It's a pretty healthy scene inside Gene's Last Chance in the Strip during its Monday version of happy hour. Native citi-yinz sit around Gene's L-shaped bar content with their classic rock, the Pirates game on the TVs above their heads. Gene's waitresses and barmaids are as American as apple pie, dirty blondes in dirty aprons, rolling out of the kitchen one by one, carefully swerving out of the way of those shooting at the pool table.
It's this way every Monday night until about 7:30, when the gangs come. Then Gene's gets Sic Wid It.
It's hard to miss him when he pulls up. Sic Wid It is the beefy-bicepped black guy driving a huge black Xbox-on-wheels: a Lincoln Navigator on chrome skates. He's the president of the Maximalist Sports Bike Riders, Pittsburgh chapter. He'd bring his bike, but he can't lug all his deejay equipment around on a two-wheeler.
Emerging from his truck, he begins pulling his sound equipment out to set up inside, signaling to the patrons that this will be their last chance of the day to hear any Springsteen, Clapton or Page. As the restaurant gradually fills with darker-skinned, muscular brothers in even darker-skinned leather vests and Durango boots, the regulars remain seated. In fact, they greet the brothers by name as they stroll in, and the cheers keep coming.
Less than 30 minutes later Sic Wid It's soundsystem is in place: two speakers and a computer. With no protest from the regulars, hip hop has officially taken over. But not even the throbbing bass lines and scattershot drums of the tracks from Mike Jones and Slim Thug can trump the engine growls of the Harley-Davidsons and Kawasaki Ninjas as they pull up outside. By 9 p.m., patrons peering through Gene's storefront glass façade see a row of bikes almost perfectly aligned, like keys on a piano.
Just about every biker club is represented here: from the aggressive-sounding Maximalist, Buffalo Soldiers and Sin City Disciples groups to the more innocuously titled Pittsburgh Gentlemen and the Peacemakers. Each has their own colors, logos and beer preferences. All have bikes with engines that sound like helicopters over Fallujah.
Making an entrance in front of Gene's is Brenda Murphy -- or, as the seat of her copper-toned 1300 cc Suzuki Huyabusa reads, "Ms. B.J." Commanding attention from every direction as she parks her bike not on the street but the sidewalk, the body alone easily overpowers everything else within a five-mile radius. The bike ain't bad either.
Murphy is a woman of Queen Latifah proportions, and she's royalty in her own right -- especially when dismounting the 587-pound throne on wheels, whose engine could probably power up an ancient steel mill, and with twin pipes that jut from the back tire like Robocop's arms. When Murphy takes her helmet off, long, well-nourished locks fall below her shoulders, all of them the same copper color as her bike and her cobra eyes.
All the bruhs on the block refer to her bike simply as "The 'Busa." Its speedometer tops at 220 mph and it is considered the world's fastest motorcycle.
Murphy's "only" reached 170 on it. Just once, she says.
"You been ridin' all day?" Sic Wid It asks her.
"I been doing final papers all day," she responds. Murphy is a grad student at Point Park University.
"Bike Night," as it's known at Gene's, is the club of clubs -- motorcycle clubs, as they're called, not gangs, although a few are outlaw. But you needn't worry about the outlaws. Only about 1 percent of bikers consider themselves truly outside the law, and they accordingly call themselves "One Percenters." Most of the clubs here tonight are that other 99 percent. Many of the riders hold professional day jobs, most of them as cops. There's a Presbyterian youth minister and a high school counselor, among others; Murphy is a civil engineer employed by the Commonwealth. That means startin' shit here could get you handcuffed, preached at, counseled or made into the blueprint for persona non grata at Bike Night. They're bands of brothers, and sisters, united for no other reason than for the love of bikes.
If all you know about motorcycling is reading biker magazines and watching movies like Easy Rider, you'd think black bikers didn't exist. But they've formed at least a dozen clubs throughout the region, each a chapter of larger national organizations. Judging from turnout at events such as Bike Night and members' own estimates, their ranks number at least a hundred riders.
The clubs are now hoping to set an example for the younger generation, whose members are coming up in an age when gang violence is on the rise. They already have the kids' attention, hype from watching bikers do wheelie and burnout tricks in rap videos from DMX, the Ruff Ryders, and the movie Biker Boyz, the 2003 film that finally informed America that, yes, bike riders do come in chocolate.
In fact, on the weekend of Aug. 19-21, the motorcycle clubs will hit the streets of Pittsburgh for the Ride 4 Peace weekend. The event is organized by Team Neva, a biker apparel and printing company owned and operated by local rider Cornell Jones and his buddy Darryl Wiley. Here, the bikers hope to show gangs how G's roll in a true unit, sans the fighting and guns. Meanwhile, they hope to impress kids from various hoods, showing them that their streets can be safe again, at least for a weekend.
These clubs together represent some of the least territorial entities in the city, with each club including members from various neighborhoods. When one rider was recently murdered, bikers of every brand and every hood rode out to pay respect at the family's home in Northview Heights.
Ordinarily, says Sic Wid It, "You don't never hear about nobody from Homewood or nowhere else going to Northview Heights. It was because he rode and everyone knew he rode, and if you ain't in a club, we still show you love because you still got that bug I got: riding bikes."
Sin City sticks out. They're the brothers in Gene's with the most elaborately patched-up vests, wearing the most head-to-toe leather, drinking the most beer and having the most, and loudest, laughs. They are an outlaw gang -- one with a reputation for occasionally unruly behavior. While they're not entirely anti-social, you can't exactly come up to one and give him a friendly slap on the back. They either know you or they don't know you -- and if they don't, you should probably wait until they get to know you before you approach.
Quiet Storm, one of Sin City's younger members, is seated at the bar watching two guys shoot pool. He wears a leather vest about three sizes larger than his body frame warrants. A curious cluster of patches litters the front lapels of the vest: fat, white crosses superimposed with the head of a devil. You don't know whether to jeer or genuflect.
Though one of the smallest guys in attendance, Quiet Storm has a colossal bike on the street. Ask to see his bike and he barely acknowledges the question. After a gulp of beer, he mutters, "Go 'head."
Ask which bike is his, and he says, "The one that says 'bad motherfucker' on it."
After quickly finishing off his mug, he walks out to his bike.
It doesn't say "bad motherfucker" on it. But it's a bad motherfucker.
It's a Harley Davidson Sportster 1200 with a console between its handlebars fit for NASA. The bike is hot, and its paint coat doesn't help matters.
"Harley calls it 'Lava Red Sun Glow,'" says Quiet Storm of his bike's complexion. "I call it red."
Either way, when he's seated on it, the white crosses on his vest appear to be out of place, while the devil heads seem right at home. These are "death patches," and written in the arms of the crosses are the names of dead homies -- Vern, Big Shot, Iron Hands, Country -- and the dates of their deaths.
These deaths aren't gang-related, says Quiet Storm. These guys died of natural causes, a couple of them bike-related. Sin City doesn't dabble in violence and murder, he says, and certainly not when it comes to the other bike clubs.
"We all under one common bond, one common denominator -- that's motorcycles," he says.
Talking more with Quiet Storm, it's evident that his initial cold front was merely a front. The diabolic images and his patch with the letters DILLIGAF (Do I Look Like I Give A Fuck) are just images -- rep protection. Apparently, you can be a bad motherfucker without being hostile to others. And being bad doesn't mean that you can't still be a positive role model for the youth.
It's part of the mission behind the upcoming Ride 4 Peace weekend they will participate in, organized by Cornell Jones and Darryl Wiley of Team NEVA.
"We were talking about all the violence going on and started asking, 'What if we stepped up and see what we could do as bikers to make kids happy again?'" says Jones.
The Ride 4 Peace Weekend plans to be a string of gatherings across various communities ranging from Wilkinsburg to Northview Heights. The central activity is the "Hood Ride through Pittsburgh," where a swarm of bikers will take to the streets, driving in formation. They may spill a little oil, but that's better than street gangs spilling blood.
In the African American Heritage Parade earlier this year, the sight of 10 bikes rollin' through Downtown drove hundreds of kids cuckoo. With R4P planning to draw in clubs from Ohio, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia and farther, the impression left on these kids -- of bold black barons and dukes riding Ninjas and choppers in harmony -- might be irreversible, incurable.
Black youths from Pittsburgh's eroding urban cores have seen gang violence increase recently, closely resembling the infamous Blood-and-Crip eras of the '80s and '90s. Many youths are growing up without anyone to look up to except those who are bangin' and grindin'. So the biker clubs are trying to see that the shorties wanna ride with them. Some clubs provide scholarships and mentoring services to the kids throughout the year.
"If you live in the hood, you see a lot of gang violence," says Krista "Lil' Bit" Johnson-Parham of the North Side. "People look at us and say motorcycle clubs are gangs but we're a different kind of gang. When the clubs come together [for R4P weekend] the people need to see that."
This past April, Lil' Bit's husband, Stanley "Bunky" Parham, was murdered outside of the afterhours Traveler's nightclub, in East Liberty. According to Sic Wid It, Parham's murder wasn't biker-related, but rather a case of a street history catching up with him. Parham was "turning his life around" when he was killed, says Sic Wid It, and had even thrown a few picnics for riders in the year before his death.
"We all wear different colors like the gangs," says the widowed Parham, "but we don't have the same animosity. When we see anyone from other clubs, it's mutual respect."
The way Jones and Wiley see it, a lot of ghetto youths join gangs because of a lack of chances or opportunities in life. Wiley named the company "NEVA" as an abbreviation for "neva had a shot."
Says Wiley, "If we compare ourselves to people with more resources, [black youths] probably shouldn't make it and whatnot, which is kinda the story of our lives. Through all the adversity, in theory we shouldn't be able to achieve, but we always do."
Jones and Wiley are almost unique among riders. Jones doesn't own a cruiser or a chopper, or even a well-equipped sportsbike like most of the other dudes. He humbly straddles a relatively small red Kawasaki 1100, which if placed next to Brenda's "Busa" would look like a Skittle next to a pack of Twix. Wiley doesn't own a bike at all. But they get the same love from all the bigger bruhs, not just for their sporty urban-biker apparel, but because they're trying to do constructive things with the "ride-or-die" capital this culture generates. Even the meanest-mugged biker in the joint shows Jones and the wheel-less Wiley love on Bike Night.
But their own status notwithstanding, says Jones, "You really gotta ride with cats from other clubs to get respected. You can start your own [club] if you want but nobody will support you, and if the people ain't supporting you -- you could have the illest bike out, but if you're not getting no love from the biker family, you might as well have not started nothing."
"When I went to Daytona for the first time in '88, there was a big sign in the window of the biggest bar that said 'Serving no niggers,'" says Mike Seate, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist as well as nationally prominent motor-journalist. "I took the sign, went in there and threw it at the bartender, and then ordered a beer."
If you leaf through books and magazines on bike culture, Seate says, most of the time the only black face you'll find on the pages will be his. But black bikers have a rich legacy in America. One of the first women to cross the country on a motorcycle was a black woman, Bessie "BB" Stringfield, who suffered bigotry and was at times attacked while on the road venturing out West or down South.
Still today, the color of your skin may still determine whether you'll end up enjoying your ride or end up behind bars. Black biker clubs gravitate toward two-wheeling for the same reason that anyone else does: for the thrill and freedom of the open road. Still, as Jones notes, "a lot of brothers get pulled over randomly by the cops."
Until recently, black riders didn't get invited to the major national biker conventions, such as Daytona Motorcycle Week. So they formed their own.
This week (Aug. 2-9) tens of thousands of black bikers will gather in Rockingham, N.C., for the National Bikers Roundup, an annual event that began in 1977. Similarly, Black Biker Week on Second Street in Daytona was formed 61 years ago because black riders weren't welcome at Daytona Motorcycle Week.
For the most part today, there's respect between black and white riders. White riders headed down Penn Ave toward the Voodoo Lounge often wave a hand to acknowledge the brothers in front of Gene's. Certain gangs, will try you, though -- not necessarily for the color of your skin, but for the colors on your vest.
"A really big coup for any outlaw biker club is to get another biker club's patch," says C.C., president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Peacemakers Motorcycle Club, and a respected elder among the riders. "They will rough you up, beat you up and take it off you, if they think they can."
C.C. says he's encountered a few Hell's Angels, but nothing too disturbing resulted. Similar elements can be found among some black clubs as well, he says, but "not in Pittsburgh." There are stories bikers will tell you, more like myths, of old Pittsburgh outlaw gangs such as the Black Lords -- who were marked to the point that if police saw any on their bikes they'd get pulled over on general principle. As the myths have it, the Black Lords were either run out by Sin City, or became Sin City, depending on who you ask.
For all that, nothing violent has ever popped off at Bike Night in the two years it's been held at Gene's. Which is why some ladies say they prefer hanging out there with biker clubs to going to nightclubs.
"I really just like the spirit down here," says Maryn Formley, who counted July 25 as her one-year anniversary of coming to Bike Night, merely as an "enthusiast." "I can dance on the floor if I feel like it, I can come dressed how I want to. I've made a lot of friends down here and I tried to cut back once from coming here but it didn't work very well. I'm addicted."
The money Team NEVA hopes to raise on R4P Weekend will be put in what it calls "The Travel and Technology Endowment," to provide science centers in poor, black neighborhoods. NEVA's Darryl Wiley envisions them as "playgrounds for their technological development" where kids will be paired with the best minds from this city's universities.
Wiley is an energy god, restless in his seat, especially when talking about his missions for the children. His eyes sparkle with grandiose, standout ideas, but they're working with barely any startup capital. It all but devastates his mood even bringing up the CREAM (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) factor.
"You can talk about changing communities all you want, but without money you ain't changing nothing," says Wiley. "You can wish, and pray, and march but you need dough to make it happen."
Their travel-and-tech endowment at least has a solid foundation. It's backed by the POISE Foundation, an organization of black philanthropists, founded by the late Bernard Jones, father of NEVA's Cornell Jones and a cherished figure in Pittsburgh's black communities. Jones began the POISE foundation in 1980, providing aid to other institutional fortresses such as the Urban Youth Action mentoring program he formed in 1966, where Cornell Jones is currently a program manager.
Says Wiley, "Hopefully people will come out that weekend and get to build [relationships] with some cats and see that they buy these bikes because they go to work. They ain't in the streets hustling, they're just doing their thing, just like anyone else. Except they just choose to spend their money on bikes."
C.C. is the president and front-road captain for the Pittsburgh chapter of the Peacemaker's Motorcycle Club. Such titles come with two things: a lot of miles, and a heavily decorated uniform. Here's a head-to-toe breakdown of C.C.'s uniform:
Engineer boots: "I used to wear cowboy boots. These are the 16-inch engineers, most guys wear 12 inches. One time I fell off my bike and the bike ended up on top of my leg. These boots really saved me from twisting my leg or getting road rash, which is sometimes worse than a broken bone."
Peacemaker's Motorcycle Club patch: "It's a dove wing and a bayonet. The guy who started the club, who was from Cleveland, was what we call 'nomad status.' That's when you take a trip that's at least 1,000 miles by yourself. He was with the 173rd Airborne Division [in the Vietnam War] where their symbol was the same except with the sword going left to right. So as not to infringe upon the military, we adapted the same sign but with the sword pointing up and down."
10,000-mile patch: "There's only four in our club who've logged this: T.D., V.D., myself and Pops. Every first weekend in May is our breakout date. That's when we make sure our bikes are up to traveling status. We take your odometer reading and if it's logged 10,000 miles or more since the last breakout, you get a patch." (C.C. has four: '98, '99, '00, '02)
Juneteenth pin: "This is from an Underground Railroad route from Bedford, Pa. It's a three-and-a-half hour ride to different stops from here to Frederick, Maryland. You stop at different sites that were safehouses for the slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad. It was the best ride I had this year so far."
Canada patch: "Just one place I traveled to by myself. I do a lot of traveling by myself or with maybe one or two of the other club members."
Peacemakers 10-year patch: "Every five years you get a new patch like this. I've been in Peacemakers going on 13 years."
Tattoo (right arm): "When I planned my California trip, this was one of the specific things I wanted to do. This was for the National Roundup there in 2001.The other thing I wanted to do was see the ocean. To me, the California trip was one of my personal best. You travel across the country and see why everyone wants to come here."
Front-Road Captain patch: "Every year our club has one mandatory, paid-for road trip. As front-road captain I pick the spot, map the route for the trip. I make the hotel reservations and do the inspections on our breakout date to make sure the bikes are insured and up to code."
National Roundup patches: C.C. has nine patches to show for all the National Roundups, annual black biker conventions he's attended in different states: South Carolina, Kansas, Virginia/D.C., Michigan, Georgia, California, Colorado, Ohio and Kentucky.
Blessing of the Bikes pin: "Every year in Murrysville, a church does a blessing for bike riders. I've been going for the past four years. This one's from my first year. Most riders don't wear pins because they blow off. This stayed on. Almost all the patches on my vest I sewed on myself."
Rips and tears: "Denver, Colorado, I had a 750 Suzuki. It was my first solo ride in 1996. I decided I was going to modify my bike a little when I got there so I took the baffle out to make it louder. I was at an old abandoned airport, a real flat track. I had just got finished working on it. I was riding and I let the clutch go -- the bike hookslided and snatched my [patches] off the back of my vest. My whole vest was wrapped around the axle. When I finally got it out, it was in pieces. Before I got on the road to come back to Pittsburgh I sewed it back together."