He comes flying around the corner at Second Avenue and Fillmore, going at a good clip. He is red-faced and shirtless with flyaway Jesus hair. Across his back is an elaborate tattoo of a bird or bat or something. Beneath him, making a blunt grinding noise, is a battered Huffy 10-speed with upturned handlebars and wobbly wheels. Just before First Avenue, he cuts left without slowing, into the pool of light that is Circle K. At the curb fronting the store's double glass doors, he comes to an abrupt stop using only the front brake, an action that nearly sends him over the handlebars.
Under the apathetic stare of a squat security cop, the guy jumps off the Huffy and lets it fall to the parking-lot surface. He bounds into the store like a man on a mission. Not a minute later he is out of the mart, back on the Huffy and speeding into the night, smokes in hand.
Nocturnal biking in inner Phoenix is a bizarre phenomenon. Not that it's odd, really, but riding a bicycle in a town like Phoenix suggests one's other transportation options may have soured. It is as if the bicycle is the last resort, a result of some star-crossed accident or a penance for some evil deed.
Phoenix is, after all, a town built for the pleasure of the auto. Hence, downtown at night, a subculture rears its shadowy head and zips around on beaters. From appearances, most are street urchins lost on the idea of daylight and the prospect of waking up and working to afford things like custom window tinting, tune-ups, $1 installs, all that.
Stars, the moon and the distant sound of barking dogs chaperon riders between bars, dealers, AA meetings and jobs. Some guys are bug-eyed speed freaks queerly set on machines sized for the legs of children. Others are shoeless and wield big bellies on beat mountain bikes. Still others careen the neighborhoods commandeering some stolen machine that perhaps once carried a happy seventh-grader to school.
"Cops 'n' shit," slurs a thick-set gent when asked why he rides a bike around here at night. "You don't want no cops 'n' shit drunk."
He gives his name, and it sounds to me like "Sleeves." Sleeves was swerving his mountain bike on a downtown street with a tee shirt wrapped around his head. He has the slow movements and curt tolerance of an indecently drunken person, and he falls over when I take his pic.
Sleeves is, of course, hammered. He is also nonplussed with my questions.
"Yeah," he says, picking his bike up from the street. "I should break yo' head."
He has trouble manning the bike, and when he does, he continues his dizzy course down the street like a child learning to ride. Half a block away, Sleeves yells something ireful and indecipherable over his shoulder, a boozy miscue that causes his bike to suddenly skew hard to the left. But by some fluke, he manages to stay upright. He resumes his warped course and disappears into the dark.
Pleasant-faced and trim with a thick gray mustache, and a shiny head, Tom Murray has lived in downtown Phoenix for 22 years. Since '89 he has eschewed the auto in favor of the two-wheel. When he is not working in bars, he's spinning to bars, and everywhere else in between.
Murray is seated on a stool in Newman's bar on Monroe, having just finished his bartending stint at Eddie's Dugout. Sitting with him is his girlfriend, Antoinette. She has dark skin, dark hair, inconsistent teeth and a wry sense of humor.
"Once in a while when we leave here, we are a little stiff," he cracks, giving way to the joys of pedaling beneath the stars whilst lit. "We get a little buzz, what the hell. There's no traffic, and it's peaceful."
"Just a little stiff?" Antoinette chimes rhetorically.
"And I love to get on my bike late at night after a few and ride through the neighborhood where we live," he says. "It's peaceful and safe. Downtown now is safe. It ain't like it used to be.
"Though, sometimes the light poles jump out in front of you."
Keith, Murray's workmate at the Dugout and present drinkmate at Newman's, asserts he was bike-jacked nearby while riding Antoinette's bike.
"About two weeks ago, I was riding down the street and three guys jumped me," he says soberly. "They just grabbed the bike and took off. Just like that."
"I've had a couple of guys try that on me," adds Murray. "They got nothing."
I asked Murray when he traded the auto for the two-wheeler, and if DUIs played a hand.
"My driver's license got suspended in '89 for a traffic ticket in Yuma, and my insurance kept escalating. I had two cars and a truck, and I said to hell with it. I sold 'em all and said to hell with it. I'll ride a bike or take a bus. To hell with it. I'd rather ride a bike. I ride a bike everywhere, and I couldn't be happier."
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At 1 a.m. in front of Newman's, bicycles are chained to parking meters like possessive lovers.
The artificial light and antiquated lampposts give the feel of a movie set. A cab hums patiently in a parking space. Dreaming bums occupy two corner bus bunches.
A couple of Nubian street grifters offer up items for sale. Among other things, they say a mountain bike can be had for cheap.
"Twenty bucks and it'll be here in five minutes, brother," one says, his yellowy eyes filled with anxious hope. "For 20 bucks you can be on your way.