Night Crawler

A Rage to Scoot
As usual, Scooter Daddy is the first to arrive on the scene. He cracks open a soda can and leans against the back of his van, eying the slate-gray sky with distrust. He had hoped for better weather -- last night's on-again-off-again rainstorm has not entirely exhausted itself, and the city streets are wintry and uninviting. Still, it would take a little more than mild precipitation and a nip in the air to keep his mates away from the 12th annual Scooter Rage, a rally hosted by the Secret Society Scooter Club (SSSC).

While not the largest rally of its kind -- the Kings Classic, which is hosted by the San Francisco-based Rally Kings, boasts a healthier summertime crowd -- it is the longest-running scooter-related event in the United States. Every year, scooter enthusiasts from all over the country head to San Francisco on the first weekend in January to show off their custom paint jobs and test their endurance.

This year's Scooter Rage includes four rides, three meals (doughnuts with beer, spaghetti with beer, and chili with beer), four live bands (with beer), two DJ dance parties (with beer), and three days of solid drinking (in some cases, noon to 6 a.m. constitutes a single day). No scooter rider worth his Guinness bar towel would miss it.

Scooter Daddy pulls on a snug-fitting bomber jacket covered in rally patches and runs a hand through his wispy white hair. At 60, he is the picture of paternal vigor -- tall, big-boned, and well-weathered, with neighborly eyes and a comfortable belly. Although he's been riding scooters since the early '50s, the retired accountant didn't officially become "Scooter Daddy" until six years ago, when he brought a load of much-appreciated breakfast food to a group of young scooter enthusiasts who were camped outside of San Diego for the local rally.

Since then, Scooter Daddy has more than lived up to his name, turning his van into a mobile scooter service center. In 1996, he even went so far as to follow six members of the SSSC when they made their pilgrimage to Pontedera, Italy, for the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Vespa -- the Italian scooter that became the definitive ground transportation for European hipsters of the early '60s.

The nascent whine of two-stroke engines can be heard in the distance as the scooterists converge on the DMV parking lot at Broderick and Oak. They arrive in groups of two and three, their scooters buzzing like overgrown dragonflies as they gather in the afternoon chill. Most of them wave at Scooter Daddy, and he smiles. ("There's a lot of scooters, but only one Scooter Daddy.")

Before long there are more than 150 machines shimmering in the thin light -- Vespas and Lambrettas of every model from 1981 and earlier. After 1981, the two-stroke engines for which both makers are famous did not meet U.S. pollution laws.

The riders greet old acquaintances from Denver, Pasadena, Bakersfield, and Seattle. The group gathering for this ride is an ad hoc mixture of people -- long-hairs, dreads, greasers, indie kids, mods, and suedeheads, young and old. There are even a few low-profile motorcyclists in the bunch.

By 1 o'clock, the bleary-eyed scooterists are ready to ride. The quiet afternoon shudders with the peal of 50cc engines; a thick cloud of exhaust envelops the revving throng. The group moves out en masse, spreading over two full city blocks, whizzing through town, turning heads, and disregarding traffic laws. It's not the mayhem seen in Quadrophenia, but it's impressive none the less -- the glinting chrome, the gleaming mirrors, the flags flapping in the breeze, the flash paint jobs, the fumes.

"I love that smell," says 24-year-old Christian Larsen, who rides a '63 Vespa that he wheelies at nearly every intersection. "I would like to make a cologne that smells like gasoline."

For the first several blocks, the scooterists remain no-nonsense, but as the ride progresses the attitudes relax and folks begin to horse around, trying to kill each other's engines or kicking each other in the shins. Scooterists arriving at red lights stop cross-traffic until the procession has passed; riders who can't get around double-parked trucks simply hop up on sidewalks and buzz through. By the time the ride reaches the Mission District's famed San Francisco Motorcycle Club for the custom show and contest, everyone is in high spirits.

Fifty-four-year-old Walter Alter -- the infamous, anarchist-supporting owner of the Batcave, an unlicensed scooter service garage that doubled as a hangout for local mods from 1984 to 1989 -- is acting as judge. His former landlord, Ted Langlais -- whom Alter describes lovingly as a "gun-toting fascist" -- is also on hand, as he is the secretary of the Secret Society Scooter Club.

"It's amazing what a shared aesthetic can overcome," Alter says as he and Langlais admire an old model.

Inside the historic wood-paneled Motorcycle Club, folks fill their gobs with chili and hot dogs while perusing the goods: clothes, magazines, patches, and scooter parts. Thirty-three-year-old Liz Pepin, who owned Neurotic Records until recently, peers out from behind a table of albums that she is selling. She started Whaaam! -- the first scooter zine in America -- in 1983 and she remembers the first rally in San Francisco. "There were seven scooters then," she says, watching as hundreds of people file past her table. "The crowd's different now. I can't really believe that it's still going on."

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