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Cruise Control

Drive, he said: Bill Bernal has been cruising Federal Boulevard for 26 years.
Brett Amole

It's a big night on the boulevard. Federal Boulevard. Cruisers drive along with Mexican flags draped over their hoods, rap music thumping from their stereos and Mexican Independence Day smiles plastered on their faces. In their midst, a purple Impala rolls quietly along.

"Check it out," a passenger says. "That girl on the sidewalk is eyeing your car."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Okay," says the driver, Bill Bernal. He'll give her a blast from his customized horn, the one with the girlie-whistle sound. People get a kick out of that, he says. It lets them know that he appreciates the attention, although at his age, which is 52, it's not about attention anymore.

At his age, it's more about sinking into the marshmallow-soft leather seats, feeling the low rumble of his 350 engine, popping a ranchera tape in the stereo and enjoying a leisurely drive on a crisp September evening.

"See that?"

"What?"

"The guy at the Jumbo car wash. The one polishing the maroon Monte Carlo. He gave you a nod."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Okay. Bernal will give another horn blast. This time, the old-fashioned "ooo-gaa, ooo-gaa" sound. They like that one, too, he says.

"Nice car," the guy shouts.

"Thanks."

It's also a respect thing, Bernal says. He's been cruising for 26 years now, which he thinks makes him the longest-riding lowrider in Denver. He's probably the last of the early lowriders still out here cruising.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

But it's not just about the cruising, Bernal continues. It's about the attitude and the ambience. It's about parking on the side of the road, kicking back and measuring the competition. It's about watching the sun set, watching the street lamps flicker to life, watching the neon reflections slide off the hood like electric drops of honey.

"That's it," he says. "That's what it's about."


To understand cruising, you have to understand lowriders. To understand lowriders, you have to understand the cars. And to understand the cars, you have to understand the culture. But if you don't want to take the time to do all of that, Bernal says, you can break it down this way: It's really all about something shiny.

And soft.

And sparkly.

Preferably all three.

And ideally, about something with a dozen coats of multi-colored paint, 24-carat gold-plated accessories, crushed-velvet interior, swivel seats, etched windows, a color TV, suicide doors, a suicide trunk, a chain-link steering wheel, a Hollywood top, a customized horn, a mural on the hood, a mega-watt stereo, an enamel finish and a dusting of metal flake. Always metal flake.

"It's got to be wild," Bernal says. "The wilder the better. The weirdest thing you can imagine. With us lowriders, it's got to be different. Creative. Something that no one else has. Something that makes you look twice. And not just look twice, but stop, turn around, go back and see for yourself. We like pink and purple and tangerine instead of black or white or brown. We like fancy stuff like velour, $5,000 paint jobs, shaved door handles and frenched antennas. We shine it all up and hit the boulevard. Because we don't go out unless it's clean. And when we go out, we go all the way!"

And so they do.

Consider the evidence: Bernal's deep purple '64 Impala, which glistens in the late summer sun like a wet piece of candy.

"I call it 'Plum Loco,'" says Bernal, "because it's purple."

And probably because his wife thought he was crazy to buy it. Bernal's friend found the Impala three years ago in a weedy field in western Colorado, where it had been sitting since 1972. The brakes were locked, the gas lines were plugged, the chassis was rusted, the interior was rotted and the engine was gone.

He fell in love.

"For me, $500 was a bargain," says Bernal, who is dressed this day in a black T-shirt, black jeans, black Lowrider Magazine baseball cap and dark sunglasses. "But my wife got mad. She said, 'Why did you buy that trash for $500?' But some people think Impalas make the best lowriders. Maybe because they're old and they're long. Or maybe because the lines are good."

Whatever the reason, Bernal bought the heap and headed straight for his friend's garage, where they spent eight months crafting a classic lowrider that would be featured in MTV rap videos, on a Hooters pamphlet and at about 100 car shows, where it won about 99 first- and second-place trophies.

"It's an eye-catcher," Bernal says, running a finger along the fender. "It's the paint job that makes it. It has seven different colors of metal-flake purple and seven coats of clear enamel. The top is white rainbow flake. I mixed in some green and gold and a little blue. In certain light, it turns different colors."

 

And quite a few heads, too. Not only did Bernal refurbish the body and add an engine, he also installed an all-white leather interior, a custom shifter, purple neon accent lights, a 1,000-watt stereo system and a backseat speaker panel cut in the shape of the Chevy logo.

"My old car [a Ford Elite] used to have a chandelier, 49 different colors of paint, crushed-velvet interior, round couch seats and suicide doors," Bernal says. "It was like sitting on the couch in your living room. But with this, I wanted it stock."

Albeit gold-plated stock. Practically every knob, switch, handle, mirror, button, dial and appendage on the '64 Impala is 24-carat gold-plated. And that's just the outside.

"I had hydraulics, too," Bernal says. "But I took them off to get them gold-plated. These days, you have to. Before, you just had to do the paint and interior, but now, in the '90s, no one will look at you unless there's gold. You could spend $64,000 easy just on the gold alone. You save and save and wheel and deal until you get it done. Some people even take out loans. Me, I've spent about $7,000, and I'm not even done. It can get really expensive."

It wasn't always that way, though. When Bernal was growing up in the San Luis Valley, cruisers barely had enough money for the primer and the whitewall tires. But in those days, that was enough.

"They had style," he says. "They didn't have much money, but they had style."

Bernal remembers his older brothers coming home after work, slicking back their hair, slipping on white T-shirts and khakis and rumbling into town in their lowered Mercuries, Chevys and Studebakers. What they lacked in 24-carat gold, they made up for in streamlined chassis, sideboard exhaust pipes, custom fender skirts, intricate grillwork and imaginative use of spray paint.

"They didn't have fancy wheels, so they took off the hubcaps and spray-painted the rims red," Bernal says.

And he took note. As a boy, he sat on the floor playing with his toy cars and swapping parts, modifying engines and cooking up ideas. When his dad bought a '55 Chevy, Bernal painted flames on the hood and slathered housepaint on the tires to make them whitewalls.

"I was always getting into trouble," he says. "And my dad would always make me get out there and clean it off."

Still, each Sunday his dad would shuttle Bernal and the rest of his family into town, where they parked along the main boulevard and watched the lowriders rumble by.

"It was just like the movies," Bernal says. "You'd go at about one in the afternoon and stay until four. There would be tons of people. Your friends, your neighbors -- practically everyone you knew. You'd get a burger and a soda and just watch. The older guys would sit real low in their cars, and the girls would walk back and forth waiting to get picked up. Every weekend. That's what we did. We'd sit there and look at each other."

And while they looked, Bernal imagined himself behind the wheel of his own street cruiser.

"That was something everyone dreamed about," he says. "We just waited for the day when we could get a nice car."

When he turned seventeen, that's what he did. His dad bought him a white-and-cream '59 Ford Galaxy. Like his brothers before him, Bernal cut the springs and lowered the Galaxy to only a few inches from the ground. Which, in a place like San Luis, had its consequences.

"Only the main street was paved," Bernal says. "There were mostly dirt roads. When you dropped your car, you paid the price."

But on the weekends, on the boulevard, he enjoyed the rewards, too.

"Girls? Oh, yeah. If you had a nice car, you could probably get anyone you wanted," Bernal says. "Girls would look at the cars and say, 'That's the one for me.' That's how I met my wife, I guess."

Bernal eventually left the San Luis Valley for Denver, and after a few visits to East Los Angeles, formed a Colorado chapter of the renowned California lowrider club, the Imperials. He participated in Denver's early lowrider shows, cruised 38th Avenue with the early cruisers and formed another club or two. And when the cruising strip relocated to Federal between 38th and Alameda, he relocated, too.

"I've been around a long time," Bernal says. "I've got a lot of memories."

 

And not all of them pleasant.

Bernal and the members of his car clubs were never into gangs or drugs. But the police treated them like they were.

"I was married and I had kids, but they didn't care," he says. "They searched our cars and tore them up. I even saw them tear into people's interiors with knives, using the excuse of looking for drugs and guns. They towed cars just because they had hydraulics. In those days, just because you were a lowrider, they treated you like a criminal."

Even now that he has a resumé as a businessman, a one-year-old granddaughter and white hairs on his goatee, the stigma remains. When he pulls up to a traffic light in his Impala, he says, commuters will look at him "like I'm going to murder them or something.

"Shit, a lot of people are confused," Bernal adds. "Right away, they put us all down as drug dealers. And if there is a drug dealer, we all pay for it. Young, old, whatever. People don't have enough sense to stop and think about it. If I was going to shoot someone or do something terrible, would I go out in a car like this? No. With a car like this, everyone would know who I am and where I live. It's just stupid."

Still, on Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day and whenever there's a lowrider show, the cops line Federal Boulevard, block the road and pull over cruisers for such minor offenses as playing their music a little too loud, having car windows tinted a little too dark or having tires a little too big. During the Cinco de Mayo weekend in 1998, police issued 1,000 tickets.

"You go to a football game or a concert and you can do what you want," Bernal says. "But when you have something like Cinco de Mayo, the cops are out there at three o'clock, preparing for the worst."

Police say their motivations are simple: They want to prevent gridlock on one of Denver's busiest streets and also prevent celebrations from becoming violent, which they have. During Cinco de Mayo festivities in 1997, seventeen-year-old Jose Leyva was shot and killed by gang crossfire as he pushed his stalled car into a parking lot. Despite complaints from lowrider clubs and Hispanic activists, police have confiscated alcohol, drugs and even guns during their traffic stops.

Bernal knows that. He knows that there are gang-banging and drug-dealing lowriders out there. But he believes that the blanket crackdown is unfair.

"I've seen them pull over someone just because there were four guys in the car," Bernal says. "And once they pull you over, they'll find some reason to give you a ticket. If you're not bothering anyone, why not let you be? Like me: I follow the rules. I like to park, get something to eat, look at the cars, talk to the guys and go home. But you can't even park anymore. Police harass you. And they don't just tell you to move along in a nice way. They flash their lights and pull you over."

And it's not just Bernal. Practically every lowrider has a story. Daniel Ribota says that police recently slammed his cousin onto the hood of his car, wrenched his arms around his back and roughed him up. And his cousin wasn't cruising -- he was parked outside of his house at Federal and Exposition.

"He was inside the house and came out because they shined a light on his car," says Ribota, who drives a black convertible '66 Impala. "What was the charge? There wasn't a charge. They just wanted to hassle him. Police are on the lookout for anything with rims. And if they see a car like this, they'll hassle you. I don't even go down there anymore. It's just not worth it."

The problem, Bernal says, is that police are like most people in Denver. They don't understand what serious lowriding is about. They don't understand that cruising is to lowriders what galleries are to artists.

"It's all about cars," he says. "You put all this money into your car, and you want people to see it. What's the difference between a lowrider and a hot rod? That's their style, and this is ours. We like them low, and they like them fast. The really serious lowriders won't even go cruising back and forth. They're showing in shows and parking. It's the wannabes who are giving us a bad name. You can't just throw on a set of rims and say you're a lowrider. It's the guys who are borrowing Dad's car that are causing problems."

But most people don't know that. Most people don't know that serious lowriders like 35-year-old Sam Henry have sweated long and hard to finance their tangerine '81 Lincolns with electric moon roofs, gold wheels and hydraulic systems with four air pumps and ten batteries.

 

"What I do supports four kids and pays a mortgage," says Henry, owner of Sam's Kustom Hydraulics. "Doctors and dentists go to a golf course on weekends. This is what we like to do."

And you don't have to be Hispanic to do it. Gary Chang is Asian. He cruises Federal in a '85 BMW with $35,000 worth of custom additions, including multiple coats of candy-apple red, cobalt blue, magenta and purple paint, gold-plated wheels and a 5,000-watt stereo speaker system that occupies his backseat.

"Most people think an Asian would be into a Honda Civic or something," says Chang, a twenty-year-old college student who has been cruising for three years. "But I like proving people wrong. I like things that are different. It doesn't matter what race you are. It's a sport. It's all about style."

And quality time with the family. Jose Hernandez has a wife, a one-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. Each Sunday, they pile into his sparkling purple '87 Mazda truck and hit the boulevard. They check out the scene, grab a burger and fries and head home before dark.

"My son loves it. My wife loves it. My daughter loves it. Everyone loves it," says Hernandez, a roofer. "You like it when people say, 'Hey. Nice truck.' That makes you feel good. My whole family likes cruising."

Hernandez also likes that his son is following in his footsteps, because he believes that lowriding can actually keep a boy from getting in trouble.

"On the weekends, you've got to wash your truck, and you have to fix this thing and that thing," he says. "And to fix things, you have to work. Because if you don't work, you don't have money to fix things. There's no time for the street. This keeps you off the street."

Barbara Lillian, a member of the Mile High Rollerz lowrider club, believes so strongly in that message that she carries it to the classroom, where she and her husband lecture on the history and cultural contributions of lowriders.

"There's nothing wrong with what these guys are doing," says Lillian, a native of Española, New Mexico, the lowrider mecca. "You can have a lowrider bike or a car without being part of a gang or selling drugs. Cruising is a way of going to say hi to your friends or seeing how things are going with other clubs. It's a get-together type thing. A tradition. They can try, but they won't stop it."


Back on Federal Boulevard, near the end of the cruising circuit, Bernal stops at a traffic signal. Except that there hasn't been much traffic this September 16. Although he's spotted the occasional gold-rimmed pickup and low-slung sedan, most serious lowriders seem to have stayed at home. Even the wannabes are scarce.

It's the weather, he says. It's colder than usual. And Mexican Independence Day fell on a Thursday, while most cruisers prefer the weekends. And then there are the cops. Always the cops.

"A few years ago, this place would have been packed," he says. "It would have taken us an hour just to drive around once."

Bernal changes the subject.

"Did you notice that?"

"What?"

"Those girls in that car. They've been following us since we left the car wash."

When he was younger, he says, that sight would have given him whiplash. And now?

"I don't care, to tell you the truth," he says. "I know my car. I know what I've got."

And he knows something else. The police crackdown might have slowed cruising this year, but the lowriders will be back. If not this year, then the next one, or the one after that.

"They try to discourage us and scare us, but it's not going to stop it," Bernal says. "How are they going to stop it? If they close Federal, they'll just go somewhere else. They can't outlaw every place. Lowriding is going to be around for a long time."

As long as he has a classic sedan with gold-plated rims, leather interior and metal-flake paint, he'll be around, too.

"Some people say I'm too old, but what else am I going to do?" he asks. "You won't find me sitting in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe and going to sleep. I don't drink or smoke or anything else, so I have to do something. And this is what I do."

The light changes, and the purple Impala rolls on down the boulevard.


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