The well-traveled smart set for years has been predicting ignoble death for the ricksha, that faintly exotic, quaintly barbaric contraption by which one poor soul transports another.
But even the best-intentioned of cognoscenti can be wrong.
If an ex-city cop and a Cockeysville, Maryland, barkeep get their way, the avenues of downtown Baltimore may some day resemble, at least in one respect, the sidestreets, of Karachi and Calcutta.
Strollers in Baltimore's Little Italy and nearby Fell's point have been gawking the last three weekends at bicycle-driven rickshas, called "pedicabs," that shimmer with the city colors of yellow and black as they careen through the roadways.
With the opening next week of Harborplace, Baltimore's $18 million answer to Fanueil Hall, these alien machines may soon be swirling at the city's inner harbor in a maelstrom of shuttle-buses, taxis, police mounts and possibly even horse-drawn carriages.
So the city, a relative newcomer to the joys of rampant tourism, is fielding an inter-departmental task force charged, among other duties, with tackling the vexing matter of pedicab regulation. "No one even knows if we have the laws to regulate the thing," says Jay Caplan, assistant city solicitor.
Clark Richard McCauley, commissioner of transit and traffic, is chief among the skeptics. "These pedicabs take up considerably more space than a bicycle," he reasons, "and if ill-driven cars tend to be projectiles, these things make pretty good targets."
But hold on, this won't be mean and nasty, the cop and the barkeep insist. This will be -- well -- kind of warm and nice.
"Isn't it amazing how everybody's all stirred up?" says Tom Russell, a native of northeast Baltimore. "Jeez, I don't think even hunger would cause such a stir."
As the ne'er-do-wells of Baltimore's unruly northwest district can confirm, Russell is a fellow not lightly to be trifled with. A serviceably built mesomorph, he swings from brooding to effervescence with the greatest of ease. Last January, at 32 -- a divorce, a new marriage, eight years of crimefighting and an untold number of wrecked cruisers under his gun belt -- Russell said good riddance to his $16,000 salary and went for the main chance, lauching Russell's Ricksha, Inc.
In his eyes these days, he has that watery glint that speaks of inspiration -- probably the same glint that greeted a cab driver several years back, when Russell, intent on catching a purse-snatcher, jumped in and ordered the poor man into hot pursuit.
"I think this ricksha thing is great for him, 'cause the job was driving him bananas," says Baltimore patrolman Charles Busse, Russell's ex-partner and still-close friend. (At the station house, they earned the not altogether laudatory nicknames "Starsky and Hutch" for their unorthodox methods.) "I just hope the city don't screw him."
And then there is Rick Bond, Russell's partner in pedicabs. A lanky, bearded bartender and nightclub manager in Cockeysville, where he met Russell as a neighbor in a swinging singles apartment building, Bond learned of Russell's pedicab scheme only through dint of hard work. "I knew he had been working some time on some secret operation, everbody in the building knew it, the way he kept running around," says Bond. "So I did a little digging. iFinally I saw a few letters from strange places and it wasn't too hard to figure out what he was up to."
At 26 Bond has, around the corners of his eyes, the sagacious look of a man who has just dropped $10,000 to make a good buddy's dream come true.
"I have a lot of confidence in Tom," says Bond, solemn as a dirge. "When Tom says he's gonna do something, I have no doubt that it's gonna go over."
Together on the subject of their pedicabs, the two of them simmer with a zeal to be matched only by the very missionaries who first imported the hand-pulled model to the heathen Orient more than a century ago.
When the Communists came to power in China in 1948, they were quick to banish the ricksha as an odious vestige of running-dog imperialism, and now so has just about every other country in Asia. The thing still persists in Calcutta, but in most cases the pedicab has taken its place. In the United States, experience with pedicabs is rare to non-existent.
"In no way is this like the old ricksha, the slave wagon or the beast-of-burden type of machinery," Russell says in the grimy leased garage that passes for his corporate office, off Little Italy's Eastern Avenue. "What we have here is a specially fabricated piece of equipment designed to do exactly what it does: take people around efficiently, without using any gas."
In the absence of any pedicab ordinance -- and it could be quite a while, the solicitor's office says, before Baltimore gets one -- Russell and Bond are operating their pedicabs from the Little Italy garage, insuring them to the tune of $300,000 apiece for liability and leasing them, when they can, to strong-legged drivers, who in turn charge $1.50 per passenger, plus tip, for a 10-minute jaunt around the block, and keep what they clear.
"On a good night," says 22-year-old Tony Frederick, Russell's Ricksha's first driver other than the owners themselves, "I can pedal 32 miles and not feel it at all. And maybe I can make 40 bucks. Of course, there are a few drunks and weird people who get in the cab. There was one guy who told me he just wanted to go around the block and then kept shouting, 'Go straight, go straight,' over and over."
Russell and Bond also give their prospective pedalers, who must have a valid Maryland driver's license, pamphlets on bicycle safety and an oral primer on pedicabs -- though not one on drunks and crazies.
"We don't want anything to happen to them," Bond says of the machines. "They're like our children."
Russell and Bond currently have four pedicabs and expect delivery on four more -- from "out west," they say cryptically, exchanging secretive glances.
"Before we knew what was available," Russell says, "we had a mind's eye view of what we wanted. We wanted it to be clean and nice, with good lines.
We knew it had to be American-made. The ones I saw from overseas looked too Oriental."
Wrought of fiberglass and gleaming chrome, the pedicabs weigh slightly less than 200 pounds each and boast three wheels, five gears for easy propulsion, coiled-spring shock absorbers, a rear differential to prevent capsizing in tight turns, an abundance of headlights and blinkers powered by a motorcycle battery and a yellow, 2-passenger cab, handsomely appointed with black vinyl upholstery and a cream-colored, collapsible canvas hood.
The hood is accented, Russell and Bond note with pride, by a delicate white fringe and in the rear, there is a handy space for advertising, which the two are willing to rent out for $150 a month.
"You think that's expensive?" Russell says, crouching as he lovingly polishes a spoke with a torn white shirt bearing a Baltimore Police Department emblem. "Let me show you something."
Hopping into the pedicab, he drives out to the street and parks it with the rear facing outward. Before long, nearly every passing car on Eastern Avenue slows down as both drivers and passengers crane necks out windows.
"Now, tell me that's expensive," Russell challenges with a broad smile. "I'm not out to make a million dollars, but if it comes, I won't turn it down."