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By Jeff Balke
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By Sean Pendergast
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It's a cool, crisp Tuesday night, and Osama Bin Laden is taking a leisurely ride through the Montrose. As he leans over his little blue scooter, the wind whips through his thick black beard and through his loose-fitting white garments. He tightens the dynamite pack strapped to his chest as he negotiates the Westheimer curve.
DJ Kung Fu Pimp and I have been pacing him on our scooter, but Bin Laden somehow zips past us. Perhaps we're slower because I, with my heavy bag and lack of balance, am much heavier a burden than Osama's passenger -- a young, blond, giggling cheerleader. As we push on, we spy President George Bush's head -- eyes poked through by wooden sticks -- on the back of Bin Laden's scooter -- along with four packs of explosives and a sign that says "Impale Bush!"
Kung Fu Pimp and I are slowing down. Looks like our back tire is getting low. And Bin Laden is getting away. This sucks.
We're all on our way to Proletariat for drinks, and that punk terrorist leader is totally gonna snag the last table.
Scooters of all makes, models and colors line the sidewalk in front of the Montrose watering hole Proletariat. Three geisha girls, who're actually boys, park their bikes and make their way in, followed by a '50s waitress and a SWAT officer. It's Halloween, and the Scooter Battalion -- a "loose affiliation of anyone and everyone into scooters and scootering in the Bayou City," as the group's site says -- is in the midst of a pub crawl. I'm here to check out the festivities, if cautiously. For one, it's scooter ride/pub crawl. Hello? Oh, and the last time I was on a scooter, I got in a horrible car accident overseas and was nearly blinded and decapitated. But DJ Kung Fu Pimp, a.k.a. John, assures me that everything will be fine. I should have no problem being his "cupcake" (scooter slang for riding in the back) on this trek, no matter what that may sound like.
Many of the 40 faithful (the Battalion boasts some 200 members) here have decked themselves and their bikes out in costume for a contest later tonight. (One rider, David, has a life-size skeleton riding cupcake with him.) Emily, dressed as a '50s waitress, helps organize many of the Battalion rides. "There's an older crowd with people who have kids, and a younger crowd, who go to the pub crawls," she says. "This is a total social group." She has been riding a scooter ever since her ex-boyfriend bought her a vintage Vespa scooter and fixed it up a few years ago. She'd soon learn: A scooter is more than transportation, it's a lifestyle.
Maybe that's because scooter sales in the U.S. have nearly tripled since 2000. The obvious draw is the cost. Scooter riders love to talk about how cheap the lifestyle is, and with good reason. "I'd say going to the gas station and paying $4 to fill up my tank, where the person just before me paid $60, is definitely a benefit," says Nick, who rides a '64 Vespa.
Khloe, a young, pixie-ish Inner Looper, uses a "cheap-ass twist 'n' go scooter from Indonesia" with her boyfriend Kris. "We're totally like the 'budget scooter' guys," she says. "No pretension." Kris scoots from Third Ward to the Village every day for work. "It's the only way to go," he says. "I wish I could say it was all for the environment, you know, all the gas we're saving. But honestly, it's a money thing. I seriously don't understand why everyone isn't doing this."
Scooters are easy to learn; most people pick up the basics in less than 30 minutes. There are no gears to shift. Parking is a breeze. They're not meant for the highway, but they're perfect for inner-city travel. Light, nimble and cheap, they've been a transportation staple in India, China and Western Europe for decades.
Not that folks are clamoring for solely low-cost bikes. Scooters suddenly became all the rage a few years ago among yuppies and middle-aged folks with disposable income. Paper City and other glitzy fashion magazines named them one of the season's must-have accessories. What's better than a $4,500, bright-teal Vespa scooter to complement a turned-up-collar polo shirt and Prada loafers? Vespas started popping up in photo shoots, on commercials and between A-list celebrities' legs. How high-roller is a Vespa now? The Houston shop is inside the Ferrari dealership.
It's not surprising that there are cliques within the scooter community. Where a brand-new, shiny Vespa or Aprilia is a sign of major cash, a vintage Italian bike is the crown jewel of the indie scooter crowd. "Yeah, a lot of these people who have a vintage Vespa or Lambretta and know how to fix it and go to rallies," says Emily, who rides a '74 Vespa, "they kinda think they're better than everyone else." Nick, who just got his '64 Vespa in July, agrees. "I've wanted a scooter ever since I was 16, when I was a little rude boy. That's what all the ska kids were riding, so I always knew I'd get one." But Emily says that when the key is twisted, status is left in the dust. "Sure there are cliques, but they're still happy to see people on scooters."