Juan Villicana knows how to impress girls--or at least how teenage boys think they can impress teenage girls. He spent his adolescence lying on his back and airbrushing his red mini-bike (and eventually, a Harley) with cartoon images of big-breasted women in leather jackets. Thirty years later, he sees a lot of impressionable youth as the owner of Fantasy Toys, a PG-rated low-rider bicycle and model shop on the near West Side, where boys from the neighborhood buy the life-changing $250 golden spokes they need to ride down the block to the corner store.
"It's good to talk to an adult," says Villicana, who spends much of his day standing over a glass case, waiting for thirteen-year-olds to decide how they want to dispense their pocket change. But instead of brightly colored packages of Skittles and Sour Patch Kids, the case is filled with thumbnail-sized whitewall tires and five-dollar valve caps in the shape of skulls. Candy-apple-green and black-sparkle banana seats hang neatly on a patch of wall.
Today, Juan's twenty-year-old son, Chris, and a few of his friends kneel around a bike frame spray-painted with gray primer. They talk in clipped phrases of plans to bend and weld an ordinary Schwinn into a street machine with blinking "neons" and handlebars twisted into diamond shapes. The shop is packed kickstand-to-kickstand with hot-rod show bikes belonging to Chris and a few other guys. A powder-blue bike with "Thug Life" spray-painted on its frame has a rosary wrapped around its handlebars.
Not everybody has free rein at Juan's shop. There was the nine-year-old who bragged that he was going to buy a low-rider with his bucket of pennies, then started dissing the bikes like a Texas cattle rancher shopping for a Cadillac. He got the boot. Neighborhood boys were allowed to work on their bikes in the parking lot, until they threw their wasted tires on the roof of the furniture shop next door. Even the rich kids test Juan's patience. He can spot them because they spend 25 minutes talking on their cellular phones; the poor kids have cell phones, too, they just don't talk as long.
Carlos Lopez, 17, stores his low-rider at Fantasy, partly for show and partly because he hasn't paid it off yet. It's a three-wheeler with four rearview mirrors, two horns, a built-in stereo, and a gold metal carriage with whitewalls. It started out as a two-wheeler with a set of speakers that he'd bought with lawn-mowing money, but that didn't last long. "I was in school, and I'd come here at four and stay till seven or eight, seven days a week."
Riding down Clark Avenue in the Puerto Rican Day Parade last year was an exercise in claustrophobia, says Lopez. Older guys crowded around him, pushing for a free ride. "They basically want to patch on the back as you go by." Or maybe catch the game--Chris Villicana watches Indians games and music videos on The Box on a little TV attached to his handlebars.
"I used to ride mine daily," says Chris, who started out customizing at age thirteen, attacking a swath of green velvet and a banana seat with his mother's sewing machine. "I'd ride around the neighborhood, and kids would make fun of me--they'd call it the Pee Wee Herman bike." Chris has three low-riders now: one for cruising, one for hopping (it's got an elaborate hydraulic system), and a showpiece that pulls a velvet-lined coach with a built-in stereo that once beat a car in a neighborhood "sound off," hitting 125 decibels.
Today, says Juan, ridicule has changed to intrigue, and spinning the pedals backwards is a good way to get noticed. "The guys know that noise and they'll turn around," he says. "It's sort of like when you whistle at a girl. But in Mexico, the guys have figured out the girls don't pay attention to that, so they go 'psst psst,'" like the start of a secret, as they pass.
Some people are better off sticking with handlebar streamers. As the other guys talk, Jose Rivera, 21, lingers. He's been longing for a low-rider for seven years. Once, he tried to build one from a beat-up Schwinn. "It took a lot of work," he recalls. "I used to go to vocational school, and I tried to weld a bend right here, and I broke the frame in half. It was the worst experience I ever had."
Fantasy Toys, 4230 Clark Avenue, is open from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.