i’ve been reading jocko wayland’s the answer is never lately. it’s a pretty good, extensive history of skateboarding. the popularity of the dogtown chronicles (in several formats) in recent years has unfortunately overshadowed most everything about the rise of a 1950s kiddie fad to billion dollar industry (which, in turn has perverted a subculture the way corporate co-option perverts everything). sad, considering how remarkable the evolution of the engineering of the board and the art of the activity has been in the last 50 years or so.
i’ve never been very good at skateboarding, but even to this day, it’s been strangely alluring. like the short story in life and limb (a collection of fiction and non-fiction written by skaters) in which a skater looked out and saw not buildings, but a series of obstacles. it’s like learning a foreign language and eventually dreaming in that language. or becoming hooked on a game and then dreaming about strategies for solutions. the weather finally warmed up and the sun was out today, and the memory of the 20 degree weather this week was quickly erased by a perfect weekend day. i could feel the subtle pain in my knees as i couldn’t help thinking about getting my skateboard, finding some secluded pavement in the neighborhood, and spend a few hours getting the feel for the board again. my love was never for big-style tricks anyways, although the korean students in grad school always assumed this when they saw me carrying my board on campus (it sure cut down on the distance between everything, which was why i used it in the first place). i liked that low, graceful skateboarding style that came out of surfing. the simple enjoyment of moving down an incline (not to the degree of the speeds required for downhill racing, of course).
skateboarding has gotten quite generic. street style is popular. big tricks: airs and rails and things like that. the culture’s media promotes it the most, which is sad. skateboarding once had a variety. maybe not for very long. but it’s all but disappeared now. i’d probably get laughed at by skaters when i say that i can’t drop in on a ramp, i can’t do a kickflip, and i can’t grind a rail. or, they’d probably just assume that’s how i skate because i’m girl, but i’ve never really tried much of that. i once found a small, free skatepark in my neighborhood when i first moved to virginia a few years ago. the first time i went, i was nervous and hung by the fence before skating around. a guy skated up to me and made small talk and then gave me his phone number. i took it, said i’d call him sometime (i didn’t), and left. the second time i went, another guy started hitting on me. guys get real primitive in a skatepark, egged on by competition and arrogance. he got in a fight with another skater who he wound up hitting in the head with his skateboard. i got scared and scattered with some of the other skaters and never went back, resolving to skate, but not in the parks.
i got into skateboarding in middle school for the same reason i picked up the guitar: to impress the boys i liked, but i stuck with both for a long time. i was more drawn to the art of the board than the art of the activity. that, and surfboard graphics, especially those by jim phillips, who designed a lot of great graphics for santa cruz skateboards (see the phillips graphic below). i always thought those were the heydays of skate graphics and, if ever i wanted a career doing anything, it would’ve been surf and skate logo designs. oh how naive we can be…
it became an obsession at some point in high school when my brother would come pick my friends and i up from summer school classes and we’d go over to a friends house and spend time skating. at this point, it didn’t matter if we were on skateboards or rollerblades, it was fun. something my friends were into, too. i’m sure that social hook is part of the reason the activity becomes a lasting passion for some more than others. it’s not just the thriving of pure movement and action itself. but that goes without saying. like the obvious suggestion that it’s easier to lose weight or quit smoking when you have people you’re close to lending their support.
i didn’t go anywhere that summer, we just spent most of the time at each other’s houses hanging out. there was an apartment complex behind the public library that somehow we just found and wound up skating at a lot. then the small church down the street. the weird science lab a little ways from there. and then the telephone company’s building, because it had something none of the others did: a couple of rows of low banked walls. the summer culminated in a project: we built a ramp. of course, we were ambitious and the sketches never really took into account practicalities nor budget. thankfully, my friend’s dad was a carpenter and so he helped us pick out the wood and put it together. a little, detachable three piece ramp that was a little too steep for us, but easier at that level to use with rollerblades than a skateboard (approaching speeds had to be pretty quick becuase of the steepness). it went up, had a flat middle piece, and then went back down again. because it was detachable, it didn’t have any coping. we memorialized it with a spraypainted finish and the resolve that, because my friend’s parents had no room in their garage, that we would keep it at my house. it was a heavy thing. we detached it and kept it on the side of the house, out of view near the swimming pool. i pulled it out a few times with the help of my brother and set it up in the street and had a few good runs on it, though i wished i had more people with me to enjoy it. i’m not sure my brother was into skating much at that point, or wanted to try the ramp. eventually, it rotted away from an ant infestation, but my uncle salvaged the middle piece for a workstation for his saw, and it lives in our garage now. in the next summer our interests changed. i was getting ready to start college in the fall, and so we spent most of the time going to shows and just hanging out away from our skate spots.
i took the board out again when i moved back home after the first year of law school. i long had the fantasy that i’d become a lawyer and, dressed in my businesswoman suit, i roll in on my skateboard and do a nice, simple little trick and nail it. maybe a heelflip. i’d seen pictures of old men in thrasher once who towered over the air on a skateboard as a bunch of awestruck kids looked on. i don’t know if they were real. but hence, the stem of the fantasy. i guess it was just enough that a girl could skate. the skatepark experience actually made it a little annoying – yes, girls can skate too! when i moved back, i used to take the board out at night and go skate with my brother. we’d either just go down the hill with that fluid surf movement, shifting to the left and right curbs, or i’d work on finally… finally nailing an ollie. it was a science i just couldn’t seem to figure out. i even looked at the how-to’s, but i wasn’t shifting my body weight somewhere. and finally, i got it! it was encouraging, but we both wore those boards out. they were cheap boards, anyways. and with cheap boards, the bushings always got shredded pretty quick, and then it’s just a metal-on-metal mess when you try pushing a board around.
my brother bought a blank board for me when i was in grad school. it was the last one i bought, and was happy to get a more decent board, although it took some phone calls for the company to actually devlier my order. an olive green board with black trucks and white wheels. i mostly pushed it around my neighborhood in arlington, but the pavement was terrible, a lot to catch your board on because the tree roots pushed up the street’s edge and made the bricked walkways even worse. i used to get bored on saturdays, before i really knew anyone, and grabbed my board to skate the streets of DC, starting out in georgetown. i got a few nods from the guys who skated and frequented the punk-themed smash records that used to be there. when my brother came to visit, he’d join me. and we’d spend about two or three hours just skating through georgetown, and foggy bottom and up into dupont circle. i can’t believe sometimes how much energy we had for it.
i banged up my knees pretty bad trying to push around arlington, though the worst damage might’ve been from sharing in the ballsy trip down the natural waterslides at the state park where my friends and i camped last summer. i came out of the freezing, thrusting waters and like everyone else, was bloodied from getting pummeled by the rock and sloshed around by the head-high waters. something you can be proud of for saying you did it… and lived! but not something i’m sure i can’t do again, considering the permanent damage i’ve done to my knees. i hope it doesn’t keep me from getting back on the board, now that i’ve found mine again after cleaning out the horrendous mystery pile that was in the trunk of my car. i’m going to be eyeing that smooth tarred pavement, and ready to put foot to board and board to pavement again.