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50 Blocks at 12 O'Clock (or Die Trying)

Inside the cult of stunt riding, where fear is the enemy, speed is your friend, and a new generation of urban legends is being born.


Oiste!! riding the Banshee outside El Garajin.  

The light from El Garajin, as the garage is called, illuminates a segment of the sidewalk, but the rare pedestrians who traverse this Bronx block at night favor the other side of the street, skirting the threat of idle testosterone posed by the Puerto Rican boys standing around a Yamaha Banshee out front. They are waiting for El Garajin’s proprietor to ride the “quad”—an all-terrain vehicle with four wheels. It is perfectly legal to own a Banshee in New York City as long as you don’t start the engine. Then again, the thing is so quick and maneuverable that you can almost always get away from the cops.

The owner calls himself Oiste!! (“You heard!!” in English), and he insists on those two exclamation points. I find him presiding over a card game in front of a muted television tuned to baseball and a boom box blaring hip-hop music. He wears Cartier sunglasses and an Evel Knievel T-shirt that shows an annotated skeleton highlighting the bones Knievel broke during his jumping career—supposedly 35 of them. Something to aspire to.

At 28, Oiste!!—a member of the Ruff Ryders motorcycle club—is a local legend on the Banshee, which is the preferred stunt quad on the street today. Skilled riders from New York and beyond make the pilgrimage to his garage to watch him wheelie. And neighborhood kids hang out here to study his tricks and register his advice. The ones who own bikes themselves have the honor of practicing with Oiste!!; the rest watch and bide their time until some combination of available credit and nerve puts steel between their legs. In their daydream futures, these kids will never hear the ultimate insult (“Your wheelies are garbage!”), and when someone asks, “How many blocks you got?”—one city block being the unit of measure for a wheelie—the answer will be an insurmountable number that demands respect. Oiste!!’s answer is, “Fifty blocks or better, no matter the weather.”

There is another Banshee inside El Garajin, this one brand-new and owned by one of Oiste!!’s disciples, Rolando Rivera. Roly earns his hourly wages as a mover—for now, until he gets great on the Banshee. He imagines the wake of praise that will someday follow him down the street: “That’s Roly, he’s real good on bikes. Let’s call him down here so he can come on the show. Let’s call him down here to see if he can win the trophy. Let’s call him down here because he’s the longest one that do wheelies.” Roly puts in at least 50 practice wheelies after work every day. He expects that within six months he will be as good as the master himself. Oiste!! says the kid is already better than many who’ve been riding for five years, but it will take him another five years before he is really “nice on the bike.”

In the city are thousands of Rolys who see the bike as both a vehicle of local respect and a potential means of transport far beyond the hood or the barrio. All around them are examples of lives made bigger by stunt riding. Oiste!! might be a Verizon technician with a family, a mortgage, and managerial responsibility over his sons’ Pamper League baseball team, but he also knows Snoop Dogg (“We kick it”), and a couple of weeks ago he rode the Banshee in a music video for the new R&B singer Mashonda. Others of Oiste!!’s caliber have worked as stunt doubles in movies like Biker Boyz and Torque. Pumped up with anecdotal evidence, the garage band of riders insists that it is possible to make a living on the bikes. You can get a sponsor. You can perform at biker events for a few thousand dollars a pop. You can hang with the likes of Snoop. In pursuit of this possibility, these kids and others like them have left plenty of skin on the pavement. If you fall, and you will fall, the best you can hope for is a bad case of road rash, your red smear of courage. Too often, it’s much worse than that. Within the past twelve months, three novice riders ranging in age from 15 to 24 have lost their lives owing to injuries sustained riding in a single popular practice spot, an expansive parking lot on Randalls Island.

The scene at El Garajin would not be complete without a pit bull. She’s a purebred blue named Nautica, and her unleashed approach triggers the instinct for testicular protection—or would it be better not to show fear? As Oiste!! and the Banshee scream by the garage in a twelve-o’clock wheelie, perpendicular to the sky, Roly restrains Nautica by the collar. The dog is barking frantically, spinning her wheels. “She wants to ride!” Roly yells.

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