It’s a breezy autumn afternoon at the unofficial Rat Patrol Nashville headquarters, a small rented house near Hillsboro Village where members of Nashville’s most active freak-bike gang congregate. Daniel, a lean 22-year-old with a handlebar mustache, is in the backyard, an elephant graveyard of bike parts and assorted debris. Bikes are recyclable, and Rat Patrol takes pride in using parts from bikes mangled or rusted beyond salvation.
He’s sizing up a length of bicycle chain he found in the brown grass to determine whether it’s suitable for his next improvised creation, a tall chopper he has already christened “Chopperocalypse.” He holds it up to his wrist to match its gauge against a pair of homemade bike chain bracelets. It’s good. It’ll work. He pokes around the tools scattered nearby to find the proper instrument to link it with another chain. He’ll need all the length he can get. The chain will have to run roughly twice as long as an ordinary chain to fit the engineering monstrosity he has in mind.
Not that he ever sat down and drew it all out. This is a freak bike, a marvel of counterintuitive engineering, and he’s drawing his inspiration from whatever is at hand. The resulting bikes are indeed freakish—intentionally so. They can be 10 feet tall, incorporate a workout bench into their frames or include a mounted boxing glove that punches riders in the face. And Rat Patrollers take special pleasure in building what they call “stupid bikes” or “silly bikes,” whose names alone should serve as some indicator of their efficiency. They’ll move if you pedal them, and that’s all that counts. After all, the only two parts a bike really needs are its steering mechanism and its chain. Once you’ve secured those two critical functions, the frame becomes a canvas.
“The cool thing about not knowing anything about bikes is, what you do know is how to take something that shouldn’t work at all and make it work,” Daniel says.
Yards away, another enthusiast joins two bike frames together in an unholy union with a welder. He holds a protective mask in one hand to shield himself from the blinding light, pausing on occasion to swig from the bottle of Evan Williams he keeps just out of range of the flying sparks.
“We never operate heavy machinery without being under the influence of alcohol,” Daniel says. While that may be a statement of spirit more than one of fact, the crushed, sun-bleached Pabst Blue Ribbon cans ground into the lawn stand as evidence that alcohol consumption and bike building are roughly coequal activities here—hence the Rat Patrol’s unofficial motto: “A drinking club with a biking problem.”
It’s a typical Sunday afternoon “build day” with the Rat Patrol. When the bikes are finished, they’ll take to the streets to test their creations. It’s an encouraging sign if the bike survives the night. You might have seen Rat Patrol kids careening down West End or up 21st Avenue. They’re pretty easy to identify—a group of five to 20 punk boys (and a few girls), typically between the ages of 15 and 25. Most of them wear self-made vests covered in homemade patches. They travel in packs and maintain average speeds of 10 to 15 mph. On tall bikes, they can stare down passersby from a vantage point roughly 10 feet in the air. Commuters seldom see these roving gangs of flamboyantly dressed youths as more than a traffic nuisance, and that’s the way most of these cyclists like it.
The Rats have been drinking and biking in Nashville for almost two years now, and after a few surges in membership, they’re rapidly earning recognition not only on Nashville’s busier thoroughfares, but in the loosely knit network of like-minded enthusiasts that spans the globe. The growing alternative biking community, a fringe culture that’s demonstrated impressively organic networking abilities, has been making itself increasingly and aggressively visible worldwide in recent years. Like clubs with names such as the Klunkers and the Smut Peddlers, the Rat Patrol takes its cues from the scrappy aesthetic and DIY ethos of the early punk movement—anti-consumerist, anti-establishment, anti-hygiene, but with an eco-friendly twist and a gearhead’s mechanical fetishism.
Only a cursory glance at the club’s smirking manifesto (viewable online at rat-patrol.org) is necessary to grasp its gutter punk principles: mainstream corporate America begets a culture of shallow entertainment and mass waste, bicycles are a liberating self-contained means of transportation. And, of course, shotgunning beers in alleyways is awesomely fun. Though some members are of the vegan, fossil fuel-eschewing variety, the Rat Patrol isn’t really about political theater or activism. The real point is to have a good time building and riding bikes together.
“Rat Patrol is like the Boy Scouts,” Daniel says. “Except with girls. And booze. And gay people. And transsexuals.”
And Christians. For all of their hedonistic shenanigans, Rat Patrol Nashville may never have come into existence without some intervention on behalf of the Holy Trinity. Their local antecedent is a now-defunct group called the Scallywags, who shared the punk rock and DIY mentality of Rat Patrol and other similarly minded national clubs. But the Scallywags distinguished themselves by their explicit Christian affiliation, and they had some very hard-and-fast rules. A Scallywag had to affirm Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior, and Scallywags did not smoke or drink—at least, not officially. Here’s a good Rat Patrol joke: How many Scallywags does it take to drink a six-pack? One, if no one’s looking.
In 2002, the Scallywags sought to find their foothold in Nashville, and their failure to thrive here is inextricably intertwined with the Rat Patrol’s current proliferation. “Johno,” now 22, a once homeless drug addict who traveled across America by hopping trains and hitching rides, cleaned up his act after he found Jesus. He also developed an interest in freak bikes, and after he learned about the Scallywags’ national operations, he contacted their Minneapolis headquarters for permission to start a Nashville chapter. There were a few prospects, current Rats Marc and Matt included, but the club never grew beyond six members and eventually dissolved. But before it did, Johno saw a stranded kid on the side of the road, kicking and swearing at his broken-down bicycle.
That stranded traveler was Joey Jello (nicknames are so prevalent among Rat Patrol members that actual last names have been rendered nearly obsolete), a tense-looking young man who proved a quick study in the art of chopping bikes. As Johno taught him the ropes of freak-bike building, Jello came to see his works as not only a cheap and effective means of transportation, but as a way of life. He quit his job at Provence to accompany Johno on St. Ratrick’s Day, the largest annual Rat Patrol event. Held in Chicago on—what else?—St. Patrick’s day, Ratrick’s is a massive, open-invitation festival of all things freak-bike. The convergence of over 150 outrageously garbed aficionados made a strong impression on Jello, and he began to envision a similar community in Nashville. Armed with a newly discovered passion, he soon became one of Nashville’s most active freak-bikers. He rode with the Scallywags and maintained his close friendship with Johno, but never joined the club—the Scallywags were no place for an irreligious drinker such as himself.
Jello and friend Hunter tried their hand at starting their own outfit. They called themselves “Team Nothing” and rode constantly, but they had trouble drumming up interest in town. Recognizing the benefits of belonging to a nationally affiliated group such as the Rat Patrol, Jello contacted Johnny Payphone, a tireless promoter of the freak-bike lifestyle and the unofficial arbiter of all things Ratty in the preeminent Chicago chapter. He wasn’t sure what kind of reaction to expect—Payphone’s activity in this community has made him something of a folk hero, but also a figure of some controversy among alternative bikers. His persona can seem shrouded in mystery: “Doesn’t he wear a mustache and a monocle?” one Rat jokes. “I hear he has facial reconstructive surgery every six months,” says another.
But to Jello’s surprise, Payphone’s response was as an invitation to stay at his Chicago apartment and talk. In a misguided attempt to prove the seriousness of his intentions, Jello tried to ride his bike to Chicago, but he wrecked hopelessly near a truck stop and had to spend the night there. When he finally made it to Chicago, he found Payphone genial and encouraging about the idea, and came home with Payphone’s blessing and a bag of Rat Patrol patches for new members.
During Rat Patrol’s first year, Jello visited Chicago constantly to spend time with others like him. With several different subgroups and factions, it’s difficult to keep such a large organization unified—especially when one of said organization’s tenets is to remain essentially disorganized. “I was really impressed with [Rat Patrol Chicago], but I didn’t like all the factions. I wanted to stay away from the politics of it, keep out of the bullshit,” Jello says.
It wasn’t always easy to recruit new members, and the initial Nashville group remained small, but some of the earliest joiners remain among the most active today. C.J., 17, was the group’s seventh member. At 14, he developed a keen interest in punk rock and its freewheeling lifestyle. Like most teenagers, C.J. looked forward to the symbolic freedom a license to drive afforded him, but he soon realized that his ideal mode of transportation wasn’t quite the norm.
“Just right before I was getting my license, [my enthusiasm] just got intercepted by this crazy notion of bikes,” he says. “I found these people that have their bikes as like part of their identity…. I was, like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
A friend invited C.J. to the monthly Critical Mass rides in Nashville—a nationally organized, monthly semi-protest ride that’s been congesting traffic in cities such as Chicago and San Francisco for several years—where he found a culture that fused his interests in rebellion, punk music and bicycling.
He also caught his first glimpse of Jello. “I saw his tall bike, and I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, which still to this day is probably true,” he says. C.J., then 15, struck up a conversation. Jello invited him to come to his house that Sunday, and C.J.’s dad dropped him off at 1 p.m. at a house littered with half-built bikes.
“He opened the door in his underwear, and I could tell he was hung over, and he was like, ‘Whattaya want?’ ” C.J. recalls. “And I was like, ‘Are we gonna build bikes?’ And he was like, ‘It’s fuckin’ 1 o’clock in the afternoon! I just went to sleep!’ So I sat around in the yard for, like, two hours with my dad ’til Joe woke up. And I ended up building Beetlejuice, my first bike…. Well, actually Joey built it for me. Mostly.”
There’s no formal prospecting period for Rat Patrol—if you’re committed to building and riding, that’s typically good enough. While it’s expected that any aspiring members will prove themselves by building their first tall bike, most complete this rite of passage with the help of more seasoned members. Daniel’s first attempt, a shabby piece of work he named Bruce Springseat, lasted only a few hours. Not to worry, though—its pieces were recycled as part of The 3rd Wheel, a tall chopper whose distinguishing feature is a completely superfluous wheel that juts out from behind like a helicopter’s tail.
It’s November, and a cool breeze sways the homemade Rat Patrol flag hanging from the front porch of the club’s ramshackle headquarters. On this Sunday afternoon, the Rat infestation is especially lively. Even a few members of the Smut Peddlers have stopped by to enjoy the festivities. The Rats are entertaining visitors from out of town—three Chicago members are paying a visit to their Nashville brethren. Their timing couldn’t be better—after a dreary, rainy week, the sun has emerged, and Daniel has set up his childhood bunk bed in the middle of the backyard. A few Rats take turns jumping up and down on the top mattress to see who can collapse it. Others sift through piles of frames and wheels.
Jello observes approvingly from his perch on a tattered couch near the back of the yard. He has reason to be pleased—the chapter he founded nearly two years ago has flourished under his care, and the gang is in rare form this afternoon—a few of them toss Dumpstered Little Caesar’s pizzas, Frisbee-style, across the yard. This soon escalates into an all-out pizza war.
Today Jello is quiet, but his presence commands attention. Tall and angular, his small, sharp eyes peer out from above a pair of strong cheekbones. His jaw is tense, as though wired to clamp down fiercely on the first unfortunate thing to come too close. Tattooed backwards over his jugular is the phrase “NEVER BETRAY,” a constant reminder of his principles legible to him every time he sees his reflection. Across his knuckles: “FBFL”—Freak Bikes For Life.
He speaks about the history of Rat Patrol Nashville with a clinical precision, his statements measured and terse. “In the early days, I had to organize everything,” he says. “If I wasn’t there, nothing would get done.” Now the group has attained a free-form autonomy, building bikes, organizing rides and attracting new members without his day-to-day involvement. This year’s second annual Rat Patrol Nashville event, the September “Hootenanny,” drew a crowd of some 75 eccentric freak-bikers from across the U.S. They drank, barbecued and pelted each other with water balloons, and participated in events such as the “tall bike joust.” There was a distinctly Nashville twang to the event—as an unofficial celebration of Hank Williams Sr.’s birthday, it concluded with a bike tour of some of Nashville’s best honky-tonks.
Staceeeee (yes, that’s five “e”s), a visiting Chicago Rat, had a blast. Now she’s back, and she’s hoping they’ll go out honky-tonkin’ again tonight.
“I love Rat Patrol Nashville,” she says. “It has a reputation as the most playful of the freak-bike clubs, and [the Nashville chapter] is definitely the most playful of the most playful.”
Were it not for the presence of an unruly looking bunch of youngsters in an alleyway near Belmont University, it’d be just another sleepy late September Friday night in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. But the Rat Patrol is out on a ride tonight, pausing here for refreshment and entertainment. Their bikes rest against a chain link fence or on their sides on the pavement.
They pass around a backpack stuffed with cans of cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, and as they eagerly suck down beer, Daniel hoists himself into a Dumpster to forage for new materials—anything that could be used to build a bike, decorate a living room or be set aside for purposes to be determined later. He’s hungry—so something edible would be nice.
He emerges triumphant, a mangled bicycle in his arms. The Rats cheer, but applause quickly turns to mild bewilderment and then laughter. The bike he lifts above his head, it turns out, was built in his own backyard by one of the kids who frequent the Rat Patrol headquarters. How it found its way into this Dumpster is anyone’s guess. They talk among themselves and evaluate the bike’s condition. It’s trashed, and they conclude that the best course of action is to take turns tossing it down the alley to see who can throw it the farthest and destroy it the most in the process. What remains just might come in handy.
Although the Rat Patrol and other bike gangs often celebrate alienation from mainstream society, they also place a certain pragmatic and philosophical value on their ability to subsist on the rinds of that culture when they’re tossed. Not for nothing does a band of Dumpster-diving scavengers call itself the “Rat Patrol”—as the Manifesto indicates: “The rat knows what is inevitable. The lion may be the king of the jungle, but he’s not the final link of the food chain. Yes, dear lion, enjoy your crown for the moment because soon the rats will pick your bones.”
But here in Nashville, the Rat Patrol sometimes can find itself gazing at the slim pickings of a rather gaunt lion. “We’re a really unique chapter,” Daniel says. “Our city’s really hard to ride bikes in, for one. Our chains can’t be loose, we don’t have flat ground to ride on, none of us are professional welders…. We have our own identity being a smaller family.” C.J. agrees. “We don’t live in a giant city where there’s, like, tons and tons of Dumpsters, and Chicago is like the bicycling capital of the U.S. Everybody rides bikes there. Nobody rides bikes here.”
The challenges to starting a bike gang in Nashville are initially formidable—it’s a small, hilly city grossly deficient in bike lanes. It lacks the easily navigable grid of alleyways common in larger cities, and bike parts aren’t always easy to come by.
“We’re having a bike shortage right now,” says Daniel. “So we have to hunt down the bikes that we use, because we don’t steal…. So that makes it really hard. If we were stealing bikes we’d have, like, a thousand million fucking tall bikes. But we have to go to metal scrap Dumpsters and out by the train tracks to look for thrown away bikes and stuff.”
But the Rat Patrol sees these obstacles as another opportunity to spell out a giant “fuck you” in tire tracks. Local Rat Patrol members go to impressive lengths to creatively recycle bike parts and add innovative twists to traditional bike design. What unites them with like-minded individuals in cities as far-reaching as New York, Sydney, London and Madrid is a passion for building and riding, and the communal spirit these activities offer. Developing the ability to thrive under adverse conditions is a point of pride for any self-respecting Rat. Nashville is their junkyard, its waste their raw materials.
Perched on the picnic tables at Hog Heaven, the barbecue joint next to premier dive Springwater where several of the Rats work, Dylan, 24, Walker, 16, and Reid, 22, are discussing the coolest bike they’ve ever seen. They all agree it’s one built by a member of the Portland-based club “C.H.U.N.K. 666.” Its innovation is a contraption that punches the rider in the face with a boxing glove as he or she pedals. Any Rat can identify with the spirit of whimsical creativity and humorous self-destruction contained in such a vehicle. Symbolically, the C.H.U.N.K. bike embodies the entire Rat Patrol lifestyle. The same could be said for the “Push-Me-Pull-You,” a bike with two seats and two sets of pedals facing in opposite directions. The possibilities are endless, and Rat Patrol Nashville is only beginning to explore them.
These innovations can serve practical, even altruistic, purposes. A few Nashville members hope to participate in “Rat Patrol Africa Corps,” an outreach program organized by Payphone in cooperation with the Asante-Akim Center for Non-Motorized Transport in rural Ghana. If they qualify, they’ll receive funding and training to help teach impoverished African villagers how to build and maintain their own bikes—bikes they’ll modify to adapt to rough jungle terrain and to carry cargo loads for long distances.
But there are Rats who see this and other outreach programs as an opportunity to spread a more traditional gospel. Nashville’s Rat Patrol boasts the international organization’s only three openly Christian members. You can spot them by their embroidered cross patches—a simple design that lines “RAT” along the “A” in “PATROL” to form a cross. Johnny Payphone made the patches for them as a welcome.
“I think he might have wanted to encourage Christians to be in Rat Patrol,” says Andrew, 20, a Christian Rat who has spent more than a year with the club. “He really was afraid that people would get the wrong idea, that everyone in Rat Patrol would drink a lot of beer and were all just one way.”
None of the Christian Rats drink to the point of intoxication, and Andrew never touches the stuff. “Drinking can alter my mind, and I think God wants me to think clearly all the time,” he says.
He doesn’t look like the kind of guy you’d see passing the communion plate at church—his hair is a choppy mess and his jeans and boots are scuffed, stained and torn. His vest is covered in assorted patches, and only on closer inspection do you come across the one that reads: “These ARE my church clothes.”
Growing up in a strongly religious family in Delton, Mich., Andrew spent most of his childhood outdoors riding bikes, building forts and exploring. After graduating high school, he moved to Nashville to attend Free Will Baptist Bible College. His boyhood fascination with building and exploring followed him to his new home.
“I had started reading ’zines and stuff, and I got into the Do-It-Yourself subculture, traveler kids, freak bikes, stuff like that,” he says. “So I started to ride my bike everywhere, and I wanted to do something. I wanted to ride with kids on bikes.” Andrew didn’t know where to begin organizing something on such a grassroots level, but he gave it a shot. “It was called ‘Tour de Coffee,’ which didn’t turn out well at all,” he says. “When you’re riding your bike, you really don’t want coffee. But I didn’t ever think of that [before].”
One fateful afternoon, he approached Jello and Hunter at Bongo Java, who recommended that he get involved locally through Critical Mass. He liked what he saw, but he had strong misgivings about the lifestyle that seemed to accompany it.
“At first I thought perhaps Rat Patrol wasn’t for me,” Andrew says. “I thought maybe it’d be better for me to be in the Scallywags.” He tried to contact them locally and nationally to find out more information, but couldn’t find the tiny Nashville chapter. Eager to get involved with freak bikes, he gave Rat Patrol a shot. He was welcomed, and through the outfit, he found fellowship with Matt and Marc, two active Rats who also wear the cross.
All three of them feel a powerful kinship with their fellow Rats. But to wear the cross while riding with the Rats is to encounter situations that can draw sharp contrasts between a life devoted to the Holy Spirit and one devoted to the spirit of Dionysus.
“If we’re ever on a ride, and the other guys are yelling ‘Hail Satan,’ that can be a little uncomfortable,” says Marc. “But we know they don’t really mean it.”
“There are times when everyone will be hanging out, and somebody will be smoking a joint or something, and it’s like…should I leave?” Matt says. “Because I don’t necessarily want to be around it, but I also don’t want to judge any of the guys for what they choose to do.”
Despite these differences in lifestyle choices, Rat Patrollers maintain that the difference in faith is not a barrier to lasting friendships.
“I get along with anybody in the club,” Andrew says. “I try to do what I can, but I don’t know if they ever see, like, Jesus through that. I don’t know if that’s really my job. I pray for those guys, and I want the best for them, but I don’t want to jam it down their throats. I really just want to care for them, and maybe they’ll get a hint someday.”
Maybe, but it’s not a subject most Rats are eager to talk about. “We joke about Satan a lot, but I totally respect [their] religion,” C.J. says. Daniel can only recall a couple of encounters where Christian Rats tried to engage him on the matter. “I’ve had two people say, ‘You know, maybe the reason things aren’t going so well is that you don’t know Christ,’ and I’m like, ‘NO.’ And they’re like, ‘OK!’ ”
Living their faith among the skeptical and the profane wasn’t easy for the apostles, either, but they didn’t shy away from disreputable characters or seek shelter in the comfortable bosom of polite society. And while Christian members of the Rat Patrol may not see themselves as modern incarnations of the early disciples, they do find spiritual fulfillment in their materially sparse lives. “It’s like we’re supposed to be poor,” Andrew says. “We don’t want to be rich. It keeps us humble, because I seek security in God. I think he’s gonna take care of me, and he does, totally. I always have more than I need, and I end up giving it away. Jesus was a traveler. He never had anything. He slept in ditches.”
True, but Jesus was also dead before his 34th birthday, and it’s just possible that had he not been the Lamb of God, he might have wanted to marry a nice Jewish girl and open up his own carpentry shop or winery one day. Watching the youthful members of Rat Patrol soak their salad days in beer, you wonder if they’re building a sustainable community or merely bouncing on the diving board a few more times before taking the hard plunge into adult responsibilities. Or maybe they’re doing both at once.
It’s 1 a.m., and the gang has long left the Belmont alleyway and the broken bicycle behind. Of the nine original riders, only five have made it to their favorite swimming hole, a fenced-in outdoor pool in an apartment complex off 21st Avenue. They have to be quiet—they’re known gatecrashers here, and the cops have spoiled their fun in the past. But it may be the last weekend warm enough for a good swim, and they’re willing to take their chances. While C.J. dives in his underwear for unopened PBR cans, the rest of the Rats sit around a patio table talking and finishing off their few remaining beers.
“I’m a 25-year-old with a Peter Pan complex,” says Parker, a scruffy art student type and prospective member. Caitlyn, 22, agrees. She’s one of few female members whose dedication to the club matches and sometimes exceeds her male counterparts. “I ride bikes because it makes me feel like a kid,” she says. “Everybody here is, like, 12 years old.”
But will they want to remain 12 years old in 12 years? That depends. There doesn’t seem to be any question for Joey Jello—just ask his neck or his knuckles. Others seem noncommittal, especially the scattering of local color-wearing Rats who seldom build bikes or participate in the day-to-day activities. And even the most dedicated members sometimes feel torn. After a scooter accident landed C.J. in the hospital, he took some time away and even considered leaving it all behind. “I had, like, a one month period where I was, like, ‘Why did I get ‘Rat Patrol’ tattooed on my arm?’ ” he says. But he rediscovered his passion, and today he’s one of the club’s most active members. Still, he knows he has ambitions beyond the club. He’s planning on attending film school, and he’s not sure where his decisions will take him from there. “I consider myself a lifer,” he says, “but I have no idea. I’m only 17. I’ve got a whole life left.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a good four years left in you,” jokes Daniel, who sees himself as a lifer too but doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life sleeping on dirty mattresses and eating out of Dumpsters. “I see myself as totally professional and well-traveled,” he says. “I don’t just wanna ride my silly bike around and work at a restaurant.”
Through Rat Patrol, Daniel, who never saw a day of high school, discovered a passion and talent he believes he can someday ply as a trade. “When I pass anything that has welding, I always notice, because everything falls apart without welding,” he says. “Refrigerators, stairs, this table—everything.” Next summer, he plans to attend a trade school to learn professional welding. It’s something he’d have never considered if he hadn’t learned to fuse bike frames.
For the time being, though, talking about the vagaries of the future is a bore. Back at the house, it’s time to play the Hootenanny footage C.J. edited into an impressive montage of freak-bike mayhem. Watching the assorted bikers soar down the Nashville streets while Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” blasts, Daniel erupts into an enthusiastic fit of cheering and air-guitar playing. The video has been in constant rotation for weeks, and it always enjoys a boisterous reception. It immortalizes the camaraderie, creative energy and sense of limitless possibility that drew these kids together in the first place, and they watch it as though they want to commit every frame to memory.
“There’s nothing like your first time riding a tall bike,” says C.J. “It’s crazy. It literally feels like you’re flying. You feel, like, a hundred feet in the air.”
For more pictures of Rat Patrol, go to nashvillescene.com.
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