Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Making of a Skate Punk, Part III: Getting Arrested, Getting Ramps, and the Swirling Abyss of Danny Way


Part III: The End of Youth: Getting Arrested, Getting Ramps, and the Swirling Abyss of Danny Way

The first time I was arrested, I was in 6th grade. Felony vandalism. I was no longer just that rebel kid with a skateboard. Now, I was an actual outlaw.

The prior year, I came into school one Monday morning. I saw something I had never seen before: graffiti. Over the weekend three people had “bombed” the school, and put up three “pieces” on the walls facing the playground. They didn’t do random, ugly, throw-up tags. These were honest attempts to do something artistic. I realized later in life just how bad they really were, but to a 12-year-old, they were Picassos. Not only were they priceless works of art, but they also embodied a spirit of creative rebellion, and the ability to reappropriate your environment for alternate purposes. Skateboarding was starting to teach me these lessons, but here, staring me in the face, was another stark version of the same lesson. The writing was, literally, on the wall.

Beat Street came out in 1984. I saw it not long after the school graffiti incident, when we rented it from the local movie/VHS store. I also caught a replay of the 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars on TV one night. I became fascinated with graffiti, and I was only in 5th grade. Youthful idealism was about to take charge. To make a long story short, about 9 months later an older friend and I spray-painted murals on a local building one night at 4am. The police found us after we were finished. In 2016 I am lawyer (don’t practice, however). Looking back on it, the way the police handled the situation, and coerced information out us, was totally illegal. Yay, police. They did, however, compliment us on how “artistic” the two paintings were. I had to pay restitution, and attend group-counseling sessions for “first time youth offenders.” No jail time. Never even set foot inside a courtroom. It was the first, and last time, I ever painted graffiti on something. I guess the program worked.

Despite the fact that the police were bound to confidentiality, word got out. Parents on my street heard the news. I was placed on a black list. Kids were told not to hang out with me. I was a bad influence. Unsavory. A déclassé crook. Now, I really started to become a social outcast. [NOTE: Every other time I was arrested, it was for skateboarding, and we all know how wonky those “charges” can be. I was lucky. The Magistrate threw it out every time. Once, the arresting police officer was even admonished, and told to “stop wasting the Court’s time with petty concerns.” I never felt more justified.]

As mentioned before, I don’t really remember when I got my first “pro deck,” or even what it was. I just know that by 1986 I was riding a Tony Hawk (1986 issue), and by that time I was fully entrenched in skateboarding. It comprised my entire being. The mid to late 80s were, for the most part, without any real drama, and are quite archetypal for a suburban skater in their early teens during that time period. Personally, things didn’t start getting really interesting until around 1989-1990 (odd, how that coincides with major changes in skating itself). I won’t even attempt an in depth cultural significance analysis of what was going in skating/society during mid-late 80s. Many others have already done that, and done it much better than I ever could (again, see The Parking Block Diaries). I will, however, touch upon things that had lasting influence.

1985 | 5th Grade | Age 11. Built my first ramp. We piecemealed some stolen plywood scraps against a picnic table. I tried to paint a Lester Kasai graphic on it. Horrific kinks.

Since my dad was a cripple, he couldn’t play sports as a kid, but he could meaningfully participate in Boy Scouts. That was his big passion. He got me into Cub Scouts, and then later into Boy Scouts. We had an INSANE Scout leader. At one camping trip, he pulled 357. Magnum out of his pick-up truck. We had never seen it before, and we were freaking out. He walked up to this kid he was pissed at, pointed the gun at the kid’s head, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The bore was welded shut. We didn’t know that, until after the fact. Terrifying. I quit not long after. That scout leader later became prison guard. Fitting. Boy Scouts, as cornball as it sounds, provided some of the best friends I ever had. Moreover, there are very few people from that era of my life I am still in contact with today. Of those that I am, 90% were in Scouts with me. Troop 49 provided to be a radical hot bed for Norwood’s budding punks, metal heads, skaters, and freestylers (e.g. old-school BMX). The kid I got arrested with for graffiti, met him at Boy Scouts. I had some quasi-friend in the apartment complex near me. I didn’t grasp this until I was much older, but his mother dealt cocaine out of her house, in front of us. Back to the Future came out. Skateboarding became “cool” in Norwood, for about 2 weeks. 

1986 | 6th Grade | Age 12: We improved the picnic table ramp with 1 sheet of plywood, making it much smoother. Photo is from the summer of 1986, one of the first pics ever take of me skating.

I got my hands on a copy of Future Primitive, and now I knew what skating really was. My dad built me a proper launch ramp. I got arrested for graffiti, and was “black listed.” The flash-in-the-pan popularity that swept Norwood in the wake of Back to the Future was over. Everyone quickly went back to the Big 4 sports (baseball, football, hockey, basketball). The lame trend of skateboarding was over. Yet, I was still doing it. The blacklisted criminal now became a turbo-dork, because he wouldn’t let go of a dumb fad. I might as well have been reliving the hula-hoop trend, or starting my own disco revival. I became an even bigger social target. However, a small door opened. My dad took me to Beacon Hill Skate one weekend. It was in Boston. It was a real skate shop. I saw real skaters. Mind blown. I had discovered punk rock. By the end of 6th grade, I was wearing Sex Pistols, and Black Flag, shirts to grade school (not to mention assorted skate shirts). The way I was starting to dress was further casting me as an outsider. The kids at school could relate to the pictorial language of Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics logo t-shirts (and, well, Member’s Only jackets). They had no way to understand or contextualize the images they were seeing on my t-shirts. They didn’t know what to do with me. Thrashin’ hit the movie theaters. My crew wanted to be “Daggers” more than anything. 

1987 | 7th Grade | Age 13. The bottom of the world dropped out when Wheels of Fire hit the streets. Natas. I don’t need to say any more. Somehow I convinced my dad to build a mini half pipe in our driveway. This was before the mini ramp rage took place. I legit had one of the first mini ramps in the New England area. It was an engineering disaster. We had no idea what the fuck we were doing. Ramp plans weren’t really available, especially for mini ramps. I was so brainwashed by magazines that I was convinced that the only way the ramp would be remotely skateable was if it had “vert” on it. Even if it only was 4’ tall, and 8’ wide. The end result was death-tight transitions, and way, way, too much flat bottom. It was a ramp only Neil Blender, Barrier Kult members, or a very confused 13-year-old would want to skate.

Photo, Jan 1988. It's not a great pic, but you can see how tight the transitions were, and that it actually went to vertical.
I was almost “over it” before it was done. Natas in Wheels of Fire had shown me all I really needed to know, and it was in the streets. Unfortunately, the town of Norwood outlawed skating per town by-law. I became a common criminal, once again. 1986 was also the year I started Jr. High School. The real social pecking order now started. And I was at the bottom. I lashed back quick, and hard. Within the first two weeks of school I made an “I HATE JOCKS” t-shirt, forever sealing my social doom in the sports-riddled Norwood Public School system. I never took the bus to school because of the abuse that took place on it. School itself wasn’t much better. I failed gym class because I refused to “sufficiently” participate. I actually had to go to summer school for gym class. They gym teacher had seen me skate around town. He both quasi-made fun of me for it, and used it against me (“I know you are athletic, I’ve seen you skate. There is no reason you should be failing gym class. You should be able to play real sports without a problem.”). I also had a Haro freestyle bike, and rode flatland somewhat. I hung out with some freestyle bike kids (that I also met from Boy Scouts). They also skated a bit. We were always using each other’s board and bikes. I also had a Rodney Mullen freestyle deck. All of us street skated, rode flat land on bikes, had limited ability on transition, and dabbled with freestyle skating. It was a well-rounded group.

Erick, hitting a big foot plant in 1988, way before "street" BMX was ever a "thing."

John, with a big wall ride for the late 80s. He was also a good freestyle skater. 

A rare pic of me doing flatland on my bike. Note the Natas shirt! Summer of '88.
Erik’s older brother would get us beer. He also got us a copy of Decline of the Western Civilization, the Punk Years. Seeing that, at age 13, while drunk, may have been the best, or worst, thing that ever happened to me. There is no coming back from that. On weekends a few friends and I started sneaking into Boston to go skating, or to see afternoon all-ages punk shows. Sneaking into the city to see punk shows, at age 13. My classmates had no idea what real fun was. For some unknown reason I joined the golf team at school. I got kicked off after 3 weeks. Some kid called me a “faggot,” when he didn’t have back-up, and no teacher was around. I clocked him with a golf club, and threw him a water feature on the 18th hole. In autumn, a few people tried to burn down my mini half pipe. Fire went out quickly. It was a really bad attempt. To this day, I suspect the kid from the golf team was involved. I was now hated around town, and it showed. Per the golf incident, word also go out that if I was provoked, alone, I would retaliate. They attacked in groups. “SKATE FAG!” was the insult of the decade. I was called this daily at school. Over and over. Jock ‘o’ Rama by the Dead Kennedys perfectly described Norwood. It was our anthem.

1988 | 8th Grade | Age 14: I started spending more parental approved time Boston. They even gave me permission to see punk shows (they never found out about our secret missions the year before). I met skaters from the surrounding towns. We would all met-up in Copley Sq. I skated famous Boston skate spots before they were demolished. Turtles. Metals. Boston City Hospital. The C-Bowl. ZT Maximus. Other parents on my street hated me. I lived on a dead-end road. Almost no traffic. By this point I had several small ¼ pipes, a small platform, and few rail slide bars. We would bring them out at the very end of the street (where I lived), and put them next to the curb, to keep them out of the way. Neighbors would call the police when we did this, claiming that we were “blocking traffic.” No one ever called when kids were playing street hockey with goal nets in the dead-center of the street, or playing baseball, football, etc. My parents were livid, and went to war with a few neighbors over the issue.

Josh, "blocking traffic" in '88.  

Shackle Me Not dropped, and the (skate) world was starting to change. With this video, I became fixated on Danny Way for some reason. Fixated isn’t the right word. Obsessed. This was odd. He wasn’t a street skater. Natas has been my “hero” prior, but this Danny Way thing was so, so different, and so much more…intense. Little did know what would come of it. I watched his video parts every day. I hung up every photo of him I could find in my room.

1989 | 9th Grade | Age 15
: Streets on Fire. Ban This. Speed Freaks. Hokus Pokus. Rubbish Heap. A huge video year for skateboarding. Things were quickly changing. The dawn of the Rocco Era was just peeping over the horizon. Gleaming the Cube came out. My local friends started to fall away for my skater friends in Boston. Every day after school I would hop a train into the city, skate for two hours, and then take a 1-hour subway ride to meet my dad, for another 45 min ride home (we actually lived pretty close to Boston, but the traffic and public transit system in Boston are notoriously bad). High school started, and with it, real horror. Instead of just having kids in two grades (7th and 8th) picking on me (e.g. Jr. High), now I had kids in four grades to deal with (e.g. 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th). I despised school, mostly because of how bad the abuse was. I had copy of the school calendar next to my bed. Every day I would cross a day off, like a prisoner counting down his sentence. My attendance dropped, as I would find any reason I could to avoid going on any given day. I distinctly remember often crying on Sunday nights, as a new week was about to start. Danny Way turned pro. His board came out. I couldn’t wait to get one. My obsession with him exploded. I had pictures of him in my locker at school. In the fall/winter I went to ZT. Maximus several times a week. It was Boston’s only skatepark. They had a 10’ half pipe, and 6” mini. I learned a few tricks on the vert ramp, and few more on the mini. I have never been a good transition skater, but going to the park was a way to get out of Norwood, and hang out with other skaters. There was a guy there named Kevin Day. Vert skater. He was 30. We were all amazed at how old he was, and how good. I hoped that I would still be skating when I was his age. As I am typing this, I am 41 years-old. Mission accomplished.

I don’t remember why, but for some reason that fall Alphonzo Rawls and Danny Way were passing through Boston. Danny Way. We got notice they might come by ZT Maximus the following night. I might get to actually see, and talk to, Danny Way. I trembled. There wasn’t a lot of publicity about it. It was on a week night, it wasn’t a per se demo, and no one was sure if they were even going to show up. However, they did. They skated the mini ramp for about 20-30 minutes. While I wanted to talk to Danny, even if it was just to say “Hi,” I was too terrified to do it. I steered waaaay clear of him, and watched from a distance. In fact, I stayed further away than anyone else there. Soon enough, Danny would wreak havoc on my life, sending me into a catastrophic tailspin that even included a suicide attempt. 

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