If you live or work near the Satyr Hill shopping center in Parkville, chances are you’ve seen (or, more likely heard) the once-weekly influx of souped up cars in the area. If the series of hums and buzzes zipping through the neighborhood hasn’t captured your attention, perhaps their curious destination has. Just what are these guys assembling for, and why is the Dunkin’ Donuts just off of Joppa Road home base?
“It’s like Fight Club, but not as serious as Fight Club. There’s no fighting and nobody cares if you talk about it,” says Carney resident Phil Collins (yes, it’s his real name).
All joking aside, Collins, who’s just carefully maneuvered his tiny red Honda Del Sol over the parking lot’s speed bumps, calls the Wednesday night gatherings an “official unofficial” meeting for local car enthusiasts. But, if locals assume that most members of this club fit the classic, meat-headed car-lover stereotype, venturing into their den will quickly change their view.
It’s 8 p.m., and an early December chill has driven all but the most dedicated smokers inside the donut shop, situated at the corner of the plaza. Every few minutes, another modified car growls its way into a parking spot, claiming its space in the line-up of aftermarket wheels and performance parts. Its handler walks through the doors, greeted by the smell of coffee, warm handshakes and a few insults that, in man-speak, probably translate to “good to see you!” Most of the small tables are surrounded by men in their 20s, huddled over hot drinks and muffins. The conversation is lively, but not at all unruly.
In the cold parking lot sits all different types of Hondas, Volkswagens, Pontiacs, Subarus and more, almost none of which haven’t been lovingly poured over and customized by their owners. Though none are here tonight, it’s not unlikely to see some rare vehicular specimens, such as a Nissan Skyline often brought by a guy known as Sweeney.
From every direction shoots words like “nitrous,” “chrome” and “curb rash.” Cellphone photos of rims and exhaust pipes are ogled over by some, as others negotiate prices for “17s” among Christmas music and festive window decorations. The comradery here is tangible, and brings together an atmosphere not at all like what one might expect from two dozen young guys who drive impossibly loud, often illegally-modified cars.
The meet-up has been a Wednesday night staple at this Dunkin’ Donuts for at least the past couple of years, although no one here tonight can say for certain when or how it began. For many of the regulars, though, it’s a tradition they’ve come to rely on.
“I come mainly to hang out with my friends, and we all come to celebrate the uniqueness of our vehicles,” says Julius Shelton, a man in his late 20s with a friendly smile, still wearing his neon green construction vest.
Shelton is the owner of a shiny, black 1983 Mercedes 300SD that sits just outside the window. A wide, silver smoke stack sticks straight up through the middle of its hood. He says, with a grin, that he and his friends customize their cars “just to be different.”
Shelton started coming to the meets with a friend about four months ago, when his grandmother was in the hospital. “Hanging out here helped take my mind away from my problems. It’s a really uplifting environment.”
But why Dunkin’ Donuts?
“There’s a lot you can’t do in Baltimore County, a lot of things are illegal, and Dunkin’ Donuts promotes good behavior” says Shelton, mostly in jest. “But in seriousness, we really like it here. It’s warm and there’s food, and we can always keep an eye on our cars through the big windows, which is something you couldn’t do at, say, a bar.”
A few guys are outside among the cars, examining wheels and paint jobs, though in the cold it’s hard to tell cigarette smoke from breath. Inside, the young girl working the counter doesn’t seem to mind the crowd. They keep her tip jar generously stocked, and they don’t get in the way of regular store traffic.
“The cool thing,” says Shelton of the group, “is that it’s all different types of people. They’ve found a certain commonality.” And, indeed, despite their shared passion for peeling wheels, each of these gatherers seems as different as their cars.
Sitting around the tables are mechanics, road workers, hardcore rockers with stretched ears and grizzly beards, computer geeks, and even, in Phil Collins’ case, a chef. But one thing none of them seem to be is pretentious about their rides.
Aside from some natural competitiveness, Collins says, “people here aren’t usually like ‘hey, my car is the best.’ They don’t come here to prove how much louder they can make their car than somebody else. I get annoyed with people like that.”
Jun Lin, a salesman at a local Heritage Honda, agrees. “I’m not a huge fan of this new breed of kids who sometimes pop up wanting to talk smack,” he says, turning to unlock his blue 2000 Civic SI. “Check out the interior!” he calls to a passing admirer.
“This meeting is in no way exclusive like some of the others around here,” says Fullerton resident Rob Farley. “It’s not just tuner cars or muscle cars, it’s a good mix. You’ve got trucks with [smoke] stacks, and,” he adds with a playful nod at Collins, “little red ricers.”
“There’s never a lot of animosity here,” says Shelton, which, as Farley alluded to, doesn’t always seem to be the case at similar local gatherings, such as one that meets nearby on Sundays.
Unlike the Joppa Road group, says Shelton, “it can be difficult to talk to people you don’t know there. Friend-making can be an issue.”
“It’s extremely cliquey,” adds Farley, “it’s not like here at all.”
The overall consensus from those familiar with the other meet-ups is about the same. Says Towson University student Sean Shiflett of one, “I think I was one of the few people that went just to see the cars and talk about them, and not act like a nuisance in the [residential] community, starting fights and races.”
Despite the occasional, as Shelton puts it, “minor immaturities” (like his habit of using the train horn he has installed in his other car, a VW Golf, to “scare the crap out of people”), those who live nearby have had little reason for concern or irritation from the Satyr Hill crew
“Even in the summer,” says Farley, when the turn-out here is at its highest, “I’ve never seen any real trouble. I won’t say no one has ever raced home down Perring Parkway, but bullcrap is a rarity.” It’s clear that this minimal-drama atmosphere is, in large part, what keeps these guys coming back each week.
“It’s like our home on Wednesday nights,” says a passing owner of another Civic.
Coming here so devotedly, adds Shelton, “actually put a big dent in my relationship for awhile. It got to be kind of a pothole.”