On the corner of Robert and Concord streets, you can feel a heartbeat in your shoes even if you can't feel anything in your chest--booming basslines rattle even the loose gravel at this busy intersection. As the whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of Nelly's "Dilemma" obliterates the salsa music from the Cinco de Mayo festival down the block, a horde of teens scurries to place their hands on the throbbing speakers in the trunk of an Acura, bobbing their bodies to the beat. An excited father walks by, taking his toddler daughter's hand and dragging her toward the car. "You hear that?" he says. She's mugging like the Hear No Evil monkey. "That's what makes mommy's windows rattle."
At this West St. Paul lowrider showcase, every car sounds like it could break glass. It isn't the only trick these tricked-out supercars can perform: A Big Bird-yellow Chevy Impala balances on three tires, the golden-spoked rims on its fourth tire spinning like a roulette wheel. With the flip of a switch, a cornflower-blue Cadillac Fleetwood raises its hindquarters, dipping its front fender down so low it resembles a bloodhound hot on a new scent. Inside the booming Acura, Eminem's likeness pops up on video screens installed in the backs of the seats, the dashboard, the sun visors--driver's side included. You half expect to spot his face on the hot end of the cigarette lighter. There's even a video screen inside the trunk of the car, presumably for the convenience of hostages during long rides.
A young kid in a basketball jersey leans against the Acura's oil-black paint job. "This is my car," he tells a pretty girl in cornrows.
"No, it ain't," she says, folding her arms over her chest.
"Yeah, it is," he insists. "And if you give me your phone number, I'll give you a ride."
There's a cop for every car on Concord, but the lowrider dads gathered here are gentle as soccer moms, and the men in blue have little to do except take notes on how to revamp their squad cars. Anastacio Martinez, a soft-spoken man with warm brown eyes who owns the blue Fleetwood, insists that this is a law-abiding culture. "When I take the corner on one wheel, it scares some people," he says, looking a bit mischievous. "I mean, if I could take a corner on one wheel, it would scare people. I don't do that because it's illegal."
Martinez has been altering cars for 10 years, and he has the battle scars to prove it. "The gears have fallen off my cars," he says. "Some of my cars have caught on fire. I've melted batteries. Hoppers run on eight to ten batteries a pump, and if you have any more than eight, you can start a fire. That pump can melt right through your hand. My friend's pump once got so hot that it welded his ring to his finger."
Martinez stretches out his callused hand and considers his own fingers. "I'm lucky," he says, "The worst thing that ever happened to me was when I had a battery blow up in my face. I couldn't hear anything for 10 minutes afterward. It was louder than any gunshot I've ever heard. Louder than a cannon."
Martinez's girlfriend, Leti Martinez, sighs in the passenger seat. "I worry about him sometimes. He worked for three days straight on this one," she says, tapping her hand on the dashboard. "This car takes a lot of time away from home."
The uneasy glance that passes between the two of them suggests this isn't the first time the subject's come up. Outside the car window, lowriders with American names--Ford, Pontiac, Oldsmobile--roll through the Latino neighborhood, past burger joints and taco stands, with Mexican flags flapping from their antennas. In the backseat of the Fleetwood, two aspiring mechanics watch them.
"That's an American car," says a towheaded grade-schooler, nodding toward an orange Chevy Monte Carlo nearby.
"No, it's not," insists his dark-haired friend, pointing to the eagle and snake insignia hand-upholstered over the seats. But then he takes a mental note of the make and model. "Yeah," he says sadly. "You're right--it is."
The graffiti art on the back of the Monte reads, "Royal Image," and that's exactly what these drivers are cultivating. "This car is who he is," Leti says. And Anastacio seems pleased that that's true. It's not just your car, it's your freedom, the old GM slogan used to say. But it's not just your freedom anymore. It's you.