It's about 8 p.m. on a brisk January evening. Twenty or more scooters, nearly all vintage rides, line the sidewalk in front of Series 1, a graphics studio and budding scooter shop located on Carrboro's Main Street. The parked scooters are all angled stylishly, as if the sidewalk were a showroom; the bikes range from a restored candy apple red Vespa Allstate to a black Rally 200 adorned with purplish-blue "ghost flames." Inside the shop, the store's owner, Chris Davis, aka "#32," greets scooter heads coming to attend The Incriminators annual scooter rally, aptly titled "Freeze Your Balls Off 2002."
Davis, a gregarious 24-year-old with a skinhead cut, oxblood Docs and an olive-green bomber jacket with a Madness patch, is also president of The Incriminators SC, North Carolina's only official scooter club. As president, it's his duty to plan the weekend's festivities: drinks, breakfast the following morning (at Incriminator founder Curley Schwatka's house), entertainment (a live punk band and dance with DJ Marco spinning) and a "ride-out" where the scooter riders, as a pack, make a scenic bike run.
Members of scooter clubs throughout the Southeast file in--clubs with names like Fist City (Atlanta), Chain of Fools (Virginia) and The Saints (D.C. area). Davis greets them all like long-lost pals and hands them a cold one. Also present is a recently transplanted German enthusiast, Stefan, an Internet pal who came from Charlotte. With his vintage orange bike--he had it shipped from Germany--he immediately feels at home.
At scooter rallies, the different clubs get to smell each others' exhaust fumes, talk gear, work on their bikes, admire each others' rally patches and bond over a weekend of scooter-oriented activities, all put on by the sponsoring club. For most of the year, club members have to be content with being "virtual" buddies. Davis describes one message board, twostrokesmoke.com, as a "virtual rally"--a place to get tech advice or have scooter questions answered. These sites also foster a sense of community. "We just talk shit all day long. It keeps everybody close knit," Davis says.
Besides sharing a lifestyle, the group shares the same ideals: a disdain for Japanese "twist and go" scooters and a pride in being able to maintain their bikes and keep them on the highway. You see plenty of folks with grease under their fingernails.
Scooter culture peaked in the mid-'60s with British teens. English Mods--"modernist" beatnik jazzbos who favored pegged pants and American G.I. bomber jackets--saddled up on Italian Lambrettas and Vespas and became a movement. The Mods frequently clashed, sometimes violently, with the Rockers (leather jacketed greasers on motorcycles) most famously on bank-holiday, seaside rumbles. Quadrophenia, the film based on the classic Who album of the same name, faithfully recreates the mood and look of the era along with Mods vs. Rocker's bust-ups.
The Mods continued but broke into factions; skinhead scooter clubs popped up and "scooter boys," as the Northern English riders dubbed themselves, emphasized bike performance and maintenance--riding--rather than fashion. Eventually the groups cross-pollinated and the clubs became more about the scooters than belonging to a movement (although now and then a new scene develops, such as the psychobilly clubs, sort of a rockabilly-meets-The Cramps/Necromantics crowd).
But scooters, often mistaken for mopeds by motorists (at least until they're passed by one) continue to attract new fans: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently shelled out close to $15,000 for a completely restored '60s Vespa desirable for its sexy, space-age curves. And in recent years Britpop's Oasis did a photo shoot all posed on scooters, which--they were quick to point out--they actually do ride.
It's Saturday morning and it's pouring great sheets of rain. The ride is off. At 10:30 a.m., rally-goers arrive at Schwatka's for a lavish breakfast spread. Although a few hardcore members straggle in on their scooters, drenched to the skin, most people opt to drive. Schwatka and his wife, Deana, a lawyer, share a comfortable split level on the edge of Durham, the kind of house that blends into the neighborhood. The only clue that it's his house is the mailbox out front: a big, shiny black number with airbrushed yellow flames.
On the mantle downstairs is a photo of a "scooter wedding," or rather, the line of bikes parked outside the church. Present is the groom himself, Sean Stevens, aka SGS (Scooter Geek Sean), who also designs the club's Web site. Stevens is famous for riding a super-tuned racing scooter nicknamed the "ham sandwich" (inspired by a talking sandwich in an orange juice TV ad; the bike's headlights reminded him of its eyes). The joke is, his scooter, for all appearances, is a "rat bike," (a funky, held-together-with-duct-tape mongrelized scooter).
Over steaming mugs of coffee (fresh-roasted) club members regale each other with war stories: clogged carburetors in rush hour D.C. traffic, spent spark plugs, having to stop on the highway to wire on an exhaust pipe, riding through storms with water seeping into the ignition box, seeking rain shelter under an overpass only to find it already inhabited by a freaky racist Harley rider ... and the tales go on.
Besides putting on a helluva breakfast spread, Schwatka is revered as the Incriminator's founder. The Minneapolis transplant started the club in '94, inheriting his first bike--and the name--from a friend who died in a scooter accident. "That was my first scooter, the one he died on. I didn't want anyone else to have it," he says.
The friend, Loren, had been working with a band called The Incriminators that did "ska, old rock-steady and stuff like that," he recalls. When the group broke up, he adopted the name and started the scooter club. "I just wanted to remind myself of him." The core group was Schwatka and a guy called "Pig," the club's first president. "He was a short, kinda stocky guy, both arms covered in tattoos ... a real character. He was always the party or crowd favorite."
Schwatka got into bodywork at the same time he took up scootering. These days he's recognized as the guy to restore vintage bikes. An auto-body specialist by trade, he's famous for taking in trashed, bent bikes and doing topnotch bodywork and customizing. Also a collector, he figures he owns "around 20" scooters, many parked in an outbuilding cum showroom. In between sips of coffee, Schwatka gives members a tour of his bike collection and garage, where there are several scooters in various stages of restoration.
After breakfast, the group heads to Durham's AMF Lanes for an afternoon of beer, bowling and scooter talk, later enjoying a rib-stickin' soul food dinner at Mama Dip's. That leaves a break to chill until that evening's party, held in the space next to Davis' shop.
At the party, two kegs of good beer are on ice while scooter members and their friends check out the entertainment. First up is Jett Rink, whose keyboardist, Mike Walters, not only sports an amazing Mod suit but is also an Incriminators member. Their lead singer, a 6-foot-7 bundle of punk energy who goes by the name Viva, loosens up the crowd by plunging into it. After a raffle, where lucky ticket holders win prizes ranging from spark plugs and racing oil to a Quadrophenia DVD, the DJs hit the turntables--a position they hold down until the wee morning hours.
Another important point of scooter culture is the music, much of it imported from England: rock-steady, '60s soul, ska and Oi! (English working-class hardcore and its ilk). Davis, for example, lists Desmond Dekker as his fave. And though many scooter heads listen to Oi!, the nationalistic, racist implications of the music haven't crossed the pond, at least for The Incriminators, a racially-diverse club.
Says Stevens, "There's definitely a core music. It becomes the soundtrack to [scooter rallies] to the point that you don't even notice that it's there anymore."
The following morning, Stevens leads out a group of eight riders, mainly-out-of-towners, for a short ride out towards Pittsboro, with a stop for "biker breakfast," a tradition at Michael's restaurant at Cole Park Plaza.
These days, The Incriminators, numbering 25 to 30 members, is a colorful assortment of skins, Mods, guys and gals--most in their early 20s through 30s. "The scootering scene is pretty much open to anyone, if you can ride a silly little--what do they call 'em? Skirt bikes?" Davis says. "So what? They're small, but I still get on the highway.
"We do our own thing. We're Americans; we've got our own style." He adds that bombers (jackets) are popular "'cause they're easy to sew on."
This is actually important, because rally patches are a big deal. They let other riders know how you've spent your summer, how long you've been riding, how serious you are about being a part of the scene. Besides being aesthetically cool, the patches are artfully designed. They're badges of honor.
"You know you're not going to see them again," says Davis. "Boston [scooter club] doesn't come to our rally; we don't go to theirs. But we'll meet them halfway in Virginia and Niagara."
"Like I told my mom, basically you buy this bike, and you pretty much have friends throughout the country. You'll always have a place to stay, they'll provide entertainment," Davis says.
"Unless you're a fantastic asshole," Stevens quips.