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."
We're interrupted by Stephen Smith, who says we're all heading to Rudyard's. "You're gonna have to find someone sober to ride with," he says. Seems I've lost my original ride, Kung Fu Pimp, who was last seen trying to fix a flat tire.
Smith is a seventh-generation Texan and a guy's guy. He races motorcycles -- speedbikes, really -- at 170 miles per hour. "It's a habit worse than drugs, man," he says. He admits that when he saw a bunch of pastel Vespas at a motorcycle show several years ago, "Well, I thought they were the silliest things I'd ever seen." But when he left his job two years ago and was looking for a new gig, the scooters struck him. "They made sense," he says. "Gas prices were going up, and everyone was driving Hummers in the Inner Loop." So he opened his own store, ScooterSmith. In the first three months, he sold all of two bikes, but the oil crisis became his savior; now he sells an average of one a day to "young, old, gay, straight, males and females," he says. Smith has gone from scooter hater to spokesman. "The first time I ever rode one, I was on vacation," he says. "And that's what it feels like when you get on. The breeze, the speed, it's the closest you get to floating on the road."
Smith says his most fervent customers are women. "It's because they're really, really cute," says Myrna, who bartends at Rudyard's. Myrna's pink Vespa with adjoining sidecar attracts "more attention than if she drove around naked," says Smith. And Myrna loves the attention. "I get stopped on the street, I get flagged down, honked at. I've had cops pull me over just to talk about my scooter. People come into Rudyard's all the time to ask me about my scooter."
On the way to Rudyard's, I'm Scott Miller's cupcake (Kung Fu Pimp's scooter is out of commission). We're here for the costume contest awards ceremony. Miller could best be described as a yuppie -- he co-owns the wine bar Corkscrew and drives a rare Aprilia scooter. Another guy's guy, Scott has no insecurities riding around with another guy. "Look, my scooter is baby blue and white. The fact that I'm on a scooter, I think I'm secure." As we zip down Waugh, people wave and honk. A motorcycle rider does a low wave. The breeze makes it feel like we're flying. We reach Rudyard's, where Osama has won first prize. After the contest, Battalion folks are milling around. Some are tipsy, some are tired, some are just getting started. Scott and the crew are ready to hit another bar. "You wanna hop on?" he asks.
"You bet," I answer. What better way to wash down a cupcake than with some booze?
The Scooter Scene
Comedian Eddie Izzard summed up the scooter experience perfectly: "It just -- nrrrrrrrrr -- cause you're on a fucking hairdryer, for God's s -- nrrrrrrrrr -- there's dogs walking faster than you -- nrrrrrrrrr! It's just pretty damn cool for me." Izzard, who also noted that "most Italian people are always on scooters going, 'Ciao...!'" gets that scooters have an image and a lifestyle attached. Stephen Smith figures there are three main scooter types -- and three types of people who ride them.
Vintage Vespa, Lambretta or Stella
Looks like: The classic Italian scooters, which could have been plucked straight out of Roman Holiday. This is the kind of bike Izzard was talking about.
Who rides it: Mod, Ben Sherman-wearing hipster types with piercings and dyed hair. The scooter will be fixed up, but not too much -- as that would kill the indie cred.
New Vespa, Lambretta or Stella
Looks like: A sleek, clean version of the classic Italian scooters, which would be at home on the cover of Vogue or even Paper City.
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Who rides it: Yuppies and moneyed folks, who can spend $4,500 on an "accessory" vehicle and also look like they should be on the cover of Vogue or Paper City.
The Asian scooter
Looks like: A generic, "racy-looking, wannabe crotch-rocket," according to Smith. No-nonsense, no expensive parts, no hip hairdo required.
Who rides it: "Waiters, students and budget-minded people who ride them every day for work, not just on the weekends for fun."