Growing Up with the Brooklyn Outlaws
The Taino Tribe motorcycle club is tucked away on a desolate stretch of Flushing Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, behind a series of three unmarked doors in a worn-out red brick townhouse. Two members, Mike and Raymond, are hanging out under a Special Forces banner, absorbed in a game of chess. The outlaw aesthetic one might expect in a place like this is hardly present—it feels more like your parents’ old basement, just after they ripped out the shag. There are black light posters and siren lights orange velvet couches pushed against the wood paneling. Wet girls in bikinis wash late model Harleys in faded pin-ups. A couple of the bikers’ girlfriends watch a Spanish soap opera on a TV behind the bar as salsa music rattled the lights above the pool table.
It’s a cold Friday night in January—long before riding season—and there’s nothing to do but drink. Roberto, the bartender, sports a fly on the wall, somewhere between the crocodile head and the cow skull. “Look at the size of that mosca,” he says. Lobo takes a look. “That’s a big one,” he says. Lobo, a colossal guy in a leather vest festooned with chains, strolls up to the steel door at the back of the smoky room. He pulls a large wooden plank from the slot in front of it. Then, he sets the plank on the ground, and opens the door. “Let’s keep it open so they can get out,” says Roberto. Lobo agrees. “Must be warm weather on the way.”
The meanest, baddest bikers in Bushwick are opening the door for a fly.
The Tainos, who took their name from a tribe of aboriginal Puerto Ricans, grew up in a meaner Brooklyn, starting out in menacing bicycle gangs and growing up as outlaw bikers. They bear about as much resemblance to the suburban “weekend warrior” as a can of motor oil does to a snifter of brandy. But now they are professionals, too—with jobs and families and temperance—everything they used to hate about those “pussies out in the suburbs.” They get along with their neighbors and coordinate charity events. They have formed a sort of biker U.N. with the other Brooklyn clubs, who, like them, have watched some old friends die in prison, but who are now turning once warring bands of outlaws into networks of aging drinking buddies.
The Taino Tribe is a lair of school bus drivers and bread deliverymen—art teachers and police officers. At 38, Luis, the president, is one of the group’s youngest members. Some of the men are in their 60s. Luis calls his club “a family place.” He may hold the title of leader, but if you ask anyone in the club about who really runs the organization, you’ll get a nod toward the oversized chess set, where Mike, the vice president, says he’s never lost a game.
Mike, 39, looks like a Confederate soldier in a historical reenactment society. His sun-beaten complexion is wreathed in an explosion of tar-colored facial hair. A self-proclaimed “cigarette-head,” he usually has a Newport menthol glowing between a pair of thick brown fingers, his nails clipped down to the quick. He laughs like a war-crazed Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. His root-beer eyes are always darting around, looking for something to laugh at.
Luis, on the other hand, looks like the products of pore refining cleansers and high-grade training devices. His porcelain face doesn’t have a trace of stubble, save for a tawny little moustache that looks pasted-on. A tiny diamond stud dots his left earlobe. His belt is by Dolce & Gabanna. He doesn’t come around much, according to some of the brothers. But when he does, he shows up in his “colors”—a black leather vest with the club’s big three-patch emblem stitched across the back. Mike sees this gesture as unnecessary. He only wears his colors when he rides. In winter he favors a black and white flannel shirt that drapes over his faded blue jeans. “It’s not about a patch thing, it’s about who knows you,” he says. “I already have my recognition.”
On hot summer weekends, the Taino’s 30 members join up with about two or three hundred other Brooklyn bikers, clumped into roaring convoys that roll out for Lake George or Bear Mountain. Luis usually weaves his custom chopper up to the front of the caravan. Mike disappears in the back, riding low on his cherry-red Harley Davidson Fat Boy “I don’t ride choppers no more,” he says. “They’re hell on your kidneys and livers. That rigid frame, no suspension—they look good, but they hurt.”
Mike works as a janitor at a commercial building in Queens. He finishes early sometimes and sits out front in his car, reading copies of Biker magazine. Luis runs a liquor store. They say he made a million dollars selling off his house on a shiny block of Grand Street that erupted with art galleries and coffee shops catering to the new hipster establishment set.
Mike says humor “keeps him goin’.” He keeps the brothers laughing with quips and cheeky barbs.
Luis doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have to. He’s a goddamn millionaire.
The Tainos formed six years ago when a piecemeal club called the Street Chariots, on the corner of Grand and Havemeyer in Williamsburg, broke apart after only a year. The president was not popular. “This guy was really outrageous, man,” says Mike. “He would yell and scream and say ‘stop drinking my beer!’ or ‘stop drinking my soda!’ He’d stick you with a $25 fine if you showed up late for his meetings. Then we find out the guy was pocketing all our money.”
The guy, amazingly enough, escaped a pummeling. But his street cred is finished. “He’s a solo now,” Mike says. “Nobody really bothers that guy.” Mike and Luis grabbed a handful of members from the shattered Chariots and opened up the Taino Tribe Motorcycle club. After a brief stint in Queens, they ended up in their $400 a month clubhouse in Bushwick.
For a series of counterculture outposts in poor ethnic neighborhoods, the Brooklyn motorcycle scene functions a great deal like a web of country clubs. To join up, you need a member to sponsor you. And don’t expect them to welcome you in with some “Jap bike.” Even an expensive Harley won’t necessarily make you a shoo-in. Undercut the unspoken horsepower standards and you run the risk of getting chided for your “half-Harley.”
The clubs themselves are subjected to oversight and bureaucracies of their own. The Unknown Bikers have been in Williamsburg for nearly three decades—long enough to exempt them from the careful diplomacy that the newer Brooklyn clubs engage in. But before starting up the Taino Tribe, Luis and Mike went to the leader of the Crazy Pistons, Parnell, who runs the largest motorcycle club in the borough, to make sure they weren’t stepping on anyone’s toes.
“If you’re a cruiser club and you’re down with Brooklyn, you gotta be a part of the system and shit,” says Raymond, a stocky Taino with a dirty blonde ponytail, who teaches art at a high school in Queens.
Decades ago, ignoring this process might have had violent consequences. But while notions of turf and respect are still very much in place, the recourse has evolved to something more subtle—shunning. One late winter night, a handful of Tainos were strolling back down Flushing Avenue after a two-beer side-trip to the nearby Crazy Pistons lodge, when a battered old pick-up suddenly veered onto the sidewalk. Reuben, a thick-framed Taino with a backslash forehead scar, spotted it first. “Oh no!” he shouted. “It’s a drive-by! A Mexican drive-by!”
The truck was full of Mexicans, but it wasn’t a drive-by. It was a couple of guys from the local Thunder Riders club and two bored-looking women, passing out flyers for their upcoming party. The flyers read, “FULL FORCE.” Miguel, their president got himself a leather jacket with a big red patch that said: “PRESIDENT.” Before starting the Thunder Riders, though, he never sought an audience with his elders at the Crazy Pistons. As the old pick-up idled nearby, there were noisy handshakes and sparring matches—good-natured insults at the expense of wives and girlfriends. But when the Thunder Riders piled back into the truck and skidded off into the sooty darkness, Reuben said what everyone already knew: “These guys are a Mickey Mouse club.”
The Thunder Riders may not have much Brooklyn clout, but Miguel has a reputation for being crazy—and making up for his lack of legitimacy with a whole lot of thundering spectacle. Some of it doesn’t go so well, Mike says. “Last summer, we were all at this big run and Miguel pops a wheelie and everybody claps. Then he drives by again, surfing the seat, doing 60 or 70, throwing his hands out like the crucifixion of Christ. This time, I don’t know what happens but he just loses it. He flies off, his head hits the ground, his bike hits a 2004 minivan—it was totaled,” Mike says. “He messed up his elbow. Good thing he had leather on. He had a cast on his foot and mouth. Then he cut it off and did it all over again.”
With all this tree house exclusionism and pressure to perform, any free-spirited cyclist, it seems, would be happier riding around as a free agent. But when you’re dealing with an endeavor that attracts the occasional short-fused renegade, there is strength in numbers. According to Mike, there is also a certain thrill to being part of an endless, thundering procession of “chopped-out” cruisers and hogs—the kind of feeling that a casual weekend warrior will never know.
“People like them, they may ride in a group of two or three,” he says. “But people like us can ride in a group of two or three hundred, and know every single one of them.”
Mike explains that while he’s been trying to attract new members, it isn’t always easy. His screening process is pretty simple—just a way to weed out the drunkards and deadbeats. But even this has made finding members a challenge. “First I ask if they got a license. Some of them actually tell me ‘no,’ and I don’t want to hear another word out of their mouth no more,” he says. “You want your club to expand, but you also want to isolate the guys who use drugs ‘cause I don’t like that. And I want to open up a club like in the Bronx, but it’s slowin’ me down ‘cause all they wanna do is drink up there.” Mike says that drinking is one bad habit he could never claim—not least because two beers make him “shit-faced.”
“At the club, you always gotta be on point in case anything unexpected happens,” he says. “If everybody’s drunk, how you gonna muscle your way around a problem?” The guys at the club agreed. They have never seen their vice president drunk. On Friday nights, he nurses a warm Coors Light, balanced near the edge of the big wooden chessboard, where otherwise formidable-looking players get trounced. The pieces are cut from crude fist-sized pieces of pine. Mike has a habit of yanking his opponent’s captured pieces from the board, before setting his down with a hollow cutting-board “thunk.”
And then, there is the matter of the motorcycle as social barometer. Mike sees a definite correlation between losers and cheap motorcycles, and he doesn’t want either one of them tarnishing the club’s image. “My theory is, in order for you to have responsible people, you need to have professional people,” he says. “If you come to us with a $10,000 or $30,000 bike, you know what you’re doing. But if you come in here with a little Honda 250 I’m thinkin’: ‘Now how long’s it gonna take for this guy to get a Harley?’ Or: ‘He drinks too much—he spends all his money on booze—he’ll never get a Harley.’”
The American Motorcycle Association (AMA), and advocacy organization founded in 1924 to look after the rights of motorcyclists, currently charters over 1,200 clubs. The Tainos are not one of them. “If you want a bike to hang out with some AMA club, you can ride anything,” Mike says. “Some Jap bike. A ‘Rice-a-Roni’ or whatever.”
Reuben agreed. He organized the Ghetto Coalition’s toy run last December, when 300 local riders rolled out for Wyckoff Hospital to give every sick kid a toy. But there’s no place in his heart for a foreign-made bike. “I’d rather see my sister in a whorehouse than see my brother on a Rice-a-Roni,” he says.
Mike started riding at the age of 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but he wasn’t on a motorcycle. “The majority of motorcycle groups in Brooklyn started out as bicycle gangs,” he says. “You know, kids—we’d ride around, start fights—there’d be little cliques, little clubs—you’d get bored and say, ‘ah, what the hell, let’s get in a war with these other kids’—hit ‘em over the head, throw flour bombs. But then you see some guys go by on their Harleys and think, ‘man, I gotta get me a bike.’”
This wasn’t an easy thing for a poor Puerto Rican from Bed-Stuy to afford. His first bike was a ’68 Triumph 650. He paid $4,000 to buy it and $3,000 to fix it. All this before he even knew how to ride it. Then he cleared out his savings customizing it with chrome. His parents, needless to say, were not so supportive. But there are more desperate stories of devotion.
“I know this guy—he sees this dog walking around the corner from his house in Queens, and he snatches it. Just opens up the car and it jumps right in. Then he takes the thing down to East Broadway and sells it for $200. Just so he could afford his motorcycle insurance that month,” he says. “Now that’s low. That is low.”
When he was 15, Mike earned $10 on Saturdays cleaning fish tanks and cages in a Brooklyn pet shop. Sometimes he took his pay in homing pigeons, bringing them back to the ramshackle little loft on his roof. But he usually preferred to catch the train into Greenwich Village on Sundays and buy a few three dollar chess matches from the hustlers in Washington Square Park. He never won a single game.
“I used to say to them, ‘look—I know you’re gonna win,’” he says. “But can you at least teach me some moves so when school starts in September I can start playing good?” They did, and so the short Puerto Rican kid finally got some respect from the polarity of weight lifters and bookworms at his school—of which, Mike explains, he was neither.
“Knucklehead,” actually, is how he describes himself at Alexander Hamilton vocational high in Bed-Stuy, where he was always talking, always asking questions. When he went on to study psychology for two years at Brooklyn College, he had to pay his own way. His mother would give him two dollars to get him through the weekends. He would spend half of this on a gallon of gasoline, and then go around to auto repair shops where he’d offer to clean their tools for ten dollars. He spent his break-even money on tubes on grease, which he’d slice open with razor blades and empty into a bucket. Then he’d wander from storefront to storefront, asking if anyone needed their gates hinged.
He came out of Brooklyn College with fourteen specializations—in subjects like plumbing, heating, locksmithing, and electronic doors—and went to work for the city’s Housing Authority. After nine years, the authority gave him an office and a sizeable budget to manage, but the office lifestyle felt like “solitary confinement” for Mike. He escape by becoming an eviction marshal, but he left that, too, when it got too “hairy.” A few years back he lost a colleague to an angry resident, who set the man on fire when he came to give her notice. “Some lady just opened the door, threw some chemical on him and lit him up,” he says. His work as a janitor now is a temporary thing until he can find something less tedious or life-threatening to do permanently.
Llooking after the boys at the clubhouse has become sort of a daycare for him. On a recent Friday night, Mike wanders around the clubhouse with a half-filled roster on a yellow notepad, shaking his head. “I can’t believe this shit,” he says. He tried to call a mandatory meeting for his 30 members. Only a dozen showed up.
“I usually don’t blow my top but when I do, they listen,” he says. “Sometimes I get mad when they drink too much.”
They all get monitored, Mike explains: four beers and one shot over the course of a long evening. He says the dartboard, the pool table—even the restaurant trips and weekend getaways—are all there to subvert the ever-present specter of the bottle that tends to haunt the biker world. “What it’s all about is to have a Harley and to ride it with a group of guys—that’s it,” he says. “Instead of being in a hospital because you’re liver’s dead.”
More than the obvious issues of safety, though, Mike’s role as consumption watchdog has to do with something even more horrific and dire. He’ll be 40 this year. And some of his members have been riding for decades, flitting from various “outlaw” clubs before landing at the tamer Tainos. The same forces that laid claim to his members’ wild sides has served also to raise their cholesterol and stiffen their joints. With members in his club who will soon have AARP cards next to motorcycle licenses, Mike has learned to accept some of nature’s realities. He’s even taken to admonishing them on their diets.
“They come in sometimes and say they got high blood pressure and I tell them they gotta talk to their old ladies,” he says. “Tell her to bake that food Stop frying it!”
Of course, as with most life decisions for these men, issues of longevity serve the same rumbling raison d’etre that everything else does.
“We realize that we’re getting older,” he says. “In winter, you do what you want. But in summer, when you’re out riding, I keep them away from the booze—all that heat, you get sick, dehydrated, your skin is all red, you start getting arthritis—I don’t want to see those guys say they don’t want to ride anymore in 10 or 15 years,” he says. “That’s just what their old ladies want, and I don’t want to give them the satisfaction.”
In the 1950s, outlaw motorcycle gangs like the Hell’s Angels went around terrorizing the more docile organizations. The American Motorcyclist Association realized it had a major PR problem, and it responded with a simple public statement that turned out to be a seminal moment in the history of the biker endeavor: that 99% of all motorcyclists are upstanding citizens.
The remaining 1% went wild, assured of their complete and utter exclusion from the bourgeois good-boy set. Loose hordes of unwashed renegades finally had their mark of prestige, a place carved out at the very bottom of everything right and decent about mainstream America. For them, it was tops.
The “1%” badge began appearing on leather jackets everywhere. Counterculture surged. Motorcycle clubs sprang up like crabgrass, a meaner alternative to the communes and be-ins.
But over the years, the revel aesthetic faded. Counterculture ebbed. Clubhouses were raided, bikers went to prison—killed each other, killed themselves. The average price of a Harley quintupled.
Though the meaning has changed, the decorum has not. The Tainos still have the “three-piece patches” on their jackets, a distinction once reserved for outlaws only. “The three-piece patch is from gang times,” says Raymond. “The hardcore shit.” The three pieces are this: a “top rocker” with the name of your club, the emblem at the center, and the place where you’re from at the bottom. it was once a way to sort out the friendlies from the trespassers. Now, Raymond says, it is a passport to an open, albeit tough network of fellow enthusiasts.
“20 years ago going from one club to another wouldn’t even be considered. It used to be other people’s turf and shit. But it’s not like that now. The world changed. The world of motorcycles changed. You’re looking upon as a fellow rider and shit, not a guy from another club. It’s like, ‘come on in,’ which is cool,” he says. “Basically, you wear three-piece patches, you can walk into any club, shake hands, and drink beer.”
“America is America again,” adds Roberto, his silver bracelet rattling as he smoked behind the bar. “Eto is open-minded, bro.”
On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in April, a little late but plenty loud, Mike and a dozen Tainos ambled around the front of their clubhouse, gearing up for a cookout on Long Island City. They whipped their bikes into an angry frenzy, setting off car alarms and rattling windows, as a greasy cloud of fumes enveloped Flushing Avenue. Mike rubbed at the tank on his Fat Boy with a folded red Bandana and Reuben stomped out a GPC cigarette. By June they’ll join battalions of riders, bound for Lake George, to spread the kind of doom and deference that only a gut-shaking, low frequency convoy could inspire.
Aside from keeping their small band of guys riding together, Luis and Mike don’t have any grand ambitions for the club. But Mike’s plans for Interstate 87 sounded more like a credo: “We’re taking over one lane,” he yells, over the shrill popping scream of a dual-side fishtail exhaust system. “And that lane, we’re taking over.”
Then they tear off into the street they know better than the lines on their own mothers’ faces.