Allen Baldwin's Low-Riding Rule Number 1: No seat belts.
"They're kinda pointless. You can get a ticket for it, but there's so many other things they can give you a ticket for."
Allen Baldwin is a stud. At age 40, the union asphalt paver has thirteen fake teeth, a Fu Manchu mustache (with soul patch) and three Xs branded into his back to commemorate his three ex-wives, Pam, Tracy and Brandee ("She was hot, goddamn"). Soon he'll need another one; Theresa's pretty much out of the picture, and he just moved into a new place with Jennifer Smith, a hot piece in her own right. More important, his 25-year-old new lady is 100 percent supportive of his obsession: low-riding. "My man has got his shit together," she'll tell inferior hoppers.
Not that he's got the fanciest car -- although his electric-lime 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon, equipped with suicide doors and the words 'Ass Up Hooker' monogrammed on a side window, is pretty fresh. It's Baldwin's hopping skills and techspertise that drop jaws and win him the ladies. A fixture at local car shows, he has won countless hopping contests -- bragging-rights duels in which he whose nose flies highest wins. He has even been featured in Lowrider magazine, looking spry in a red-and-black pleated skirt. He comes from Scottish blood, after all, and answers to the nickname Kilt Man.
In some ways Baldwin is kind of like your third-grade teacher. If your third-grade teacher dipped Skoal and drank while she drove.
Allen Baldwin's Low-Riding Rule Number 2: Never park a low-rider nose-first.
"You always back in -- so if someone tries to steal it, you can burn out quick."
In the lot behind the Victor Roberts Building on MLK Jr. Drive off Kingshighway, Baldwin slips a Bud Light from his eighteen-can briefcase to Jennifer Smith and another to Marty Morrison. The latter, a scrappy, smirk-faced forklift operator, likes to think of himself as Baldwin's protégé. Like Baldwin, he's white, is a member of the Playtime club and has a car with a chain-link steering wheel.
Baldwin: "He's what's known as a bottom-feeder low-rider."
Morrison's got two companions today. One is a fleshy lady friend in a zippered Hustler jacket. The other is his pit bull, Capone, a friendly pup whose mobility is hampered by eight fat feet of chain wrapped around his neck. "So he don't run away," Morrison explains. He crushes an empty Bud Light, then pours an ounce from a fresh can into the butt and sets it down for Capone.
Other clubs begin pulling into the lot. First to arrive are the Ultimate Riders, a satellite of the Riverside, California, club that has provided cars for Lil Jon and Gwen Stefani videos. The Playtimers raise their cans in salute.
Next come the 314 Gateway Ridaz, led by their co-chairman, Leon O'Hara. Unlike Playtime, whose low-riders tend to be built for the specific purpose of bouncing them, most of 314's vehicles don't hop. These are "show-quality" street riders, like O'Hara's '63 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport convertible, painstakingly detailed not merely in terms of the paint job, but right down to the engine, the trunk and the suspension. It's almost begging to have a meal eaten off it. O'Hara, who works in the construction division of the Roberts Brothers' sprawling empire, enjoys an enviable side gig: caretaker of Mike Roberts' massive collection of classic cars. An honorary 314 member, the elder of the Roberts tandem keeps his 1964 Impala, 1980 Caprice Classic and 1965 Rolls-Royce stored in a secret garage adjacent to this parking lot.
Having seen to it that the whole group is beered, Baldwin cracks one to go and the group is off, headed north on Kingshighway. They haven't been on the road five minutes when a civilian pulls up next to the Olds and makes a hand motion indicating he'd like to see the car jump.
"Can't," Baldwin mouths back, holding up his twelve-ouncer. "It'll go all over the car."
In Baldwin's world, brew comes before hops: "My car doesn't do what it does until I get a few beers in me."
Point taken minutes later: The can having been extinguished, the Cutlass' already low-slung ass suddenly drops like Magic Mountain, massive gleaming springs unleashing the front left tire from its well. Its back bumper nearly scraping the pavement, the car has been transformed into a Japanese cartoon. Gawks from bystanding preteens turn to cheers.
As quickly as he brought it up, Baldwin dumps the car back onto four wheels, just in time to avoid being seen by a cop who pulls up on a cross street. Driving a car with the nose elevated so as to restrict visibility is illegal in the state of Missouri.
Driving a car equipped with hydraulics, however, is perfectly legal.
"When we cruise, we go in the city," imparts Chris Phillips, 39-year-old president of the local chapter of the Individuals club and a frequent member of the hopping entourage. "City police don't harass you as much. They see the old cars, it's like a respect thing. The cops in the county, if they see you, you'll have to move off the lot or they'll follow you. One time in Jennings, we was getting gas and they all rolled up on us: 'What are you doing? You gotta get outta here!' I was like, 'Man, I live around the corner!' But when they pull their sticks out, it's like: Let's just go."
"Got me a little buzz on now, so I can hit the switches right," Baldwin says to Smith, who's riding shotgun. He tosses the empty eighteen-pack out the window and the group -- which after a stop at Riverview Plaza has swelled to thirteen cars -- pilots south on Grand. Just north of Natural Bridge Road, Baldwin resolves to show off some serious action.
The Cutlass' front end takes flight, bounces until it reaches an altitude of 40 inches off the pavement, then smashes back down. The effect is terrifying from within, sublime from afar, like an immense mechanical alligator crunching metal -- again and again, for half a block. Maintaining cruising speed all the while.
The rearview mirror falls off.
"Woooooooo!" hollers Smith, grasping her pink swoosh baseball cap, which matches her pink Playtime T-shirt. "I love cars, and they love me!"
Approaching the intersection of Grand and Forest Park Parkway, the convoy encounters a logistical snag. All thirteen low-riders aim to turn left. But the left-turn arrow only lasts a few seconds, and breaking up the parade would be bad form. In order to avoid this breach of etiquette, a few of the "block cars" -- untricked-out vehicles piloted by club members -- speed from the back of the line to the front and obstruct the oncoming traffic as if this were a funeral procession. It's an illegal maneuver that Baldwin and crew have availed themselves of all over the city, from Kingshighway to the Poplar Street Bridge.
By the time all the cars have passed through, the light has long since turned red.
Allen Baldwin's Low-Riding Rule Number 3: You can't juice up a car with four doors if there's a two-door version.
Baldwin's new apartment in Affton is disconcertingly close to the railroad tracks, which means he's awakened by train whistles each night at 3 a.m. But the place, which he shares with Smith, has its advantages: The manager permits Baldwin to hook up a 50-foot extension cord to pirate the building's electricity and charge his batteries, and there's plenty of room to park his other cars: a second Cutlass ("It's in pieces right now"), a '92 Honda Civic ("Cheap on gas") and his work truck.
Baldwin says he put a quarter of the money he made laying asphalt last year into his prize Cutlass. It's an equation that's not unusual for low-riding enthusiasts. "You can do a car for less than $4,000, but that's a cheap, nothing deal," says Baldwin.
Some of the money went to aesthetic touches -- the dollar-sign gas pedal, the see-through plexiglass floors -- but the majority funded a singular function: to make it hop really freaking high.
"The more batteries attached to the motor, the more power," Baldwin explains. "One pump generates ten to fifteen thousand pounds of pressure."
But, he admonishes, mere money does not a hopper make: "Timing is everything. If you don't flip your switches right, the car won't do anything."
Baldwin's customary pulpit is Custom Metal Works, a south-county garage where he fashions low-riders on a freelance basis.
"He's the best on hydraulic cars in this town, I guarantee you that," testifies proprietor Norm Stibel. "Everybody -- black, white and Mexican -- calls him. I don't know where he learned all that, but the bastard's good. He can make the cars do some shit."
Stibel opened his shop, located on Bayless Avenue not far from the city limits, more than 40 years ago. He used to build race cars, then reinvented his outfit to focus on low-riding after being stricken with cancer in his hand. He describes his adopted vocation in the same improbable breath as "big business," "mainstream" and an "odd sport."
It's getting toward sundown and Smith swears she has to turn in early (tomorrow is her first day at Dollar General in Affton). Baldwin's been up since before dawn. He's so fried, the sunburn on his bald head appears to have its own sunburn. But Bud Light in hand, Skoal in lip, he's got two projects at Stibel's garage that command his attention. One is Marty Morrison's Monte Carlo, slated to compete in an upcoming Playtime show. The other is a beached white '64 Impala, which belongs to a friend. Any rap fan knows the '64 is the low-rider of choice. Like Eazy-E said:
Bored as fuck and I wanna get ill
So I went to a place where my homeboyz chill
Niggaz out there makin' that dolla'
I pulled up in my '64 Impala
"It's just a natural car for low-riding," Baldwin agrees. "They've got big trunks you can put a lot of batteries and pumps in. The weight is distributed properly, so once you add your weight to the trunk, you get the teeter-totter effect."
As it stands, the current specimen is devoid of seats or, for that matter, any other semblance of an interior. When Baldwin and the Custom Metal Works crew are through with it, the only remnants of the factory version will be the chassis and the roof.
"This is a two-year project," Baldwin estimates, wiping the sweat off his face with a dry patch of his sleeveless green Playtime shirt. "See, right now you could take a sledgehammer and smack that and you're gonna dent the frame in," he goes on, gesturing at a rear quarter panel. "Well, if you can dent it with a hammer, wait until the car is dropping. The stock frame was never designed for that."
Nor were the four twelve-volt motors that will one day occupy prime trunk space, designed to be assaulted with twelve auto batteries' worth of power. When this puppy is ready to hop, a flip of a single switch will set the motors spinning, causing a pump (or, in some low-riders, more than one pump) to suck in oil. The pumps shoot the oil into a cylinder, which elongates and compresses a thick spring mounted between the car's upper and lower suspension. Compression causes the car to drop. Flipping the switch back releases the spring: The car jumps. The entire contraption is rigged up mechanically, from mostly disparate parts.
Norm Stibel will tell you Baldwin is one of very few locals capable of properly "wrapping" a car -- taking it from its factory version and turning it into something that can hop without crumpling. Unlike Los Angeles, which boasts countless body shops like Stibel's, in St. Louis Custom Metal Works is one of only a handful.
Stibel believes that's about to change, and he has an idea why.
"It's starting to pay money of late," he says. "A lot of whites getting into it, big-time. We ship this stuff to white people in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama. Here it's probably still most common among blacks.
"But," he adds, "most of them can't make it work like Allen."
Allen Baldwin's Low-Riding Rule Number 4: It's all about the kids.
"Whereas it used to be associated with gang-banging, now all the car-club members are basically family people."
Allen Baldwin learned everything he knows about low-riders from his dad. Growing up in Van Nuys, California -- low-rider country -- he got to see in its infancy the "sport" that some would argue comprises the most significant Chicano contribution to American pop culture.
While the Anglos of the day were driving around in their hot rods and playing chicken off cliffs, pachucos were cutting their suspension cords and loading bags of cement -- or anything they could find that was heavy -- into their trunks. It was all about going slow, low and looking different; colorful, intricate paint jobs made their cars stand out. Later they customized surplus hydraulic World War II fighter-plane landing gear for their cars, which was cool as well as practical -- California law prohibited the body of the car from riding low, so hydraulics permitted them to get legal with the flip of a switch.
The '70s brought hopping contests, Chico and the Man and swelling interest from the African-American community. And in the late 1980s, the scene hit the STL.
"Forest Park was the spot," recalls Individuals local honcho Chris Phillips. "At three o'clock on Sunday, everybody started gathering up. It used to be that coming down Union from Natural Bridge, traffic was backed up all the way to the park. But you didn't mind sitting in that traffic, 'cause it was fun: a bunch of girls hanging out, and guys, showing who had the baddest ride. It was gridlock, cluttered to the point where emergency vehicles couldn't get through or anything, so police shut the park down. They'd stop every fourth car and search it. They'd harass you so much you didn't want to go back."
The scene moved around a few times before settling on the north side in O'Fallon Park, which rocks Sunday low-ride parties to this day.
Low-riding might have been fun back then, says LA-based mechanic William Anthony, but nobody knew what they were doing.
"St. Louis-style vehicles were into twenty-inch wheels and stuff," says Anthony, a.k.a. Young Hogg, a.k.a. the Roving Ghetto Reporter. "They had their cars looking more like pimp cars. They'd built cars with no frame reinforcement, so they were breaking their cars -- wheels falling off. It was just a mess. People got real discouraged."
Anthony, who coined low-riding terms like "Potato Chippin'" (to not bounce very high) and "Lotion" (a reference to chrome), also directs and stars in countless low-rider videos. After Phillips saw a tape in the mid '90s, he called LA and asked Anthony to come out to St. Louis. He did, and showed Phillips how to do his car up in the LA style. It was Anthony's influence that led Phillips to found his Individuals chapter in 1997. He says it was St. Louis' first low-rider club -- an assertion no one seems to dispute. Shortly thereafter, member "LA Dave" Clemons left to found Playtime. Baldwin joined in 1998.
In the meantime, hoppers had become rap-video mainstays, cementing the pastime's worldwide appeal. (Nowadays you can find low-riding magazines in Chinese.) But the exposure also helped fuel the perception that low-riding equates to thug life, says 314 co-chairman Leon O'Hara.
"Movies and videos associated gangs and low-riding together, but that's just what's portrayed. If you look at the average person who rides, they probably have kids, at least half of them are married, most have jobs, if not their own businesses," O'Hara elaborates.
"Low-riding is like a big giant family," William Anthony puts in. "It's a whole family thing, because you're at a park, a picnic, fairgrounds or whatever, so it basically gets the families real tight. That's the only day the wife says, 'I'm gonna get my hair done and get out here and low-ride with my man.' Because the woman ain't lettin' that car go out the yard without being in it."
Baldwin has three kids. His 14-year-old daughter lives with her mother; two sons, ages 21 and 23, live on their own. But he says he remains close to all of them -- to the point where he recently had to talk his eldest out of getting a tattoo of a spark plug in his honor.
"You'll regret it," said father to son.
Allen Baldwin's Low-Riding Rule Number 5: There's really no such thing as "race."
"When it comes to a car show, nobody pays attention to who's standing by a car. They pay attention to the car."
At the stroke of 5:45, Trick Daddy's sample of Ozzy Osbourne's echoing wail announces that it's time for the afternoon's main event. Within seconds a throng of hundreds has surrounded a six-foot-tall piece of plexiglass on rollers. This is a "hop stick," a measuring tool that distinguishes between "Chippin'" (28 inches off the ground), "Swangin'" (40 inches in the air) "Bumper Checkin'" (50 inches) and a "Circus Car" (five feet up or higher).
"You're about to see something you've never seen before," a dad informs his brood, instructing them to squat so the people behind them can see as Baldwin rolls up in his Cutlass.
A crowd of about 400 has been waiting all afternoon for the climax of Playtime's first annual car and bike show at the Omega Center, a desperate-for-business-looking banquet facility next door to a Rally's at Goodfellow and Natural Bridge. Oblivious to the summer heat, kids have been doing their own versions of the hop to rap blasting from massive speakers, and assaulting their digestive systems with two-foot-long Pixie Stix. The adults, meanwhile, line up for hot dogs in their choice of medium or burned. The popularity of the latter correlates approximately to the racial makeup of the crowd, about three-fourths black. Many have upped the $1 admission ante, paying $10 or $20 a pop to enter their rides in today's competitions, which range from Best Sound System to Most Chrome to Biggest Wheels. All manner of vehicles are represented -- hot rods, muscle cars, SUVs, even import bikes (judged separately).
The most curious specimen on the lot is a gray 1993 Geo Tracker, tricked out and perched on three wheels. Underside exposed, it looks pornographic but beautiful -- a pantyless flamenco dancer on stilts. "Young kids, they love it, and old dudes, they love it. Everyone else hates it," says Jason Stam, the Geo's owner. Stam is white, seventeen and a member of a local club called Misfit Toys. "These are, like, the best cars to have hydraulics on. It's got a short wheelbase and it's lightweight."
("It just depends on what you're looking for," comments O'Hara. "I'd say the vast majority of street riders don't really respect those sort of cars.")
"I got my shit right today!" Marty Morrison declares shortly before the start of the hop contest. Armed with a bottle of Bud Light in one hand and a plastic flask of melon margarita in the other, he's convinced he's put his '84 Monte Carlo's problems behind him. Capone's here, and a new babe, clad in a pink top that shows off her flat, tattooed midriff. His ride is poised a short distance away, one wheel skyward, ready for its close-up.
It's Playtime's show and he's a president, so tradition dictates that Baldwin can't compete. But he pops a few for the fans anyway, as does club co-president "LA Dave" Clemons in his '63 Impala. The crowd roars.
The noise dies down considerably for the first contestant, who only manages a few inches. Next is Brian "Bubba" Clay, from Individuals, who achieves "Chippin'." Not too bad -- he'll eventually be crowned the event's single-pump champion. (For the sake of comparison, Baldwin's single-pump hit 48 inches in his exhibition hop. Phillips walked off with the double-pump trophy, flying 56 inches in his silver-and-blue pearl '64 Impala.)
Now it's Morrison's turn. He motors his green Monte Carlo to the front of the line, then gets out to operate the pumps via "hot switch" -- essentially a remote control with a cord.
With sweat soaking his wife-beater, Morrison hits the lever. A nearly imperceptible bump of only a few inches. Another try, same result. Moments later, smoke begins pouring out of the trunk.
As the crowd gasps and retreats, Baldwin surges forward and pops the Monte Carlo's trunk. Sparks leap off the batteries. Calmly craning his head out of the way, Baldwin dumps a bottle of water on the mess, dousing the flames.
"Thought you was supposed to be here with the water!" a bystander says to Smith, who's standing nearby and looking irritated. "What happened?"
"It ain't my man!" she bellows. "My man's shit's right!"
Baldwin, of course, has seen it happen a thousand times. "He probably stuck a solenoid, which makes the motors get hot. You got that high voltage, man -- fire in the hole, babe."
As for what Morrison might do differently next time, Baldwin's not showing any hole cards. "That's why I'm the single-pump king, baby," he says, clicking the trunk lid shut over a mound of singed plastic. "I can't give out all my secrets."