Ride a scooter, develop a thick skin. Hop on one and you’re the constant butt of lame jokes and curious gawking, the weirdo who doesn’t fit in anywhere in a city of subway dwellers, cab-driving bullies, and bicycle militants. ‘Get a real motorcycle,’ people say that all the time,” sighed Jessica Morris, the owner of a 1965 Vespa Sprint. ” ‘What are you, the scooter gang?’ ” mimicked Jonathan Perkel, a co-founder of the New York Scooter Club.
It helps to have buddies. Riders new and old assembled recently at a weekend block party hosted by the New York Scooter Club and a group called the Mini Mart Muchachos. The first day began with members Jason and Big Mike leading a breakfast outing to a Queens diner; the second day included lunchtime outings to the Red Hook Soccer Field and an afternoon scavenger hunt. Brass Monkey, a bar in the farthest reaches of the Meatpacking District, was the meet-up spot between field trips: a chance for the riders to rest, show off their rides, and talk scooter shop.
We had always wondered about people who rode scooters. How much of their interest was due to rising gas prices (some scooters get an astounding 60 miles to a gallon) and how much was about style? Did it all start out fairly innocent—a viewing of La Dolce Vita, perhaps—and next thing you know, you’re the putz sporting a skinny scarf mid-July?
“It’s about gas prices, it’s all about style, it’s a bit of both,” said Morris, one of the few women riders that afternoon and an employee at Scooters Originali, a vendor in Orange, New Jersey. The reasons for owning one were manifold: “They’re just a more convenient way to get around the city,” explained Phil Bak, a rider who works during the day as an asset manager on Wall Street. “Gas prices do have a lot to do with it,” said Jay Lajoie, the owner of a 1966 Vespa UBB150. After Liane Montesa hit a pothole and broke her collarbone last October, it killed her to ride the subway: “Every time I slid my Metrocard through, I was like, ‘That’s one month of gas for my scooter.'”
The group that attended the block party was oddly bereft of skinny suits and Beatle boots. We counted a finance guy, an IT dude, and a lawyer among the crew—all linked by a lineup of scooters that were not so much refurbished and reworked as spit-shined to perfection and dressed up for Sunday school. It was hard to think of this only being about the convenience of getting to Williamsburg from Park Slope, not with the number of vintage scooters on display like pampered children.
Scooter world is host to its own brand of exclusivity. Asian-brand bikes are considered inferior (“It’s like the difference between a Zippo lighter and a Bic, “said Aaron Peterson, the sales manager at Vespa Soho). Unlike the New York Scooter Club, most groups—the all-girl club Donne Veloci, the Checkered Demons, the Skullfuckers—are by invite-only. Rob Segal, (a participant in the annual nude scooter ride across the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge), described tensions between the owners of brand-new scooters and the Pabst-pounding old schoolers who only ride vintage models they fix up themselves. (“Anyone on a vintage is carrying around a set of tools,” Bak had explained earlier, describing the older Vespas and Lambrettas’ constant need of upkeep.)
“There are some scooter politics at play,” confessed Segal. “There was a pissing contest about who owned the scooter scene. The people who ride new ones are considered wussies, those who [just] coughed up a bunch of money.” He explained that a friend switched to scooters after he got his leg ripped off in a motorcycle accident (it was later reattached at the hospital).
The battle over who’s a harder rider is a little strange, considering any gang of scooters looks about as much like a beer-pounding crew of Hell’s Angels as a Golden Girls cavalcade. But scooter riders do occasionally earn the respect of motorcyclists in one way or another.
“We went to a motorcycle rally once in Clifton, New Jersey,” said Perkel, “and we got a standing ovation. They were like, “you rode these in from New York?”