My friend Brent was stabbed to death at a party in Allied Gardens after our senior year. We were punk rockers in San Diego in the early '80s, a dangerous thing to be.
I remember him shredding up the East County asphalt on his yellow Honda 50cc moped. He seemed in his element with a knife and no money in his pocket, spiked hair unmoved by the wind, and his girlfriend on back with her arms wrapped around his leather jacket.
The first time he stopped by my house, to listen to Shattered Faith and Bad Religion records, he insisted I take the Honda for a spin. I couldn't believe he'd let anybody ride it, but he just said, “Get on and go fast!” It was punk to ride a moped because it showed all the status-driven zombies that you didn't give a fuck about looking like a geek on a tiny wannabe motorcycle with pedals. Maybe it made you more visible to the creeps who wanted to kick your ass, but it also made it harder for them to catch you than if you were on a bike, skateboard or, God help you, on foot.
Of all the things that run on fossil fuels, mopeds are the most endearing. It's not just nostalgia for my departed moped-riding friend that makes me like them; it's for all the reasons they're lovable: You can get one pretty cheap. They're easy to ride and fix when they break down. They get more than 100 miles per gallon.
They don't go too fast but they get you around. People either smile or laugh at you. You can park them almost anywhere that you can lock a bike. They're inexpensive to license and insure. They sound like a weed-whacker ripping open a hornet's nest or a motorcycle being born. They look cool.
But I never really intended to own one. Then, about eight years ago, the manager of the apartment building across from my cottage was cleaning out a garage full of stuff left behind by tenants over the years. He was loading the last of it onto a truck to haul off to the dump when I noticed in the back of the garage a dirty, rusty, decaying moped.
“What about the moped?” I asked.
“I don't know,” he said.
“I'll let you have it for 25 bucks.”
“How long has it been here?” “Longer than I have.” I bought it, dragged it to my place and discovered under the cobwebs and dust a 1980 Peugeot 103. I pumped some air in the flat tires, popped in a new spark plug, poured fuel and oil in the tank, jumped on, pedaled, hit the clutch—and it started right up.
I had fun tooling around O.B. on that beast for a couple years, especially when Sunny, my ex-girlfriend from Korea, was still in the U.S. We'd ride it up to People's Food Co-op and load the moped's wire side baskets with groceries, then take a detour by the beach to catch the sunset on the way home to cook.
Around the time Sunny moved back to Seoul, the Peugeot developed problems. I couldn't take on the project alone, but a mechanically inclined co-worker offered to help. I got the bike to his place but never followed through on restoring it. When I left my job, we lost touch. In retrospect, I dumped either a heap of junk or a gift on him.
San Diego just doesn't have a strong enough moped community.
My friend Alexander has been trying to start a swarm here for years to no avail. San Diego has only around 100 members of the Moped Army, the national online hub of all things moped (slogan: Swarm and Destroy!). Even Austin has more members. San Francisco alone has nearly 600. The problem may be the one I encountered: lack of a dedicated moped shop specializing in vintage bikes.
For a long time, I had dreams about gliding down Abbott Street on the Peugeot with Sunny on back, but, eventually, the dreams went away. I turned 40 and figured my mopedriding days were behind me.
Then, two weeks ago, a friend told me he was considering getting one. He'd completed a freelance editing gig for a chunk of money that wasn't enough to repair, register and insure his car.
“Times are tough!” I said. “Mopeds are dope!” he said. “Damn straight,” I said. “Do it!” He started sending me craigslist posts.
Most were in Orange County and not running. “Great project.” “Needs love.” “As is.” He found one sweet bike in Garden Grove. I offered to truck up there with him to get it.
Then last week, he e-mailed again: “Check it out! North Park!” Two well-worn matching 1977 Pacer Converts with Franco Morini Italian motors for the same price as the Garden Grove moped. He could save a trip and get the pair.
“You want one?” he asked. We went to check them out. The dilapidated things reminded me of my long-forgotten $25 Peugeot: not much to look at but they ran OK. The one I liked best was yellow, like Brent's Honda.
One of the guys selling the mopeds was an enthusiastic mechanic named Louie. He's on the verge of opening San Diego's first moped shop this summer, on El Cajon Boulevard. Moped owners will finally have a dedicated hive for repairs, trades, purchases, restorations, parts, advice and camaraderie. When Louie's shop opens, don't be surprised if mopeds soon become the latest local rage and nuisance.
Look for me in the swarm. I'm the older gentleman on the beat-up yellow '77 Pacer Italtelai.