|« Overheard Illustrated: "Those Conversations"||My Chicago Bucket List: Learning to Kick a Guy in the Groin »|
Interview Mon Feb 06 2012
by Raf Miastkowski
If you've walked down one of Chicago's streets and seen a crusty-looking guy riding something that looks like a penny-farthing built by Mad Max, then you've most likely seen a member of the Rat Patrol. A loose group of punk-looking bicycle aficionados, members of the Rat Patrol are usually regarded by outsiders as either zany or downright intimidating. Since the Rat Patrol website seems rife with bong-brained anti-consumerist rants, we decided to get some answers face-to-face. Though perhaps not as approachable as a smiling, long-legged British girl holding a tray of just-fried bacon, the Rat Patrol member that we interviewed was quite polite and pretty much friendly as hell. Over some pitcher of Old Style, we chatted about garbage trucks, alleys, and taking the Batmobile for a joyride.
Why don't you summarize what Rat Patrol is all about?
Rat Patrol: Basically, Rat Patrol is a group of people who like riding bikes and digging through the trash. Anti-consumerists that don't like seeing things go to waste. Every person I know in the Rat Patrol, or loosely affiliated with it, has mountains of bikes. Tons of bikes that have been found in alleys, or were donated from friends that know they like chopping bikes. It's also about making weird bikes, riding them through the alleys at night. Not everybody drinks, but there's a lot of drinking. Digging through the trash for food or building materials. Whatever you want, you can find it in the trash.
Can you find some good grub in the trash?
Last time we went to Trader Joe's, I looked in the cardboard only dumpster just for the hell of it. I found a whole rotisserie chicken. It was delicious, we ate it on the spot. I heard that the location by Clybourn and Cortland brings out the trash at eight in the morning and piles all of the food for people to dig in and take whatever they want. But, I'm never up that early to go over there and check it out.
So let's talk about the website.
A lot of that stuff on the website, it's kind of tongue-in-cheek. It's more of an exaggeration.
How did Rat Patrol start out?
I'm not the oldest member, but... As far as I can remember, the rat patrol started out with the web master, Matt The Rat. Him and a couple of other guys who have actually done a lot of cool things since Rat Patrol. They just had a bunch of chopped bikes that they had, like really cool old choppers and stuff, and met up to ride. Looking for bike parts and other stuff. They called themselves Rat Patrol because they would see rats while they were riding out. They were on rat patrol. That's kind of how it started. I think people just wanted to make stuff, and then it just grew more into a sort of punk thing. There's a lot more group activities, a lot more drinking for sure. It's grown more into a bike culture thing. It's grown into more of a club, it's become more of a concrete thing. It's clearly bigger, we have chapters all over the world.
How many people are in the Chicago chapter?
It's hard to gauge, because there are a lot of people who come around so infrequently, or who you would consider rat patrol because they hang out a lot. Or not because they don't have a freak bike, or don't pick through the trash regularly, or don't wear colors. I would say that there are about 50 people, that if you asked them, they would say they are Rat Patrol. Maybe a little bit more.
Does Rat Patrol have positions? Do certain people do specific things?
Basically, whoever wants to do something will do it. In Rat Patrol, there a lot of different people who do a lot of different things. When it comes to planning and events, we have two different holidays each year. St. Ratrick's Day is on St. Patrick's Day, and Ratification happens sometime during the summer. There's no real structure to it, but a certain few people do end up planning things.
What are some of the more interesting alleys around here?
I've always liked the half-alley-half-street. Sometimes the house front faces the garage on the other side of the street. It's kind of like a street-slash-alley. There's a couple right over here, maybe two streets down [south of Two Way Lounge]. If you ever go by Clybourn and Cortland, there's Finkl steel works. It's not really an alley, but there's a side street and you can just pull up your bike and watch the guys smelt metal. There's stuff flying and it looks like lava being poured out of giant cauldrons. That's a Rat Patrol staple. If we're in the area, we try to swing by Finkl to watch a "metal" show. I always liked the south side round the 30s or even the 60s. You come across the weirdest stuff in the 40s around the old meat packing district. Some really good alleys are off Addison by WGN studios. By Lane Tech over there. We took a really epic ride one night when Batman Begins was filming. Someone had claimed that they knew where the Batman stuff was. So, we rode over there and we actually came across the stunt car. It had a roll cage on top of this car. The security guard was sleeping in his truck, so we just climbed into the car. I was in the driver's seat and I put it in neutral. We were able to just roll the car down the street and down the alley to the side street. We were pushing it and playing with it for a bit, but decided we couldn't do anything with it. We abandoned it in the middle of the street and rolled up to another alley where they had a fire truck and a helicopter that looked like it was torched. There was a security guard that was texting.
What's up with these inept security guards?
Hey, when the cat's asleep, the rats come out and play. That was an epic night. So everyone was climbing all over the helicopter and the fire engine. We were having a grand ole time until the guy woke up and looked up from his phone or whatever he was doing. He told us to get out of there and that he had called the police already. So everyone immediately started grabbing shit off the fire truck and just bending it off. Pulling little souvenirs off. Someone got the horn off, and we were riding around bugling all night. It was awesome, we took some pictures with the Gotham fire department truck, that was a pretty epic ride. We also got free ice cream from Coldstone Creamery.
Are scrappers the biggest enemy, because they get to alley valuables before you do?
It's not the scrappers, it's compactors. Compactors don't eliminate anything, they just make it smaller. It's still the same amount of waste, except now I can't get it and possibly take away from that waste. None of it is being recycled that way. When grocery stores compact their food, nobody gets the food. It just gets pulverized into goo. Can't dumpster dive for that. Compactors really suck. At least scrappers recycle the stuff they find.
Do you run into garbage truck drivers?
Not really because they usually come out at an earlier part of the day. Rat Patrol operates pretty late at night. But, it's really a kind of fantasy job of mine. Maybe you won't get the good stuff first, but you know where to come back to and you're there consistently. I imagine as a garbage truck driver, I'd want a partner. I'd have some unemployed friend from somewhere that would pull up in a truck after I tipped him off on the location. I'm not sure if I'm really so into finding stuff in the alley and then selling it, but if you're the garbage truck driver, you're it. You're the last guy who sees it before it hits a landfill. You could find the coolest shit. So much cool shit. I bet you garbage truck drivers see it all. Plus, you get to drive a big truck. They have a really good turning radius and an onboard compactor. They're like a mechanical brain.
I was helping some girls move one time with a rented Uhaul van. It was pretty awkward to drive and backing up in an alley seemed like a big deal. That same day, I saw a garbage truck driver back up the same alley I used and turn onto a street while squeezing between a Benz and a Caddy. All one-handed while talking on the phone. Ridiculous.
Heroic. They have an incredible turning radius. You could go straight up to a wall pretty much and turn. But yeah, being a garbage truck driver would be awesome. Alleys are really peaceful.
Exactly. Peaceful, out-of-the-way, and the best part is that they're right there all the time but people don't pay attention to them.
It's true, we've gotten away with a lot of stuff in alleys. During a rat ride, we usually ride for a little bit, take a break, stand around an alley. If we find something good, we'll stop. It's a big crew. If you need a bathroom break, it's right there. Everyone gets to drink. No one really bothers you in the alley. You can make a fair amount of noise. When someone comes out and tells you to leave, you go to the next block. I really love alleys, they're such a great place. It's just a place of opportunity.
Raf Miastkowski writes about alleys at Alley Connoisseur.