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.
When he lets her go, the dog chases after the Banshee, and Oiste!! slows just enough to let her jump into his lap. He and the pit bull pop twelve-o’clock wheelies together, logging a couple of blocks at a time. The sun has set, but Oiste!! is still wearing those Cartier glasses. He raises one arm high in the air and flashes his audience a head-shot smile.
It’s not a breakout new sport—not yet. Stunt riding today is where bodybuilding was in the early eighties, just before it exploded among suburban boys in need of a hobby. “How many blocks you got?” is the new “How much you bench?” Parking lots are the new muscle beaches. And a guy named Winky is the new Arnold Schwarzenegger—the pied piper who makes it look fun and earns money doing something that seems the opposite of a career. His DVD Wink 1100: Urban Street Legend (2002) is akin to Arnold’s Pumping Iron. But if Arnold inspired legions to hit the gym, Winky has inspired them to hit the streets—New York’s streets in particular. The city’s grid is perfect for racking up blocks. And if you’re not riding amid the PlayStation obstacles of unpredictable cabdrivers, clueless pedestrians, and surprise police cars, well, how good can you be, really?
In amateurish stunt tapes available in motor-sports shops, riders aspiring to Winky-level fame are shown behaving very badly very well all over the city. In one tape, bikers take over a section of the FDR in a Christo-like conversion of the road into a moving stage for the spectacle of wheelies and endos (a stunt in which the rear wheel comes off the ground). Another tape shows a rider toying with a single police car in the Bronx, leading it around and around a small triangular block as about thirty onlookers cheer him on. He makes a successful getaway, and the defeated squad car pulls up to the spectators, windows lowered. The cop is smiling and shaking his head in what looks like grudging admiration. He’s not mad. He had a good time. He wanted the adrenaline boost, not the paperwork.
These riders are breaking the rules, sure, but breaking them like rock stars, so the shock they inspire is mixed with a measure of gratitude for the vicarious thrill. Someone’s gotta trash that hotel room. Someone’s gotta do a wheelie through this traffic jam.
Winky might be the original biker rock star, but the two men who paid him and who more than anyone are responsible for the proliferation of internal combustion are the brothers Darrin “Dee” and Joaquin “Waah” Dean, CEOs of Ruff Ryders Records. The stunt-riding subculture of New York simmered on the streets of African-American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods for years before the Deans exposed it to the rest of the country in the 1998 video for rapper DMX’s breakout song, “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.” That video—and several others from the Ruff Ryders compilation album Ryde or Die—conferred urban-hero status on Winky and his then-wife Yayi (pronounced “Jaji”) Ramos, a.k.a. the Queen, who is shown riding a Suzuki GSXR1100 in just enough clothing to keep the footage PG-13. It also inspired a biking movement that has since propagated across the country in the form of Ruff Ryders motorcycle clubs that make the Hells Angels look like a cantankerous wing of the AARP.
Dee and Waah arrive to meet me one recent evening on the corner of 97th Street and Madison Avenue in a nearly presidential motorcade of tinted-window SUVs. When word gets out in the neighborhood that the Deans are here, patrons and staff from the nearby restaurant, One Fish Two Fish, come out to pay respects. Waah, who is built like a tight end, holds court on the street corner, but Dee stays inside the SUV. He can’t walk very well anymore.
Dee’s crash is legend by now. In 2001, he bought a Kawasaki T-Rex, a sleek, low ATV with two wheels in front and one in back. Souped-up, the vehicle can reach speeds of 160 miles per hour and, of course, is illegal to operate on city streets. Dee took out his new toy one day and the police were not amused. They impounded both the bike and his much more expensive Ferrari. His lawyers obtained documents allowing for the release of the Ferrari, but not the bike. Unsatisfied with that outcome, Dee doctored those papers so he could have it the other way around. One week later in Hunts Point, in the Bronx, he crashed the T-Rex into a parked tractor-trailer with enough force to lift the big rig’s rear wheels up over the curb and onto the sidewalk.
On the way to the hospital, the ambulance pulled over and turned off the siren. Dee’s heart had stopped. For ten or fifteen seconds, he was dead. After he was resuscitated, he spent a year and a half in what his brother calls a “meeting with God,” otherwise known as a coma. Waah at first suspected sabotage, “because sometimes if guys can’t get at you, they get at your bike.” But both brothers now seem resigned to the more likely explanation: Like those kids who died on Randalls Island, Dee was pushing it too hard and wearing no helmet.
Stunt riding today is where bodybuilding was in the early eighties. Parking lots are the new muscle beaches.“How much you bench?” is now “How many blocks you got?”
Dee theorizes that he survived only because the tires of the truck acted as air bags. He knows plenty of people who weren’t so lucky. “That’s the downside of a bike. You’re gonna see a lot of people die,” he says. But like every rider I met, he figures it’s not a bad way to go. “Most of the time, when you do die by a bike, you don’t think you’re going to die. You’re dying enjoying yourself. It happens like that.” He claps his hands. “You’re gone, it’s over. Somebody pull a gun on you, you probably gonna say, ‘I’m going to die today and I don’t want to die this way.’ ”
Dee still misses riding, never more than when he hears the sound of motorcycles. “There’s nothing better,” he says, “than when summer comes in New York and you hear the bikes.”
This summer, the Ruff Ryders will embark on a fifteen-city tour to “reclaim the streets” after the pause imposed by Dee’s accident. The record company is not just organizing concerts but also hosting “battles” to determine “who got the hottest bike and who got the hottest stunts.” So popular have the bikes become that the Dean brothers now view Ruff Ryders as equal parts bikes and music. Which means they are well positioned to try to turn the lifestyle of their youth into a new empire. “We’re looking to take this mainstream,” says Waah. The goal is to be the “future Harley-Davidson,” and they are pursuing agreements to manufacture Ruff Ryder brand motorcycles. Along the way, they may just help turn stunt riding into a full-fledged arena sport.
Who are the potential stars? “Yayi’s the best as far as the women,” Dee says. “I don’t know a girl better than her.” Among the men, there’s Supamax, commander-in-chief of the New York Ruff Ryders, and G/Block’s, president of the Brooklyn chapter. Plus, Winky and Oiste!!, of course. And one other guy, what was his name? Dee asks his brother about “that little dude that used to be nice on the bikes?” Waah remembers him. The guy crashed and died. “That other kid died too,” Waah says. “I forgot his name, but he got hit by an ambulance doing twelve o’clock right here on 110th and Eighth.”
Yayi the Queen takes the Banshee across the parking lot, popping wheelies and riding on the two left or right tires. She wears a tank top, short shorts, fishnets, and high heels. This is her first time on a bike since having a baby more than a year ago, and she’s not familiar with this particular borrowed Banshee. Though she seems to be riding well, it is hard to shake the premonition of disaster. This is Parking Lot F on Randalls Island, the same patch of asphalt where three have died stunt riding within the past year.
A few of the Rockland County Ruff Ryders arrive, and we watch Yayi from the shade beneath the Triborough Bridge. There is a collective jolt when, in a millisecond, as if someone has spliced together two pieces of film, she is no longer holding her wheelie but lying motionless on the pavement.
Some of the Ruff Ryders go after the decelerating ATV while others sprint toward the fallen Queen. Yayi has paid dearly in past accidents; one crash resulted in a broken tailbone, 47 stitches in her knee, and, as she put it, “half my butt was gone.” Today, her show-off clothing does not offer much protection from the pebbly asphalt, which has scored a road rash onto her shoulder, but at least there is no injury to her head, which she jokes is harder than any helmet she could have been wearing. The proper etiquette for recovering from a spill is to insist that you are fine and get up. You get a pass only if you’re unconscious or missing an extremity. (One of the Queen’s acquaintances did, in fact, lose his foot in a crash; it was reattached, and he still rides.) True to form, Yayi says she’s all right, but for the rest of the afternoon, she joins the spectators in the shade and holds her infant son.
G/Block’s shows up with a posse of Brooklyn riders in tow. He raises the front wheel of his modified dirt bike to twelve o’clock as easily as he might lean back in a recliner, and rides the length of the parking lot without a helmet, his dime-size earring reflecting the sun. A moment later he turns and wheelies in the other direction, this time standing with one foot on the scrape bar and his free leg extended behind him as if he is figure skating.
Roly, the ambitious young rider I met at Oiste!!’s El Garajin, is in the crowd, too, but he is not content to be a spectator. This is a chance to wheelie with G/Block’s, and he is determined to do so even if—or perhaps precisely because—he’s out of his league. He yanks a few wheelies on his Banshee, trying to win a glance of approval from G/Block’s, or maybe just a couple of pointers. Of course, he pushes himself a little too far and tumbles to the asphalt. Yayi yells, but Roly bounces up. He inspects his bike before searching for bruises.
I must be within the Banshee’s radius of attraction, or maybe its gasoline fumes, because after watching two experienced bikers hit the pavement I decide it’s time for my first ride. It doesn’t look too difficult. Yayi and Roly must not have “respected the bike,” which is rule No. 1. I won’t have that problem. I throw a leg over the Banshee’s saddle seat and settle into the guest spotlight. Back at El Garajin, Oiste!! said my street name should be “Five-oh” because I look more like a cop than a biker, and indeed there is an air of jovial cultural diplomacy about the way Roly imparts the operating instructions. Over the buzz of the engine, he tells me that I’ll be addicted after one ride. I will think of nothing but the bike from now on, as if the Banshee carries a curse. The clutch lever is curled from one of the two crashes, but it still works. My right thumb rests on the throttle lever, which is about the size and shape of a firearm trigger. Roly tells me to give it “a little gas, a little gas.”
I ride out over the parking lot, acutely aware that the Ruff Ryders are watching me use only about a tenth of the bike’s power. The Banshee accommodates no passengers, but the driver is never alone and so feels obliged to give spectators a reason to pay attention. To ride a bike is to say, “Watch this!” Or “Oiste!!” There is no choice: I hit the gas. The wind is in my face, and as the front of the bike grows lighter it’s tempting to sit back and give the handlebars a tug. To pop my first wheelie. Instead, I lean forward to make sure those wheels don’t leave the pavement. Five-oh’s got no blocks.