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Reglar Wiglar

An Interview with Chicago's Rat Patrol Bicycle Club

The Rat Patrol

Published in RW #19, 2003

Interview by C. Bales, Star Reporter

Rat Patrol Bike Club Chicago

Americans produce a lot of trash and who feeds on all this trash? Rats. Or in Chicago's alleyways, The Rat Patrol.

In simplest terms The Rat Patrol could be called a bicycle group, but I discovered they are much more complex. After checking out their website and reading the detailed Manifesto, I couldn't tell whether they were political activists or some kind of huge art project. Intrigued, I set up a meeting with one of the founders, Matt The Rat.

I had every intention of riding my bike to the interview. From what I perceived, The Rat Patrol would look down on someone who drove a car. Since I don't own a car, that part was easy. My good intentions got me as far as the bus stop but I got tired of waiting and took a cab.

Outside of Ranalli's Pizza (Montrose & Ashland in Uptown), I spotted the Rat Bike I would later know as Abigail The Chicken (a chopper with a cut-out chicken head on the front). I headed inside to find a friendly face sitting in the first booth. I introduced myself, lying that I had taken the bus.

REGLAR WIGLAR: How long has the Rat Patrol deemed themselves the Rat Patrol?

RAT PATROL: Since '99. I moved here from Minneapolis in '98.

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RW: And were you building bikes at that time?

RP: Not until moving here. I moved here in '98, and so it was in '99 that the Rat Patrol came together.

RW: How many people are in the Rat Patrol?

RP: We have kind of said that if you ever build a bike or come on a Rat Ride-any kind of ride-then you're in. So if you use that very loose definition, it's probably thirty, thirty-five people. No, it's more than that, probably forty people. But the people that come consistently, are more involved, they're are probably ten or eighteen or so.

RW: Do you also have meetings?

RP: No, there are no meetings. It's very disorganized. Very unorganized. One of the people, Johnny Payphone, he organized this e-mail list so that's how we communicate with each other, or by word of mouth. So if somebody says, hey let's get together and ride around, or do anything else, there's an e-mail list to spread the message without having meetings or a real organization.

RW: Are the rides all through alleys?

RP: I like the alleys the most. So if we have to go somewhere, on a regular street, it's not a big deal but it's more fun to go through the alleys.

RW: Do you ride a homemade bike?

RP: I have a bunch of different bikes that are. Every bike that I have I consider a Rat bike, although they don't all look weird. The bike I ride to work is pretty standard looking, just a one speed bike, but the frame is pretty standard. Its not anything weird. I think I need to add something to it.

RW: Where do you find most of your bike parts, in alleys in the trash?

RP: Yeah, in alleys. It took a long time in the beginning, when I first moved here, just walking up and down the alleys. A lot of times, if I was riding the train downtown, I would walk through the alleys to get there, 'cause you would have to go over to Wilson and there are a lot of ways to go. You could go down one block or the next one.

So, I was always going down one way in the morning and one way on the way home. So I was always on the look out. In the beginning there were a few times where I would see a bike laying in the trash, somebody cleaned out their garage and just left it there I'd go home and figure out how to carry it. I had a car when I first moved here. I'd get in the car and race there, but it was gone already and I'd see down the block some guy driving away in a pickup truck with piled hot water heaters and washer and dryers and a bike on top. So I realized you have to act fast because you are in competition with the scrappers.

RW: And who are the scrappers? Getting scrap metal...

RP: And bringing it down to the scrap yards. Another way we've gotten most of the bikes lately is someone will go down to the scrap yards in the morning and buy the bikes and you can get them really cheap, just a dollar or two a piece. I've never gone down there to do it, but the metal in the bike is not worth very much because it's so light. I don't think the scrappers really know the difference between what kind is which, they don't really know how much the thing is worth.

RW: Does the Rat Patrol ever sell any of the bikes that they make?

RP: No. There was one time when somebody tried to steal the chicken bike (Abigail) and afterwards I realized that this was kind of stupid. If you wanted a bike I would give them a bike. By the time that that happened I had so many bikes in the storage room that my roommate was making fun of me. And the landlady got mad. She sent out a letter to everyone that you've got to clean this up. It wasn't anybody else's fault but ours. That was kind of frustrating. When that happened it kind of took a lot of the excitement away from finding the pieces.

RW: So you just started off collecting?

RP: Just collecting anything. I have lots of collections of things. I was buying maps, old maps and books and knickknacks and who knows what. Lots of strange things. I realized the alleys are actually the place where the exciting things are. I'd bring in bookcases or the furniture I'd found. The bike parts were only one part of it.

RW: So are you still in the same building with the landlord or do you have a space you are now working out of?

RP: Yeah. It was nice, this guy John who is one of the Rat Patrol members bought a warehouse in Bridgeport that he was going to turn into artist lofts. He has this huge space, its thirty floors tall, and he said until he gets it fixed up we could use the basement to store this stuff. Now he has a welder there. He's really into building contraptions and things.

RW: How did you guys come together?

RP: In the beginning it was just me and my roommate. We would do a lot of bike riding around the neighborhood, just goofing around and we would see rats a lot of times at night just running around the alleys. Not often enough to be bored with it, but we'd get really excited and we'd chase them down the alley and so we realized what we were doing was hunting for rats. That became a pleasure of going out and riding bikes at night.

So, when we finished the weird bikes, that became a point to going out and riding bikes at night to find rats. We still never saw them enough to be jaded by it. It didn't happen every night. Only every couple nights we'd see one, so we started counting them. And that was on the website for a long time. I've lost track of the count a long time ago.

RW: So there is a myth that the Rat Patrol hunts down rats, but you don't hurt them or shoot them?

RP: We can't catch them, they're too fast. I've never been able to catch one.

RW: What would you do if you caught one?

RP: I don't know. Some people have been talking about catching them and eating them. I had an idea for a pole coming out the front of the bike so that you could kind of snap down. Definitely if you're on foot you can't catch them, they're too fast. But maybe on a bike if you had a scoop so you could scoop 'em up.

I told you about the two groups in Minneapolis. The Scallywags set up a chapter here in Chicago. They live here in Uptown. They live at the Jesus People church on Wilson. Its like a commune sort of place. It's a big hotel. There are a lot of people there. Four or five hundred people live there. The Scallywags, I'm not sure how many there are. They have a work shop there and they've kind of set aside one corner of the gym to be their work area and stockpile bikes and they've got welding equipment and a lot of people know how to weld things.

So, that's pretty nice because if they want to work on things they can go to the gym next door. So there are a couple of people there that are very inventive and come up with a lot of crazy bikes. But the reason I mentioned that was that a guy Sam has a pet rat and he's taught it to ride in his sweatshirt so it rides around and sometimes climbs on his head but mostly sits on his shoulder and he rides his bike with it.

RW: Does he ever come on any of the rides with you?

RP: Yeah, they come now and then, not every time but pretty often. It's kinda of fun because they set up their chapter in Chicago this past March, right away some of the people in Minneapolis came down to help out people in Chicago, to show people in Chicago how to make the tall bikes and different kinds of bikes, so that weekend that they came down we were having a workshop day at the warehouse so it was kind of neat. They came down to the warehouse too and I got to meet them.

RW: Who invented the tall bike? (two or more bikes welded on top of each other)

RP: Apparently, I talked to the guys who started the Black Label group in Minneapolis, he came down here for the St. Patrick's Day parade — we had a big group in the St. Patrick's Day parade — and he was telling us that it all started because someone he knew knew how to weld-this was like twelve years ago-someone he knew had an old auto mechanics magazine from the 1930s and he found a picture in there of a tall bike and so he brought this to Per, the guy who knew how to weld, and he brought him this picture and said, "I wanna make a bike like that," and so that was the first tall bike.

The Hard Times Bike Club, when they started, this guy Per made all these bikes and gave them away to people, and he did most of the construction of them in the beginning and they would ride these tall bikes around and they would do stunts on them and jousting and things like that and they got in one of those freak show things that were going around the country, you know back eleven years ago or something that was a big thing. So they were one of the acts. Apparently that's how the tall bike idea spread around the country . . . people all around the country came to these circus things and said, wow, I wanna make something like that.

The way I remember finding out about it was seeing some people in Minnesota riding around. I was never really interested in the tall bikes but the bikes where the wheels were different sizes and a lot more kinds of bikes that would be fun to make, like tricycles with gigantic wheels or just different. Kind of like when you look at old books about bicycles how back in the beginning there were all sorts of weird things people would ride on.

RW: And then they got to be so uniform.

RP: Yeah. In the beginning people were so inventive in trying to figure out different forms that it got all sort of settled down to, what is actually called a standard bicycle. So I guess I just like the idea of different types of contraptions.

RW: So how do you stop on a tall bike?

Alot of those tall bikes don't have breaks on them, some of them do. If they don't have breaks you put your foot down on the back wheel. Usually you're sitting up above the back wheel so it's in the right spot to put your foot on it and stop it.

RW: Have you made any?

RP: I haven't made a tall bike, no. But I could make one. They're really fun to ride. But I really like the choppers. We really started out with choppers and a few other contraptions. Since it's a very loose group of people there is no central place to store the bikes so I couldn't tell you how many bikes there are. Everybody is doing their own creations. Sometimes helping each other, sometimes doing it on their own. Some people are more dedicated to the idea of using trash and other people are not so dedicated.

RW: I love that idea. It seems like this could be a philosophy about living your life.

RP: Yeah, it really is. And sometimes it's the frustration of not finding what you want to find. You know you're kind of stuck with what's out there and you have to make do with what's available. Sometimes the thing you're looking for you'll never find.

RW: What about the actual bike riding and not using a car. How much of it is focused on that?

RP: I don't think that the Rat Patrol itself is so much about commuting, I mean kind of. A lot of people in the Rat Patrol are in Critical Mass but it's not the same. There's overlap. A lot of people are also really interested in Critical Mass and using bikes for transportation and not using cars. I don't think the Rat Patrol itself has the same political agenda, if it has any kind of political agenda at all.

RW: What do you do for your day job? Do you get to do something you love to do?

RP: Not exactly, no. I'm a graphic designer and I work at an ad agency, so the work that I do there is not very interesting at all. It's very boring, but I do have the time there to work on other projects. So it's kind of a little bit of really boring and a little bit of fun. It's good to work on my website.

RW: Your website is great.

RP: There's a lot of other things that I'm doing. The website is connected to other areas that I don't know if you saw. One of the things that I do at work is I make these post cards of Chicago buildings. You cut them apart and then build them and glue them and make a little Water Tower or Sears Tower. Each postcard makes a whole building. That's the main thing that I've been working on.

RW: Really? So you are just an artist at heart.

RP: Yeah. If the job were better it would give me more time to work on this.

RW: So here's one question, I don't know how you are going to react to this one but this is sent from someone who also works on the zine. His name is Soggy Sprinkles. His question is, "what do we need to take control?"

RP: To take control of what? Does that mean we, as in take control of the Rat Patrol? The Rat Patrol has a lot of members, and I can't really speak for all of them. There's kind of a strange person in the Rat Patrol, which is the Rat King, and he's kind of our leader in name, and there's even a section in The Manifesto that says Dear Rat King.

So, he has communicated his opinions through that column. Every once in a while he does write things, he sends out e-mail somehow. Sometimes we take out a trailer, it's like a little chariot that has an effigy of the King. And we drive him around. I don't know if the Rat King is the guy that we carry around in this chariot made out of a wheelchair, or that's just a representation of him, but that's the kind of question that you should e-mail to him. That's exactly the kind of question that he concerns himself with.

RW: Okay, so how does the Rat King get to be the Rat King? Was he elected?

RP: I think that there's different opinions about that too. My roommate thinks that he's elected, that he only serves a term of one year or two years, but I don't really agree with that. From what I know of the Rat King, it's the same guy the whole time. I don't think it's even a person, I think it's a rat.

RW: But who do you put on the chariot?

RP: The chariot is like an effigy.

RW: There's nobody on it?

RP: It's a dummy of a rat-a rat wearing a crown. It's kind of like, I don't know, communion wafers. Do you believe the communion wafer is just a wafer or do you believe it really is something more than just a wafer? I'm not Catholic so I don't really know. But that's the kind of comparison that I can think of. Is the dummy just a dummy or is that really the Rat King? Because the e-mail messages really do come from somewhere.

RW: But you don't know who they come from. I will definitely e-mail that question to the Rat King.

After the tape ran out, Matt The Rat and I had a second meeting at Pequod's Pizza on Clybourn in Lincoln Park. I kept envisioning the Rat Patrol as the good guys in a cartoon. The bad guys are the Scrappers, who take the bikes to turn in as scrap metal for money, even though they don't get much for the bikes and don't know the value of them and the Rats are the philosophical good guys who are always on a search down the off beaten track and using what they find as transportation AND art and never uselessly throwing things away or wasting them. Therefore, they are on a quest to beat out corporate America (gas/oil companies and even bike companies), consumerism, and they are recyclers (in more ways than one!).

RW: Do you think that you have some goals for the Rat Patrol? It doesn't seem like you want to be that well known. You want to stay in the shadows.

RP: It's not like a club where everyone can pay their dues and join. There's nothing for us to gain by getting more publicity, to get more members, there's nothing that might actually help us by being more publicized. The things that will hurt us by being more publicized is where we might not have access to the same places.

RW: What things would you not have access to?

RP: I guess I'm just thinking things like being able to travel easily kind of depends on not having so many people in your group. Being able to travel undetected and having the freedom to get into places, maybe not necessarily trespassing, but not open to the public. One of the things is finding new ways through the city. There are the streets, the car ways through the city, but then there are alleys and smaller pedestrian sidewalks and that sort of thing that make alternate pathways through the city. So that's one of the things that we look for, the secret pathways, the trophies.

RW: What's your favorite area to ride around in?

RP: Different areas are good for different things. I guess downtown can be fun to ride around in, but it's so far away from where we might meet on a ride because the bikes, a lot of them aren't necessarily long distance bikes so you kind of end up exploring the same places over and over again because it takes so much effort to go far away. I think the places along the river are kind of fun. There are different neighborhoods who have good trash.

RW: (pointing outside) Is that your bike?

RP: Yeah, kind of normal looking. Its just very simple. Stripped down. We want to add something to it.

RW: What are you thinking?

RP: I've spent a long time cutting a piece of metal that is going to fit inside the frame, inside the triangle. Like a strip of metal thats going to be an arrow. Its like pointing forward.

RW: That's a great idea.

RP: And it tells you which direction to go. Like a compass needle. A real cartoon kind of arrow. I call the bike the Red Arrow. Because it's just so simple and streamline, so straight.

RW: The other day I was walking home and I saw a Rat Bike with a steering wheel for handlebars and a trailer.

RP: That's the Mother Ship. The steering wheel is a pretty new addition to it.

RW: So who rides the Mother Ship?

RP: Johnny Payphone. He made that one, I think. There are a bunch of people who live over in that area, the Ukrainian Village. They always end up trading bikes, so it's not as if he rides it all the time. It's like a cargo hauling bike. That's one of the things that's kind of a paradox about the Rat Patrol, that we are interested in finding trash yet most of the bikes can't carry trash at all. To solve that problem, there are some bikes that are Packrat-type bikes with lots of baskets or a trailer or something to carry stuff, so that sort of makes up for the other bikes 'cause we go out in a group. Hopefully there's at least one bike that can carry a lot of stuff 'cause the other ones can't.

RW: There's a lot of paradoxes that go on in the Rat Patrol.

RP: There are aren't there? That's not a sign of not thinking about things. It's just a sign of going very strongly in different directions.

RW: It's also a sign of being human. So last time you were talking briefly about the gifts of the alley, and you were saying that if the alley gives you a gift you have to take it.

RP: You should just to be polite, yeah, or wherever it is if you find it, if you find it on the sidewalk I guess it's the sidewalk giving it to you, you shouldn't be impolite and not take something just because you don't know where it came from.

RW: Didn't you say if you find something in a wrapper you should eat it?

RP: You should eat it.

RW: What are some of the things that you have eaten?

RP: It's hard to find things in the wrappers, sometimes you eat things that are not in wrappers. Last week we were down here and there's a bagel shop right down there and they have a lot of bagels in their dumpsters. There's always bagels and bread. I'm not really into the seeking out food sort of things, but sometimes when I go out with a big group of people there are some people who are really into the searching for food. I like to happen across food when I do.

There was this one guy who really wanted to go to Dominick's, to the dumpster behind Dominick's. And the dumpster was mostly empty so he had to climb in and he was all the way — kind of lifted himself on the edge of the dumpster and tilted around so his legs were sticking straight up into the air. He fished around in there and he pulled out a package of sushi. So we ate some sushi, so it wasn't like.

I don't usually go out searching for food, but if you find a candy bar or a can of soda pop or a beer. But it's not always good, what you find, it's probably something crummy. But you should eat it, or drink it, or whatever. There was one time I found a package of squeeze cheese and I knew I had to eat some of it, so I put some on my finger and licked it and it was awful. It wasn't open or anything so you wouldn't think that it would be spoiled, especially something like that should last for years. So it wasn't old, it wasn't spoiled, it was nasty, it was like feet. There are limits, if you find eggs, you don't have to eat those.

RW: But if you find a wrapped candy bar or oatmeal cream pie.

RP: Pop Tarts! I have found Pop Tarts. You know this garbage strike, I thought it was a good thing because really, I think there is going to be a boom in the rat population because of all the food that was out. I think that rats have a six week breeding cycle, so that all this food now is probably going to mean a boom in the population six weeks later, I was talking to Johnny about it and he pointed out, well it's not good, to find something useful in the trash, you have to dig through all the stinky stuff that's been piling up, so that stuff is overwhelming all the useful things.

RW: I sent an e-mail to the Rat king and he never answered me.

RP: The Rat King is annoying. There was a guy who was trying to get the Rat King to speak to some conference, and he wrote to me. I don't know why he wrote to me, because he thought...

RW: Maybe he thought that you were the Rat King.

RP: It's possible, It was kind of funny because I think that I told him before that it's not me. So I forwarded his message on to the Rat King and he wrote back the next day and he said, I didn't get any message back from the Rat King what can I do to push this along more? So I forwarded it again to the Rat King and I don't think he ever got a response from the Rat King and that was like two weeks ago or something.

RW: So you're denying that you could possibly be the Rat King?

RP: I always deny that. That's troubling, that he hasn't responded at all. He doesn't usually respond very often to things, but every so often comes out with some kind of a... he's always grouchy and he's usually complaining about something but I don't know. I will send a message to see what happened.

RW: Maybe he's in hibernation or mating. It seems like it would be hard for your rat population to grow, because you have to be in the know.

RP: Yeah, but I guess in the beginning, the way it grew people were sort of interested in the same thing, making contact with each other and realizing we're all doing the same kind of activity, we should all hang out together. In a way I don't think we want to give up on that, that method of growing 'cause there have been people who have joined up who really don't understand how to build a bike and they need a lot of help and it's good to help people, but it also becomes a little difficult because some people need more help than others.

If someone's really dedicated, they will learn what we do. So I don't know how easy we want to make it for newcomers to join since there's no do's or there's no real qualifications for joining a group. You just have to prove that you're interested. That's about it. But we don't want to make it so easy that you don't have to do anything. You do have to put your own time and effort into it.

RW: If you would want somebody who is an observer, who may be reading this article what would you want them to get out of it?

RP:I guess maybe to meet one of the Rat Patrol. And then there's the website which on it's own makes something? I don't know if that's a true picture either. I guess the thing I would like to share with other people is the ideas which to somebody else could inspire them in a totally different direction. So in that way the Manifesto, some things to anchor or rally around.

RW: And that was written by the Rat King?

RP: Parts of it. And I wrote parts. It's... if that inspires people to do something. I guess it's inspiring people to... it's not so much inspiring people to think a certain way but inspiring them to go out and do your own thing and one problem with biking, that the Manifesto goes into, that I don't like about biking as a hobby, is the idea that you have to spend a lot of money on it or you have to go to the bike store and I can't stand bike shops. They're horrible places. I'll go to a store if I have to. You go there and the people that help you, if you don't know the right words for things and you don't project yourself as a macho biking jock guy they don't give you any respect at all. That's the thing I can't stand. I go in there and I know how the bike works, but I don't know the name of things, and they treat me like I'm an idiot. I guess it's just anger over that.

I guess if the Rat Patrol could convince anyone to not put up with that, or do it on your own, and not be so worried about everything functioning completely perfectly then that's a good thing. That's another pet peeve of mine, people that are obsessed with every part being perfectly aligned, so the chain doesn't rattle. I guess I was just thinking about the alleys and that seems to be a big part in my mind anyway. It's interesting how it sort of worked out, it started out as just some friends and I riding around in our neighborhood and we realized, oh we see rats out here and it became a game to find rats and it's just interesting how that is sort of a fun thing to do and it naturally made it's own connections where we were trying to find rats and yet we sort of identify with the rats.

RW: That's another paradox.

RP: And I told you how one guy wants to eat rats, it's probably just because he wants to become a rat.

RW: You are what you eat.

RP: Right. Exactly. I don't think it's because he hates them or anything.

RW: Maybe he just wants to know what they taste like.

RP: Part of what we are interested in is finding out about rats as wild animals, learning about them, observing them. It's a safari sort of thing. Find the wild animal, take pictures of them.

RW: It makes a beautiful story the way that it started and the name is so perfect.

RP: Rat Patrol, well there was a TV show in the '60s. I don't think I've ever even really seen it, so I don't really know what it's about. But the name makes sense, also when the city has a sanitation department that is for exterminators, they usually call them the Rat Patrol, but that's not what we're doing. One time we were meeting for a ride, and this woman rode by and said, "Yeah, Rat Patrol, get those Rats." And we kind of went, yeah. Only afterwards did I realize, no we like the Rats. We're all for rats. We're not trying to catch them or exterminate them.

RW: But you did say that you're not sure what you would do if you caught one. It's kind of like when my dad goes hunting and he doesn't kill anything. At first I thought he wasn't a good hunter, but now I think he doesn't want to kill anything but he still gets dressed up in the camouflage. I think mostly he likes just sitting outside by himself. He is hunting, he's looking for the deer, but he never comes home with anything. I like the idea about the cage. If it could raise up and the rat was riding high.

RW: Did I tell you about the story of the Pied Piper, in medieval times he'd walk through town and as a sign- as his own advertisement-he'd have a stick with a cage on top, and inside he'd have live rats running around and also dead ones hanging by their tails and that was his advertisement, Rat Catcher, because I suppose the more dead ones he has, you know that he's really good at catching them, but if he has live ones, then he's really good at catching them.

RW: You've really gone out of your way to learn about rats.

RP: It's very interesting.

RW: One day you guys could have a museum.

RP: I just added something to the website today that's movies about rats. So we've got recommendations about the best rat movies.

RW: There's that one that just came out.

RP: Willard? Creepy kind of disturbing.

RW: Do you relate with Willard at all?

RP: Yeah. Yeah.

To do the Rat Patrol justice, it would require a full anthropological study. The closest I got was a ride home on the back of the Red Arrow. Matt slowly peddled down side streets, occasionally commenting on trees or alleyways we passed by. At one point he asked me if I was thirsty. I wasn't, but he said that if I wanted the full Rat experience, I should be. We circled around and headed into an alley. Matt explained that one particular dumpster always had juice. As he lifted the top he took a big whiff and asked if I could smell the oranges. I mostly smelled garbage, but yeah, I smelled a citrusy something. Matt dug around, pulled out lots of pulp covered cardboard, pointed out the pile of orange rinds, and then revealed his prize: plastic bottle after plastic bottle of a variety of juices that had expired that day. I chose a green mixture, held my breath and took a swig. As a man with a shopping cart approached, we decided we needed to share the wealth. When I got off the Red Arrow and into my apartment, I emptied the green juice into the sink and recycled the container.


Read more reviews by Star Reporter Carol Bales:

Creepy D
Birds & Arrows


Reglar Wiglar

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