So I was just reading a story in the NY Daily News entitled “Granddads of anarchy! Geriatric biker gang in Brooklyn packed heat and cannon.” Figured it was going to be a piece about some long-forgotten bit of local history. Nope, turns out my old downstairs neighbors kept a cannon pointed at their roll up door at night, in case someone tried to break in. A break in would have been bad because someone might have stolen the guns they were allegedly selling. Now, they’re charged with firearms trafficking. These guys were my buddies.
I moved to New York back in February, 2006 from London. I’d never been there before (hadn’t been to America in years in fact) and only knew two people in the whole city. The magazine I was working for at the time, Intersection, was launching in the states and I flew over to set up and run the NY office.
I was pretty naïve about what a rough place New York still was, at least outside the glitz and glamor of Manhattan. On a budget, I Googled some hostels, figuring I could stay in one for a few nights until I found a short-term sublet, then an apartment. Well, it turns out that a hostel in Brooklyn, under the BQE, is not the same thing as a hostel in Europe. In place of drunken Australians, there were instead junky homeless people. Yikes. Spent two nights there before I met a girl who said I could move in with her, but that’s more a story for a barroom than it is a motorcycle magazine.
Eventually, a couple months and some serious girl drama later, I found a loft on Thames Street, by the Morgan stop on the L train out in Bushwick. At $750 a month, it was the right price and the guy with the lease was just on the cool side of nerdy. It helped that his hot sister flirted with me the first time I went to see it and the fact that there was some sort of chopper-related business downstairs was nice too. Sold.
It took a while to get to know Pote and the gang. I say gang casually, but I guess that’s more of a formal title these days. There were pretty standoff-ish with the hipsters that were slowly gentrifying the neighborhood. Scummy old warehouses were becoming scummy lofts (Google “McKibben bedbugs” if you need to be grossed out, we had them too), which was pointing an unwelcome spotlight on the local businesses, most of which seemed to be on the grey side of shady.
Pote’s Custom Cycles. My place was one to the left and up a floor.
Eventually, we started to say “hi” to each other and at some point we became friendly. I don’t remember exactly how that happened, but it ended up being a strong enough friendship that I’d regularly share their barbecue and beers, they’d store my press bikes in their shop and I could borrow a tool or a part or a little expertise anytime I needed to fix something. In return, I’d give them my press passes to the NY bike show or the occasional helmet or pair of gloves or whatever I didn’t want. “Wes Siler” has never been as intimidating as he was when he was a Puerto Rican biker gang attending press days at the Javitt’s Center.
They didn’t believe the gawky white kid could actually ride and used to rib me, then I emailed them a picture of me getting my knee down in the rain and they started to take me a lot more seriously.
Pote, who I always took to be the leader because his English was best and his name was on the awning, had a couple tears under his left eye and his name in gothic script across his prodigious beer gut. I don’t think I ever saw him wear a shirt. He’d been away on a 10-year vacation until the early 2000s after stealing a couple cars too many.
One day, he and I were shooting the shit outside and he told me he was trying to impress a new girl he was dating. She lived in the projects all of four blocks away and was planning to take her to dinner at a joint around the corner. He seemed pretty nervous so I said, “You know what, take my car,” and threw him the keys to the Audi R8 I had on loan that week. Best move I ever made. The ex-con was so touched that someone would trust him with such a nice car (it was a hit with the lady too) that he made it his mission to be sort of my guardian angel. I never got a parking ticket on that block again and the pretty little girl I was dating at the time always had an escort to and from the subway station as she tottered along in a short skirt and high heels. That was especially nice, Bushwick was still a little sketch at night back then.
One time, in need of a location for a fashion shoot with The Misshapes, we used Pote’s shop. I told the gang they needed to be on their best behavior around the girls and not be creepy, something they took to heart. You’ve never seen eyes bulge so far out of the heads of complete gentleman before, nor the clubhouse so well attended with members.
Now, the Daily News is calling my old friends “geriatrics,” saying they had a myriad of drug problems and ran guns. Does that gel with my experience? Sort of. I vaguely remember the cannon, but it was more a novelty some dudes kept around a shop more than anything designed to intimidate and protect. Am I surprised it was loaded? Have you ever hung out with a bunch of ex-cons who work on bikes all day and night?
While it was always there, just underneath the surface that these guys were dangerous and more than a little sketchy, that didn’t color any of my experiences with them. To me, they were just a loose assortment of nice local guys who liked bikes and beer and boobs and didn’t so much care for all the kids that kept moving in around them. Criminal masterminds worthy of a two-year undercover operation? You probably could have just stopped and searched any of them any day of the week, I certainly wouldn’t have been surprised to learn any or all of them were packing.
Maybe my experience was different than other people. I’ve always been comfortable in any social circle and in any culture, but I think it was mostly an indicator of how bikes really bring people together. To them, I wasn’t just some idiot kid, I was a de facto member of their community because I rode. To me, they weren’t sketchy dudes, they were my big scary brothers that made fun of me and looked out for me and fed me hamburgers. Stuff outside of that didn’t matter. I’d rather have lived above them than next to any of my idiot hipster neighbors. Bikers, even bikers gangs, tend to be good people.