What does it mean to be a skateboarder, and why does it matter? As to the first half of that question, ask a hundred skaters, and you will get a hundred different nuanced answers. I don’t think there is one, single, set, correct answer to the question, nor would I hope there ever to be one. Like almost anything else in life, what it means to be a skater is something you have to figure out, and live, for yourself. The question itself is one which individualizes (like skating itself) all of us. The only response to that question that really means anything, or has any real value, is our own individual answers. We all have to forge our own way. As to the second half of the question, why does it matter, it matters because, as any skater will tell you, being a skater changes your life, forever.
I abandoned mainstream skate media a long, long, time ago. Skate ‘zines and blogs are where it’s at. Reading underground sources exposed me to something I’d never otherwise encounter in the more profit-driven publications; the autobiographical life stories of average, every day, life-long skaters. In these accounts I found people who, in their own way, were answering the question, “What does it mean to be a skater?” And they weren’t just answering the question, they were knocking it out of the fucking park. What it means to be a pro skater is very different thing than what it means to be an average-everyday skater. Personally, I’d much rather read personal stories from The Common Man, as that is where real life dwells for the vast majority of us. Hype about the most recent Street League contest, Team X’s tour of County Y, or coverage of some skatepark I’m never going to visit…that stuff just has little value to me, as it is nothing I can relate to in daily life (Skateline NBD with Gary Rogers is hilarious, however, and is never to be missed). The personal stories of the average skater, and their take on the world, and themselves…it just resonates on a much deeper level. With alternate media, the passion is evident in every sentence; it’s just not something that you can find in big-fanfare-mainstream skate publications. I don’t really care about generals. The plight of the common foot soldier is far, far, more interesting.
It now appears as if I am on the cusp of adding my own story to the growing list average, everyday skate autobiographies. When I first started this blog, I vowed to never undertake such a project. It seemed too self-important and self-absorbed. Besides, who the fuck am I? Some nobody from Boston, MA. Some washed-up old skater, who is way past his prime. There is nothing special about me (well, maybe the gay/queer factor make things a bit out of the ordinary). What value could a recount of my experiences possibly provide to anyone? I had assumed the answer was, “None. No one would care.” Two things changed my mind.
First, I realized the impact these types of stories have. Or rather, I realized the type of impact these stories had on me. Part of the reason for that impact, I’m sure, is simply the brilliant writing skills the authors I’ve been reading. Yet, another aspect is that the stories are just so compelling. They are things many of us can relate to. They are shared experiences; reading theirs illuminated my own. Most of all, they got me to think, and helped me understand my own life with more clarity. This made me realize that my own experiences may not be as boring and insignificant to others as I had surmised. They may find resonance in mine, just as I had found in theirs.
Second, none of this is really for other people. Recounting my experiences is tracking my own existence. My own sense of identity and purpose. Doing so helps me understand my “now,” and how I came to be the person that I am. Moreover, it helps with another, darker, project that I’ve had in mind for awhile; documenting my own demise.
The reality: I am no longer 18-years-old. I am 41, almost 42. There is no question that age will eventually take skateboarding away from me, as it will to all of us. The only question is when, and how gruesome will it be. What does it mean to be a skater, who is in the last quarter of the game? What happens to identity, to personhood, and life when something that engrained in your life is stripped away from all sense of self-understanding? What lies beyond that point? I have no idea, and to be honest, I am a bit scared to find out.
One thing I did intend to suss out in this blog; a record of how my identity, as a skateboarder, changes, and how my thoughts, existence, and sense of personhood evolve as my body decays, and skateboarding becomes more and more of a shadow of something I once was. I want to that document process. That may sound bleak, and nihilistic, but I am also a realist. “On a long enough time line, the survival rate of everything drops to zero.” –Tyler Durden
The progression, erosion, evolution, and collapse of identity always fascinates. “Character development” is the term Hollywood uses. If my character is to be fully developed on these pages, then the whole story of that character must be told.
With those two considerations, I break my vow to never publishing my own version “This American Skatelife.” (A term stolen from the brilliant skate mind of David Thornton over at www.luchaskate.com. Definitely go check his stuff out.).
This project will be posted in sections, corresponding with the major periods of my 30 year relationship with skateboarding. And with that, we’ll jump right in.
Part 1: A Pet Assassin, a Nuclear Power Plant, and a Toy that Changed Everything
The second week we were in Knoxville, our neighbor shot out dog with a .22 rifle. The reason? Our dog went on his property, and, well, we were, “From the north, and we don’t like carpet-bagging Yankees, or cripples, around these parts.” (direct quote). My dad contracted Polio when he was 6 months old. It ruined his legs, and he walked with crutches his entire life. It was 1981. And apparently, The Civil War hadn’t ended yet. I was 7-years-old. My family had just moved to Knoxville, TN from Boston, MA. We relocated there because of my dad’s job. He was an (early) computer engineer, working on the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project. It was nuclear power plant that was never finished. The project was cancelled because of political fallout in Washington D.C. Needless to say, once in Knoxville, I felt like an outsider from the very start. The kids at school thought I talked funny. I was scared to go out of our yard because of the guy who shot our dog, and the local neighborhood bullies (of course, the son of the pooch-sniper was the worst of the them). In October of 1983, Congress voted to defund the project. My dad was laid-off from work. First order of bid’ness: get the fuck out of Tennessee. We moved back to Boston within two weeks, sort of. We first spent 3 months in Connecticut. That was where it all started.
My mother’s parents lived in West Hartford, CT. My dad landed a job in Boston, but we hadn’t found a place to live yet in the Boston area. We moved in with my grandparents for about 3 months. For his new job, my dad commuted from Hartford to Boston, every day, for 3 months. That is a 200 mile round trip. Pretty gnarly. My parents didn’t put me in school while in CT, because they knew we would soon be leaving the area. They thought it would be too stressful for me to be placed in a new school, and then rip me out that school after only a few weeks, to then place me in yet another new school. I was 9-years-old at the time. My mom stayed home and kept me occupied while my dad was at work. One day she took me to the local Toys ‘R’ Us. I don’t remember if it was her idea, or mine, but that afternoon we came home with a small, blue, plastic skateboard. Things would never be the same. My life changed, forever.
We lived in West Hartford in 1983 from October to December. Days before Christmas, we moved to Norwood, Massachusetts. We didn’t even have a Christmas Tree that year. Every thing was still in boxes. As a 9-year-old, I remember being pretty stressed about no Christmas Tree. The autumn in Hartford had been cold, and wet. I didn’t get to ride my new skateboard all that much. I learned to ride it back and forth in the driveway, and do a few kick turns. It was fun. One weekend my dad asked if I could ride it down the hill that my Grandparent’s house was situated on. I had never tried it before. It wasn't a big hill, but it was big enough for an 9-year-old who had been skating for about 3 weeks. I gave it a shot. I crashed hard near the bottom because of speed wobbles. I was pissed at my dad for “making” me get hurt. It was my first real skateboard wreck, and a gnarly one at that. I remember a good amount of blood and road rash. I also distinctly remember how amazing it felt to roll down that hill. Despite the blood, I wanted to try it again. My dad said that was enough for today. First, I was pissed he “made” me get hurt, and now, I was livid that he wouldn’t let me try it again. What is remarkable about this, is that this was only time, the ONLY time in my entire life, that (one of) my parents were NOT supportive of me skateboarding, and it was only on that one, single, afternoon. From that point forward, up to the time of writing this post, they have been 110% supportive of me skateboarding. So many were not that lucky. I am very fortunate that I was, and still am.
The winter of 1983/1984 in Norwood, MA had a lot snow. My new skateboard was buried in a box somewhere in the basement, mostly forgotten. I began a new school, Oldham Elementary, right after the winter break. I started to meet all the new kids at school, and in my neighborhood. It was evident right from the start that we were all in for a quite a bumpy ride.