Longform

LOWRIDER, HIGH HOPES

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The grass near Frances Cano's duplex apartment is dotted with household items, available for a small price on a Saturday afternoon. Why? It's a long story: a divorce, a second marriage and separation, three foster daughters, a layoff from her job at the Foot Locker, another employer who won't make good on owed wages and now here they are holding yard sales to make ends meet. "This is how we live in the projects," she says, almost apologetically.

James is on the front stoop with his bike. He brings it out here to wash it sometimes. One time, his friend Steve Vasquez told him the bike looked wicked, so that's what James named it. He and Steve and Steve's brother David go cruising on Fridays. James rides third.

Most lowrider-bike enthusiasts are 14 to 16 years old, and James is right there in the curve. About a quarter of them are 18 or older--what Lowrider Bicycle magazine technical editor Saul Vargas calls the hard-core group, guys who pour their paychecks into the hobby--and a lot of them build model cars, too. So many, in fact, that the magazine, now bimonthly, surrenders half of each issue to the craft.

Frances started her son on models when he was about 8. She figured it would keep him close to home and out of trouble. He's had his ups and downs; single parenting is no ride in the park. They have an open, affectionate relationship. She and her second husband, whom she married when James was 2, separated, but remain friendly; sometimes he takes them places and talks about putting things back together. But it is her first husband whom James looks to when he wants help with his bike.

"I know when James started making models, he would get frustrated when it wouldn't stay together," she says. "I would tell him, you need to go away from it for a while, then go back to it."

"I still have problems with that," James says.
He was a miracle baby. Six were conceived before him, and he was the only one who made it. He was born a month and a half early, and weighed five pounds. But the doctor said his lungs were formed perfectly.

"When he was little," says Frances Cano, "he was always running around with a screwdriver. He would tell his grandmother, 'I will fickadit for you.' He fickaditted a lot of things."

Then came the Legos, and Frances noticed he could make a car that would become two or three other vehicles. And he started noticing lowriders.

"I like the way they look," James says. "I'd see lowrider trucks riding around, and I'd get all excited. I like to be involved in stuff like that--hydraulics, winning, things I could be proud of."

His real father, who has since remarried and lives in the Valley, used to take him to car shows. Then there was the '62 Impala his parents had back when they were together, a beautiful ride they christened "Brown Baby." James remembers it only from pictures, and he brings them out now from a handy place, yellowed photos with white borders and impossible skies, his mother reclining in sultry poses before the camera, younger and smiling uneasily atop the old Impala.

It was a nice car.
He used to tell his mother how much he liked it. But one day, it got wrecked, like so many other things, and that was the end of that.

With new life breathed into a faded fad, the mail pile at Lowrider Bicycle magazine has included more and more snapshots showing promise from the East Coast, the South and the Midwest. "It's not like out here," says Saul Vargas, the magazine's bike-tech editor, "but they're getting better."

In California, north is pitted against south in a war of invention, and most of the subculture's innovators and cover bikes continue to spring from the Golden State. Vargas hasn't been to Phoenix yet, but he's seen photos. "They're coming up with some keen modifications out there," he says. "Where they lag is chrome. I give them six months to a year before they start producing cover bicycles."

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Marc Ramirez