San Benito County sheriff’s deputies all will be on duty.

If the city had sanctioned the rally, it would have had to agree up front to pay for outside police, including California Highway Patrol officers. Now, Miller can call in other agencies if trouble erupts, something called mutual aid, which is not charged to the city.