by Lewis Mundt
The first time I called Smash, he told me to call back later. I looked at the clock—it was 1:00 a.m.—and asked if he was sure. He groaned and mumbled, “Yeah, man, call back in, like, an hour,” and hung up on me.
It wasn’t exactly the job interview I’d been expecting.
You learn quickly that you’re going to have to keep strange hours if you want to talk to Smash. He’s as prone to falling asleep mid-sentence as he is to staying up for three days, but he’s still almost never awake when you need him to be. A metalsmith and modern dancer, it makes sense that his clock would have to be set a little differently than the rest of ours. After work, long after bar close, he’ll either bike aimlessly through Minneapolis or go find a lake, strip to nothing, and swim off the evening. It’s just how he is. He told me that he’s never really been able to settle down; if he told me he was trying to swim to the moon, I’d half-believe it.
Catch him alone for five minutes, though, and it’s obvious that he’s tried, and hated, running on the same schedule as the rest of us.
I’m sure at one point he introduced himself as Dave, but now everyone just calls him Smash. A fixture in the punk and bike communities of the Twin Cities, everyone knows Smash, even if they don’t know why—he’s a persistent case of haven’t-I-seen-you-before. Maybe it’s because he shows up to house parties wearing yoga pants or because he still thinks it’s a good idea to keep his cigarettes in the sleeve of his T-shirt, or maybe it’s something bigger I still don’t understand. Whatever it is, everybody’s got an opinion on Smash.
Sitting next to the phone in a friend’s basement, I picked up the flyer on the table and looked at it again, wondering if it was worth staying up another hour. Ringed in by the words SHOTTIES, BIKE TAXI, and FULL-SERVICE REPAIR was a crudely drawn tricycle with a shovel on the front. It was a copy of a copy of a copy, and the phone number nearly ran off the page.
I looked at the clock again.
Dammit, I wanted this job.
I found Shotties through one of Smash’s workers, a woman named Erin who was the unofficial manager of a punk house in Minneapolis. Besides being an under-the-radar music venue and youth safe space, the house is a bicycle and garden co-op, and according to their Craigslist ad they had a rent-flexible room in this beautiful, spacious home in Northeast.
I went to the showing with a friend of mine and we fell in love with the place. It was a precarious stack of five or six bedrooms with malleable rent rates. “It depends on how well my massage business is going,” Erin said, “and, like, how big the room is and shit.” If they lost a roommate and couldn’t afford the difference, they let bands sleep on their couches or threw house shows where they sold cheap beer for a few times what it was worth—still affordable for kids whose money was falling through the holes in their jeans. If someone was coming up short every month, they had a house meeting and someone else volunteered to raise their own rent. The house was a screaming, cleaning, cycling organism, probably collapsing under the weight of its own timid functionality, over and over again.
My friend and I wanted to see the basement, so Erin let us down. At that point in my life it looked like the Holy Land—bike parts and potting soil everywhere, crushed cans in the corners, the essential bare bulb light fixture in the ceiling, a few hundred square feet of chipped cement and crustpunk sweat. You could almost smell the blood and disappointment.
“Yeah, sorry for the mess,” Erin said. “We’re just getting the garden started this season and a few of us work for this bike taxi shop.”
“Bike taxi?” I said, probably the first words out of my mouth the whole tour. “God, that sounds like the best job in the world.”
“We might be hiring,” Erin muttered after a pause. She walked to the stairs and shouted up them for someone to grab one of their flyers.
A few nights later I was picking up the phone a second time.
“Sorry, dude,” Smash said, skipping any sort of hello. “I was asleep as fuck. You still want this job?”
It was Shotties when I started working there, but it was Shottyz shortly afterward, because Smash wanted a special phone number. The day we secured 612-SHOTTYZ, I think his heart grew about nine sizes.
Most people in metro areas are familiar with pedicabs even if they don’t know it. Usually downtown, the most common ones are yellow and operated by helmeted cyclists with walkie-talkies. If you’ve spent any time in downtown Minneapolis in the summer, you’ve seen them crawling across Nicollet Mall—sleek and sturdy carriages with music, fold-up tops to keep customers out of the rain, and well-manicured drivers pointing out all the shiny sights, neon signs, and expensive drinks.
“Fuck those guys,” was Smash’s opinion. The yellow Minneapolis cabs belong to a wildly successful company started by a failed business major who’s got more press now than any of his would-be classmates. But Smash didn’t want to work for a company like that (though he did for a short while, which he called “soul-sucking”). He wanted to work for a company that stood for something bigger than business-boy-gone-good, and when he couldn’t find that, he decided to build it. Literally.
Shotties, as Smash called them, were the fuck-up cousins of the downtown cabs. Where the other company had theirs shipped from a mass-producing facility in Colorado, Shottyz made theirs—rather, we made ours. We stayed up late in our shop, a garage space Smash rented from a restaurant on Nicollet Avenue, lording over shaky blueprints, a welding torch, and whatever scrap metal we could come across by donation or theft. Shotties were roving art projects, where the customer sat in a front seat pushed by the driver—”pilot,” Smash would say with that smirk—so whoever was riding could have the view of the road in front of them. Every cab was different, blanketed in various rainbows of spray paint, bungee cords, and vinyl seats.
Before he had coworkers, Smash designed everything himself, but he wanted the rest of us to be involved in the process. He’d come to us with his ink-and-grease-splattered drawings in notebooks, dozens of them kept in boxes and piles in the shop, asking where we thought the spirals should go or how low we should sink the handlebars. Smash stayed long after we left. He drank and smoked and built things at night, and he was an enthusiastic father during the day. Smash was also a youth dance instructor and understood the precision of movement. He’d built enough bicycles in his life, too, to know how to tear one apart and Frankenstein it into something larger.
A shotty was a kind of gondola experience. Want a ride? Flag down a shotty. The pilot pulls up to the curb, hops off the rig, and tips the whole thing forward to help you step in. From there, you’re off to wherever you want to go—”fifty cents a block a person plus tip” was the pilot mantra, within reason. Sometimes the pilots were gaudy ambassadors of the Twin Cities, and sometimes we were just trying to keep someone from vomiting their Ketel Red Bull across the seats.
There was something almost campy about Shottyz, but gimmicks aside, Smash’s vision was for our work to be a kind of community service. He wanted to give the streets back to the families of Uptown, to let them know that they had a safe ride home that was fun for everyone. Cabs were faster, sure, but cabs weren’t an experience, Smash always said—a shotty ride was an experience. Cab drivers didn’t suggest you go all the way around Lake of the Isles for the hell of it. You didn’t get to feel the wind in your face from the backseat of a cab. Cab drivers wouldn’t choreograph dance pieces and perform them on a beach for you and your date; they wouldn’t bring their guitars and sit on the hood of their cars, singing songs about why you should get in.
“Naw, but Shottyz’ll do that,” Smash said.
It’s that energy that drew pilots toward Shottyz—and Smash—in the first place. We were sleepless moths to Smash’s erratic flame. There was something charmingly broken about the whole thing. Customers would sit down too hard and blow out the shocks. Some people we picked up didn’t even know where they lived. We were all delirious by the end of night, pockets full of dollar bills, taking payments in cigarettes instead of cash because after bar close, fuck, what did you actually want someone to give you? Call it a phase or stupid or hip or whatever, but we showed up a few times a week to ride because we came to love it.
My training session consisted of standing in a ring of dirty, beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking twenty-somethings in a parking lot in the sun, learning to weave and dodge potholes and make small talk with customers. After my first test ride, I pulled back into the parking lot next to the Black Forest, that old-time German restaurant on Nicollet, and Smash was there, one long dreadlock wound around his short crop of hair, ubiquitous mirrored sunglasses riding low on his crooked nose. “It’s fifty cents a block a person plus tip, maybe a quarter for east-west blocks, and a buck apiece for north-south blocks,” he said around a cigarette, almost robotic about it. “Lyndale blows. Fuck Lyndale. Lake’s mostly a one-way down here, and the number one rule is to avoid potholes. Got it? No potholes. We ride 7:00 p.m. to about 3:00 a.m., then head back to the shop, have a couple beers, go swimming, and head home, whatever. Always, always, always hit bar close, park up if you’re not getting anybody by moving, and never work more than two nights in a row. It’s bad for your brain, man. You get fucked up and your energy’s off, and man, nobody’ll get in a cab if the pilot’s got bad energy.” He looked at each of us, his new batch of recruits. “What d’you guys think?”
I think I was in love.
But not everyone was in love with us.
Everyone loved a sleek yellow downtown cab, but shotties were a little rough around the edges. Most of the pilots were heavy smokers and heavy cyclists (I was the mostly-sober exception). We were full of grease and hadn’t shaved in weeks; we were just as likely to stop for a drink as we were for a customer. Whenever a shotty pilot did go downtown, dinging at the bell on the handlebars and bouncing up and down on the massive chimera of function, decoration, metal, and chain, we were often passed over for the other guys. They had walkie-talkies. We had bad attitudes.
Some people also saw shotties as unsafe, probably because they were more sculpture than taxi. In the summer of 2010, before I’d ever even thought of working for a place like Shottyz, legislation was quietly passed to mandate the licensing of pedicabs. Lawmakers were confused as to why Smash was out there with his deathtraps that creaked and swerved around Uptown, and they didn’t care to go ask him. Instead, they decided to slap him with fines
Smash, as it goes, found this out one night when he and his cab were pulled over and ordered off the street. That was before I’d met him. He screamed and shouted and was mostly ignored. Once he realized his tantrums weren’t accomplishing anything, he jumped through their hoops. By the next summer he was ready with a fleet of two cabs, a handful of pilots, an investor, and a drive to take Uptown back from the car and bar scene.
He smiled through it, but I think compliance did something to him and his willingness to trust people. He never seemed to understand why they’d pulled him off the street in the first place, how anyone could look at the cabs and not understand that they were beautiful. He loved them, and the way he talked about them, no one would accuse him of anything else, but under that calm determination and passion was this point where Smash just wanted to do what he loved, and fuck you if you weren’t on board.
Some nights I’d catch him sitting in the shop with his sunglasses on, all the lights full-bore on the otherwise-dark stretch of Chinese and Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants the city convention people had renamed Eat Street, staring at a sketch, an inch or so of ash at the end of his cigarette. Sometimes he was sleeping; sometimes he was doing something else that none of us could really get inside.
Shanaenae, the smaller cab, was simple. The pilot sat in back and turned by holding onto the back of the passenger seat, which had a shovel welded to its underside to serve as a step up. The brakes worked like a charm, the rig was easy to learn on, and it had been geared to help carry up to three passengers without too much strain on the driver. You could pull up to a curb and tilt the whole thing forward, get your customers settled in, and lower it back down without too much of a bump.
“The Madillac, though. She’s such a bitch.”
That was Pete. Pete was a pilot from Chicago who was always smoking, listening to anti-racist thrash music, and taking digs at everyone. He had a reputation as the shop badass, the guy who’d dropped a customer off two miles from his house for catcalling someone outside a club before throwing the guy’s money in a puddle and biking off. Most meetings Pete sat on our sinking green couch, re-inking HAIL SATAN onto the brim of his Cubs hat, big tattooed arms swinging in boredom, throwing bitch and faggot around like twigs for the reactions. Catch him alone, though, and he was a total lover-not-a-fighter, just like the movies taught you about most bullies. He just loved music and biking. He was trying to get sober and move in with his girlfriend. Pete was a good guy, even if he didn’t want to be
Pete’s “bitch,” the Madillac, was a heavy bike whose handlebars were welded in place. The front was part seat, part shopping cart undercarriage where customers could put their feet while they rode. They sat low to the ground so the pilot could see over them, guiding the whole rig through traffic by turning a giant system of chains welded to the front seat and sat far back on the pilot. The nearest thing I can compare it to is the steering wheel of a city bus—impossibly large and horizontal. Only Smash and Pete really loved taking the Madillac out when I started working there, and it was three or four weeks before I was even allowed to touch the thing.
I spent my first night riding Shanaenae, made about ninety dollars, and dropped the cab off at the shop. Smash took his customary thirty, strictly for maintenance and rent, and handed the rest back to me with a smile.
Once before we went out for the night, Smash threw a leather case at me and said, “Check that out.”
Inside was a folded sheet of paper, the cover of which said SHOTTYZ MENU: SHIT OUTSIDE THE BOX. Handwritten on the inside flap was an entire menu of specialty rides, a paragraph under each one explaining. Some essentials:
The Ratscrew: We’ll get you where you’re goin’, but we’re takin’ the alleys.
The Prom Queen: We’ll give you a shiny-ass tiara and drive you past all the fancy bars. You wave at the suckers waiting in line and we’ll ring our bells so they can’t help but stare.
The Bus Stop: We drop you off two blocks from where you actually wanted to go.
There were at least a dozen, and on the back side of the menu was a list of each pilot and what they specialized in, like Smash in dance and Erin in massages and Austin in banjo, and you could specially request a pilot to do art for you if you wanted it.
And at the bottom
Writes. Fights. Rides with Pharaoh eyes.
“I’m gonna need your cab for part of the night,” Smash said, tying a bandana around his neck and making me look up.
“Why? What’s up?”
The grin again. “Read the menu, man. I gotta dance.”
Luke got hired a few weeks after I did, the way most people get hired.
Most people didn’t come to Shottyz the way I did. The fact that I’d met anyone ahead of time meant that, compared to most starting pilots, I had a lot of insight into the place. Smash’s favorite way of recruiting people was to watch out the garage door during our pilot meetings. He would give the once-over to people passing by, but instead of scanning for flesh, he was looking for bikes. When he saw one he liked, he’d launch himself from his chair, shouting, “Hey, hey, hey, Cannondale, c’mere, c’mere.
It didn’t matter what he was doing. He was like a dog; if he liked the handlebar tape, he’d sprint after it. Most Shottyz meetings took hours because Smash would routinely race out, flag down a group of people, and ask if they needed a little extra cash. If they said yes, they’d be back in the shop a few minutes later, putting their names on the schedule.
Luke wandered in one afternoon to pick up Pete after a get-together, scratching at his beard, a long tree tattoo down his forearm. He had a Styrofoam helmet tied to his handlebars.
“Heeey,” said Smash, sitting forward. “What’s goin’ on?”
A few nights later, I was training him.
“Fifty cents a block a person, plus tip,” I remember saying, pulling a cab out of the garage, “and fuck Lyndale. Lyndale blows.
“Why?” Luke asked.
I stared at him for a second, blinking, tired. “I… dunno. Actually, I always take Lyndale. Smash just hates it.”
“Oh,” he said, and grinned. His grin was different than Smash’s. His grin was different than anyone else’s in the shop. It reminded me of the friends I’d grown up with.
Luke’s tall and much quieter than the other pilots. I thought for a while he didn’t like us, but he’s just not as prone to outbursts and grime as everyone else in the shop. The most riled I ever saw him get was one night outside the Bryant-Lake Bowl—that retro-hip bowling alley and cabaret on Lake Street—when we had our cabs parked against the curb, talking about gardening or beer or something. We saw a woman drinking alone on a bench and both of us got really quiet. She looked sad. You start to notice people, to watch and wonder about them. If you’re some pilots, you try to sleep with them, but Luke and I were in the job for the fun of the ride, not drugs or sex.
That’s what I liked about working with Luke. For a few weeks I’d been pretending to be something a lot different than what I was, smoking a lot and scoffing at people too drunk to walk. I joined in on the cajoling because I figured, hey, that’s just part of this world, and I may as well. I was always nice to the customers, but around the other pilots I’d talk big like Pete would. Luke was someone like me, though, someone who loved this job because he liked to stay up late and ride bikes and be nice to people and was not the type to trade a ride for a hand job.
“She looks lonely,” he said suddenly, and then, louder. “Hey.
She looked up
“Hey,” he said, “do you want to…come sit on the cabs or something?”
He tensed-up right after he spoke, and she looked a little sad still and said, “No, thanks,” without smiling. She finished her drink and walked away a few minutes later, even at the offer of a free ride home. “I live close,” she said, turning down the alley.
“Shit,” Luke said, fidgeting with his sleeve. “Shit. I shouldn’t have said that. She probably thinks I was… Oh.” He looked embarrassed. He was right. We’d spent enough time in the area to know that there were more catcalls than hat-tips around the neighborhood, that plenty of people probably offered her rides home after we saw her, and that she probably said the same thing to them. We didn’t talk about her again.
Luke was my best friend that summer. Most of the pilots at Shottyz were cool, but I couldn’t actually have a conversation with them if it wasn’t about how much other pedicab companies sucked. When you asked Luke what he loved, he said science and food, not getting drunk and breaking things. He didn’t want to be anything besides a genuinely good person, and it was infectious in the way I needed. I started having fun again before I realized I’d stopped. He reminded me of the friends I grew up with. We all dyed our hair and pierced ourselves, sure, but we also paid attention in class and tried to get decent sleep.
Luke and I started scheduling all our shifts together. Sometimes we’d ride a short night, turn the cabs in early, and go back to his house to cook. One night we picked up two customers, women about our age, and raced them down Lyndale together, handing them our walkie-talkies and blaring our music as we went. They howled, said they weren’t sure they’d ever had as much fun before. We pulled up to their apartment and when they invited us inside, we looked at each other, shook their hands, and ding-dinged away back down 24th Avenue.
Later, when we were pulling the cabs into the garage, one of our pilots was waiting for us, leaning forward off the couch, grinning. “Hurry the fuck up. I gave a ride earlier and she’s meeting me at the beach in twenty minutes and I am not gonna miss a chance to get laid tonight.”
We didn’t talk about it, but Luke and I felt different when we walked away from the garage that night.
I quit Shottyz when it became more about the money than the pilots.
I was on the cab one night after an argument with a friend, and around midnight I realized I was coming down with a cold or the flu—nothing life-threatening, but something that meant I should turn in for the night. I remembered what Smash told me during training: stay healthy, stay sharp, keep your energy up. I was already coming up short for the night, so I called Smash and asked if he could meet me at the shop so I could park it for the night
“Dude, you’ve gotta stay out to bar close,” he said, yawning. “We need to ride until bar close.”
I told him that I was feeling sick and he said to push through it, at which point I lost my temper and shouted that I only had five dollars for the night and I needed to go home. There was a long pause, and I thought he was figuring out how soon he could be at the shop, and then he said, “You can’t only make five dollars tonight. You’re staying out.”
Smash hung up, and so did I, and I stayed out for the rest of the night, but at the next meeting Luke and I said we’d get back to him about our schedules and we just never did. I heard from Erin and some of the other drivers that everyone had bailed not long after. One day Pete just sent Smash a text that said got a real job, thanks for the summer; Erin decided to go full-time with her massage business and move out of the punk house, and then everyone else went, too.
The next spring, I was looking at used bikes and found some of Smash’s listed online. I drove by the shop and saw the sign on the garage door painted over. A friend who worked at the restaurant we rented from told me that Pedal Pub was leasing the space; the Shottyz web site just said the company was closed for good. I heard that Smash packed up and went back to Wisconsin to work for Parks and Rec. It was like watching the credits roll on the summer seven months too late.
I’d all but said good riddance to Smash and Shottyz. Telling stories, I just called him an asshole and said he didn’t care about anyone but himself. It was the most at-peace with him I’d ever felt.
I was sitting in a bar in March, telling most of this story to a friend who’d asked whether I was a morning or night person. “Until three in the morning,” I was saying over the music. “What a dick.” She was nodding and I was making these big exaggerated motions, explaining what the cabs looked like and how hard they were to drive, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I turned and faced a plain-looking woman in a sundress. She looked familiar, the way some people have a face you’ve seen a thousand times before you’ve ever set eyes on it. “You worked for the cab company,” she said. “I thought it was you; do you remember me?”
Suddenly I was standing outside the garage the previous June, on Father’s Day. Smash’s daughter was sitting on the couch eating candy, and he was leaping around the sidewalk on Nicollet, throwing big fistfuls of confetti at passing families. Some people loved it and some people shouted at him, which was par for the Smash course. He had on this huge feathery mask, one pant leg rolled up, his daughter giggling endlessly behind us as I swept the tiny pieces of plastic back inside so she could play with them. He had custody of her for the first Father’s Day in three years, he’d said, and he was ecstatic.
Someone called out from across the street, and we both turned to see a woman leading her father out of the Vietnamese restaurant. He was shuffling almost agonizingly slowly toward the curb, putting his entire weight on his walker, a set of tubes running into and back out of his nose into a pack at his waist. His sock was bloody, but not fight-bloody—more like medical-bloody. “Hey,” she called, “can we get a ride?”
I darted through traffic on the cab and gave them the spiel. She said she had about five dollars; how far would that get them? I looked at the two of them, looked back at Smash dancing on the sidewalk, and said we could probably go pretty far.
I took them almost a mile. The more they talked, the more I knew I had to keep riding. He’d remodeled houses, he’d said, until he got sick. He’d played baseball. He’d driven a convertible through central Minnesota, near where I was from, and now he hadn’t been there in years. I told him what it was like there, the things that looked the same and the things that had changed. She, his daughter, was out of town at school and didn’t come home as often as she wanted to, but she could be in Minneapolis that year and they’d spent the whole day together. Her name was Joanna; I can’t remember his. I took them through the nice neighborhoods, found hills to coast down, stepped down from the cab to walk it across busy intersections. They kept smiling and smiling and saying how nice it was to just have someone to drive them around for a while, and they were holding hands, and they were happy.
I pulled back up to the curb outside the restaurant and gave her the Shottyz card with my phone number on it, said to give me a call later that day or whenever she was in town next. She gave me the five dollars, and I gave her three back and ding-dinged back to the shop, where Smash was finger-painting with his daughter now, Beach Boys wailing out of the open door in the sun.
“Man,” he said, and then he kept saying it: “Man. Man. Man. I’ve never seen somebody look so happy about a ride. That’s why we do this shit, y’know? This matters, y’know?”
Then it was March again, and I was at the bar. Joanna had never called, but there she was, looking like she’d seen a ghost. I told her I remembered her name and had waited for her to call; she said her purse had gotten stolen a few days later and when she went back the shop was closed. We talked a bit more, caught up as best as two strangers can, and then the bar was closing, and we were standing again.
“Hey,” Joanna said, “thank you. That was one of the best days I ever had with my father. He hadn’t felt a breeze in so long.”
I couldn’t say anything. I hugged her, and we parted ways.
Walking back to my bike that night, I decided that it was going to be then or never.
I took my phone out and texted Smash: What did we do it for? I looked toward downtown, at the Minneapolis skyline, past the Nicollet hill I’d pushed those beast cabs up over and over again. Somewhere under it, I would bet, were the other guys on their yellow cabs. I walked a little past my bike, down Lyndale, passing the potholes and cyclists I might’ve chased down and asked about spare cash the summer before. Everyone looked a little familiar, like maybe I’d gotten them home some night, like maybe they’d shouted SHOOOOOTTYYYYYYYZ out a car window at us at some point. It smelled like summer again.
I got back to my bike just as my phone buzzed in my pocket. Smash. I flipped it open, pressed the answer button, and read:
Lewis Mundt is a writer and publisher living in Minneapolis. He is the producer of the New Sh!t Show Minneapolis, education associate at the Loft Literary Center, and his work has been published by or is forthcoming from Revolver, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • November 2014
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