It’s around midnight and traffic is sparse when more than a hundred bicyclists on short bikes, fat bikes, bikes with animal heads on handlebars, twelve-foot-high “tall bikes,” and bikes with horns that go bawooga turn onto La Brea Avenue and glide past ghostly homes with boarded-up windows and dirt-patch yards. Cars screech to a halt as the hysterical parade “rolls it” through red lights and heads south underneath the Santa Monica Freeway overpass.
Tonight’s ride is hosted by Los Angelopes, whose penchant for freak bikes distinguishes it from so many other L.A. bike clans. No one is really watching the road, and I’m not either. A girl on the passenger seat of a tall bike who is taping her bare breasts together with a bumper sticker that reads Los Angelopes in scratchy, white lettering is too distracting. Practically all of us, even those on modest tall bikes, can look up at the soles of a man wearing a samurai helmet topped with antlers riding a lanky monster lit up with Christmas lights. Now a burly kid on a custom bike that undulates like an advancing serpent parts the stream at triple-time pace, shouting, “Message!”
He peddles furiously as he catches up to Louise Chen, perched six feet up on her petite tall bike. Soft wind sweeps through her black, asymmetrical rock-star hair as she glides along the margins on the left side of the group and then crosses over to the far right. Of all the Angelopes, Louise is the hardest to follow.
She speeds off, carrying the message toward the head of the crawling mass. A pale, young, thick-browed punk called FuzzBeast leads the pack, managing to look ferocious despite wearing a long golden cape that ripples in the breeze.
“Fuzz!” Louise shouts. “Alaska has a flat! He’s stopped a few blocks back.”
“He’ll catch up,” Fuzz rumbles. “We’re going fucking six miles an hour. I’m not going to stop the whole ride for one person.”
I pedal hard to keep pace. When I look up, Louise is already gone, flying in the opposite direction of the traveling carnival to find the brooding and muddy-haired boy with the flat—the one who has tried her patience for many months now, the one who, of course, she still adores.
By 3 a.m., most of the bicyclists have fallen away from the ride and only nine or so core Angelopes pedal through downtown, bellowing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the hot, purple sky. The song, in nine different tempos and nine different keys, bounces off locked storefronts.
Alaska, heaving to keep up, shrieks, “Slow down!” Louise pulls back while the rest playfully parrot him (“Slow down!”) and then speed up. We, the young and the drunk, are headed back to the Casa de Angelopes, a recession-times sanctuary for art, music, parties, rides, and a particular brand of independence.
Casa de Angelopes is practically invisible unless you’ve been there before. The converted warehouse space can be found inside the the husk of a decommissioned complex that is sealed off from the world by a block-long concrete wall with iron-barred windows. Only the barking dogs and the occasional car tires scratching at gravel break the predawn silence. In these early-morning hours, the remaining at-large Angelopes whir off the boulevard into an alley through an automatic gate and onto an industrial patio that joins other studios to the warehouse and welcomes one in from the normal world outside the structure.
Nate, still in his antler-topped samurai helmet, rides in on the tallest bike, its Christmas lights glowing. He has a chestnut handlebar mustache and, at forty, is the senior Angelope by several years. He leans his bike against a warehouse wall and climbs down. Nate lives at the Casa with his eighteen-year-old son Olias Ben El, who, like his dad, is large and imposing, but who has curly blond hair and a cherub’s face.
Larsen, a straight-striding boy in his early twenties with handsome Nordic features and a blond sweep-over with shaved sides—what everyone calls a “racist haircut”—peels off a black jacket bearing a Los Angelopes patch. Alaska is drunk, but he made it through the last leg of the ride thanks to “fuck-you energy.” A couple of others dismount their bikes, huffing.
As always, Louise looks sharp and luminous. Even when she says she’s drunk, she moves with intelligent awareness.
Louise is dressed in tight cargo pants, a soft, blue sweater under a jean vest with flowers and gold sequins, and an L.A. Dodgers patch with antlers protruding from the L. She makes her own clothes and doesn’t wear makeup, but when Louise adorns her eyes and temples with glittery face paint before a ride, she puts it on deliberately, like a warrior. Her small knees and elegant feet are somehow always turned slightly inward.
The exahusted Angelopes step through the metal doors and into the warehouse, a hidden chamber of chaos they call home. Watching over everything is a large mural of the all-consuming demon Moloch, his white face marked with red, tribal war paint, mouth gaping.
A gigantic purple octopus frames the doorway to the kitchen, where a mural of a cartoonish cucumber sodomizing some broccoli adorns one wall. On the other is a portrait of Dinner, the Casa’s kitten, in a white T-shirt with a bike painted on it and a black riding vest. Nearly a year of constant partying has left some scars on the Casa—the wall next to the kitchen has been busted open with an ax and the confetti, glitter, spilled wine, and food-fight grime are layers thick.
In the main hall, 200 bikes in various stages of assembly gleam under fluorescent lights, the rubble sprawling across the floor and climbing up the sheet metal walls toward the warehouse’s colossal vaulting. Some bikes are two or more frames tall; some are so tiny an adult rides knees to elbows.
All of the dozen or so Angelopes living in the warehouse know how to weld a bike, how to ride one so tall that the only way to stop pedaling is to dismount, and how to get around L.A. without a GPS. Unlike many of their peers, though, the Angelopes are not two-wheeled polemicists railing against narrow or nonexistent bike lanes, claiming that they, the cyclists, are legally entitled to full use of the lane, so quit honking, car slob. They are not all-organic vegans standing in line at the local co-op with $15 bags of goji berries from the Himalayas. Los Angelopes are not these sorts of bicyclists.
Mostly, they are poor and unemployed. The few who have regular jobs aren’t particularly excited about them. Alaska works in tech support at a web-hosting company. Nate walks dogs. But their real passions are their creative pursuits. Alaska deejays. FuzzBeast paints. Gibbons, who is eighteen, plays the banjo and sings in a band called Gibbons and the Sluts, and Troy, who is in his twenties, sings for the Deadlies. To support the household, the rest weld bikes, scavenge trash bins for food scraps, and occasionally pull some quick cash with art or music gigs.
In Nate’s “shop” just outside the kitchen, where tools and bike parts hang above a drafting table, the workspace is cluttered with several tall bikes inspired by Nate’s heroes: Carl Sagan, Dr. Seuss, Jim Henson, and one of Hayao Miyazaki’s characters, Ponyo. He talks incessantly about these projects as well as his other interests—music, recording, animation, the violin, and ballet.
Nate came out to L.A. more than a decade ago and finally met his son, Olias. When Olias was thirteen, his mother moved to Florida and Olias decided to live with Nate in his car rather than leave L.A. This was around the same time Nate first saw the Los Angelopes roll by his car, the cheering and honking, the colors, the crazy bikes.
“I got it right away. I said, ‘That’s the shit.’”
The Angelopes ride that Nate witnessed was masterminded by SkidMarcus, a kid with bronze skin and dim eyes, who had taken his cues from the Midnight Ridazz website—a part how-to guide and part virtual forum for the burgeoning L.A. bike clans. SkidMarcus publicized his ride on the M.R. site as a “freak bike” journey through L.A., exclusively for bikes with personality. Skid believes every ride should have a “concept”—be a bit of performance art—and for this reason L.A.’s bike scene is more dynamic than other merely “bike friendly” cities.
He may be the original Angelope, a personality who many veteran riders say “embodies” the L.A. bike scene, but Skid is sloppy and wild, gets drunk all the time and burns his bridges.
When Alaska speaks, though, the other Angelopes tend to quiet down. He likes to hold forth on subjects such as the need to withdraw from the “overstimulation the rest of the nation tolerates,” the “cutthroat” qualities of the city, and the overarching socioeconomic system that crushes the creativity of artists. For Alaska, the Casa is a reprieve where a few like-minded young people can survive on minimal currency, throwaway food, and cheap red wine while welding bikes, making toy trash funk, and painting murals of Moloch figures and flowers.
“How do you feel about bacon?” Louise asks me. She’s waving a bacon-wrapped hot dog mined from a grocery-store trash bin.
“That’s so gross,” she says.
The Casa’s small kitchen is warm and alive as hot oil crackles on the stove. The sun will soon rise. Several Angelopes lean against counters, resting tired muscles.
Louise is the one who found the warehouse back when it was unpainted and empty save an inch of soot across the concrete floors, back when most of the Angelopes were homeless and living in cars and she was the only one with credit. Back when she was seeing Alaska. But she has recently stopped staying at the Casa with him, and she will not stay here tonight. Tonight, she will have her own space and sleep in her own soft bed. Tomorrow, she will wake up in her private room on the Westside and draw.
Arteries of Memory
Apr 1, 12:43 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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