I had to use the roll-in to get enough speed going up the bank. That was the first hurdle. The kids around me hopped on and went for it. I kept letting them snake in front of me. I needed to understand the physics before I committed. At least with a roll-in, you never lose contact with the ramp. When you drop in, you have to redirect the nose of your skateboard, from horizontal to vertical, using only your gravity, sense of balance, and most importantly, your confidence.
I just started skating again after a 20-plus-year hiatus, and in the past few months I came to realize how natural having a skateboard under my feet feels. I also came to realize that I bruise and break much easier than I did as a teenager. It took a good 5 months to recover from a broken tailbone; still, I kept skating throughout because once broken it can’t become more broken. You might think 50 lbs. of additional muscle and fat on my frame would prove a benefit to my body slamming on the pavement – not so much.
As a teenager I was a competent skateboarder, more capable of ollieing large gaps and stair sets than doing technical flip tricks. As I was closing the door on my own skating, the younger kids were figuring out ways to blend the big air twists and flicks of vert-ramp skating with the fluid flips of freestyle skaters. At 16 with knobby knees and boney hips, flinging off the top of an eight-set staircase was more my thing. I might manage a 180 flip but what I wanted to feel most was the speed and flight.
The key to skating is confidence, a thing sorely lacking for me. Acne, braces, and glasses like goggles, I was frequently the target of bullies and often the butt of jokes. Not to mention that in the late 80s skateboarding was frowned upon to the point of being made illegal in many communities across the country. My little town was no exception. Skateboarding made us instant outcasts – outlaws as well. My first ride in the back of a cop car, barely a teen, was because of skateboarding. I was riding to the library when the Chief of Police pulled alongside me and told me to get in the back of his cruiser, he was taking me to have a talk with my parents. Somehow rebelling against the law (however ridiculous) didn’t automatically equate to being considered untouchable by the cool kids or bullies. For one thing, skateboarding was only something for weirdos at that time. Often, when I was out street skating, I’d hear shouts from passing cars, “Hey Faggot!” Fortunately, a thick slab of wood with two solid steel axels on it could make for a convincing weapon when bullies got up close and personal. Cops were undaunted by our boards though, so we relied on them being too lazy to chase us, which was frequently the case.
A recent episode of the podcast 99% Invisible featured Roman Mars, the podcast producer, talking about having grown up in Zanesville, Ohio, in the 80s and bullied for being a skater, “even though I’ve never ridden a skateboard in my life,” Mars said. The point being that any midwestern kid who stood out from the crowd was often lumped in with the “skater fags,” and ultimately what impact that experience has on a person. So, as both someone out of the mainstream, and an actual skateboarder, I learned to celebrate the other in my peer groups, because we only had each other. This was how we all survived the bullies in our lives – including for some of us, of course, run-ins with the cops.
The foot or so of vertical drop on this triggered an unusual sense of self-preservation in me. What was I trying to prove with a roll-in anyhow? I’m in my mid-forties, I have a daughter who winces at a paper cut. Actually, it was the slightest hint from her that she might be interested in skateboarding that brought me back into it. After only a few attempts, she’d had enough. For me that was just a taste. A long clean addict getting high and wanting to go higher once again.
There is a significant dialectic to skateboarding. You will suffer significantly before seeing any success. The only plausible explanation for repeatedly trying again is that you take joy in the suffering, and you celebrate the success. As a kid I worked odd jobs throughout the year in order to afford the cost of new skateboards. Most of these jobs involved yard work and farm labor – both of which brought about a significant amount of pain due to my vast array of allergies. Regardless, I did what I did in order to feel the adrenaline rush of landing a new trick and rooting on my friends as they went for it too.
In my current office job, there is a similar pain and reward dynamic that I feel keeps me engaged. I suffer under overwhelming workloads, usually dropped on me as much due to my competence as it is as a sort of retribution. My department is responsible for enforcing rules meant to maintain legal and ethical requirements associated with state purchasing. Kant would have strong feelings about how my job is impossible. I would agree with him. For Kant, you either act ethically because you desire to, or you are not ethical. Any exterior motivation to be ethical is not in Kant’s philosophy. Unfortunately, my bosses don’t subscribe to Kantian thought. My bosses tend toward the cliché of do as I say, not as I do. On the rare occasion that a boss of mine gets caught publicly in a compromising situation, I quietly celebrate. Most of the time however, I am quietly suffering. Proving to my bosses I can take whatever they throw at me, as revenge or otherwise, is admittedly sadistic; but, when they get caught out, I get a heavy dose of self-satisfaction as my reward.
This particular skatepark is near one of my work locations where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately. Knowing I can loosen my tie and trousers at the end of the day, slap on shorts and a T-shirt, and skate away the day’s frustrations is worth every penny of the $10 admission.
Standing next to me on the platform, about 10 feet up above the warehouse floor, is a curly haired blonde kid. He’s about the age of my daughter, 11 or 12. The fact I’m his dad’s age doesn’t seem to matter to him. He’s egging me on the way skaters do the world over. A mixture of encouragement and harassment – all meant to push each other further. Admittedly it is more effective coming from some of the guys my age that I skate with, but when you’re bumping your head on the rafters of a warehouse you have to take encouragement where you can get it.
“Dude, you got this, and if you don’t it will make a hilarious clip on my Insta,” he says, his iPhone pointed at me. What I’m about to do isn’t by any means the most difficult or scariest thing I’ve done; but, it’s the first time I’ve done it, and my brain is far too focused on what might go wrong than what I need to do to make it.
“Yeah, yeah, get off my lawn kid,” I say. He laughs. I take a deep breath.
For balance I reach for the rafter just above me. With my right hand stabilizing myself, I place both my feet over the bolts on my board. The 10 or so feet between me and the concrete floor feels diminished after watching so many of these kids roll-in like it was no big deal. I repeat to myself that it is no big deal, this is just rolling downhill, bend your knees and don’t panic, this is no big deal.
Before and after, I will disagree, I will think it is a big deal for me, but in the moment the mantra must remain, this is no big deal, this is no big deal.
“Fuck it,” I say, “here I go.”
On the other side of the park, is an inclined bank with a steel handrail running up the length of it, stretching out flat across the plateau of incline, a few feet of runout before coming to the warehouse wall. Doing a board slide the length of this handrail is my ultimate goal. Halfway between the roll-in and the handrail is a small pyramid ramp that I can just pop-over. The height of the pyramid is enough though, so that without the roll-in I don’t have enough speed to slide the rail. Of course, with the additional speed from the roll-in, I find my simple pop-over turns into a sizable amount of air between my wheels and the downside of the pyramid. I love that feeling of flight, especially when it is unexpected. Apparently, I love the feeling of slamming my shoulder into the warehouse floor as well, because the unexpected air resulted in an unbalanced landing. The hoots from the kids cheering my roll-in on turned to laughter when they saw me eat it.
I laugh too, even with blood running down my calf from fresh road rash on my knee. In my two years back skating, it’s been rare when one or both my knees aren’t scabby; the same could be said regarding my left elbow. I know it is gross and unhealthy, but I can’t help picking them. The feeling of hard, inflexible outer scab breaking away from the wound, the glue-like inner scab stretching tentacles of healed flesh until they rip free, leaving behind a mixture of white and red blood cells glistening in the air is somehow both painful in the moment and very satisfying.
My board in my hand I climb back to the top of the roll-in. No more hesitation, I know I can make it and I know what to expect. One kid rolls in, then another. I wait for them to clear the line I’m taking. In one fluid motion I’m accelerating down the ramp, across the pavement and up one side of the pyramid. A small pop and I clear just the crest of the pyramid before rocketing down the other side. Another short section of flat ground, then it is up the bank at the far end. Coming off the bank, I pop the tail of my board, ollieing 90 degrees into a backside boardslide across the metal railing. I feel fast, airborne, balanced – free! At the end of the rail I begin my pivot. The railing runs parallel to the flat, about three feet above it. This should be plenty of drop to pivot the 90 degrees back out of the slide, so my wheels are all tracking in a forward direction to allow a clean roll away.
Of course, skateboarding (like much of life) is rarely so forgiving. Getting to the end of a trick is often not the trickiest part. My friends and I joke how we would have landed the trick if we just put our feet back on the board. At the end of the rail, my board tilts, landing on the side of the wheels, perpendicular to how it should have, in what is known as “primo.” The skinny edge of the skateboard indenting my feet, bending my arches upward before ejecting me onto my butt.
My ankles don’t take the ejection well, particularly my right ankle, which has been so abused over my lifetime that it is permanently deformed.
“Dude, you OK? You almost had that,” one of the kids says, waiting for me to clear myself and my board from the ramp so they can drop in.
“Yeah, just want to get this damn boardslide,” I respond, lifting myself and my board up over the ramp coping and out of the way. Another half hour passes before I finally managed to roll away from the trick. By that point everyone else had left, and my victory was mine alone.
Over the years skateboarding has gone from being a fairly pure form of individual expression, not unlike dance, to an Olympic style sport. Competition tries to overcome comradery. I appreciate that this instinct to make skating all about money has been mostly staved off. Surely for me this has something to do with being a midwestern kid, who started skating in the 1980s; but no matter where you look, skateboarding rarely ever comes across as a job. Skateboarding and skateboarders are not monolithic, yet there is something forever anarchistic, if not nihilistic, that prevents them/it from ever feeling career oriented. I wonder if that’s what all of the pro-sports were once like? Given the number of municipalities that went so far as to outlaw skateboarding, I doubt it, but it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.
For me, this hostile atmosphere taught me empathy toward the dispossessed – whether they stepped out of line by choice, like myself, or have been ostracized for some socially constructed bullshit like class, race, or sexuality. Beyond empathy though are the lessons of physical and mental toughness that skateboarding teaches, over and over again.
The more I skate as an adult, the closer I come to understanding how much it shaped my life, even with the twenty years I took off. When there is no team, no coach, and no parent motivating you to repeatedly peel yourself off the pavement, that motivation comes solely from inside yourself. When your peers and your bosses are willing to accept mediocrity or are even willing to bully or break the law, the motivation to do the right thing and to be your best self can only come from within. Given the chance, I think an argument could be made that Kant would’ve been a skateboarder. Somewhere between obsession and an unwillingness to accept defeat is where skaters find themselves landing bolts. Both feet, catching the skateboard still in the air, in line with the trucks, the most balanced part of the setup. All wheels coming down in control, riding away clean and full of adrenaline.