Doing metal fabrication for a sculptor in high school, I worked with a welder who talked about this incredible party that happens in Georgetown every August. There were carnival rides made of bike parts, she told me, bands, a bike race, and not only tall bikes (which I’d only caught glimpses of, and held in the same awed regard as the Loch Ness Monster) but tall bike jousting. I rolled into Georgetown on my prized 1965 Schwinn Flying Star, half-expecting to find an empty parking lot, and had my first encounter with the Dead Baby Bike club. The party spanned the entire neighborhood—punk kids on bikes welded together in every possible configuration, drinking and dancing on car hoods and kissing behind rows of Port-O-Potties. I felt like I’d entered another dimension—something between Mad Max and a 1930’s hobo convention. I knew then that I had to be a part of this somehow.
I began tagging along on the monthly club rides, a pub crawl on wheels typically including three stops. Being 17 or 18, I couldn’t go in the bars, but fortunately there’s always a contingent drinking and playing music on bike-mounted boom boxes within walking distance of each stop. I learned the history of the club—in the mid-nineties, a few guys working at a Belltown bike shop, Dead Baby (so named for a baby doll nailed to the wall) decided to form a club devoted to their favorite after-work activities: building bikes, riding bikes, and getting loaded.
Soon afterward, they approached a local motorcycle club for permission to wear three-piece patches on their club vests. This is a necessary precaution—bike clubs are territorial, and if a group of people have a whim to throw three-piece patches on their vests and ride their bikes or motorcycles to a bar, a legit club might kick the shit out of them. The first Dead Babies in fact witnessed this happen to another aspiring club. The motorcycle club the founding Dead Babies approached thought it was an odd request for a club devoted to motor-less cycles, but were impressed they had ridden all the way to Tacoma, and granted them their wish.
I was 24 when I began the initiation process. I was approved as a prospect by vote, and received my rockers—the patches decorating the upper and lower back of a club vest which bear the name of the club and the city it’s based out of. As far as I’m aware, Dead Baby is the only legit (i.e. three-piece patch) bike club that admits female-bodied people as members. I’ve heard horror stories of homophobia and transphobia in several other established Seattle cycling clubs, and am somehow unsurprised my horde of fierce blue-collar misfits is among the most progressive and accepting.
I will leave most of the initiation process shrouded in mystery, but I’ll say it involved the construction of a tall bike, and was more serious and involved than I expected. There are moments when the club feels like a fun costume party, and moments when I remember those three-piece patches aren’t bullshitting.
On the night I received my center patch, embroidered with a baby impaled on the jagged letters of the word “bikes,” every club member present poured beer over my freshly safety-pinned vest (in place of the Hell’s Angels tradition of collectively pissing on a new initiate.) There were many hugs and cheers and the scrutiny I had weathered during the initiation turned to sweetness and celebration. A Queen sing-along atop a pool table closed out one of the happiest nights of my life. There have been many more since—late night bonfires, rides through parts of town I’d never seen, naked wrestling, “Flaming Bikes of Death,” where people donned flame-proof suits to light up boxes of newspapers layered with every size and variety of firecracker (INCLUDING FUCKING MORTARS) and ride around a vacant lot on 15-foot long choppers until all of the boxes were spent.
The club has supported me in many ways over the years—they cried with me after breakups, taught me the ropes when I worked as a bike messenger, and mourned a friend’s death, but never was I so grateful for this second family as while earning my poetry MFA at UW. The program was rigorous and fiercely competitive, and I worked more-or-less full-time throughout. Exhausted, doubting my academic capabilities and feeling like I didn’t fit in (I later realized no one feels like they “fit in” in grad school) the club rides were little vacations I looked forward to all month. The initiation is hard because you’re proving you’re someone the club can count on, but the reward is that if you make it, you’ve immediately got fifty people you can count on as well. I hung my diploma on the wall next to my club vest.