Kings of Clubs

Kings of Clubs

“Like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given…”

—Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

New Haven has its persistent frustrations with motorcyclists—like those who ride around revving loudly late at night, shaking residents from hard-earned slumber—but it faces nothing like what’s been persistently described in pop culture. Since at least the late 1940s, sensational framing—driven by newspaper headlines, movies like The Wild One (1953) and Beyond the Law (1992) and most recently, the popular TV series Sons of Anarchy—has created a perception of motorcycle clubs—or “MCs”—as dangerous and lawless. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, SoA actor Kim Coates began his summary of the show with a rumble: “Bad boys, beautiful broads, booze, bullets…”

But for regular motorcyclists—the “99 percenters,” they call themselves, as opposed to the outlaw “one percenters”—that world of “B”s is much more fancy than fact.

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One night in November, eight high-ranking riders from area MCs met up in Chazmo’s Cafe, a watering hole on the Hamden side of Dixwell. Troy Smokes—formerly of Presidents MC (established 2006), now of M-Pire MC (2015)—had blown the proverbial horn, gathering them together to discuss the truths and myths of biker culture.

Present were two of the longest-standing MCs in Connecticut: Soul Seekers (1965), represented by “Ghost Rider,” the club’s president, and the Flaming Knights (1968), represented by Chapter President “Blaze,” Vice President “Shaft” and Chazmo’s owner and longtime patch-holder Charles “Butterman” Bryant. Joining them were King T, president of WildStyle Riders (1998); Brother Solomon, president of Rydas 4 Righteousness (2003); and Smokes and “Double OG,” M-Pire’s co-founders.

Early on in the night, the clubs’ reps were quick to say that they neither consider themselves, nor could speak for, those one percenters. They say the “99”/“one” division traces back to the late 1940s, when the American Motorcycle Association, responding to a public uproar over a tumultuous AMA event in Hollister, CA, stated that 99% of motorcyclists are decent, law-abiding citizens, while denouncing the remaining “outlaw” bikers. Those outlaws later embraced the “one percent” status, and the distinction has since become a defining border in the motorcycle world.

What defines a one percenter isn’t written in stone. In The One Percenter Encyclopedia, author Bill Hayes refers to the “one percenter” label as “a term with a colorful and subjective patchwork of definitions.” You’ll get different definitions from law enforcement, the AMA and one percenters themselves. But at least one aspect of the divide is consistent: both sides of that divide are keen to acknowledge it.

Unlike in one percenter culture, Smokes says 99 percenters don’t live “a wild gang-banging lifestyle.” As a boy, he remembers admiring local bikers for their goodness. “We didn’t have a lot of positive role models growing up,” he says, with riders being the exception. “I played for Soul Seekers in little league, I played for Flaming Knights in little league—you grow up wanting to be them.”

Today, Smokes and the other bikers at Chazmo’s mostly follow the example set by the previous generation. They organize family-friendly cookouts, charitable benefit rides and coat and toy drives. The Flaming Knights, for example, have donated food to Life Haven—a shelter for homeless women who are pregnant or have young children—and money to the C.H.A.I.N. Fund, which offers financial assistance to cancer patients. And, just like when Smokes was a kid, some MCs still sponsor youth basketball and baseball teams.

“You get love by showing love,” Blaze says, prompting a clamor of assent from the other bikers in the room. A few weeks later, his Flaming Knights supported a toy drive organized by Thug Riders—an MC founded in New Jersey in 2001 and active in Connecticut since 2006—raising a small mountain of Nerf guns, Hot Wheels, dolls and other toys to be donated to the CareWays Shelter in New Haven, which serves homeless women and children.

Besides raising money for community causes, MCs are known for supporting their own in tough times. After the toy drive, Ashley “Slim,” from the all-women Dangerous Curvz MC, was involved in an accident on her way back to Boston. President “Koolin” and other Thug Riders were at the hospital until 4 a.m.

Putting on charity events and providing support for injured or fallen bikers are common activities among both 99 and one percenters. The two sides also share a preference for hierarchic club structures; wearing leather vests with large, full-back patches to mark affiliations; and valuing toughness and a commitment to the colors they wear.

Perhaps most importantly, both 99 and one percenter MCs share a peculiar economy of respect, gained by mileage, seniority and displays of loyalty to comrade and club. To 99 percenters’ chagrin, some of the MCs that most excel by these measures—clubs that have traveled furthest, been around the longest and most decisively stood up for other bikers—are also quite criminal.

For Smokes and the others who’d gathered at Chazmo’s, a love of the road and the machine, and the solidarity those feelings raise with like-minded people, doesn’t outrank basic morality. Yet the riders that night repeatedly mentioned the pride they felt simply in donning their patch, and of the knowledge that, whatever roads they set out on, a renewed feeling of fellowship is waiting just around the bend.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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