Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared in the London Review of Books in 2003, titled "Using So Little." This slightly edited and updated version is excerpted from Sean Wilsey's new collection of essays, More Curious, out now from McSweeney's.
Personal Editor's Note: This is my favorite essay ever written about skateboarding.
Clopp. Ssh ... RRRaaaaooooowwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—
Skateboarding, from the outside, looks more like a metaphor than a thing in and of itself. Take the following pictures from old magazines: a girl in jeans, high tops, and T-shirt, arms outspread for balance, high up on a half pipe with a floppy white prom bow in her hair. A boy sliding his board along a handrail four feet above the pavement while wearing only a right shoe, because his entire left leg is in a cast. Another kid all in black, but with white socks, sliding along the lip of an indoor pool, with delicate blue tiles at its edge (most of them ripped out by skating), rubble in the background, a toilet seat in the foreground, and a big skylight, with what looks like a knotted sheet hanging from one corner, providing both access and illumination. Sleeping bags in the bottom of a pristine pool behind an unsold, newly constructed suburban mansion—full of boys sleeping off a day of skating.
Skateboarders sprang up in the same moment as the modern city. Dirt and cobblestones disappeared and there we were! A 1952 photograph of the Children's Aid Society's Anything on Wheels derby shows a gang of kids from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a handful of rogues (all out in front) with steel rollerskate wheels bolted to planks. The first skateboarders. They are girls and boys, black and white, from the city's poorest, most paved neighborhood, and they outnumber the spectating adults in the photograph by thirteen to one. The boy whose father takes him swimming, the girl whose mother takes her to the theater, children whose parents do things with them—these are not skateboarders.
It took off for real in the 1970s, a combination of surfers without waves and pools without water, drained by the California drought. Now, as the world becomes more like America, more paved and less natural, skating improves. We already outnumber football and baseball players in the US. We'll overtake global soccer next. Despoilment is gorgeous to a skateboarder.
The steepest hills in San Francisco—where I grew up and learned to skate—lead up to and around Russian Hill, which isn't a hill but a series of hills. From North Beach, at the bottom, you can see Russian Hill's hills rolling—planed into paved geometry, but rolling underneath. The steepest of these crests is in the middle of Filbert Street between Hyde and Leavenworth. The roadway midblock seems to disappear, like an incomplete section of elevated freeway. It looks as if the city is dangling nine hundred feet in the air. When you drive a car up to the lip it drops too steeply even to see ground past the end of the hood. The drop is demarcated by two yellow-and-black signs that say: STEEP GRADE AHEAD BUSES AND LARGE TRUCKS NOT ADVISABLE AND SHARP CREST 10 MILES PER HOUR.
My best friend, a boy now dead whose name was Blane Morf, got a skateboard while I was away at an Eastern boarding school. When I came home for summer vacation—on probation for a straight D-minus average, largely attributable to the fact that I was hazed mercilessly for being from San Francisco (making me a "fag")—I discovered that he was a skater. Since there weren't many other skaters, Blane didn't know any other skaters. And even if there had been, the kind of personality that 's drawn to skateboarding is the kind of personality that's not given to sociability.
Skateboarders are lonely. Skateboarders are not well loved.
I was lonely and not well loved!
I tried his board. He taught me a few things. It was no fun watching while the other skated, so he begged me to get my own. I got some money out of my mother (guilty about boarding school), went down to the skate shop, and bought myself a skateboard. Then I climbed to the top of Russian Hill.
At the crest of Green, where it meets Leavenworth, is the lower of the summits of Russian Hill. Green then slopes down again, leveling off midblock on its way to Jones and my house, behind which is the higher summit, at the end of Vallejo. By San Francisco standards, this bit of slope isn't a hill, because it kinks back to horizontal after about half a block.
I set down my board, stepped on, pushed off. My plan was to roll the whole slope and use the flat to slow down gradually before the intersection. I had no backup plan.
The acceleration was instant. In a matter of seconds I was moving faster than my legs had ever taken me. After thirty feet I was moving faster than I'd ever moved outside of a car. Faster. Without thinking I locked my legs at the knees and stood as if I were trying to look over a fence, the instinct—a terrible instinct—being to get as far away as possible from the rushing tarmac. My knees should have been bent, body low, arms out to the sides. The board started rocking side to side, trucks (the metal suspension/steering system) slamming back and forth, fast, hard left, and then fast, hard right. It felt like the board was possessed and wanted to throw me off. I had what's known among skaters as the (dreaded) speed wobbles. And once they start there 's no way to stay on.
I bailed just before the bottom of the slope and tried to run it out, knees aching when I hit the ground, going so fast it was like a wind was pushing me from behind. I kept my feet for ten feet and watched my new board rocketing down the block toward the intersection. Then the speed shoved me over. I pitched forward, screamed "Fuck!" with more emotion than I'd ever expressed in public (skateboarding, like learning a foreign language, offers a whole new personality), and as I heard my voice echo off the buildings I slammed onto the street, hands first, torso second, thighs third, calves and feet up in the air behind me—and began to slide.
This was like bobsledding! I had all the speed of a bobsledder. But without the sled, or snow. There was just me and some fabric and the concrete.
I was no longer going down the center of the street, but, since my last step had been off my right foot, I was plowing into the oncoming left lane, toward the parallel-parked cars on the far side of the street, my destination the front tire of a dark-blue two-door Honda. I braced for impact, closed my eyes, missed the tire, and instead went under the driver's-side door—a deeper dark filled my head—and kept going, calves banging against the car's plastic frame and flopping back down, head dinging off something in the undercarriage and then down to the street, until I was wedged under the trunk, between gas tank and pavement, my cheek jammed up on the curb.
The curb is the piece of the city that skaters are most often concerned with. Mine was cold, and I could smell it: oil and salt. I also could taste it in the back of my throat. Piss. I'd never looked properly at curbs until I learned to skate, and I haven't looked at them the same way since. Steel-edged ones make for long, fast grinds (slides on your trucks). Regular ones make for loud, sloppy grinds. This one was plain and clean and angular, no rounded steel edge (coping, as skaters and masons call it). I was feeling a strange mixture of sensations: pain, embarrassment, isolation, and a pleasurable sort of intimacy with the hidden parts of the city. I felt like I had just survived a rare experience. I was glad to be still. I thought that beneath a Honda might be a good place to lie low for a while and nurse my wounds. I had never crawled under a car on the street before. There was something good about it. There was un-burned-off morning fog under there.
Then—shit!—I remembered my board. I scrambled back out.
I stood, but I couldn't move. The slide beneath the car had ripped my pants off. I stood on top of Russian Hill in my underwear, ankles cuffed together. I pulled my pants back up. They were full of holes. My shirt looked like someone had thrown acid at me. My chin was sore. The skin was grated off the palms of my hands. I started to run.
A man and two women, all middle-aged, him in a light brown suede jacket, came running toward me. The women hollered: "Oh my God!" The man bellowed: "Are you OK? Are you OK?"
"Yeah, yeah—I'm fine! Fine! " I said, angry, and then I ran faster, chasing my board, which had made it across the intersection, my hamburger hands throbbing, holding up my trousers, feeling slow compared to moments before. I'm proud to say that I got on and pushed the last twenty feet to my house.
For the next four years, being from San Francisco meant being from the world capital of skateboarding. The city where Thrasher magazine was published, and half the photos in it were taken. After sliding beneath the car I came out in another city. I'd never understood skateboarding before that fall. Skating is a feeling. If you really want to get it, you have to do it.
The magazine—which has been around since 1981, starting up at the lowest point in the history of skateboarding, with no hope of making any money—almost succeeds in conveying skateboarding, without skateboarding. Every skater used to read Thrasher. To thrash, according to Webster's, means "to dispense a beating" (to curb, ledge, handrail, coping); "to move in an uncontrolled, restless manner" (inevitable on a skateboard); or, in sailing, "to move against the wind." All are correct. And there is no higher honor that can be accorded a skateboarder than to be considered a thrasher.
Thrasher used to sneer at those of us who carried our skateboards. So for years I would skate up hills, which is much harder and slower than sprinting up them. They also used to disparage skaters who didn't skate every day. I never understood these people. Obviously you should skate every day. And think about it every minute of every day. I never went anywhere without my skateboard. I watched less TV than my parents. I skated in my room when it rained. There were days of fulfillment and frustration as a skater, days you fell down and days you landed, but nothing felt better than the way you'd sleep at the end of a day when your feet had hardly touched the ground— drifting off, board beside your bed, reliving it as you went under, still feeling the motion in your body, like the way you feel the rocking of a boat after you've come ashore, and then dreaming about doing it all over again.
At the height of my skateboarding abilities—and I was never better than average—I would fly down hills, turn the board sideways and slide the wheels to decelerate, then pull the slide all the way round into a 180, ride backwards, then kick-turn forwards again, then do another slide, plant one leg and boost ("boneless") off a notch cut in the hill for someone's garage, fly, replace my foot on the board, land, roll, pop off the curb into the intersection at the bottom of the hill, and weave through traffic to the next block. There are various stopping methods: stepping back on the tail, taking the board from level to a 45-degree tilt and then skidding wood on concrete (acceptable then, distasteful now); dragging your rear foot while maintaining balance on the board with your front one; or, most elegant and difficult, turning the whole board sideways and putting the urethane of your wheels into a long, controlled slide.
The skateboard is the most versatile urban conveyance. In a crowded city, no one on foot or bike or in a car can ever hope to keep up with you. Up and down stairs. On buses and trains in an instant. Kick it up into your hands and it's a club to ward off danger; throw it back down and you're gone. In a paved landscape skateboarders are both dangerous and invisible, inhabitants of the interstices—rats, the city a series of tunnels and chutes, skaters perfectly adapted.
One summer day, a year after I'd started skating, a few months after I was kicked out of the boarding school, Blane and I were cruising down Market Street. Market is a long, wide, diagonal slot through the city to the bay. We were moving through the edge of the run-down Tenderloin, SF's skid row, and I was feeling confident from the good skating I'd put in the day before. Blane was about ten feet ahead.
Market Street is like a river for skateboards. It slopes slightly, heads toward the bay, and requires almost no effort to ride to the end. It takes you past run-down buildings and drunks in the Tenderloin, canyons of skyscrapers and businessmen in the financial district, and then both mixed in with tourists at the end, as it empties out like a waterfall into the basin of the Embarcadero Plaza, at the edge of the bay, where all the city's skaters used to gather. Market's sidewalks are polished brick and so beautifully laid as to be almost seamless (again, only a skater or a mason would notice). The seams are just wide enough to make a lot of noise without slowing you down. When you click over them they send a wall of sound ahead: the unmistakable skateboard rumble of rolling urethane interrupted by wood tails hitting cement and occasional squeals of wheels going sideways into slides—Market being so easy to slide, the polished brick offering much less friction than tarmac or cement. Cloppssh ... RRRaaaaooooowwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrr—reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepppp—rrraaaaooooowwww wwrrrrrrrppp ... The noise put us in a trance. We'd push off for more speed, the decibels would spike, heads would whip around up ahead, conversation would go back and forth.
After a few minutes we passed a dirty brick building. A punk kid—skinny, bitter expression, tight, pale face broken out with zits, black pants pulled close to his legs with glimmering silver safety pins—stepped out of its doorway, looked at Blane, sneered, cocked his head at me, and said: "Skaters suck."
Then he kicked back and smirked.
I looked him in the eye and said: "You suck." This was something I would never have said as a pedestrian.
His face fell in surprise. "What?" he said, jerking straight. "What did you say?"
"You suck," I repeated.
He faded into the doorway. It had been such a righteous burn I figured he'd combusted in shame.
Then, as I drew level with the doorway, he reemerged. And four skinheads in flight jackets and Doc Martens popped out behind him. The punk pointed at me and shouted: "Get him!" All four leaped and missed.
Blane and I started flailing our legs—kicking way out in front of our chests and all the way back behind us—and propellering our arms, crouching down low, doing all we could to move our boards as fast as possible. They started running in their heavy, many-eyed boots, awkwardly, as though they were tripping down a flight of stairs, over and over again. We pushed hard, going for all the speed we could get, our skateboard sounds amplifying and people in front of us now turning and scattering, their faces registering unmitigated fear of the spectacle that was thundering toward them—which, through my own terror, I was just able to register as totally cool.
Their boots weren't stopping. They weren't just trying to scare us. They kept shouting: "Come back here!" We skated harder, and their shouts, as they explained how they were going to kill us (first pummelling us down to the sidewalk with our skateboards, then kicking and stomping), started to get strained. A skateboard, with sixty-millimeter wheels that require minimal impetus to complete a revolution, and so get up to speed—is probably faster getting off the line than any other vehicle. Much, much faster than sprinting or bicycling or skiing; or, for the first two seconds (an eternity), a Kawasaki Ninja or an F-16. We skated harder—we were going to get away. Unless we hit a big crack and our wheels got caught.
From the point of view of a sixteen-year-old in 1986, skinheads were the most terrible force in America. Arousing sufficient anger to provoke pursuit: this was an honor, like being in a movie, or the pages of Thrasher. There were fabled skinhead murders, and whole San Francisco neighborhoods—the Haight—under their dominion. We were skating for our very lives. A single skinhead possessed the might of an entire high school. But four of them? If we won, made them look weak, it would be truly awesome. Like having skate-granted superpowers. Our skateboards made us better than them. And skateboards were what had provoked them. They were envious.
After a couple of blocks I dove down a stairwell for the mono-line subway that runs the length of Market Street—useful as a sort of skateboard chairlift to get you back up so you could flow down Market again—kicking my board up into my hand without stopping, flying/falling down the stairs, then leaping the turnstile as though SF were NYC while Blane ducked into a dusty sports memorabilia shop. On the platform there was silence, no sound of pursuing boots, and then a train. In the sports memorabilia shop Blane feigned interest in an autographed San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl game ball (there was nothing skateboard related). When Blane later told me he 'd been familiar with the players who'd autographed the ball, and that he'd actually enjoyed the sports memorabilia, I realized that his commitment to skateboarding had been surpassed by my own. After fifteen minutes of browsing he got the owner to see if it was safe to leave (a store proprietor would not have helped a fully committed skateboarder), and then skated away to the Embarcadero.
We arrived at the same time, told our story to the twenty or so assembled skaters in an adrenalized rush, and then a semi-homeless skate-rat kid, whom I considered a friend, stepped out of the pack and said: "You shouldn't go messing with skins. You're gonna get our asses kicked." Everyone was silent. Then he smiled, a chip-toothed skater's grin (one that I would copy after slamming directly onto my upper incisors a couple weeks later), and shouted: "You suck!"
And so I went deeper into the other San Francisco.
A lot of letters were sent to Thrasher about running, or being hurt, or persecuted, or lawless, or luckless—written by skaters with names like Erik Tunafish, Kenny "Gator Bait" Walsh, Bug, Chunk, Skinard, Duckie, Schmoe, or, frequently, Incarcerated Skater. Skaters were lonely and harassed and unsupervised and rolling around all over America with nobody but each other to talk to. (Or locked up in sufficient numbers to justify a skaters' prison.) In a stack of the magazine, dating back to the 1980s, I found the following shouts of ignorance, confusion, joy, despair, insanity, and rebellion.
From Kinston, North Carolina: "Hey, we live the fast life—it rules being a skater... Ever since I picked up a board my entire life has changed up. Right now it isn't really so great. I am locked down in a reform school for flipping out at school and for threatening my teacher." (Soon I would be, too.)
The Deep South: "Me and the other skaters from the neighborhood built a halfpipe. While we were having a session, a bunch of Klanners pulled up in a pickup and threw a Molotov cocktail on the ramp. No one was hurt but the ramp burnt to the ground. The cops won't do anything because half of them are in the Klan."
Lake Zurich, Illinois: "I went to the local 7-11... the manager hit me in the back of the head with a can of beef jerky." Colorado Springs, Colorado: "We were having lots of fun and then... our neighbor, 'William,' started drinking beer and staring at us. Then, out of nowhere, William started up a chainsaw and cut my [ramp] into six pieces."
Westtown, New York: "I have been riding skateboards since 1976... I'm glad that skateboarding is a crime. I love being a fucking outlaw asshole."
New York City: "I'm in a body cast and I can't wait to get out so I can skate again."
Fort Grant, Arizona: "Fuck your 'zine and everything about skating. I'm sitting in Arizona State Prison for two years because of it."
Redwood Shores, California: "I'm a 12-year-old skater... I have a problem. My parents don't really like to buy me shoes. I just wanted to know if it could happen—if I could get some shoes. If you guys could get me some free shoes, that would be great! If not, I'd understand."
Melbourne, Florida: "Sometimes in conversation with acquaintances the question will come up, 'What do you miss most about freedom?' Without the slightest hesitation, I say: 'Skateboarding.' The looks I get in return are shocking to say the least. 'Dude, what about chicks? Beer? Parties?' Obviously these people have never spent all-nighters ollieing the gap in downtown." (To ollie is to simultaneously jump and kick the board so that it stays attached to your feet. To fly.)
Wichita Falls, Texas: "I was skating with my friend Sam at McDonald's. We were skating the curb out front when a lot of parents and their kids went in for some kind of party. They were giving us bad looks. About five minutes later Ronald McDonald came out in his clown suit. He started griping and telling us to leave. I fell down and my board hit the curb and flew up and hit Ronald McDonald in the dick (groin)... Ronald McDonald is now firing assault charges on Sam and I. Wish us luck." Jacksonville, Florida: "Today is my birthday and the only thing I found in my mailbox was the March issue of Thrasher. Thanks for remembering!!"
Parents read Thrasher, too. The magazine, one wrote, "offends and harasses the educated reader." Another was confused. "My 15-year-old boy loves to skateboard. That's great. It's good, clean fun. Also good exercise. But tell me, what... the following topics have to do with skateboarding? 1. As-hole 2. F-ck 3. Sexy Lover 4. Warrior from Hell 5. Demonic Wizard 6. Cannibal Women 7. Lou Ferrigno getting laid..." This parent concluded, "Until today, I have allowed this trash in my home. But no more!"
Thrasher's editors would usually print an italicized response to each letter, signed "T-ed."
When a locked-up skater begged for a free subscription—"I'm hoping my years of devotion... along with the Thrasher tattoo I got on my arm at age 17 will pay off... I'm at your mercy"—he was told "It sounds to me like yer dick is in yer hand. T-ed." When the author of a long screed ended by asking, "Do you want to skate and have fun, or bake cookies with your mommy?" T-ed replied, "There is nothing wrong with cooking with your mother." The succinct retort was something I was trying to master. That's why I'd told the punk kid he sucked. I was trying to be T-ed.
I loved Thrasher most when it claimed the unskateable for skaters. With each new issue I turned first to the cooking column: "Skarfing Material," written by "Chef-Boy-Am-I-Hungry," who declared his elevated taste by illustrating the first installment with a photograph of a 1975 Sebastiani "Proprietor's Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon (a wine, in its '74 bottling, that reviewers on cellertracker.com, "the world's most complete database" of wine, described as "beautifully balanced and offering lots of pleasure"). Skarfing Material exploded and deflated food writing as if it could somehow see, in the early 1980s, what the genre would become. It still feels avant garde today. The Chef, skater that he was, always moved unpredictably between the low and the high. His ingredients included "Perrier from France," pheasant, fresh okra ("okra winphrey"), Cornish game hen, anisette liqueur ("if you're a recovering alcoholic or straight edge skip the anisette"), wine, fish stock, Velveeta, M&M's, Oreos, marshmallows and chow mein noodles (together), and "as much ice cream as your gut can take." He frequently called for "wieners." He once suggested that "While you let them cool, you might want to get some food coloring for some special hot dog colors."
Skarfing Material existed because nobody was cooking for us. The Chef cared. The Chef was, in his lawless way, wise. An early column offered a wide-ranging denouncement of McDonald 's (illustrated by a kid projectile vomiting in front of the golden arches), and was full of facts about meat consumption and industrial agriculture that—more Thrasher prescience—were a couple decades ahead of their time. The Chef traveled to Europe ("I am in Italy, oh Italy"). He described how to "build" a salad, and suggested we purchase specialized cooking equipment, like steamer baskets and tongs, "If you can afford them." The Chef was the father I wanted.
As he wrote:
"O.K. this is what I did. I went to a grocery store across town, where I've never been before and I stole a whole bunch of groceries without getting caught. Now you don't have to do this because most of you are too impressionistic and would probably get caught." Recently, a skater I know taught a free class to inner-city kids at Asphalt Green, a recreation center run by the New York City Parks Department in upper Manhattan. When she brought her students a bag of apples they reacted first with confusion—"What is this?"— then joy—"It's delicious!" As the Chef had written several decades before: "What's wrong with fruit? Sometimes it seems as if humankind is losing its taste for fruit. Try to eat some everyday, besides, it's cheap... Some varieties come with a free sticker."
This was the voice of Thrasher: wily, dirty, broke but unbroken, dictionary checked out of the SF public library (pietism, penultimate, suffragette, prosy, and magnum opus fall right out of the column), a mélange of prose styles to match the incompatibility of his ingredients:
At least one column was purportedly written from prison. When readers complained that recipes were too complex. The Chef derided the "very uncomplex personalities who read the mag" and published this:
A typical recent letter to Thrasher said: "Skateboarding is going corporate. The one thing to blame for this, I think, is that fucking Tony Hawk video game. It's got little seven-year-old kids playing with finger boards and saying that me and my friends suck at skating because we can't launch off 15-foot vert ramps or do 900s" (two and a half midair rotations).
And it's hard not to hate how skating has changed. Tony Hawk, skating's celebrity and the man now-defunct Big Brother Skateboarding magazine (Larry Flynt, briefly, publisher) referred to, unironically, as "our ambassador," is a perfect video-game character. No pain, all precision. In the 1980s, as a teenager, encouraged by his father, the president of the National Skateboarding Association, he won every contest and was the exception that defied the rule of the parentless, rejected, lonely, Scarfing Material–fed skater. Unlike virtually every other pro in Thrasher, he always wore full pads and a helmet. He was also the exception that made it big; that cashed in. Hawk, whose annual income was reported in the early '00s at $10 million, is responsible, more than anything else, for the current watered-down hugeness of skateboarding. The arrival of skaters as athletes. He was the first human being for whom skateboarding was a career instead of a last resort or a refuge. Because of the economics brought to skating by Hawk (who is in no way malign—I don't begrudge him the success he's earned), no pro will attempt something really hard without a full video crew there to document it. And to produce their video snippets these skaters go through the antithesis of the true skating experience—uninterrupted flow—and do one thing over and over and over again: killing the imagination for the image. One pro lamented this predicament in an interview with Thrasher: "Everyone just does one trick at a time... You might think they're super sick but then you'll see them push and it looks like they've never even touched a skateboard before." Skateboarding has been reduced to doing stunts for money.
Another pro who embodies technically perfect skating and yet is Tony Hawk's opposite (while also being Hawk's friend) is Rodney Mullen, whom I met and skated with one morning in 1986. I was rolling through an empty park in downtown SF and stopped when I saw him. He wore pulled-up tube socks and was skating with a boom box on which he was playing a cassette, recorded straight off the radio in Southern California, commercials and all, while practicing kickflips and heelflips, tiny, precise things that seemed like the work of Swiss watchmakers, with perfect balance and total concentration. We sat and talked for a while. He gave me some advice and I practiced while he watched. Then he signed a board that wasn't even his own pro model. I left with the impression that he was a gentle and modest person. He'd've fit right into a monastery. I had no idea that he had grown up on a cattle ranch, where, after completing his chores he would be left with half an hour of sunlight in which to skate. After he'd won the biggest contest in skateboarding his father had told him, "Good, now you can move on to something real."
In 2009 Mullen (then forty-three) told Tony Hawk that he always slept during the day and skated after midnight, usually in gas stations or parking lots, always alone: "That's like the joy for me. So if anyone watched me it would be so embarrassing."
As for pain:
This went on for two years, thirteen nights out of fourteen—"I'd take a day off every two weeks"—in a process that Mullen described as "breaking myself apart, pretty medievally." Cole Louison, a fact checker at GQ whose excellent book on the history of skateboarding, The Impossible, is named after a Mullen trick, spoke to him at length about this medieval period. Scar tissue "tears out like chewing gum that's kinda old, dry, and it'll stretch and stretch and stretch and that's when you're just giving up—and then a 'pop.' If you've ever broken bones you get a heat sensation, then a little nausea, then you get this crazy high." One evening Mullen was bouncing in the wheel well when he heard a sound "Like a tree branch. And my body hit the ground—not all of it, because I'm stuck in the wheel well, but the rest of it. And I looked up, and there was snot and tears on my hand. And I got that crazy high and I pulled myself out the best I could, lying on the ground going, 'God, what'd I do, what'd I do, what'd I do,' and I got up... I got on my skateboard and was like 'I did it! I did it! I did it!' I went home, slept for fourteen hours. I vomited."
Rodney Mullen—self-torturing; flipping ballet moves alone in a gas station at midnight—is as close to an authentic holy man as an American can get.
Skating alone is the purest experience. The flow of skating (what Incarcerated Skater terms "soul skating") makes for bad watching. Pictures are deceptive. Videos don't convey anything. How someone looks doing it has very little relation to the experience. A skateboarder moves like a thought. While skate videos cut from skater to skater doing trick after trick, making the whole enterprise (I refuse to call it a sport—and the US Department of Labor backs me on this: professional skaters are officially product spokespeople, not athletes) into something resembling an automobile plant at full capacity, welding chassis after chassis with skater robots. There's something inhuman about the way this most human and interior of activities has been put on display. The removal of all the trial and error and experimentation. Slo-mo can unpack a trick and make it beautiful, but the whole point of skateboarding is speed, which makes all the details invisible to everyone but the skater. Video games are better at replicating the feeling of pulling something good—like a long grind—but without the pain and practice that makes a trick more than a trick: the word trick itself being almost a travesty of what can be done on a skateboard.
My favorite skaters of the late 1980s and early 1990s—Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzales—would skate the Embarcadero just for fun, not for cameras. They were street skaters. They rolled and talked to everyone, then flew back into the city in search of spots. Stylistically, Natas Kaupas (Satan Sapuak backwards; Sapuak, according to Thrasher, meaning "God" in some ancient language) was the most inspiring. Today everyone cites him as an influence. Physically, he could have been a double for Tony Hawk, but with grace and style and imagination—and a loner's soul, like Mullen's. Natas was best known for ollieing directly onto a wall and riding it like a wave. There were photos of him doing this for the better part of a city block. He'd jump straight from the street to the vert, roll around twenty-five feet, depending on how much speed he had, and then kick back to the flat. He also could ollie onto a fire hydrant and revolve there, like an accelerated version of the fanciest restaurant in a midsize American city. (One disbelieving pro, on seeing a video of this feat, told a documentary film crew, "I still think it was smoke and mirrors, man.") There was something pact-with-the-devil-ish about Natas's ability to defy the laws of physics. Shortly after he appeared in Thrasher his sponsor began getting calls from parents and palindromists, convinced that skaters were being lured into Satanism. Natas swag was banned in schools and taken off shelves in shops. The name actually means "birth of Christ." It's Lithuanian for Noël—the nativity.
Compared to Hawk, Natas got relatively little recompense from skating (according to a letter in Thrasher, he ended up in porn). But he changed everything. In the late 1980s Hawk and the other ramp guys were just going back and forth, stuck there like hamsters, while this backwards-Satan kid found a way to take skating into the real world. That was the significance of pushing his board through the transition from horizontal to vertical and riding on walls—no ramp required. Freedom. And the humanization of inhuman landscapes with his body alone. No ramp-building schematics, spacious yard, and father's shed full of power tools required. I saw him skating at the Embarcadero that same skinhead summer and it was the most inspiring physical accomplishment I ever witnessed. He got lined up on top of a huge concrete wall, fifteen feet above the plaza. There was a launch ramp at the end of the wall, and he pushed toward it, getting up to speed, all the skaters watching in the plaza below anticipating a huge air when he hit it, and then he ollied right over the ramp, floated across a huge expanse of space, and landed impossibly far out in the plaza, as if to say: "I don't need your ramp. I don't need anything but my skateboard." We were all so awestruck nobody got so much as a picture.
But it's Tony Hawk everyone knows. He first pulled his famous 900 at the X Games, which are broadcast on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. (A recent Thrasher letter read: "Fuck ESPN! Fuck TV!") Thanks to Hawk most Americans think spinning in circles is the highest achievement in skateboarding. The "900" was a moment manufactured for TV. And, like the 900, a lot of current skateboarding is styleless, flourishy, has nothing to do with getting from A to B, which is what skating is, at its best: getting down the street as smoothly and quickly and entertainingly as possible— riding on (or off ) walls if you have to—and never, ever, putting both feet on the ground.
Skateboarding is having filthy hands from always touching the street, and not washing them before going to McDonald's for lunch (sorry, Chef). Skateboarding is feeling that every flight of stairs is nagging you, begging you to boneless, or ollie over, or railslide down it. Skateboarding is looking into toilet bowls and fantasizing about shrinking down and skating them. It is using the word transitions to refer to curved areas between horizontal and vertical. It is an apocryphal mention in Thrasher of three skyscrapers in Manhattan with transitioned bases (Forty-seventh and Third Avenue; Forty-ninth and Third Avenue; and Ninety-sixth and Columbus)—designed by a skateboarding architect. It is a review of a new California skatepark that says: "As usual, it's behind the McDonald's." It is a California newspaper reporting on a law requiring all underage skaters to wear helmets: "Skaters... think the new law—the toughest helmet law in the nation—will signal an apocalypse for the sport. 'They're going to ruin the sport, and everyone is going to go home and do drugs,' said Ray Rusniak, 13, after hearing the news." Skateboarding is ninety-six term papers available for downloading on the Thrasher website. It's a Spanish woman, post-9/11, accosting a bunch of pro skaters in Barcelona to tell them (per Thrasher), "After meeting you, I think I agree with the people who say America got what it deserved!" It is the joy of practice over performance. At sixteen or seventeen, alone, for hours, skating made for my earliest insight into the power of sustained focus. Also: courage. I made myself do things that I was very afraid to do. I tried to wall ride like Natas. This amounted to rolling at speed into a wall—on purpose—slamming my face right into it, and then stumbling around in pain, dazed, crying, but also unable to stop laughing with joy. It's Thrasher's description of Argentine pro Diego Bucchieri attempting to ollie a double staircase "that started wide on top and ended up the width of an average closet door at the bottom":
But no, not an athlete. Skaters are collective consciences, dervishes, holy fools in a religious trance.
Skaters are people like Jerry Hsu, as interviewed by Thrasher:
Or Ricardo Carvalho:
Skateboarders are not role models.
Skateboarding is observing things minutely. It is tuning the world out: cutting your hand and not noticing till hours later. Looking at the world like a skater means looking down. It means rarely raising your eyes above curb level, constantly monitoring the smoothness of concrete and being alert to the presence of pebbles or grit, experiencing an instant elevation in your mood when you roll through a spot where you've successfully pulled a trick, and depression and superstition in a place where you've slammed—no matter the grime or beauty of the location in conventional terms. Skateboarding is bringing emotion to emotionless terrain—unloved parking lots, vacant corporate downtowns long after the office workers are home. I remember skating in such places and feeling I was somehow redeeming them from their daily functions, giving them a secret life.
At my second East Coast boarding school, my parents had my intelligence tested and discovered that my "performance IQ" was 90—in the twenty-fifth percentile of all Americans. Off a skateboard I was miserable, and incapable of seeing past my misery.
These days Thrasher seems to reside in a similar state. Chef-
Boy-Am-I-Hungry left the magazine in the early '90s. I learned his real identity—a writer-designer-photographer called Mörizen Föche (aka Mofo) who produced half the stuff they published—by reading his "Industry Profile" on a job-placement website: "I need some freelance photo work so I can visit my son in Phoenix more. 'Photographer for hire' anyone? ANYONE?" As for Skarfing Material, he described it as "some bullshit department that I thought of off the top of my head" and then wrote "under the nom de plume 'Chef Boy Am I Hungry'... I'd make something to eat, take photos of it, make up some BS story and print it." I wanted to tell him he 'd made me become a writer, and that when he left the magazine it lost depth and daring. My wife, Daphne, got to something I'd been trying to figure out for years when, after reading a particularly asinine article in the February 2003 issue, she said: "It's really not OK that these people are using so little of their brains."
"Using so little." It's the perfect indictment of everything that's wrong with—and the most succinct encapsulation of everything that's brilliant about—skateboarding. The beauty of using so little in a country that uses so much. Living for a plank and four wheels in a profligate culture. And the saddening fact that Thrasher has, in many ways, been failing to move against the wind. Jake Phelps, the current editor, a San Francisco skater to the bone, wrote a sort of suicide note in the March 2003 issue: "I've never felt as depressed as I do now... I try to stay focused on the mag—my life is in this mag. And its life is in me... I feel distant from the spots, skaters and special people I've known... God this is awful." These desperate words, especially jarring in contrast to Thrasher's ironic dirtbag voice (it used to be ironic, big-hearted, dirtbag), were wedged into an issue stuffed with ads. An issue fifty-four pages longer than a contemporaneous Vanity Fair.
Feeling depressed by your success is a rare predicament for an editor in chief. (I wanted to tell him to try aromatherapy.) I figured Phelps was about to hang it up and let Thrasher go fully corporate. There were certainly skateboard doomsday signs aplenty. I attended a screening of Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary about the earliest days of skating, in a private theater at the Sony Corporation's New York headquarters. The place was filled with MTV celebrities and their posses. I was the only person with a plank on wheels. A guy in a long black leather jacket pointed at me, turned to a young woman, and said: "Ooh, he brought his board," and I felt ashamed.
Skating through midtown Manhattan that night, I remembered that I used to think skateboarding would never get too big because it hurt too much. Because you can't take the pain out of skateboarding. Because putting yourself deliberately in harm's way is a quick, easy, and reliable route to the truth. But what I didn't realize is that you can take the skateboarding out of skateboarding—make the act a mere accessory to its style.
Phelps, as it turned out, did not succumb. Within a few issues Thrasher announced a contest-cum-cross-country-trip that featured teams of professional skaters who set out from four different West Coast cities and made for New York. On the way they were required to perform various challenges and dares ("Ollie over a man or woman of the cloth"; "Make out with someone working at a fast food restaurant"; "Do a trick over roadkill"). He appeared to have found something no corporate sponsor would touch. And King of the Road, as the contest was called, has continued to evolve, as skaters continue to refuse to grow up. An older skater mused in one of the final issues of Big Brother (in tiny white type one suspects went unread), "I'm still riding a skateboard, and I'm fuckin' 32 years old. When I look back at other generations I feel that they were more grown up and more responsible... And here we are, we're all just riding skateboards and staying in our childhood... we're remaining skateboarders for so long. I mean, it seems like I haven't gone through some sort of rite of passage that I'm supposed to go through." Phelps's challenges took this head-on: "Find someone over the age of 40 who can do a kickflip"; "Make out with a woman over forty"; "One person cut their hair to mimic the style of someone suffering from sever [sic] male pattern baldness."
Returning from Thanksgiving with my pregnant wife I got us moved to a better seat because a flight attendant on JetBlue, ten years my junior, saw my Thrasher sweatshirt, saw me writing, and thought I must write for them. When she told me this I asked if she skated and she said, "No. I just like skaters and the music. Anthrax."
I had a baseball cap over my disappearing hair.
The last time I saw Blane Morf was in the summer of 2000. I lived in New York, and he lived in the small town of Blue Lake, in far Northern California. I went out to visit for a few days, and in the middle of remembering how we used to jump the fence and skate the playground of Yick Wo Elementary School (I once got so much air there that I snapped my board in half; and I wish I hadn't cared that nobody saw me but Blane), he said, "Wait! I have to show you something!" and got a ladder. He climbed up to his ceiling, pushed open a hatch, rooted around, and returned with an object I never thought I'd see again—my Natas Kaupas pro board. I'd lost it when I got sent to reform school.
Seven months later I got the news that Blane had died. He hadn't shown up at the brewery where he 'd worked. A colleague found his body in bed—heart failure. I went out to San Francisco. Without Blane I found the experience of moving through the streets, and riding the bus, isolating in the extreme. I wondered if I was the one who'd died and this perfect-yet-so-lonely city was my punishment or reward. When Blane 's mother asked me to speak at his memorial service I talked about skateboarding, and how, because of the rolling nature of our friendship, I couldn't go anywhere in San Francisco without being reminded of him.
Skateboarding is the most lasting gift a friend ever gave me. I now skate on that same Natas Kaupas board, every freezing, New York, wish-I-was-in-San-Francisco day.
Back in the mid-1990s, the last time skating could claim to be in any way marginal, an Iranian-American pro skater called Salman Agah wrote in Thrasher, somewhat disjunctively, but all the more truthfully for his ollies over syntax and logic:
Sean Wilsey was born in San Francisco in 1970 and lives in Marfa, Texas. He is the author of a memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, and the co-editor with Matt Weiland of two collections of original writing: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, and The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup. For many years he was the editor-at-large for McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and on the staff of the New Yorker magazine.
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