BY GABI GAGE
Growing up in Somerville, I purchased my first and only bike at a yard sale for $10. It had a basket, bell, and a European handlebar circa 1950. I secretly loved this bike. I loved it so much that I never actually rode it. Vintage old lady bikes did not fly in the Ville and I knew it wouldn’t last a day on the streets. Instead of riding my own bike, I engaged in a pre-existing free market system of bicycle exchange, not entirely dissimilar from the Hubway rental system set to arrive in Somerville this July.
The old system was simple. Take a bike. Leave a bike. Or, just take a bike. Bikes were both the currency and the commodity for Somerville kids. Contrary to popular opinion, the bike exchange system of the 1980s and 90s was not predominately about theft. Friends let friends use their bikes. Enemies’ bikes were held hostage until a truce was reached or someone’s mother was called. If you owned a bike, it needed some type of ailment (i.e. no brakes, no seat, purple Huffy) to ensure its protection from thieves. As long as your bike had some visible handicap, you could trade it around and feel confident it would eventually make its way back to your driveway. If not, it was all in the game, son.
Baseball caps were the only allowable head protection. If you happened to see someone wearing a helmet, you promptly engaged in a game called “Hit the Yuppie,” which entailed throwing crabapples at outsiders. “Go back to Cambridge!” you’d tell them; or, “How you like them apples!” you’d shout. It wasn’t just about transport; the “biker” gangs of yore were about youthful camaraderie.
Picture this: It’s 1995 in Somerville. You see a pack of five kids riding bikes towards you on Elm Street. The smallest one could be as young as 7 and his name is something akin to “Cutta,” a variation of his surname. He may or may not be wearing a ring pop that signified his leadership ability. The eldest kid is probably 17, perhaps even legally an adult, but it’s best not to question the disparity in ages within the pack.
Five kids, four bikes, with one kid piggy-backing on the pegs of Cutta’s bike. They all ride standing, save that really big kid in the back who is 13 going on 45. He looks like he’s riding a Harley. They are engaging in park-to-park travel; perhaps they are Lincoln Park kids heading to the stickball tournament at Trum Field. Either way, at least one kid will have a stickball bat, duck-taped to perfection. The biggest kid has a Big Gulp and bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries. This is a Somerville biker gang of yore.
Flash forward 15years and stand on the very same street corner. It’s clear the biking demographics have changed. The new bike gangs are generally comprised of 20-something hipster types, armed with environmental consciousness, cropped skinny jeans, and messenger bags. Whether alone or in groups, irony is their constant companion. Yet, like their juvenile ruffian predecessors, the new bike gangs have a penchant for breaking the traffic laws and favoring image over skill. Who knows, maybe a few of the new bikers are remnants of the old gang who outgrew their battle-scarred Huffys?
Of course, there have always been the outliers. The law-abiding Lance Armstrong look-alikes with helmets, spandex, and the ability to actually ride a bike. There are also the middle-aged sketchy dudes who slowly ride on sidewalks in Davis and Union Squares whispering sweet nothings to unsuspecting females and sporting mysterious bags from Market Basket. Those guys have always been here. They make their own rules.
The impending arrival of the Hubways and the recent increase in cyclist ticketing will mean the emergence of new biker gangs, gangs which no doubt reflect the continued changes in city’s demographics. But as long as Somerville kids still play stickball and ride their bikes to 7-Eleven, the old bike gang culture will live on. In the meantime, expect to see hybrids like myself riding Hubways with a Big Gulp in hand and a Slim Jim riding shotgun.
Gabi Gage is a Somerville native and donut enthusiast. She graduated from Harvard University and now spends most of her time writing, people-watching and blogging at www.talesfromsomervillemass.