Johnny Joins the Freak-Bike Gang
How Johnny Payphone made some new friends, built a new bike, and learned to Dumpster-dive for dinner
Published in the Chicago Reader
April 9, 2004
by Dan Weissmann
Johnny Payphone sat in the backseat of Matt the Rat’s station wagon sewing bike-gang insignia onto the back of a tiny denim vest for a rat doll. Behind him were his and Matt’s chopper bicycles, the Choppapillar and Abigail the Chicken, both made out of trash recovered from Chicago’s alleys. “I firmly believe that my purpose in life is to bring whimsy into people’s lives,” he said. “The best thing I ever heard while I was riding around was when a little kid said, ‘Whooo! What’s that?’ And his dad put a hand on the kid’s shoulder and said, ‘Son, that’s a chopper.’”
Johnny said he knew that not everyone appreciates whimsy. “Some people who are filled with anger are very pissed off to see people enjoying themselves,” he said. “The freak biker’s worst enemy is the silver-haired old man driving a luxury car. Someone like that has lived his whole life thinking, stick with the program. So when they get to that age and they’re successful but they’re not happy, and here I come, scooting down the street on this ridiculous chopper that I’ve made out of trash, and they can see that I love life-it makes them crazy. There’s even that world in the cycling community that thinks you have to have all the gear. They especially hate to be passed by a rat bike. But bikes are disposable in the city. Why spend money on something that’s got a 100 percent chance of getting stolen?”
Johnny Payphone is the biker name of Jon-Richard Little, who discovered the Rat Patrol gang in the spring of 2002, when he still had a high-paying job as a database administrator. A year later the gang had become the center of his life. “I saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘What’s stopping you from doing something so cool that it’ll render you immortal?’” he said. “I don’t consider the Rat Patrol to be my lasting influence on the world, but I’m flexing my muscles. Of course everybody in my family thinks I’m crazy. But they’ve been rolling their eyes for a long time.”
“I never could find my duct tape,” says Richard Little, who lives in Oxford, Ohio. Usually that was because his son Jon-Richard had used it for some project. “This is a kid who when he was young, he’d put multicolored Play-Doh in the fan, just to see what would happen. ‘All the colors went everywhere, dad-isn’t that neat?’ Sometimes we’d scold him, and he’d go out the door and we’d chuckle and say, ‘There goes Jon-Richard again.’ And sometimes there’s the perspective of age–things that seemed upsetting you can laugh at much later. Once he drove his go-cart 200 yards down the busiest highway in the area. He was worried about running out of gas, so he had a can of gasoline in the seat next to him. And the brakes didn’t work. Later you can laugh at it, but at the time it’s one of those things where you say, thank God you’re alive–now I’m going to kill you.”
Little says his son was bright but often got bored in class. After high school Jon-Richard enrolled at Miami University; his father worked there, so the tuition was free. He didn’t bother to look at other schools. “I was lazy and shiftless,” he says.
He was in an interdisciplinary program, and he took a lot of women’s studies courses and did tech support in the school’s computer labs. In his junior year he met an architecture student named Laura, and in September 2000 he followed her to Chicago.
He took a job making cold calls and quickly became his company’s database administrator. But a year and a half later he hadn’t found a niche in the city and was spending a lot of time online playing computer games. Laura says that sometimes the only way she could get his attention was to boot up her own computer and Instant Message him.
Little was also blogging under the name Johnny Payphone. “I really regret going to college,” he wrote in February 2002. “I’m the type of person who derives the most fulfillment from tangible, solid tasks.” He fantasized about doing “good, honest work” with his hands. “I’m reasonably happy doing generic office chores and database maintenance, but I have this nagging guilt that I’m being paid for bullshit.”
He and Laura had brought bikes with them, but they got stolen. In March 2002 Little accepted a friend’s invitation to ride a borrowed bike in a Critical Mass demonstration, and he joined a horde of bikers downtown as they rode off together, crowding cars off the streets in an attempt to show that bikes are a healthy, enjoyable, and nonpolluting way to get around.
“It was a blast,” Little blogged the next day. “The best part was when traffic stopped and we caught up with the cars, flowing between them in an unstoppable wave, ignoring all traffic laws, 200 of us dominating the streets….I can’t wait until the next one. I’m gonna have to get me a bike like one of these.” He appended a hyperlink to the Web page of Chunk 666, a group in Portland, Oregon, that started in 1992. One of the first of the modern chopper gangs, it had published a series of zines showing how to build wacky bikes out of old parts and other junk. Little discovered sites for other groups across the country: SCUL (Subversive Choppers Urban Legion) in Massachusetts, CRUD (Chopper Riding Urban Dwellers) in San Francisco, and the Rat Patrol in Chicago.
Most of the pages on the Rat Patrol Web site had pictures and hardly any text. But there was a “manifesto” that opened with “a timely warning for our dear readers.” Just as Earth Day had been co-opted by Exxon, it admonished, “pro-bike organizations have become tools of the international sporting goods industrial complex,” and many of their members had become sporting-goods “addicts and slaves.” It went on, “How does one identify one of these possible wolves in sheep’s clothing?…If someone you know fits these descriptors, be careful!”
It then listed symptoms, including “abnormal concern with perfect finish and perfect operation of the bicycle,” “suggests that you buy new equipment instead of repairing old bicycle,” “always rides in superhero tights,” “when riding, is more concerned with speed and distance covered than scenery or places visited,” “unable to hold a conversation unrelated to bicycles or biking,” “paranoid delusion that he/she is being persecuted for his/her hobby,” “believes that biking is a morally superior choice, therefore befitting a morally superior attitude.”
A few pages of the manifesto were devoted to advice from the “Rat King,” who advised one correspondent against buying a new bike. “How did that new bike get to the store? You can be pretty sure it wasn’t transported by bicycle: It was transported using fossil fuels. Yes, FOSSIL FUELS, the very thing that is polluting our planet and killing us all.” A section of Rat Patrol guidelines began, “Being an Anarchist group there will be no attempt to enforce or follow any sort of Stated Ideology.” The manifesto concluded by encouraging bikers to emulate the rat, the original alley dweller. “The rat is a guerrilla….Learn from him: Travel the alleys, stay in the shadows, live with trash, be a Rebel in the Ashcan!”
Little spent the next several weeks building a chopper. It had the usual extended fork, a frame covered with green artificial fur, and a blue crushed-velour, leopard-print banana seat. He called it Noam Chopsky.
That April, Little took his new bike to the Critical Mass ride, where he met Matt the Rat, a baby-faced graphic designer who mostly goes by Matt Bergstrom. He was riding Abigail the Chicken and handing out copies of the Rat Patrol manifesto to everyone who’d brought a homemade bike.
Bergstrom had started the Rat Patrol with Nathan Tolzmann in 1999. The two had been art students at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where they’d created zines and comic books together. They went their separate ways after college but stayed in touch, and in the summer of 1998 reunited for a cross-country bike trip starting in San Francisco. Their trip ended in Chicago, and they’ve lived together in Uptown ever since.
Bergstrom was troubled by how much stuff Chicagoans throw out. “I feel a certain amount of guilt about things going to waste,” he says, “even if I’m not the one doing the wasting.” He came to see every stroll through the alley as a treasure hunt.
He and Tolzmann also rode their bikes through the alleys at night. “It was fun because we’d see rats,” Bergstrom says. “There aren’t very many rats in Minneapolis, not outside anyway. We started counting the number of rats we saw-we couldn’t believe how many there were. So that’s how the name Rat Patrol evolved–if you’re looking for rats, you’re on rat patrol.”
Bergstrom and Tolzmann had seen the Chunk 666 manuals too, and they both built bikes out of parts they found-Abigail the Chicken and the Neon Girl. In September 1999 they took them to a Critical Mass ride. The next summer the two agreed to help out Josh Deth, a Critical Mass rider who’d invited anyone who wanted to make a funky bike to his house, where he had a welding torch and lots of old bike parts. A dozen people showed up for the “build day” and finished four bikes. After dark they took the bikes on a celebratory ride. A month or so later they all met again at a Wicker Park bike shop and
rode together through a bunch of alleys. “We ended up in a bar, sitting and talking,” says Bergstrom. “We were saying, ‘Yeah, we should do this more often– once a month!” They took another alley ride right after Halloween. Bergstrom says it was like being 12 again. “We spent a long time trying each other’s bikes and riding in circles,” he says. And riding over leftover pumpkins with their bikes.
Things slowed down over the winter, but the following spring 15 to 20 people showed up for another ride. The vibe suddenly changed. “There had always been just five or six people looking for trash, looking for rats, having fun,” Tolzmann says. “Then suddenly some of the usual suspects from Critical Mass came along. So we went on this ride, and we had this big group-not all on Rat bikes-and suddenly we were going down major streets, taking over intersections.” The newcomers were trying to turn a Rat Ride into a Critical Mass ride, yelling at drivers. “It was that same kind of stuff about ‘Ride a bike!’”
Afterward Bergstrom and Tolzmann wrote the manifesto as a kind of corrective and took it to a Critical Mass ride. “Nathan and I were a little worried that there would be some sort of backlash,” says Bergstrom. There wasn’t. “No one was mad about it. They thought it was funny, even though it’s pretty transparent. Some of the people we thought would be offended by it actually laughed.”
The Rat Patrol didn’t organize many activities over the next few months. Bergstrom had decided that making calls to schedule rides was a hassle, and then a bike project stalled out. “I started working on this sled bike that was kind of a disaster,” he says. “That took away some of my enthusiasm.” Deth held a few more build days at his house, and Bergstrom took some alley rides with a few friends. Then in April 2002 he went on a Critical Mass ride, where he handed out manifestos to everybody on a weird bike, including Jon-Richard Little.
Soon after that ride Little sent an e-mail to Bergstrom about the Rat Patrol: “Is the thing dead?”
“It kind of bugged me that he said is it dead,” says Bergstrom. “I wasn’t interested in doing much outreach, and nobody else was either. But walking through alleys, looking for trash, it wasn’t like that was dead. He kept pushing. ‘When are we going for a ride?’” They finally went in July.
Little tinkered with Noam Chopsky, built a second bike, and rode both all over town. He made friends with some of the other people who turned up on weird bikes at Critical Mass rides but weren’t part of the Rat Patrol. There was Al Schorsch, a precocious 16-year-old from the far northwest side who’d made several wacky bikes-Wild Child, the Humpsicle, Big Poppa Choppa. And there was Lee Ravenscroft, a 51-year-old retired electrical engineer who made funky bikes and had started the Working Bikes Cooperative two years earlier. He regularly showed up outside a metal-recycling plant on Goose Island to buy abandoned bikes from scavengers for three to five bucks apiece–more than the scavengers would get selling them as scrap, but not enough to encourage them to steal. He sold some of the bikes and used the proceeds to ship other rebuilt bikes to aid organizations in developing countries.
Little also become close friends with a couple of longtime Rat Patrollers. Alex Wilson, who’d trained as an artist, designed Critical Mass T-shirts and buttons and worked for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. Many of his homemade bikes could haul cargo on trailers or in big metal baskets. John Edel worked for a video-production firm and had recently bought an industrial building on 37th near Morgan, intending to turn it into a “large playhouse” with artist studios. Little started helping him fix up the building, which Edel called Bubbly Dynamics, and they agreed to turn the basement into a headquarters for the Rat Patrol.
A lot of these new friends called Little by his blogger name, Johnny Payphone, which startled his girlfriend. Laura says she’d seen nothing in the previous five years that suggested Little would suddenly devote himself to weird bikes: “It just kind of came out of nowhere. He immersed himself in that culture so quickly it was crazy to me. Wham-like that. One month. I have to say it did fit him perfectly-the whole wacky, crazy nature of it.”
She appreciated some things about his new hobby. “I really liked Noam Chopsky,” she says. “We went to the fabric store together and picked out the fabric that was going to cover it. It was really a great bike for someone’s first attempt.”
But she didn’t find all of his Rat Patrol-inspired habits so charming. “He’d find things from the trash and he’d bring them up to our apartment,” she says. “In a way I can see where’s he coming from, because you see this perfectly good table in the alley-why not pick it up? But it’s like, god, what has this been exposed to? And knowing him, he probably wouldn’t clean it. I would be like, ‘Get it out! I don’t want to suddenly find cockroaches in my apartment!’”
By the fall of 2002 their relationship was under strain. “I think he had always wanted to do something simple with his life, not wrapped up in society, not wrapped up in the day-to-day lives people have, the things that people want-money, things,” Laura says. “That was a big piece of contention between us. Not that I necessarily want all that. It’s just that he thought it was OK to barely get by, and I wanted to be secure. I wanted to look into buying a condo or something, try to establish myself as an adult, and he seemed to want to remain an adolescent. In some ways it was endearing, and in some ways it was very aggravating. I couldn’t get him to take responsibility for anything–of course that’s according to my version of responsibility. We used to argue about what responsibility meant. And money. We fought about money a lot. It was never-ending fighting.”
It didn’t help that Little’s financial contributions to the household were becoming less regular. He says he’d just about worked himself out of his job. “My employer asked me, ‘This database works so well now–what are we paying you for?’” He was downgraded to part-time, with no benefits. He got some work as a consultant but started spending more time at the junkyard with Ravenscroft, buying bikes from scavengers.
By then Little had recharged the Rat Patrol, and they were going on Rat Rides every few weeks. After the rides they usually went out for ice cream or pie. Little used e-mail to coordinate activities, and he set up a Web site, chicagofreakbike.org, displaying pictures of every weird bike he could find. In December he and Bergstrom put together a Rat Patrol “sound track” CD using songs about rats. Edel put a welding torch in the basement of his industrial building, the new “Rat’s Nest,” and Little started hauling down scavenged bikes and parts.
Rat Patrollers had crashed a few city parades, but in early 2003 Little and Bergstrom decided to see if they could get officially entered in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. When the organizers gave them permission in mid-February, Little sent out invitations to
chopper gangs from other cities he’d found on the Internet, asking them to join the Rat Patrol contingent.
On Valentine’s Day, Little took Laura to see the Polkaholics, a local band he’d first heard during a Critical Mass ride. The band’s bass player came over to say hello between sets, and Little introduced him to Laura. A week later she told Little she was leaving him for the bass player. She didn’t move out right away. “There was about a month where we were still sort of living together,” she says. “Yeah. Weirdness.”
Little just put more time into gearing up for the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. He and his friends built new bikes, adapted old ones, and put together flags and banners. Bergstrom and Tolzmann devised a uniform using spray paint, a Rat Patrol stencil, and sew-on tails.
A member of a Minneapolis bike gang, the Black Label, e-mailed to ask about places guest riders could stay if they came. “We’re poor-ass motherfuckers,” wrote someone who signed himself Luke the Kid, “but we want to represent.”
The members of Black Label, which has been around since 1992, ride “tall bikes,” a custom model they claim to have invented. One frame is welded on top of another, and riders look like they’re perched atop moving scaffolding. An extended chain connects the crankset from the top bike to the hub of the back wheel, and a long metal tube runs from the handlebars of the top bike through the headsets of both bikes. Cables for gears and hand brakes are spliced together, though sometimes the shifters or the brakes are left off. To stop, says a longtime member who goes by Stranj, “you can hang your foot down and stick your boot in the tire.” He admits the approach has its drawbacks. “You’ll burn through a set of boots.”
Stranj has asked the Guinness World Records to recognize him as the rider of the world’s tallest bike-a pyramid of six layers of frames. He doesn’t ride it very often. “The thing’s 12 feet freaking tall,” he says. “I have to have three people following me around all day–they’re my kickstands.”
The Black Label members tend toward ratty hair and denim vests with skulls and crossbones, and their rides look like something out of a Mad Max movie. Stranj describes the riders as “pretty much a group of what a lot of people would consider social outcasts-the tattooed freaks, pierced freaks-who’ve found something they all like: bicycles, being able to build their own contraptions, and being able to go out, get sloppy drunk, and ride our bikes, and have a good time doing it.” He and about 15 other gang members became Little’s houseguests for the weekend.
On the day of the parade another tall-bike group showed up in Grant Park. Their insignia said “Scallywags” on top, “Jesus Is Lord” on the bottom. The Scallywags had been started in Minneapolis in 2001 by Ben Clark, a former seminary student who says two things are required of members: “You have to be able to ride a tall bike, and you have to have a commitment to Jesus.” The Chicago chapter was started in 2003 by the bass player in a Jesus People punk band.
As the Rat Patrol, the Black Label, and the Scallywags-50 or so riders-circled and swooped down Columbus Drive they drew a fairly muted response from the crowd lining the street. The driver of a Miller Lite beer truck got a mighty “Woo-hooo!” just for tooting his horn. The tall bikes and choppers got a few puzzled shrugs. “Rat Patrol,” said one young guy to a friend. “Hmmm.” Noticing that the bikers were riding directly in front of the Fraternal Order of Police, he pointed to a squat, balding patrolman who was holding the end of the FOP banner and said, “Now, he’s got to be pissed.” At that moment the patrolman turned toward the crowd, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. “All I can say,” he called out, “is hug your kids.”
Later Little e-mailed the Rat Patrol list, saying the Black Label members who stayed with him behaved as through they’d been well hugged when they were kids. They’d brought gifts, including “a tall bike, a stack of posters, a ship in a bottle made by the President, and a key for stealing the large-size rolls of TP in public restrooms,” he wrote. “They washed my dishes, put back my furniture, even filled my ice cube trays. And they made me swear I would bring some Rats up to Minneapolis for May Day.”
In late March, Little and a few friends were heading home after a Rat Ride around midnight when they saw a meteorite. “It went from being dark to everything being burned into your retinas,” he said later. “It was a fireball in the sky-one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. It cleft the sky in two, and from where I was standing it seemed to be headed right for the Sears Tower. Our first thought was ‘terrorist attack.’ We didn’t know if it was a nuke or a plane or what. And it was in that time–those three or four heartbeats after it went out of sight and there was no shock wave–that my life
flashed before my eyes. Because I thought it was a nuke. I was waiting for the shock wave. When it didn’t come we were certainly jubilant that we didn’t die. And that’s the moment I changed from a not-doer to a doer. I used to really resent doers, because I was threatened by them.” He paused. “I dunno. I don’t know how I could be in this world and think that all this glory, the miracle of my existence here-that all of it exists so that I can sit on a couch and smoke dope and watch Ren & Stimpy.”
He went on, “I saw that I was doing all right. I had a pretty good set of morals, and I had been gifted with a lot of privilege in my life. I was wasting time. If I live to 72 it wouldn’t be nearly enough time. That was in the weeks following my being released from my relationship. And for the first time I had license to live however I wanted. I was like, yeah, I want to be the Rat Patrol full-time.”
A few days later Little and Bergstrom hopped a train south to Little’s grandparents’ farm in Alabama. Bergstrom stayed only a few days. Little, who hadn’t bothered to tell his employer or freelance clients that he was leaving, stayed for six weeks.
His grandfather, a lifelong tinkerer, kept a welding touch out back, and Little was overjoyed to learn that he’d once attempted to weld together his own paddleboat. “It turns out,” Little blogged, “I’m a third-generation freakbiker!”
Before leaving Chicago, Little had agreed to room with his friend from college and fellow Rat Patroller, Mike Bush, but he wouldn’t answer directly when Bush e-mailed to ask what his plans were. One night after a Rat Ride, Bush said, “I thought it would be so cool to room with Johnny Payphone. But whenever I try to pin him down on anything, he just writes back, ‘I milked a cow today.’”
Little also didn’t bother to confirm his plan to travel to Minneapolis with Bergstrom for the May Day parade. The night before they were scheduled to leave he simply showed up at Bergstrom and Tolzmann’s place.
Bergstrom drove and Little sat in the backseat, sewing insignia onto the little rat-doll vests. He mused about the differences between Jon-Richard Little and Johnny Payphone. “I’m much more critical and self-doubting than Johnny is,” he said. “The real me is liable to become paralyzed. I guess I’m in full-time Johnny mode right now.”
He said his plans for the future were vague: “I’m going totally posthuman. I’ve given up drugs and drinking and smoking. I’ve been celibate. I’ve quit my job, moved out of my apartment. I might just stay up in Minnesota. I’ve got 15 crusties who owe me a favor. That’s 15 places to wear out my welcome.”
At dusk behind a Minneapolis hot-dog stand they found a half dozen Black Label members drinking Black Label beer and building bikes. They hung out for a half hour, then Little headed off to a Scallywags party.
By noon the next day an empty lot near the start of the parade was full of tall bikes and people drinking Black Label and nursing hangovers. Little and Bergstrom arrived with the Scallywags, who would ride not just tall bikes but a “wheel bike.” Picture a bike in profile with a big steel circle welded around it except on the bottom where the bike’s wheels are. The rider, who’s strapped to the seat, gets the bike moving as fast as he can, then slams on the brakes. Both brakes are connected to the front wheel, so the bike flips onto the circular frame. The contraption rolls on the frame, then lands back on the bike wheels.
A Scallywag hopped on the wheel bike and did a double flip. Everyone whooped and clapped. “Do it again! Do it again!”
For years the Black Label had crashed the May Day parade, but this time its organizers had agreed to let them ride at its head. While three guys held the world’s tallest bike, Stranj climbed to the top, then pedaled off, the rest of the gang following.
Little and Bergstrom were in the middle of a sea of tall bikes and choppers. People clapped, and occasionally someone cheered the Rat Patrol flag. Little’s bike got a flat in the middle of the route, and he and Bergstrom pulled over to watch the rest of the parade from the curb. The wheel bike was a hit.
“This is a great town,” said Little. “I’m thinking I’ll stay on a while. Some of the Scallywags are talking about hopping a train to Chicago in a couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll just come back with them.”
Late the next morning Bergstrom was getting annoyed because Little hadn’t called about some things he’d left in the car. “He seems to be very adaptable,” Bergstrom said. “I guess the flip side of that is he may not be very dependable.” He sighed and headed off toward the Scallywag house where he’d last seen Little.
Little eventually turned up, and before Bergstrom left there was an awkward pause. “Well, enjoy yourself,” Bergstrom said. “Think you’ll be tempted to stay?”
“Naw, I love Chicago too much,” said Little. “Besides, it’s easier to do something in a place where you’re one of the first people to do it. Here I’m a little fish in a big pond. In Chicago I’m a king.”
“I enjoy the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing, but I don’t think I could do it all the time,” Bergstrom said as he drove out of town. “It’s interesting to meet the bike-gang people, who seem to do that all the time. A lot of people in the Rat Patrol feel intimidated by the Black Label. That’s not us–to get so drunk you can’t ride anymore.”
When Little got back to Chicago two weeks later he slept on a cot in a friend’s basement until he and Bush signed a lease on a two-bedroom place in Ukrainian Village. Another Rat Patroller got Little part-time work at the bike-parking station in Grant Park, and he spent a lot of Mondays at the junkyard with Lee Ravenscroft. He and a few younger Rats drove up to Minneapolis in June for a ride and camping trip the Black Label and Scallywags had put together.
Toward the end of the summer he posted a note to his blog about drinking 40-ounce bottles of beer. He said he used to do it as an ironic tribute to hip-hop culture. Now he’d come to see it as a smart way to get more beer with limited funds.
John Edel and a few other Rat Patrollers were uneasy that Little was starting to change the style of the gang. “We were the nerdy intellectual gang, and [the Black Label] were sort of a rough-and-tumble, drunk bicycle gang,” Edel said. “And then the Scallywags obviously are a Jesus-freak bike gang. So the Rat Patrol is becoming more like those two gangs. More rough and tumble, punk-looking, sort of. And riding tall bikes. I’m not sure that I necessarily like it. I’m a chopper purist.”
Later Alex Wilson would say, “Johnny is definitely the most visible figure in the Rat Patrol, but is he the Rat Patrol? Is it what he espouses? Who has ownership of the Rat Patrol? Its creators or its champion?”
In late August about 20 bikers, Rats and Scallywags, gathered at Damen and Belmont, then meandered east through the alleys. At least half were on tall bikes rather than choppers, and Little was on a “trip-high,” a three-layered tall bike he insisted was taller than the one a Scallywag was riding.
They picked through Dumpsters as they went. The Scallywag on the trip-high tossed a pair of shoes he found over a low-hanging phone wire. Somebody else retrieved a Santa hat, and Little found a full-length brown leather coat, which he immediately put on. “Where ya goin’ in that coat, Johnny?” he asked himself in a loud voice, then answered, “Why, I’m goin’ to get laid, son!”
Someone found another pair of shoes and wanted to hang them off the phone lines too. “Man, if you hang those on the first try,” Little yelled, “I’ll take a dump right here!”
The guy missed, and Bush ran up to take a turn. He accidentally threw the shoes right through the glass of a second-floor window.
“Disperse!” someone shouted, and the bikers scattered, except for a relative newcomer to the Rat Patrol, Pat Cattell.
A heavyset guy wearing just his high school wrestling team shorts burst into the alley. “OK, who broke the window?” he yelled, grabbing Cattell’s bike. “Who did this?” Cattell said he didn’t know.
The rest of the gang members were already around the corner, but two Scallywags went to see what was going on. Soon one of them returned. “I know we’re in a bind,” he told the bikers, “but if we could just take up a collection…”
They all rode back to where the wrestler was standing and dug through their pockets. They came up with $100.
The wrestler wasn’t interested. “Do what you can, man, and the cops will come-we’ll figure it out,” he said. “Whaddya want me to tell ya? It’s a $300 window.”
His roommate, wearing a T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms, stood behind him, muttering into a cell phone: “Yeah, we got a whole gang out here. They broke a window.”
Little–still wearing the leather coat, along with an old army helmet that had aviator glasses wrapped around it and a dozen baby-bottle nipples that had been painted black stuck on it–approached the wrestler and quietly started negotiating. “Why don’t you guys ride on,” he finally said. “We’ll give you a call on Mike’s cell phone when we want to catch up.”
The Rats and Scallywags shrugged and started turning their bikes around. Just then a white pickup came barreling down the alley. The bikes parted, but the truck hit one and knocked it over. They shouted, and the driver stopped, backed up, and accidentally ran over another bike, then sped off. The stunned bikers were assessing the damage when a couple of police cars pulled up.
Little started talking to Officer Dan Kramer, who was looking around at the bikes. “See, this is all just about riding bikes,” Little told him.
“Yeah, I know,” said Kramer. “I got a welder at home too-20 amps.”
“Whaddya make with it?” Little asked.
“Nothing like this. I was gonna work on a car, make a T-Bucket.”
Another officer walked over. “The kid was trying to hang shoes off a wire,” he told Kramer, pointing at Bush.
“These things happen,” Kramer said, shrugging. “Unfortunately if you own property you get kinda worked up. If there was some kind of criminal intent, that would be one thing. But these guys are all right. Very creative.”
While the officers and bikers watched, Bush counted out the collected money, now $150, and handed it to the scowling wrestler. They exchanged numbers, and Bush promised to come back with the rest of the money in the morning. He did.
In late September, Little took a part-time job washing dishes at the Handlebar, a bike-activist bar and restaurant Josh Deth had opened on North Avenue with some friends in early 2003. “I have very few expenses other than rent,” Little said. “I get a lot of my food from the Dumpster, and all of my leisure is free. For fun I might go to an abandoned spice factory and help a buddy haul an old lathe out of there. There’s a river walk by Ashland and the south branch of the river where there are blue herons, and you can watch as scrap is loaded.”
He joked that he didn’t intend to be poor forever. “My long-term plan is to build the Rat Patrol until I become a sellout, and then everyone will resent Rats as much as they resent hippies and indie kids now. I’m looking forward to the benefits of selling out.”
On hearing that Little was scoring his food from Dumpsters, Laura got upset. She said she’d seen him over the summer, and he’d had a tremor in his hand. When she asked him if he’d seen a doctor he said he didn’t have health insurance. “It’s like, this is the problem!” she said. “I guess there’s a part of me that will always feel bad for not continuing to support him. I just want him to be happy. The second thing I want for him is to be safe. And health insurance, it’s wrapped up in being safe.” She paused. “I have a place in my heart for Jon-Richard. Now, Johnny Payphone, he and I have some problems.”
Later Little said he’d figured out what caused the tremor: “Whenever I don’t eat enough, that happens.”
He was spending more of his free time with the Working Bikes Cooperative, which Ravenscroft had moved to an 8,000-square-foot warehouse at 927 S. Western. The volunteers estimate that in 2003 they sold 1,000 bikes and shipped another 1,000 overseas. Some of the bikes had gone to Ghana as part of a project run by Osei Darkwa, a former UIC social work professor. In early November, Darkwa was at a Working Bikes meeting to talk about how the bikes were being used in his hometown, and Little showed up. He wore a black baseball cap with a Rat emblem and Cat-in-the-Hat leggings under cutoff sky blue pants, and he had bullet casings in his earlobes.
Darkwa said the Ghanaians needed to know how to build adult tricycles and trailers, which would help them transport food and wares to and from market. After Darkwa finished, Little introduced himself and said, “I convert bikes to carry cargo, and I know of many, many designs.” He showed Darkwa a photo from his camping trip with the Black Label in which he was tending a barbecue grill mounted on a bike trailer. “This is very difficult to make,” he said, “but to take a bicycle and make a sidecar-on the side, like a tricycle–very, very easy. We can talk about these things, or I can send you an e-mail.”
“You can travel by the end of the year?” Darkwa asked.
“Oh yes,” said Little. “I have a valid passport, and my job doesn’t take up a lot of my time.”
The next day Little sent Darkwa 17 different designs and described the pros and cons of each.
“Great designs,” Darkwa e-mailed back. “Hopefully, we can get you to the Asante Akim Telecentre to help design some of the models.”
Shortly after that, Little took a full-time job as a bike messenger, partly to pay back Bush for rent he’d borrowed, partly to save for a trip to Ghana. “It’s a very ratty job,” he said. “You’re always either in the alley, the subbasement, or the freight elevator. The only rattier job I’ve ever had was as a sorter at a recycling center. But these jobs are only a means to an end. I’d love to put an ad in the international classifieds-’Bring me to your country, and I’ll bring 400 bikes and modify them to carry cargo.’”
Having a job didn’t stop Little’s Dumpster diving. “He doesn’t eat very well,” said Bush. “I’ll come home and there’ll be just one thing in the fridge, but a whole lot of it–like hummus and pita. So we’ll be eating hummus and pita for like five days straight.”
“Well, it’s like on the farm,” said Little. “You eat what’s in season. Right now I’m eating–”
“Muffins,” said Bush.
“Well, the muffin supply is constant,” said Little. “Right now in our fridge there’s nothing but salsa, pita, and muffins. I’ve been thinking about how my diet has been affected. I don’t eat a lot of meat–I don’t trust raw meat under these conditions. But a lot of grains, bread products. Not a lot of condiments. Now that I’m employed I’ll probably buy a lot of stuff like condiments and maybe some meat, but I’m not gonna pay for bread. There’s literally mountains and mountains of it.”
At a mid-December build day Little welded a sidecar onto a mountain bike, testing a design he wanted to use in Ghana. Together the Rat Patrollers built 11 bikes, including five tall bikes.
Al Schorsch sat picking his banjo. Little came over, and the two sang Rat Patrol ditties. The other Rats stomped their feet.
Little planned to be gone by the end of January. Working Bikes had agreed to cover most of the trip’s cost, and Little’s father was contributing some frequent-flier miles so that he could do some traveling in Europe after he left Africa. Little planned to stop in the small English town of Ross-on-Wye, where a few locals, inspired by the Rat Patrol Web site, had started their own chapter.
In late December, Little sent out invitations for a fund-raiser at the Handlebar to buy extra bike parts for the Ghana project. The subject line of his e-mail said “Here today, Ghana tomorrow.”
On January 9 some 50 people–Rat Patrollers, Working Bikers, Critical Massers–showed up for a Ghanaian dinner that Little had prepared himself. Afterward he talked about the Working Bikes project. “I spend my Mondays at the scrapyard, saving bikes from this gigantic chipper,” he said. “At Working Bikes we bring home 100 to 190 bikes every Monday, plus we throw out about 60–and that’s one day a week at one of the city’s five recycling centers.” He figured Chicagoans throw out a million bikes a year. The volunteers ship as many as they can overseas. “We’ve already shipped 400 bikes, and Osei says he’s got a waiting list of 3,000.”
“Let’s send ‘em cars!” somebody joked.
“Combustion engines have their place,” said Little. “But people are walking their fruit to market, and think of what a difference a bike can make. Or people who would need to travel 20 miles to get to a job each day–on foot they wouldn’t have the time. I know people whose lives have been changed by bikes–heck, I used to weigh 25 more pounds.”
He explained what he’d be doing in Ghana. “The money from tonight is for a discretionary fund for the town of Patriensa. One of the first things I’ll be doing there is making a giant shopping list–there’s always one part that’s holding you up, and you can’t know what that part’s going to be until you get there. I will teach bicycle maintenance, which I’m very well suited to do there because of my scrappy nature–I can use a broken fence for a wrench, I can fix a bike chain with a shoe, I can fix a flat tire with trash. I’ll also be teaching literacy, and I’ll be teaching computer literacy. There’s one laptop that has the Internet connection, so I’ll be blogging as much as I can, but I’m sharing it with the whole town. I will probably be starting a bike collective–Osei’s already got Critical Mass going there. Just because there aren’t a lot of cars, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have Critical Mass. Osei wants to put a bike in the hands of every teacher in Ghana. He’s an ambitious fella.”
Little said he had ambitions of his own: “I’d like to turn it into a career–a world-traveling, gallivanting bike guy.” Then he asked for donations. “Give what you can. I know a lot of you in this room fed me when I was dirt, dirt, dirt poor. You gave me jobs. So I’m hoping to pay it forward. Go ahead and give what you can. A dollar from here is worth a whole lot over there.” Ravenscroft passed around a bike helmet.
“I will be around for two weeks, so if you have any couches I can sleep on,” said Little, his voice trailing off as people laughed.
“It’s scary,” he said. “I’ve got this thing I’m building here, the Rat Patrol, and it’s been my life’s work. And it’s time to let it go, let it fly free.”
Little flew out of Chicago on January 29. The next day he blogged from Ghana: “This is so unreal to me….Back home I’m that wacky guy who thinks–getta load of this–that the best way to cart stuff around is by bike! Here I am given the means, material, and money to do what I love, and it will transform the area. The only difference is that America has its priorities fucked up. There I’m some scrub, here I’m meeting with the Minister of Transportation.”