"Riding a bike like this is like being in a parade," says Ao in his soft voice. His bike weighs 200 pounds and has a top speed of about five miles an hour. While some may find it uncool to ride around town on a bright red bicycle with a 400-watt stereo, the bike makes Ao the de facto ruler of his neighborhood's 13- to 17-year-old set.
"Okay guys, where we goin?" yells Ao's friend Kenny Medina, who's 14. Medina's bike is simpler than Ao's, with two wheels instead of three, no stereo, and a shiny metal seat. It sits on the grass in Ao's front yard, shimmering in the sun like a trophy.
"Let's go to the park," says Ao (pronounced "Ow").
Medina and Jeremie Busler, another of Ao's lowrider friends, nod. The boys climb slowly onto their bikes, careful not to kick any delicate parts. Ao leads. He rolls down the driveway and into the street with his left hand on the handlebar, which is red and shaped like a cobra's head. With his right hand, he fiddles with the built-in CD player. He's looking for his favorite remix of "Tipsy," by J-Kwon, which has a bass line like a herd of football fans stomping their feet in unison. He finds it, and cranks it. Everybody drunk out on the dance floor, babygirl ass jiggle like she want more!
The lyrics explode off the abandoned brick factories on Maywood Avenue, then reverberate against the white duplexes of Ao's neighborhood. On their right, the boys pass a basset hound, which runs back and forth against a chain link fence, trying to look ferocious. If the dog is barking, Ao and his friends can't hear it. A block down the road, the convoy passes a neighbor named Sam, who cups his fingers to his ear, raises his eyebrows, and half-smiles. Sam is 17, owns a beat-up gray car, and thinks this lowrider bike stuff is for kids. Ao suppresses a laugh. He takes his hand off the CD player and flashes his middle finger.
It's warm outside, and Ao's forehead begins to sweat. The bike forces him into an awkward riding position, with a seat that sinks below the top of the rear wheel, pedals that drop within centimeters of the pavement, and handlebars stretched far out in front. But the culture of lowrider bikes takes its cues from the culture of lowrider cars, where people work very hard to appear as though they never work. So Ao wears an expression of complete boredom.
The boys turn into Mercedes Cotner Park. A girl and a boy pretend to carry on a conversation, but both kids keep their eyes locked on Ao's bicycle. Ao pretends not to notice. He stops next to an empty swimming pool. A younger boy walks by and yells, "Hey Logan, wassup?" Ao gives a barely perceptible nod. The park is almost entirely empty.
"Where you wanna go now?" Busler yells.
Ao cuts the music. "Let's go over to the basketball courts," he says quietly.
Except for his bike, everything about Ao is understated. He wears clothes that make him almost anonymous in his West Side neighborhood -- baggy T-shirts, long jean shorts that cover all but his ankles, plain white Nike sneakers, a thin gold chain around his neck. He wears thin rectangular glasses, and he keeps his black hair short, except for a few strands at the edge of his forehead, which he keeps lacquered with heavy mousse. He moves gracefully, but never quickly. Kids like him because his natural shyness, combined with his studied restraint, makes him uncommonly cool.
Being the only kid in the neighborhood with a very loud stereo on his bike doesn't hurt. "When you're out riding around, you need one guy to have the music," Medina says.
The loud music, the blasé stares, the low-to-the-ground seats, all the fundamentals of lowrider bicycle culture come straight out of East Los Angeles, where Latino kids started building lowrider cars in the 1930s. While all the white guys wanted fast cars with massive back tires, young Chicanos went the other way, dropping the rear bumpers as low as they could go. The point was not to drive fast, but rather to turn a junker into a cruising, personalized work of art. So they ignored the engine and dumped all their money into outlandish paint jobs and flashy chrome.
In 1963, Schwinn introduced the Sting-Ray, a bicycle that resembled a lowrider car -- little wheels, long seat, high handlebars, lots of chrome. Hispanic kids across L.A. bought them and gradually developed their own aesthetic, customizing them with twisting metal bars and fake mufflers. They also built thick, jagged frames, which serve as canvases for airbrush paintings of cemeteries, wolves on mountain peaks, Tweety Bird, Our Lady of Guadalupe, $100 bills, mermaids, or phoenixes rising from volcanoes.
"My bike is all my own design," says Medina, who prefers the basic look of blindingly shiny silver. "I like it because I get to be creative with it."
Most lowrider-bike kids switch to cars almost the second they get their driver's licenses. But some stick with it. Every month, Lowrider Bicycle magazine runs page after page of small photos crammed with skinny, sullen 15-year-olds standing beside their intricate creations. But the major spreads, the ones with two or three pages of giant photos dedicated to the best lowrider bikes around, are all dominated by chubby, sullen guys in their 20s and 30s.
Cleveland's nascent scene never could have happened without serious help from adults. Christopher Villacana was 15 in 1995 when he dreamed of building Cleveland's first true lowrider bike. But he needed help from his dad, Juan, who owned a customized motorcycle shop. Together they built "Child's Play," a bike covered in gold chrome and blue felt, that towed an enormous stereo on a two-wheeled trailer.
It was such a sensation among Christopher's friends that his dad forgot about the motorcycles and converted his shop to sell lowrider bicycles. The store, Fantasy Toys Lowrider Bicycle and Hobby, on Lorain Avenue, is crammed with bike parts, model car kits, and the biting smell of polyurethane paint. "That bike was real cool," Juan says. "A lot of Christopher's friends started asking how they could build something like that. But there wasn't anywhere in Cleveland where they could go and get the parts they needed. So I helped him open this store."
Ao began seeing lowriders in his neighborhood. But the bikes were junky. One kid wrapped a BMX frame in tinfoil, jury-rigged a baby trailer to the rear end, and towed a little boombox down the street. "He looked so stupid," Ao says.
When he was 12, Ao asked his dad to help him build a lowrider of his own. Hung Ao was a bicycle mechanic in Saigon before he joined the South Vietnamese army. He fled the country in 1975, immigrated to the United States, and wound up working as an auto mechanic on Cleveland's near West Side. "We had bikes in Vietnam, but they were never very nice," Hung Ao says. "I thought this would be a good chance to give him something that I never had."
It took Hung and Logan a year to build the bike. In addition to the stereo, it has three wheels, two spare tires, two very loud police sirens, six mirrors, two yellow South Vietnam flags, an American flag, a black POW/MIA flag, two orange lights on the front bumper, four lights on the fenders, and two red lights built into the fake mufflers. Occasionally Ao and his dad strap the bike into the back of the family's Ford Bronco and drive it to a lowrider bicycle show. When they arrive, Ao attaches a flat-screen TV and PlayStation 2 to the bike's mirrored spoiler.
"It's pretty cool, I guess," Ao says. He is an understated kid. Ao's bike is now considered one of the coolest lowriders in Cleveland, according to Juan Villacana. "Logan has his own style," Villacana says. "He can go to any show and be competitive."
Now Ao is planning to build another bike. It will be green, with an Incredible Hulk paint job. "We're gonna make the stereo louder," Ao says.
Home from their ride around the neighborhood, Ao and his friends park their bikes in carefully staggered formation, so that people driving by can get a good look. Then the boys stand in the front yard and look at each other. Lil' Flip's "Put Yo Fist Up" blasts from Ao's bike. Playas put your fist up, let your piece shine! If you got diamonds in your grille let your teeth shine!
From down the block comes the pleading death rumble of a little engine being pushed too hard. The car roars up and shrieks to a halt in front of Ao's house. Behind the wheel is Ao's friend Mourad Abdelshahid, 16. Minutes ago, he walked onto a used car lot on Lorain Avenue, displayed his week-old driver's license, and pretended to have enough money to buy a car. For a test drive, he picked the newest, reddest car on the lot, which happened to be a 1980-something Dodge with rust holes.
Abdelshahid smirks, but says nothing. Ao smirks, but says nothing. Abdelshahid jams the car into first with a sick grinding sound, accelerates, then throws it into reverse, sending a cloud of blue smoke into the air. He disappears back down the street, looking directly at Ao the whole way.
"That car is busted up, yo!" yells Busler.
"That kid is so stupid," Ao says. He presses a button on the CD player to skip to a different song. He threw two years' worth of his allowance into his bike. Now he wants another, cooler bike, which will cost even more. Does he ever think about spending that money on a car, which he might be able to drive more than a few blocks from his house, maybe even pick up some girls?
Ao looks down the street, in the direction of Abdelshahid's grinding and sputtering test car. "Nah," he says. "I'm gonna stick to bikes for a long time.