Philadelphia's car outlaws battle for respect on the streets.
The short white man in the Toyota looks over and sees this car snorting up beside him at the stoplight in a cloud of tire smoke. The man’s eyes flash wide and the look on his face is: fear. Just look at it! That thing has simply enormous wheels. How do they even fit under the car—those shiny chrome disks blasting white waves of refracted sunlight bright enough to burn the human retina? The man can’t see who’s driving because of the blacked-out windows. The whole car is painted white, from its growling snout to its slope-backed tail, which somehow makes it even more menacing.
The light goes green. The long white Dodge turns away from Toyota man and into the Fairmount Park flats. But the turn doesn’t stop. It continues in this dreamy slo-mo—the car’s long white hood swims left and right. The engine howls and the rear end squishes sideways like it’s driving on a road of marshmallows. The car burns rubber for a good 20 seconds, then finally it lopes into a gravel parking lot just inside the flats. The doors pop out and open at 45 degrees, like a Lamborghini’s. About a hundred black men, all of them car fanatics, turn and say, “Damn! Who is that ?”
Out climbs Terrance Robinson, a massive security guard with three kids and a high-pitched laugh. He points to his car’s door locks, customized to resemble giant diamond rings. He laughs.
“Oh, yeah, lots of people think I’m a drug dealer in this car,” says Robinson, 34. “That’s all right. I do this because I love it.”
Drug dealers do drive cars like this. And so do cops, garbage men, Philadelphia Eagles linebackers and barbers. The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45. They call their cars all kinds of names—boxes, bubbles, Monties, Cutties—based on different makes and shapes, but the most widely accepted term is “donk.”
Theories of the term’s origins vary, but the most widely accepted etymology is that donk derives from “ba-donk-a-donk,” urban slang for a woman’s large, protruding posterior.
And what all donks have in common is huge, eye-grabbing wheels. Aside from that, it’s one big free-for-all. Go ahead—donk your Dodge, your Hyundai, your Suzuki four-wheeler. Because if one hopes to understand these cars and the culture that has grown up around them—and, by extension, gain a little insight into class and status in a commercial culture where everything from ringtones to neighborhoodies to newspaper content can be individualized, customized, pimped-up and tricked-out—then Philadelphia’s urban car culture is a pretty good place to start.
“This is what it’s all about nowadays,” says Robinson. “You gotta personalize it, make it your own to get respect.”
Max Jean-Gilles is stuck. So is his friend and NFL teammate, Eagles offensive guard Nick Cole. Together they are 708 pounds of speed and power, but they’re not going anywhere today. All forward movement is blocked by a dozen shiny bass-booming V8 Fords and Chevrolets and Pontiacs all jammed into the parking lot of the Wheel Thing, a custom car shop on North Broad Street that is the financial and technological hub of Philadelphia donk culture.
The football players are trying to decide how to fix Jean-Gilles’ white Cadillac Fleetwood. He fit the sedan with 26-inch rims, but now the beast can’t turn a corner without shredding its tires. And these tires cost $750 each. The Cadillac must be lifted four inches into the air, an engineering challenge complicated by the fact that Jean-Gilles packed a few thousand pounds of speakers, flat-screen TVs and air horns into the trunk.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna do it yet,” says Drew Lake, the Wheel Thing’s custom suspension expert. “It’s going to be expensive. I do know that.”
It’s a busy day in the world of tricked-out rides, so Jean-Gilles and Cole sit in their SUVs going nowhere fast, their path blocked by Michael Jeffries and his busted-up blue Buick Regal, which sits on smallish, chrome wheels.
“It’s springtime, so I gotta get my car hooked up, you know?” says Jeffries, 41, a barber. He opens the trunk to show his sound system to Steve, the Wheel Thing’s top stereo man. Jeffries explains that the stereo turns to mush whenever he cranks the bass. Steve, who refuses to give his last name, says he can fix it with $950 worth of subwoofers and amplifiers.
Jeffries opens a wad of $20 bills in his hand and says, “Man, I ain’t got but $550.”
So they haggle out a compromise, halving the number of speakers. But even now, the football players aren’t free to leave because Karim Ali’s silver Ford Expedition SUV sits in front of them on the sidewalk. Some joker tried to steel Ali’s 24-inch wheels last spring, so today he’s here to buy new hubcap screws. The truck has 15 speakers, three amplifiers and a television cradled in the stereo console. Next he wants a 20-inch fold-down TV and an Xbox 360 with wireless controllers.
And the oversized, $5,500 wheels? Well, it’s not what some people think.
“People look at the rims and say, ‘drug dealer,’” says Ali, “which is a big misconception. Everybody wants their car to look nice.”
Ali and his compatriots at the Wheel Thing know how people judge them, call them ghetto trash. A salesman from the Snap-On tool company, a middle-aged man whose sewn-in name patch reads “Dave,” walks around the Wheel Thing’s stereo shop. He shakes his head and grumbles.
“None of this bullshit makes any sense,” he says. By which he means the tens of thousands of dollars these men will blow today on wheels, stereos, alarms, et cetera. And of course he has a point. From a certain perspective, none of this makes any sense at all.