It's Monday night at a Bucktown bar and the weekly ride of the Peddy Cash moped gang is starting out as always--late. "I have it in a text right here: 8 PM," says Jackie Kilmer, holding up her phone as proof. It's 8:27 and less than half the group is here: a handful lounging in the bar's dark interior, the rest tinkering with their bikes outside. "Curt just texted and said, 'Meet at 8:30, ride at 9,'" Lauren Walsh announces from her bar stool. "Which means we'll be out of here at 9:45."
By the time Curt Cameruci, the evening's unofficial organizer, pulls up around 9:15 everyone's assembled. There are usually 10 to 12 riders each week, weather permitting, but tonight, with the crew's annual rally less than two weeks away, Peddy Cash will be rolling 25 deep. Kids litter the sidewalk and curb, and Cameruci walks around filling people in on the route, asking who needs gas, making sure everyone's ready to go. They put away their wrenches, wipe their greasy fingers, and walk their mopeds to the corner, where they straddle and start them. The air gets thick with exhaust, and you can't hear anything over the revving of the engines.
Cameruci makes his way to the head of the pack--his gray, paint-flecked Puch Cobra is said to be the fastest bike in the city. When traffic clears, he hand signals a left turn onto Damen toward Armitage and says, "Let's ped."
Peddy Cash has been an official branch of the Moped Army, a national community of moped enthusiasts, since 2003. With 35 members it's Chicago's largest moped gang and the third largest in the country by the Moped Army's count. Peddy Cash's founders--Cameruci, 25, who's one half of Flosstradamus, and Pat Turner, 26, who co-owns the Warbux moped shop on Milwaukee in Logan Square--hail from the parent gang's birthplace of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Since opening earlier this spring Turner's shop has become the ad hoc clubhouse for Peddy Cash's ride-or-die nerds--designers, DJs, students, and a few folks Turner describes as "habitually unemployed." Most are in their early to mid-20s.
Within Peddy Cash there are two smaller gangs: the Flooze, two of whose six members proudly pass out their signature condoms on tonight's ride, and the 15-strong Murder Club, the first black-founded crew in the country. Nigel Holt, who started Murder Club and works at Warbux, says he wanted to form a crew for his friends; the gang includes two white kids and membership is open.
Peddy Cash recently established a national rep when Holt (aka Hollywood Holt) and his cousin Mano (aka Million Dollar Mano) posted the video "Throw a Kit"--a moped anthem set to Rich Boy's "Throw Some Ds"--online. The pro-style video features Murder Club cruising the city with Peddy Cash--on Lower Wacker and on Armitage, through Humboldt Park--to the emphatic chorus: "Throw a kit on that bitch / Just bought a moped!" Within a week, the video was the 72nd most viewed on YouTube and was linked on two dozen blogs, including the popular remix site Discobelle.net. "I never fall / I never slip / Cos I just got on eBay and got some racing slicks," Holt rhymes.
Holt, who's 24, fell in love with mopeds after seeing them in a Levi's commercial as a kid. "It was so sick to me. What are those?" he recalls thinking. "I need that in my life!" He bought his first moped around 21; he says his goal is to make them famous. "I want everyone to be into mopeds," Holt says. "It's not just for ratchet dorks."
Turner, who owns a dozen mopeds, claims Warbux has sold at least ten bikes as a direct result of "Throw a Kit" and that sales of mopeds have been on the rise in general. Cameruci, who owns ten mopeds himself, attributes the trend to higher prices at the pump: "The last time you saw a moped boom was during the gas crisis in the 70s. We get 150 miles a gallon." (Later he clarifies: they average between 100 and 150 miles per gallon.) Turner believes good sales--he's turned over some 50 mopeds in the past couple months--may have more to do with the bikes' cool factor. "You see one cool kid get a moped," he says, "and a week later their friends are in here wanting one."
Monday nights are usually set aside for an aimless ride, but tonight Peddy Cash has a specific purpose. Some 200 riders from around the midwest were expected for the group's third annual BlingBQ rally, and Cameruci wanted to see if the Bunny Hutch putt-putt golf course in Lincolnwood would make a good destination.
Stock mopeds have 49cc engines and can go only 30 miles per hour, and riding with a gang involves as much stopping as going. The first stop is the gas station on Armitage near Wood, where kids top their tanks for less than a buck fifty and measure out capfuls of two-stroke oil from shared liters. Next is the Dunkin' Donuts at Irving Park and Western to wait for riders who had to pick someone up, got stuck at lights, or had to pull over to jiggle some wires. For 30 minutes it's snacks, war stories, and the passing of wrenches. Mopeds are the sole topic of conversation, especially how to get a bike street legal.
To ride in Illinois, you need a driver's license or a special Class L license, a title form, registration plates, and proof of insurance. Many mopeds are cobbled together from old parts and frames (often several decades old), so tracking down the title can be a hassle as well as expensive--sometimes topping the cost of the ped itself. Rather than go through the process in Illinois, Lauren Walsh, who's one of just a handful of girls in Peddy Cash, rode five hours to register in her home state of Michigan, where you don't need a bill of sale and the process is considerably easier. When a young rider starts explaining his convoluted plans for getting around the law, including registering in Minnesota, Walsh asks loudly of no one in particular, "What are we waiting for?"
After doughnuts have been scarfed, tools packed away, and delayed crew folded in, it's time to ride. There is a magic minute before departure, as the high idle swells: the whinnying roar silences everything, making you acutely aware that you're part of a swarm. This is where the real mashing begins--headfirst into the night in an oblong pack whose width expands and contracts minute to minute and whose length stretches the better part of a block before clumping again at the lights. Riding behind Cameruci I think, "My mother would kill me if she knew I was riding without a helmet." And "I am going to die!" And "This is the greatest fucking thing ever. I am never getting off this moped. I am buying a moped tomorrow. I am buying ten mopeds tomorrow!"
The route to the Bunny Hutch is a circuitous one. We take a detour a couple miles east along Irving Park to run a course under the el tracks along a narrow alley near Graceland Cemetery. The alley includes half a dozen speed bumps and doesn't get many cars. A minute into the course, Alex Gvojic, who's at the front of the pack, is down. He's hit a patch of sand, sending his bike, "Peddy Krueger"--a black-and-red-striped sweater is wrapped around its frame--sliding. He's laid out on his side in the street, but as we pull up beside him he waves us on. He brushes some dirt from his bleeding elbow and smiles giddily. His teeth contrast brightly with his face, which is soot gray from riding.
After a while we cross back over Ashland and head up Lincoln. The peddy-kid adage "No one is friend to a moped"--cars hate mopeds, pedestrians hate mopeds, everyone hates mopeds--doesn't hold when you're riding in a pack. People on the street stop and give the gang their full attention; they yell "Woo-hoo!" or a fist-pumping "Yeah!" or simply "MOPEDS!" at full volume as Peddy Cash passes. The riders barely seem to notice--they're too busy watching for each other, shouting directions, dropping back to shepherd the end of the pack.
We ride the last six miles without a break. In 90 minutes we've covered less than 12 miles; our average cruising speed was 25 miles an hour. It's nearly 11 PM by the time we descend on the putt-putt place. Some kids line up for hot dogs, others make their way to the Bunny Hutch with coupons they brought along with them, someone tries to pose with his moped in a photo booth.
Soon a cranky older man comes out of the Hutch and announces that he'll call the cops if the "motorcycles" leak one drop of oil or gasoline on the painted blacktop in the picnic table area. As kids start pushing their mopeds away from the bike racks and out to the parking lot proper, the man decides we need to beat it altogether. He stands arms crossed in front of a giant fiberglass hippo head at the entrance, waiting for us to leave. It's just another night for Peddy Cash.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peddy Cash photo by Andrea Bauer.