Recently my lovely wife Jenny and I celebrated our 20th anniversary together (9 years married) by taking a trip to Chicago for a VNV Nation concert. It was awesome. I was hoping that this could be the second instalment of my blogs about the motorcycle culture in various cities throughout the world. Unfortunately the weather was not exactly conducive to seeing many bikes. We had unseasonably warm conditions the night of our arrival, then a massive band of storms hit for the remainder of our visit. We’re talking biblical conditions here. The rats of Chicago were banding together to build Waterworld-type floating shanty cities. The flooding was nothing like Houston or Puerto Rico, so that’s good, but it was some of the worst normal rain I’ve seen in my life.
With that major qualifier out of the way, I will have to confine my observations to being broadly cultural, rather than pertaining specifically to the nature of being a motorcyclist in Chicago. My first and most striking observation was that the population of Harleys was astonishingly low. I think I saw one. For a city with such proximity to Milwaukee I expected to see exclusively Harleys. All I saw was one lonely Sportster, parked on a residential street, in a 4 inch deep puddle. I saw mostly Triumphs, modern ones to be specific. A bunch of T100 Bonnevilles and an Explorer. There were also some smaller city-sized cruisers: small displacement Shadows, and a Savage or two. Now, this might be owing to the neighbourhood we spent most (almost all) of our time in. We were staying in an Airbnb in the Wicker Park area. We made an obligatory trip to the “Miracle Mile” which I have to say is horrifically over-rated. I have no interest in multi-thousand dollar handbags and sympathy for the homeless, so the Miracle Mile experience left me feeling angry and disappointed in the overt celebration of narcissism, but let’s table that for now.
The Wicker Park area was fantastic. Cool little bars and cafes on every corner, and a bunch of Triumphs running around (despite the deluge). There was a bar that specialized in nostalgic arcade games, an 80’s themed café, and enough brunch options to sink a battleship. Plus, lots of chic little boutique booze shops. You may be noticing a theme… This area could, possibly, be described as “Hipster”. It was explicitly named as such by one of the guys who was hanging out in the barber shop (in the converted artist loft building) where I got my hair done before the concert. If you’ll allow the digression, I’d like to zoom into this idea a little bit: What is “Hipster”? I’m not the first one to ask, surely. But I’m looking at it through the lens of a rider. If I ride my Bonneville café racer to the local independent coffee shop, in my Barbour waxed cotton jacket, with my product laden hair and unruly beard, that would make me a hipster, right? Well, that actually sounds like a pretty good time. I have an unruly beard (most of the time), a Triumph café racer, and I happen to really like my local independent coffee shops. I also love my Barbour jacket, so then does that make me a hipster? I think that almost everyone resents being labelled in this way. The notion that your identity can be boiled down to a single descriptor that implicitly lumps you into a some uniform mass, it’s offensive to our desire for individuality.
Riders are especially fierce about their individuality, yet are also some of the easiest targets for this social codification. The typical Harley guy biker stereotype, or the 12 O’clock Boy Super Motard. It’s easy to do with riders, and we ferociously do it to each other. Riding culture is extremely tribal, and the hipster tribe is just another example. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with the stereotype (except, perhaps a disproportionate concern with appearances) but it’s still a stereotype and it’s crappy by its very nature. I honestly don’t know why riders are so concerned with this in-crowd/out-crowd thinking, but I freely admit that I participate in it. Part of my struggle with Harleys in general is the strong association that tribe has with the 1%ers. I’ve met a few and they were perfectly cool people, but I’m reluctant to buy into the Harley thing because I don’t want to portray the image that I am trying to ape their look or attitude. This is where it gets ironic; I’m more concerned about avoiding looking like a wannabe, than I am concerned about looking like a 1%er. Weird! But back to Wicker Park. The area is young, cool, funky, fashionable and definitely on the rise. The restaurants were great, the bars were cool, and I really liked it. It was a bit like a grittier Ferndale (near Detroit), or a newer Shoreditch (London, UK), or a tidier Queen West (Toronto). I love all of those places. I love my Triumph. Fine, screw it. I’m a hipster then. Go ahead and call me one, but before you do please take a moment to ask yourself what that really means, and consider for a moment if maybe it’s actually pretty awesome.