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The Electric Scooter and the Fall of Dot-Com

April 15, 2004, hlin
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Whatever happened to all that lovely hippie shit?
-- Pete Townshend

Ho Lin on his Phat Scooter
The author on his hog

My electric scooter is a Currie Phat Flyer. You can’t miss it with that coat of paint, the yellow of Captain Kirk’s uniform, a shade that Schwinn ought to patent. I say Schwinn because if you go to Currie’s Website, you’ll see that the company was swallowed up by Schwinn and Mongoose. No more Currie scooters -- it's all electro-powered bicycles now. Scooters are left to the two senior partners.

Two years ago I purchased my scooter second-hand for $250, pushing the philosophy of conservation to its logical conclusion: environmentally sound and fiscally smart. The previous owner handed me the original sales receipt, from a store called Green Machines. I called them up a few months back because the rechargeable electric battery was running down on my Phat Flyer, only to find that they no longer exist either.

You still see a few Phat Flyers here in San Francisco. They won’t win a fashion contest with the goosey necks and handbars, the fatty tires. When I pull the brakes on mine, you can smell the friction. Compare that with the new boxy, silver-and-black Schwinn and Mongoose models, with military-issue names like "M250" and "M350." I can’t help thinking of B-2 bombers.

It’s difficult to lug my 65-pound Phat Flyer up and down the stairs to the metro, but I have great affection for it. The motor whirs like the mini racing cars I had as a kid, and nothing matches the sensation of hurtling down Sacramento Street and its 60 degrees of invigorating angle -- standing up. Setting aside the environmental advantage, there’s a strange exhilaration in being propelled by pure electricity, zipping across town without building up so much as a bead of sweat. And yet, riding is sometimes a lonely experience, as it reminds me of headier times. Keg parties at the office every Friday. Public offerings and direct purchase stock plans. Pure money motive tied to a modern-day hippie’s dream of bettering life on this planet.

In my memory, scooters are inseparable from my first dot-com job at LookSmart, circa 1999. Both burned with the passion of the new and faintly ridiculous, both were imbued with a charming "gee whiz" mentality. I remember the television commercials, the Industry Standard paeans, wunderkinds and grinning Internet employees gliding through space-age corridors on their two-wheeled chariots. The world was changing, of that we were all certain. Paradigm shifts. The entire globe connected. Walls coming down. Liberal arts majors with steady jobs. Like the Pets.com sock puppet, like these cocky new dot-coms with their venture capital billions, scooters seemed ill-advised, only half-formed, but they were too charming to ignore. Who thought it would be a good idea to pit these little gizmos against the steepest San Francisco hills, the car drivers who run red lights as easily as we breathe, the reckless bicyclists and their holier-than-thou airs? But the SUV, with its bloated excess masquerading as practicality, symbolized the shady side of dot-com. Scooters, with their Little-Engine-That-Could modesty, reminded us all that we were really geeks at heart -- and it was okay.

Alvin*, one of my fellow editors at LookSmart -- they called us editors, but we were really glorified web surfers -- would cruise in every day on his scooter. These were the early days of scooter evolution, so his made quite a racket, a cross between a bee and a dive bomber, but you couldn’t help but admire the elegance of his approach, how he stood stock straight as he swooped in, how he dismounted with pattering rhythm, one-two-three. People would advise him to be careful, the older people in the company going all school-marmish, and he would take it in with a satisfied smile, pleased at the attention but confident that nothing would befall him. He was invulnerable. We all were.

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