2017 has been, for me, the year of the frontside grind. Frontside grinds have been an obsession of mine for a while now and it’s been a very long and slow process to get them back. It took me more than four and half years and they are still not quite where I would like them to be. For me they are a benchmark trick, a delimiter. Like kickflips to street skating, frontside grinds on transition are something I think you must be able to do, to be considered a “true” skater.
I think I first formed this opinion during a visit to Baltimore several years ago. After skating the then new bowl in Hampden I stopped in at Vú, the local skate shop next to the park. The owner, Gary Smith, and I briefly talked about the sustainability of skateboarding as adults and he said something to the effect of “as long as I can still frontside grind I’ll be happy”. Gary rips and I, at that point, was still just learning to carve bowls but I took what he said to heart. I couldn’t frontside grind, at least not how I wanted to, and I realized that that was a fundamental skill I was missing. I knew then that I needed to re-learn them.
This is how it is with skateboarding, the goalposts keep moving. Once you learn something it is the coolest thing ever and before you even know it you have moved on to the next coolest thing ever. This is what we mean when we talk about progress. We set these goals for ourselves and then struggle to meet them. “I won’t be a real skater until I can do a frontside grind” was an entirely arbitrary goal I imposed upon myself because of someone else’s opinion but man did it have some psychic weight.
There are of course many different types of frontside grinds. Over the previous years I had accidentally hit some frontside carve grinds in the shallow pockets of bowls, slashed some grinds on banks and even gotten my front smiths locked in on smaller ramps. Stand-up grinds to tail (as illustrated by the header image of this blog) were actually one of the first transition tricks I relearned, after axle stalls. That had always been my go-to trick as a teen and was easy to relearn because it is “safe” since all of your weight in on top of the ramp. What I wanted were real 5-0s though and I couldn’t get them because I was doing them wrong. I was trying them like my grinds to tail. I would get up on top of the coping, tail drag to a stop, teeter and then fall back in to the ramp. I knew that I was not doing them correctly but I couldn’t figure out how to commit to leaning back on them. In order to relearn them the proper way I had to start at the very beginning. I had to learn scratchers. I had to learn to kickturn and just touch the back truck and for some reason I was terrified of this.
Hoboken 2017. Photo by Ray Sunwoo.
The mental aspect of skateboarding is often the most difficult. Through sheer amount of repetition and practice you can drill in the muscle memory for tricks. If you try something (within reason) long enough you will eventually land it. It then takes a million more tries to be consistent with it. But certain tricks you cannot begin to learn without first committing to them. Frontside grinds are one of these tricks. You have to be fully committed to them and by fully committing you are risking a slam. Hopefully if you lap over or slide out you have enough warning that you can kick the board out and run out of them but there is the ever present danger of just going down hard. Not to mention missing under, which can send you ribs first in to the coping. The fear can be crippling.
Yet if the mental and physical aspects of skateboarding are the two main factors in learning tricks, there are other, more nebulous things at play. One of these is just something I call “board control”. Board control to me is progressing in skateboarding without learning tricks. It is just defined by the amount of time spent skateboarding and how comfortable you are on the board. A trick you tried and couldn’t get previously will come together surprisingly quickly as your board control improves. Board control is knowing how to react to unfamiliar or unexpected situations. Experienced skateboarders can drop in to an unfamiliar bowl and figure out how to carve and pump it right away. They can hit a crack and adjust their weight so they don’t fall. Something can go wrong and they will be able to react and correct it. Novice skateboarders often look “stiff” and this is just not because of their posture. The board control that comes with practice gives a fluidity to your skateboarding and this fluidity allows you to do things that you previously couldn’t.
This is how I like to progress. While I normally work on new tricks each session, I generally only give them a small number of tries. It is rare that I put in the work and dedicate myself to a few hours of trying to land something new. I, instead, like to just skate and let the slow, steady, cumulative process of gaining better board control help me learn the tricks faster at a future point. This is what happened with frontside grinds. After a few years of sporadically trying them, including learning and then losing them on two separate occasions, it all finally came together naturally.
It began at the mini bowl at 2nd Nature. This indoor park, in a small town on the Hudson River an hour train ride north of the city, has become a winter destination spot. Two or three times a year, whenever the weather is bad enough, we take the long trip up to skate it. Despite the relatively few times I have been there, it has consistently helped me unlock some of the fundamentals I was missing. I learned how to figure 8 carve a bowl there for example. This year it was frontside grinds and that happened by complete accident. The bowl is so small and so fast that coming back in to shallow I frontside kickturned one wall and scratched the truck. The next run I did it again, intentionally. I remember saying to my friends “This won’t seem like a big deal to you, but I just touched my truck”.
This past winter I was also lucky enough to have friends who had memberships to Winter Bowl, the private indoor spot in south Brooklyn. Its namesake, the bowl itself, is tight and one of the more challenging things I have skated. The mini ramp on the other hand was more my speed. This ramp is a little bit steeper and taller than I am comfortable with and for a few sessions I struggled to even axle stall there. Finally, one day I felt comfortable enough to scratch some grinds. I missed low a number of times but pulled off enough that I got over my fear of touching the coping.
Early in the spring I took off work one weekday and trekked over to Hoboken for the sole purpose of skating the small mini and doing nothing but frontside grinds. It was drizzling by the time I got there but I was on enough of a mission that I waited it out and mopped off the ramp a few times with the chamois I keep in my skate bag. It paid off. I was now no longer afraid to scratch grinds but I still couldn’t really stand up on them to get a proper 5-0. That happened in the Bronx.
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At the River Ave. park in the south Bronx, there is a section of quarter pipe that slopes up from about one foot up to something close to five foot. Because it starts so small and moves up so gradually it was the perfect learning spot and for the first time I was able to stand up on my grinds. I took this back to Hoboken in the following weeks and had one of the most fulfilling days of skateboarding ever. Not only was I able to stand up on my grinds and do real 5-0s on the little ramp but, with the encouragement of my friends Ray and Shark Dog, I was also able to scratch a few on the bigger ramp as well (as seen in the photo above). That was enough to let me start to do these scratchers almost anywhere. I am now comfortable enough with them and have enough board control that they have become one of my go-to tricks. I am still not standing up on the grinds on anything over four foot, on bigger ramps my weight is still solidly in the ramp, but it is just a matter of time and practice before those grinds turn in to proper 5-0s too.
We had our first conversation over a year ago. Since then I broke my wrist, lost my nerve and then kind of came back. What has changed in skateboarding for you?
Right around the time we had that conversation I got really conscious of safety, especially head safety. I started wearing a helmet pretty regularly. I’ve hit my head three times, luckily with a helmet on every time. In December I went out…. It was a weird period after the election. I was so depressed and I remember going out about two weeks after, and I was like “Can I do this still? Am I shirking my duty as an American citizen by having fun?” It was that bad.
It was crappy weather and I was skating this pallet on a bank. There was a piece of masonite on top of it. It was evening and it got really humid and I went up to try to do an axle pivot or something, you know, ollie up, and I just missed, slid out, fell back on the bank and just BOOM, whacked my head. If I hadn’t had a helmet on I would have probably been in the hospital. I scared the shit out of myself. It really would have been an injury, even brain damage, and just think how much I have on the line. If something like that were to happen I would not only fuck myself, I’d fuck my family, my daughter, so many things would just go wrong. I’m really conscious of that now. Even if I go out and I’m just doing shuv-its I’m wearing a helmet. Wrist guards and a helmet because I fall on my wrists, I can’t break that habit.
Yeah same, obviously.
I noticed you were wearing a wrist guard in one of your latest videos.
I wear it all the time. I don’t need it but it makes me feel a little more secure. I’m also not skating the big stuff anymore without a helmet. I’ll drop in and carve once or twice but I’m not trying anything without a helmet.
But you’ll skate the little bowls without one.
Like Golconda or 2ntr, yeah. I’m not really worried about that so much. 2ntr is mellow and wood, Golconda…. Well Golconda does feel kind of dangerous. It’s quick and you would go right in to the opposite wall if you hung up.
Are you willing to risk it? That’s the question.
Marc ollieing a trash can.
Well there are tricks I haven’t tried on it, like disasters, because I’m scared of that hang up. Where if I wore a helmet I’d probably just go for it.
Why don’t you just do it then? It only takes one time, and that time could be the last time. We are playing with fire as it is. I don’t want to play with that fire. If you break an arm sure, but your brain is your brain. I have a cousin who died. He was rolling down the street, slipped out, hit his head and died. He was 18. So I have that in the back of my mind. It could happen. There is no providence that is going to save you. So for me safety consciousness has now become something that is just part of skateboarding. I don’t care what people think, it doesn’t matter at all. I think people understand too.
Besides safety consciousness, I also feel more comfortable on a skateboard since the last time we talked. I feel like it’s an extension of myself now. It feels more natural, it doesn’t feel like I’m forcing it now. Like “Oh god, I have to learn how to stand on this thing again”.
I still feel that way every single time. If right now I had to jump on a skateboard and go ollie up a curb…. I’d feel like “I’ve never skated before! I don’t know how to do this!” It takes me a half hour to an hour, every time, before it starts to flow again.
Is that your body that is not warmed up, or your mind that is convinced it can’t remember?
It’s my mind. I may not be warmed up but the block is mental.
For me, it’ll take me a half hour to an hour to feel really warmed up and comfortable sure, but when I throw the board down and jump on it and just start carving around it usually feels pretty good right away. I don’t really have a psychological block when I get there, but I don’t skate ramps or bowls. I think that if I did, I would, because I remember how trepidacous I was. I’d go to a ramp like a foot bigger than what we were used to skating and feel like “oh shit!” It takes a while.
In some ways I still feel like I just started skating again. In other ways… I’m skating; there is no doubt about it. I’ll just go wherever I want to go and even if I’ve got nothing there I’ll just try stuff. Take me to a street park and I’ll skate the ledge and embarrass myself but I’ll eventually get something. Which leads me to another question; I’ve got all these parks. I’ve got more parks than I know what to do with, it’s amazing. Where are you skating?
We have this roller rink, which was built in the 1970s. It is outdoors and an oval, like a horse track, and on the sides it inclines upwards so that you can keep momentum. It’s really great for skateboarding. Unfortunately it has drains so you sometimes have to jump over them going up or down from the transition. It’s imperfect but it’s the best thing we have. There is a flat area and there is the bench. Which is literally one metal bench that the skaters have been skating since whenever there have been skaters to skate it. It’s broken, it lifts off in parts, it moves when you jump on it, it’s kind of too high for me…. I call it the bench of death because you could really eat shit on it but the younger guys, who are good, skate it like it’s nothing.
This is where most of the action is. All winter I’ve been going there and I hadn’t seen anyone there until last week. Suddenly they all came out of hibernation. Technically the skateboarders are running the place. The city has given them permission to run it, to take care of it, which means opening it, closing it, keeping it clean, keeping it repaired and the option of building obstacles. The problem is there is no money. Nobody wants to chip in. So unless there is a big donor out there with money that wants to pay for it, no one is going to do it. The kids have no money and the city doesn’t want to help. In New York, you have the city that is behind the parks. We don’t have that. They won’t give us a euro. So we just have these makeshift obstacles that people bring and that’s it. That’s what we skate.
Marc’s roller rink.
What about concrete DIY?
We can’t do that because we still have the eyes of the city on us. Anything we do there has to be regulation. If you build a mini-ramp and it’s not regulation, they are going to tear it down. Our hands are tied because if you are going to do it, you have to do it right, everything has to be authorized, all the bureaucratic crap. We have to kick in the money for it otherwise we are not going to do it at all. So that’s the situation. Luckily skateboarding is the kind of thing where even if you have nothing, you have something.
We have other spots that are sketchy. This spot with a bank, it’s tight, it’s brick and it has holes and broken glass all over the ground. If you skate that thing you are lucky if you can do an axle stall but it is what it is.
How do you find these other spots? Do you go looking for them?
No, the skaters know. There are like five spots that the skaters go to. They are all totally destroyed. If there is a marble ledge or curb, it’s missing chunks because it’s been skated for twenty years. We’ve got this one place with marble ledges but the actually skate-able space is really tiny. It is so worn down from twenty years of use that it’s super slippery. Everything is sketchy here. There is not a manny pad in sight. There is no smooth parking lot with a stupid sidewalk that you can ollie up and ollie off of. It just doesn’t exist. Italy itself is an ancient country with cobblestones everywhere instead of pavement. There is no public investment in new piazzas or plazas, like Pulaski or MaCaBa. Everything is old and dilapidated and you just take what you get.
Do you have any plans to take any trips to skate anything besides your roller rink?
It’s complicated because of work. It’s hard to get away for a weekend but maybe in the summer? I’d really love to go to that marble park.
That thing looks amazing.
It’s three hours away. It’s a long trip but I’d really like to do it just because it’s unique. Made from the same marble Michelangelo carved the David statue out of. That’s cool. I can’t think of anything else, locally. Skating Rome is fun. I’d like to get back to Rome and skate that park but it’s far, I may as well go to Tuscany and skate the marble park. I don’t know when the next time I’m going to get to the States is either. I’ll probably get arrested at the airport at this point, just because I have dark skin.
I’m cool just skating though. The spots don’t matter, just the skating.
You said you hadn’t seen anybody this winter, that you skated mostly alone. I struggle when I go out alone. I enjoy it if I have something in mind, like if I’m going to work on a trick or try to get something on film. That way I don’t feel like I’m in anyone’s way. But if I don’t have a plan, I often end up discouraged. I have to have a reason to be skating when I am alone. Do you have a similar experience?
No, alone, with people, I don’t care. I just have to go out. I need that time. If I have to skip a week for whatever reason, there’s a twinge, like time is slipping away. It’s a very philosophical thing. I know that our time is limited. Life is limited, obviously, but this is probably more limited than other things in life, just because of age and considerations like that. So I feel like every time I don’t get to do it, is less time that I get to do it. I don’t feel like I can skip a week and just go next week. What if something happens next week? Then you skip two weeks.
Then it’s a month.
Then the years begin to build up and you are doing it less and less. I don’t know… I need it. It’s a release. For me, skating is one part of my life where I can just get away. Disappear and get on with an almost a philosophical investigation. That was the feeling of painting, back when we were in art school. You’d go to the studio and just disappear for hours in the paint, on the canvas. It was like you were entering another world. It was something special and creative. That is what skateboarding is now. It’s like reading a book. I like seeing friends and skating with people, but if there is no one there I am fine. I just get in a zone and get out of it when I am too tired to do it anymore, or it’s dark. Those two or three hours, I’m just there, that’s it. Everything else just disappears for me.
It would be hard for me if I was always by myself. I would do it because I enjoy it, but I think I would slowly start to wane off, which is what happened in college. I was going out alone at night to skate and after a while I just lost interest.
But there is something different about it now. Then it was the tail end of our youth. It was associated with a certain period of time and we were growing up and moving on. So stopping skating was part of this whole turn towards sophistication, becoming an adult. It was like “I don’t do that anymore, I read books and make art now”. Now we’ve gone through sophistication, being an adult, marriage, divorce, kids, taxes, Now we are on the other side of that and coming back to this thing we loved. Otherwise there is no reason to come back to it. It’s always been there in the back of our minds but the relationship has changed. We are now doing it for different reasons. We didn’t start this time because it’s really popular because of the Bones Brigade or because all of our friends are doing it. I’m much more aware of why I am doing it and what it means to me then I was back then. I love books and music and lots of other things but skateboarding gives me something that nothing else gives me. Skateboarding makes me feel in touch with something that I need. I can’t define it and that is really frustrating for me. I don’t know if you feel the same way?
I just feel… cool? I don’t mean like… posing. I mean like “I can do this weird thing that not many other people can do”. Even if I suck, I’m part of a very small group of people who can do this weird thing, especially at my age, and I like that feeling. I’m proud of that. Whenever I get discouraged I have to remind myself that I’m judging myself against people who are half my age. When it works … it feels better than anything else.
Does progress matter to you?
Totally, it does. Do you have that thing where you don’t want it to matter?
I definitely don’t want it to matter but it does. If I am just hanging out with friends I don’t really think about it. I do push myself a bit more when there are other people around though. I step outside of my comfort zone a bit because I want show off or impress my friends. I get psyched when they get new stuff so I know they get psyched when I get something. You feed that energy. I actually learn more on my own though, because then I’m not so self conscious. Then I can work on the fundamentals. There are basic things I can’t do that I won’t try when other people are around because I know it’s a gap in my skill level.
I’m perfectly content skating alone but I do enjoy it more when there are people there because of the social contact. I like seeing people. I like hanging out with people. Like you said, skating with other people pushes you, because even if you don’t want to, there is always that element of you know people are watching you. You know people are judging you. Like it or not, we are human beings and that matters to us. As much as you think it doesn’t matter or you don’t want it to matter, it does. Approval from your peers does matter in the end. It does kind of keep you going back. Even stupid shit like Instagram, in lieu of actual people there is always Instagram. You put something up and get likes, it feels good. It’s still social interaction. It’s still community.
You’ve looked really smooth in some of your recent clips.
I feel smoother; it corresponds to the feeling in my mind. You know how that is. A trick really happens first in your mind and then it happens on the skateboard. You feel it, the way you think it should happen and then you try to translate that. It’s like art again, you have a picture in your mind and an idea of how you think that picture should look, and then you try to apply that to the canvas. That is kind of my litmus test for trying new things. If mentally I can put my mind around it, and feel all the motions it takes to land that trick, then I can probably do it. If I can’t get there, in my mind, then I don’t have the necessary skills yet to do it.
I’m always surprised when things don’t match up with how I think they are going to feel. Like smith grinds. Every time I go to do them I have to relearn them. I always end up trying to really lock them in, point my toe too much and end up going over them. I have to back off a bit and do it more like a slash grind, which is not how they work in my mind. Or the 50-50s I did on the ledge at Golconda a few weeks ago. The ones I’d done previously, I’d turned off early. I’d totally forgotten what it felt like to ride off the end, that you just lift up and ride off. So I got in to it and just lifted up and came off because I know how to skateboard and that is how you go off a curb. But I did it without thinking and the feeling of it surprised me.
I had the same thing with that slappy disaster thing, with coming off the end of it, because usually I would do a slide or whatever and come out in the middle of it and this was sliding off the end of it. I had to learn to do that. It just kind of happened the first time. Once you do it once, and you land it, your mind knows how it feels. That’s the thing that I think is the key here, Once you land something, your mind understands the feeling. Then you know how to do it again. You know if it doesn’t feel right you bail. Learning the trick is learning the feeling. For me I go by feeling. I know what feels right. There’s something really intuitive about it.
Marc street skating in Italy.
I’m a slow, methodical thinker. I struggle with easy things like boardslides. I can eventually do them but for a number of tries I’ll come out in manual or tail touch and turn. I can only think about getting in to them. Once you are up there you have to think about turning and getting that weight back down on the front foot to come out smoothly. I have a problem where I can get in to lots of stuff but then I don’t know what to do because it happens too quickly for me. So I really need get in to things without even thinking about them, so that I can concentrate on how to get out of them.
Some people say that is the key. To only think about landing it. Just think about landing it, none of the micro movements and everything else will take care of itself. Which is why, with kickflips, I can’t focus on the landing because I’m too focused on the flipping and it’s just not working. I’ve kind of given up on that, I’m not going to spend my entire life trying to learn to kickflip when there are so many other things I can do. It just seems like a waste of time, when there is so much else to learn.
Are there any tricks that are on your horizon? Something you expect or hope to get?
I’m still trying to lock down my 5-0s. The last time we talked that was one of the things I was fighting with. I was doing them like a stand up grind, all the way up on top, all the weight on the tail, grind to a halt, teeter and fall back in to the ramp. This is not the proper way to do them so now I’m learning from the bottom up, starting with little kick turn grinds. I’ve done frontside scratcher grinds pretty much everywhere at this point. Give me some time and I think I can get the 5-0s proper. It just becomes a matter of pushing in your toes a little bit, to stand up on it.
How about you?
Well, like you I’m also working on those 5-0s, trying to get them on curbs. I can’t quite get my balance right yet. As always, my pipe dream is to learn proper kickflips. I know I can do them, but I have a commitment problem. It’s funny how so much in skating is just a question of knowing you can do it. You need that mental confidence.
Whenever I am able to skate a manny pad I try to work on nose manuals, but they are still inconsistent. I’d love to have a place to learn manny variations. Wallrides. I’d like to learn them, too. Basically, though I really like just going fast and doing long ollies and powerslides, carving around and being smooth. That just gives you a feeling that no technical tricks can, at least not in my case.
I need to go fast and ollie more. I don’t do that enough. Just push down the street and ollie the paint marks at a cross walk or something. Just see how far you can go.
Ollies and slides. That’s the best feeling there is. I could spend the whole day doing them and be happy.
Ollieing is the one trick I really remember “working”.
Because it’s the most basic one.
I remember being on that little patio in my backyard. Just popping up on my tail over and over. Until eventually I could go up a curb.
It looks like magic. To some one that can’t skateboard, who has never ridden a skateboard, if you ollie over something it looks like magic to them. Think about that. That is like the single greatest innovation in skateboarding history. The flat ground ollie.
Oh yeah, it changed everything.
For me, that’s the one real innovation that made everything else possible. And it was a true innovation, figuring that out for the first time. Now, if you don’t learn to ollie you will never do anything other than carve around.
Marc emulating Salba.
It’s true. There are a lot of older guys I see that can rip the bowl but struggle to ollie.
I can’t ollie switch very well so I understand. Trying to teach myself to ollie switch… it’s not so easy. You do it a hundred times and you are only getting like two inches off of the ground. It’s like teaching yourself Chinese. You have to learn the alphabet again. It’s difficult, it takes time and effort but if you don’t get that you can’t get anything.
One thing that is nice about New York City is that it is so large that there is almost always going to be someone else about my age there when I go out skating. That’s really nice.
That must be a great feeling. Historical continuity…. You can talk about the same references. I skate with kids that are between 12 and 25. I can talk to them about what is going on now, but if I want to talk to them about like… the Bones Brigade they have some vague recollection but it doesn’t mean anything to them. They didn’t live that. They didn’t live going in to the skate shop in 1987 and looking at the boards on the wall and going “Oh my god I want that. I want the one with the skull and the snake!”
I’m like the raconteur. I’ll be like ‘hey you don’t know about this one thing that happened back in 1989! Once upon a time there was this guy and he was doing those things way back then”. And they are looking at you like, “yeah okay whatever grandpa”.
I feel like I’m schooling the kids sometimes. And I hate that feeling, like they are being lectured by their elder, but otherwise I can’t talk to them about it, without giving them a little bit of the history. I think that’s important, to know where all this stuff comes from. You don’t exist in isolation, it’s more interesting if you know that Rodney Mullen invented all of the tricks that you are doing.
It’s so strange that skateboarding has such a short history that way. The people that invented skateboarding are still alive.
And they are still ripping.
Like Alva. Alva can still rip a pool and he was one of the inventors of pool skating.
The Bones Brigade! They just re-did the photograph on the Animal Chin ramp and they are in their 50s now. Skateboarding is a young thing. It’s about as young as punk. This thing that happened that has reverberated in culture ever since. Unless you count the initial ‘60s explosion of skateboarding, but then go back to the British Invasion. It’s the same age and hell; the Rolling Stones are still playing. How long do you think you will skate? How long is this sustainable?
As long as I don’t develop some kind of injury… I don’t even mean breaking something, I mean like ACL… doing something to my knee…. I feel like I’m going to be going in circles in bowls in to my mid 50s. I know those guys.
Barring injury would anything stop you?
Maybe I’ll lose interest and not be skating quite as much in a few years? I have a feeling though that I’m going to keep going out and going in circles for as long as I can. I’ll take that.
Just think about it, when we are there, you are going to be looking at guys like Caballero who will be in their mid 60s and still doing it and you’ll be like “okay, I’ve got another 10 years left!” They are the ones who are showing us what is possible. Tony Alva is still out there, he is 60. Right there it means it can be done.
How does your body feel?
The day after I skate I do feel it. My back will hurt the next day and I normally don’t skate two days in a row because I’m sore enough the next day that I don’t want to. It doesn’t last though. My knee that used to bother me doesn’t so much anymore. It’s normally just a sore lower back.
How about you?
I feel pretty good too. I’m stretching a couple times a week. I’m trying to keep my core strong. I go out and skate and unless I fall, I don’t feel it the next day much anymore. My body feels better than it did in my 30s. I’d been sedentary for my entire adult life. I was a bookworm; I didn’t do any physical activity. So when I started skating again, it had a huge impact. In the beginning I was in pain all the time. Now, after two years, my body has caught up with that. Skating is keeping me in shape because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing anything at all. I hate running, I hate going to the gym, and my bike has had a flat tire for two years. I can’t keep any physical commitment to anything, except skateboarding.
Because it’s fun. It’s not going to the gym. Going to the gym sucks.
But we are 40, that’s what people do. So for me it really satisfies two needs. I need that physical release, the exercise that comes with it and the mental space it offers. It fills this need that nothing else quite fills. It’s this precious thing I really need to do regularly. I think that, barring injury obviously, even if it means just carving around and doing slides I’ll do that as long as I can. That mental space, that full concentration that can go on for as long as I want it to, as long as I need it to, is certainly something I don’t get from anything else. Nothing else has given me what skateboarding gives me. I think I’ll do it until I drop. The older you get the cooler you are too, right?
I’m 43 today. In celebration, here is a short montage of my skating from the past year, at age 42. I didn’t film all that much but I think this is a fair representation of what I talked about in my last post. The only thing not included is some bigger bowl footage but all I really did was go in circles and do some axle stalls in those so no one is going to miss that.
I was asked about an update, so here it is. This post was originally supposed to be about learning kickflips but that didn’t really work out as planned. After a month or two of trying them (which is shorter than it seems, it was less than an hour per week) I actually did land a few. Those were in the grass and sketchy though. Doing them while moving and on pavement… no way. My kickflips are rocket flipping, back foot catches with the front foot missing or touching down early most times. After hours of minor adjustments and no significant improvements I realized I was stuck and gave up. I decided I’d rather just skate than struggle.
So, instead of a triumphant “I learned kickflips at 42!” post, here is a recap of the past year. Much like my kickflip attempts, 2016 kind of sucked. Skateboarding can be both incredibly rewarding and insanely frustrating and this past year leaned much more towards the frustrating end of the spectrum. For most of the year I felt like I had plateau-ed or was even actively regressing. So while I generally still had fun hanging out, the skateboarding itself was often also somewhat disheartening as nothing seemed to come easy.
FS grind on the mini ramp in Starbuck, MN, 2016.
I began skating again the summer of 2012. That year was spent re-learning the basics, my goal being to roll around the skate park and look like I knew what I was doing. By 2014 I had surpassed that and had relearned quite a lot. I had goals and regularly put in the work at Owls Head and Chelsea to learn tricks. I had no goals for 2015. Early that spring this woman I know from Chelsea, Sally, said she had no goals for the year and wasn’t going to push herself to learn anything and instead just skateboard. I liked that approach and decided to follow it. By just skateboarding I may have made the most progress yet. A large part of that was due to the mini ramp at Hoboken. I learned and relearned quite a number of tricks there because that ramp is so small and forgiving. My bigger bowl skating also markedly improved and I was skating near the top of my ability coming in to 2016, before I broke my wrist.
As I said in my previous post, I was off of the board for just around two months and then slowly got back in to skating in May, on the Hoboken mini. Chelsea also remained a regular spot, of course, but on bigger terrain I now had much more fear of falling. You can’t cheat at skateboarding. You can’t fake it. The only way to learn things is to commit. With the commit can come the slam but it is often the hesitation that can really injure you. Post injury I was much more reticent to try things. I took a much more leisurely “carve the bowl, cruise around the park and do some ollies” approach to skating for quite a while. This was all well and good on the bigger stuff, where I didn’t have many tricks to begin with, but was discouraging when I realized this same reluctance carried over to smaller transition as well.
The one place that really stands out was the mini bowl in Long Beach. We rented a car and took a day trip to skate the park there. That day was one of the most frustrating. I struggled to do anything besides axle stall in the mini bowl. I didn’t beat myself up about it but I also didn’t push myself at all. I wasn’t skating well and didn’t want to risk hurting myself. I got a second chance at Long Beach the following weekend because I was there on vacation, but I was alone and it was horribly hot so I half assed it once again.
Another place was Fargo, ND. I took a trip to the Midwest to visit my girlfriend’s family and stopped at a few skate parks along the way. The park in Fargo was awesome but I just couldn’t skate it. While it doesn’t have much flow, it has a lot of small bumps, quarter pipes and mellow banks. It is the kind of park that, given time, I could learn a lot at, but instead I struggled with the basics and ignored large portions of it out of fear of falling.
And again, I also failed to learn kickflips this year, which was my stated goal.
A wet Fargo, ND park, 2016.
Otherwise, I spent the rest of the hottest part of the summer mostly skating Owls Head early in the morning, as some of it at least has some shade. I generally skated the smaller parts of the park and it wasn’t until later in the fall that I got back in to the bowl for real. Then the year picked up. I took me almost seven months from when I broke my wrist, to really get back up to speed. So, 2016 wasn’t all bad. Here are some of the highlights:
A Chelsea curb session in September.
Chelsea was locked the morning of Old Man Jam because the drains were not working. Stuck outside, we skated a curb for about two hours before I got tired of waiting and went to Owls Head. The rest of the guys eventually got in to the park but I think I had more fun skating that curb than I would have the bowl. That was probably my first legit curb session in something close to twenty five years.
The mini ramp in Starbuck, MN in October.
I had planned to skate in both Fargo, ND and Watertown, SD during my trip to the Midwest but the lakefront mini ramp in my girlfriend’s tiny home town was the best surprise. I only skated it for a few minutes but it stands out because it was so unexpected. We were just driving along and I was like “Holy shit! There’s a mini! Pull over!” It was tiny and in bad shape but I managed to bust out my handful of tricks with no real warm up.
Paine’s and Grays Ferry in November.
I went to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving and met up with two friends from college to skate the next morning. I didn’t skate exceptionally well, I spent most of my time at Paine’s trying to figure it out and I was only marginally better at Grays Ferry than I had been the previous year. What made it so amazing was hanging out with Roy and Jesse. I felt like a teenager again.
(C)old Man Jam, 2016
(C)old Man Jam at Chelsea in December.
True to my promise I finally started wearing a helmet and pads to skate the bigger stuff and it had an immediate effect. After two weeks of starting to get tricks back at the Owls Head bowl I then skated Chelsea twice. By (C)old Man Jam I was pushing my axle stalls into 50-50s in the shallow. That may not seem like a lot but it was a major step forward for me. Pads helped me get over the fear of the bowls I had developed and I now feel uncomfortable skating anything large without them.
Golconda in December.
After a year of delays this highly anticipated park in Brooklyn finally opened. Designed by Steve Rodriguez it shares many features with 181, which he was also involved in. Many of the elements are too tight, oddly shaped and hard to skate. The brick banks to sticking out marble tops is an obvious point of comparison. Also like 181, it is already incredibly filthy, thanks to the roosting pigeons and dust from the BQE on-ramp bridge above it. This may make it sound bad, but its the exact opposite. It’s odd enough to be interesting and has a little bit of something for everyone, including a mini kidney bowl. That bowl, despite being small is also, in the words of the kids, “low key dangerous”. It was frustrating at first but once I figured it out it became something I have very high hopes for. I moved from Sunset Park to Crown Heights right around the time this park opened and I am pretty sure it will become my new go to spot, now that I am no longer near Owls Head.
2ntr in January.
This one is cheating, since I technically skated this in 2017 but I think the indoor bowl session we had at 2ntr was the best I’d felt since last year. I just felt smooth and confident on the skateboard. I only got one or two new things, one of those being small frontside grinds. Again, that may not seem like much, but as with the 50-50s at Chelsea, this represents a major breakthrough for me.
So, 2017…. I think the lesson learned is to not set goals but to also continue to step outside of my comfort zone. It’s been a rough start to the year already. After 2ntr I got sick and stayed sick for over two weeks, so I didn’t skate except for a quick hour long flat session. The last two weekend (and likely this one as well because of the weather) I’ve been skating Winter Bowl, the private indoor spot in south Brooklyn. That has been very humbling. The tight bowl and steep mini ramp there are by far some of the most challenging things I have skated yet and I’m back to feeling like I suck again.
Starting to skate again after breaking my wrist was nowhere near as dramatic as the “Starting Again, Again” title implies. There isn’t actually all that much to write about. As I said in my last post, I was off of the board for almost exactly two months. I was supposed to wait three, so I eased back in to it during May with a few easy sessions at the mini ramp in Hoboken. By June I was back to skating once or twice a week. I’ve been skating regularly again for over three months now. I had to relearn some things and my consistency is worse but I didn’t really lose any tricks. I’ve actually learned a few things.
Even a three foot high mini ramp isn’t safe. Your author at Hoboken, June 2016.
Even though my wrist is healed I have been wearing a wrist guard, more as a protective totem than anything else. I’ve always had some slightly magical thinking and superstitions when it comes to skateboarding but post injury that has gotten worse. I only do certain tricks in certain spots. I rock to fakie on one side of the Hoboken mini and smith grind on the other. I can ollie up the Owls Head euro but not the Chelsea one. If I take a bad slam on something, I avoid doing that trick in that spot again. The spot, not the trick, feels cursed. It took an impromptu session with a bunch of guy I didn’t know to get me back in the bowl at Owls Head. I was afraid of it because that is where I broke my wrist. With my friends I could just say “no, this is sketching me out, I don’t want to skate it”, but with strangers my pride overcame my fear.
So while I may not have lost any tricks, what I did lose was my bravado.
I’ve been struggling with “the fear”. I’m much more afraid of falling and, as such, I’ve become much more risk adverse. I’ve been avoiding bigger transition and having more fun skating smaller obstacles. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but before I hurt myself I was starting to learn some of my mini ramp tricks in the shallow end of the Owls Head bowl. It is frustrating to now have to contend with extreme anxiety even carving a bowl, much less trying lip tricks.
I’m not exaggerating. I get extremely nervous now. At the start of a session I get jittery and dizzy, with an increased heart rate and it takes a good half hour or so before it goes away and I can start to skate normally. A few times I’ve gone to the parks and literally only rolled around once or twice before having to sit down and wait for my body to calm down. If I ever want to learn tricks on bigger transition again, I think the only solution is pads, so my plan for this fall is to pad up for the bowls. It’s been entirely too hot to make that transition this summer.
In the meantime I’ve started to try to learn kickflips, but I will save that for my next post.
I didn’t skate for most of the winter of 2013-14. Due to frequent snow and frigid temperatures, the roads were icy and the parks were buried until mid March. We took two trips that February to Garden Sk8, a now closed indoor park in New Jersey, but that was about it. The first time back skating Chelsea that spring was amazing, everyone was so happy to be outside. Those months off took their toll though. I was so unsteady on the board I slammed a few times just doing basic things and I lost a few tricks that winter that I have yet to get back.
During the winter of 2014-15, thanks to the indoor bowls at 2nd Nature and Black Bear Bar, I managed to skate just enough to not really lose anything. I picked up right where I had left off in March of 2015 and had enjoyed slow and steady progress since. It was the 2nd Nature bowl that helped me learn figure 8 lines, which greatly improved my skating in the bigger bowls at Chelsea and Owls Head. Then, last summer, we started skating the micro mini ramp in Hoboken and I began to relearn a number of lip tricks I had not done since the ‘90s.
Unlike the previous few years, this past winter in New York was surprisingly mild. We fortuitously had planned a two night Woodward trip for the weekend of the blizzard and then skated the indoor park at 2nd Nature on another freezing weekend. Otherwise, I managed to skate outdoors the rest of the weekends. Chelsea was snowed in for a while after the blizzard but the Owls Head locals shoveled out parts of that park almost immediately. Last fall and this past winter I had been skating Owls Head much more. Chelsea had lost some of its luster for me. It felt kind of sterile. Owls Head, not officially open but unlocked this year, had a Wild West feel to it. It reminded me of Lansdowne. During the off season, it is dirty, has no rules and the skaters take care of it. It is also never crowded and slightly smaller all around than Chelsea so it was the ideal place to work on taking the tricks I had learned at Hoboken to bigger transition.
The morphine was kicking in.
So I was looking forward to this spring, where, instead of spending a month just remembering how to skateboard again, I could continue to improve. Instead, at the end of February, I broke my wrist.
It happened in the stupidest way possible. I had met a few friends at Owls Head on a Sunday morning. After they left a crew of guys I knew in passing showed up and they spent almost an hour sweeping out the bowls. We had just started a fun bowl session when I fell. I was warmed up and skating near the top of my ability. I was working on the following line, drop in, backside carve the deep, short 50-50 in the shallow, frontside carve the deep and then rock ‘n’ roll in the shallow. I didn’t have anything after that because I was stuck on that rock ‘n’ roll. Even though they are automatic for me on things four foot and under, on bigger transition I hit a mental block. I’d tried that rock a few times before I made it. I was squirrely but still balanced when I hit a wood chip going back in to the deep end and was thrown forward.
The vast majority of the time that fall would have just been a tweaked or sprained wrist. Instead I broke two bones in my left wrist and needed surgery. I didn’t immediately realize something was wrong. I picked up the wood chip and threw it out of anger and then picked up my board and climbed out of the bowl. One of the guys asked me if I had hurt my shoulder and I said, “No, it’s my wrist.” I then looked at it, noticed it was crooked and knew I had to go to the emergency room. I sat on the bench and smoked a cigarette until the nausea passed and then had one of the guys drive me to the nearby hospital. I don’t know if any of them read this but I would like to thank them again for all of their help.
By the time this is posted it will have been about two months since my injury. After the emergency room it was one week until surgery, one week post surgery, two weeks in a cast, and a month in a removable brace. The bone is still not fully healed and my doctor has advised another month before I can play “sports”, so I’m looking at June before I can really start skating again. That is three months off of the board. I’m not waiting that long though. I skated the day before I posted this, the first time in two months. I was surprisingly not sketchy. I met my friends at Hoboken and kick turned on the larger ramp and did all of my basic tricks on the smaller one. I had to seriously restrain myself from trying anything and from skating for too long. My plan is to put on my wrist guard and skate gently an hour or so a week for the next month. I just can’t risk another stupid little fall. I can’t risk re-breaking it. Just this minor (in the scheme of things) injury took a toll on me, not only physically but personally, professionally and financially.
I’d seen the cycle of injury move through my group of friends and acquaintances. Ed broke his wrist his first day skating again. Ray horrifically broke his arm on the bigger Hoboken mini. This woman Kathy broke her wrist the same way as mine when someone dropped in on her in the old House of Vans bowl. Andrew broke his elbow at Chelsea. Steve broke his wrist. There were also a myriad of other less dramatic muscle, tendon and ligament injuries that were just as debilitating. The kids heal fast. The adults… sometimes they will be gone for almost a year.
In some ways it was inevitable that this would happen to me but I never thought it would. Despite not wearing pads I skated “safely”. I “stayed within my limits”. I slowly worked tricks from tiny to medium sized and never tried anything complicated on anything big. I never tried tricks that I couldn’t bail out of. I never committed to something that didn’t feel 100%. In fact, some of my friends joked that they never saw me fall. That is an exaggeration but I normally only took one tumble a session, if that. My worries were that I was going to pull something in my knee or lower back, something that would make skating uncomfortable and force me to stretch and do yoga or other exercises. I never thought I would break something. I never even broke anything as a kid, jumping down stairs.
Someone’s screenshot of Templeton’s farewell post.
So now I feel that it is my duty to warn all of the people reading this blog, all of the other old men that I may be or may have “pied pipered” in to skating again, that you will get hurt. The piper will have to be paid. It may be minor but it may be something major, something that at our age could limit you physically for the rest of your life. I couldn’t help but think of Ed Templeton. We are almost the same age and I used a teenage picture of him as a surrogate for me in one of my earliest blog posts. He retired from skateboarding when he broke his leg. If that had happened to me I think I may have quit too. I don’t believe in living my life in fear, of not taking any risks. In fact I believe the opposite. I feel that it is especially important to put myself out there at this age, because I don’t have that many more years left that I can. One of the first things I said when I broke my wrist was “see you guys in two months.” If it had been something more serious… I may have had to move on. Its not a comfortable thought, being made to confront the reality of aging, but at some point I know I am not going to be able to do this any longer.
Skateboarding has its claws deep in me. I’ve missed it terribly the past two months. For my 42nd birthday I treated myself to a cheap HD camcorder, fish eye lens and handle and started doing some filming, but that is a pale substitute for the real thing. I lay in bed at night imagining all the tricks I want to learn when I can start skating again. Yet, this is tempered by reality and I am not sure what to expect going forward. Will I have lost a bunch of tricks? Will it all come back and I will continue to improve? Will I be afraid and much more cautious? Will I make the switch into fully padded old man bowl skating? Will I just mess around on small obstacles and skate street more? That all remains to be seen. Which means there will be at least one more blog post coming.
A number of different people have encouraged me to keep it going but, while I am not ruling out that possibility, I always envisioned this blog as a finite project. It was to be a personal history of the two phases of my skateboarding, as a teenager and as an adult. It has reached its conclusion, save for one final thing, which is contemporary video.
What follows are a series of clips spanning the last two and half years. I’ve attempted to represent what my skating actually looks like. I’ve resisted the urge to re-film things because, who am I kidding, I’m not good and never will be good. I am skating in my 40s though, which is something I never imagined would be possible and I’m having so much fun doing it.
Marc was one of my good friends in high school and a core member of my skate crew. He started skating again almost exactly one year ago. He now lives in Italy yet, despite the ocean between us, we talk nearly daily about skateboard related ephemera. He was the obvious choice when I decided that, instead of writing about it, I wanted to have a conversation about what it means to be an adult skateboarder. I’d like to thank him for all of his help in putting this together. It turned out better than I had hoped.
A few posts ago I wrote about how watching skate videos inspired me to start skating again. Where did your desire to start again came from? I think I may have had a big influence on you. Is that true?
Skateboarding was always in the back of my mind, that is just what it is like when you skated. You walk down the street and your eye just roves towards possible spots. You see a set of stairs, you see a ledge, you see a bank and your mind skates it. I think that has always been there for me, ever since I quit. It never went away.
But all of this is probably a Facebook phenomenon. At some point, 2011 or 2012, maybe even earlier, you were sending me videos. You sent me Cheese and Crackers, with Daewon and Haslam on the mini ramp…. I hadn’t followed the progression of skating. For me, mini ramps were still Jeff B in 1991. Doing what they were doing [in Cheese and Crackers] was literally not on my radar at all. It blew me away. I was like “Holy shit, what’s happening with skateboarding? Where has it gone? I’ve missed all of this.”
Think about it. I didn’t even know who Daewon Song was because he came up in 1993 in Love Child, and I had quit by that point. So for me Daewon was just like “who is this guy?” and he was already an old pro. I was really fascinated by where skateboarding had gone and it was exciting watching these videos. You kept sending them I started searching them out myself. I had no idea who these people were but it was interesting and it just snowballed. Last year you were posting your stuff on Facebook, your trips to Chelsea and your progress and I was like “holy shit, he can do it, I want to do it!” It was one of those things. I wanted to see if I could do it again. I really didn’t think I could or that it would stick but the desire built and I thought “oh my god I have to get a skateboard now.”
So how long have you been skating again? I can’t remember exactly when you started.
I got my board on November 16th of last year. I received it in the mail. I remember I didn’t even know what to buy. I had no idea about sizes, wheels…. I just got this cheap complete because I didn’t even know where to begin. It was a 7.75, really tiny! So much time had passed and skateboards didn’t look like they did in 1992. I went out the evening I got it. I was so psyched I took it to work. There is this little park near my office that is just flat. When I got off work, it was dark, I was in my business shirt and office shoes, and I took the skateboard out and just ran to the park and jumped on it and started rolling around. Then I hit a pebble and I slammed.
It just didn’t register to me, pebbles. Now, I think about it, but that night I was just cruising around in the dark and I hit a pebble and went flying and slammed on my shoulder and elbow. I had a swellbow the next day. But still, I rode around and tried to ollie. I got about a 2cm ollie and I felt really cool. On the way back to the car I was riding along a curb and I was feeling all tough so I was like “I’ll ride off the curb” but I didn’t realize that the parking lot was all gravel. It wasn’t smooth and I just stopped. I did one of those things where your torso twists to stop yourself from falling and I had a rib bruise for a month.
In the first ten minute session I got two injuries. It was kind of a wake up call.
That’s what kind of happened to Ed. I went to Baltimore last year, for Christmas. Ed lives about two blocks from the new bowl they built there. So I was like “Ed, I’m going to skate the new bowl, you live right down the street, why don’t you come hang out with me?” He came over and watched and then of course he had to try my board. He did an ollie or two, and then he wanted his own board. We went to the local skate shop, Vu, which is literally right next to the park, and he bought a board as well as a mini for his daughter. We decided to skate again the next morning. He carved the deep end of the bowl about three quarters of the way up, both frontside and backside. He then skated the little quarter pipe, dropped in on it, got an axle stall, a rock ‘n’ roll, and then he did an axle pivot on it, which blew my mind.
Which I still can’t do.
Yeah, they are hard. You have to hit that perfect balance on that turn. I think he was so hyped up and me cheering him on fanned those flames. He was a little sketchy. One of those axle stalls looked like he was almost going to go to disaster and hang up. I was like “Ed, slow down, slow down! You are doing the tricks but you are scaring me a little bit!” He didn’t slam doing that though. He was just doing a flatground ollie when he landed off balance and slipped out fell forward and fractured his wrist.
I came into town, got him skating again, after twenty some years, and he breaks his wrist the first day. He skated a few more time but kept hurting himself. You know… he’s got to work, he’s got a physical job…. I think he just went for it too hard. It took me months before I was messing around with lip tricks on a quarter pipe. I skated flat for about a month. I failed miserably the first time I went to a skate park. I spent a month just getting comfortable with turning and carving on transition before I did anything.
So since we are already talking about it, let’s talk about injury.
I had a lot of injuries the first six months. Not serious injuries but just little things that don’t stop hurting. It scared the shit out of me at the beginning, I was like “what the fuck am I doing to myself.” I really thought I was going to produce long term injuries or just really fuck it up and regret it. At a certain point you said “Trust me, your body will get used to it after a while” and it did. Those movements kind of became second nature again.
There is a lot of twisting and lateral motions that you don’t normally do otherwise.
Yeah that twisting of the torso…
My back used to be so sore every time after skating. Now normally what hurts is the side of my knee, generally on my back leg, but sometimes it’s still my lower back. If I fall weird or something, I’ll be like “oh god I can’t skate anymore because I’m not going to be able to walk tomorrow!”
The lower back, yeah, when I’m not skating sometimes I do exercise. I’ll do core work and stretching and stuff like that and that helps a lot. I make a point of doing back flexibility and core stuff because I have a stiff back anyway, which is probably really bad for skateboarding. My wife is always telling me “Dude, your back. You shouldn’t do this.” What can I do, you know? I don’t like soccer or any other sports. I get a lot of these little pains in my legs and in my inner thighs. I remember I would go out and dick around on flat ground for half an hour and come home and feel like I pulled a muscle in my groin. From doing shove-its. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe it hurts that bad after like nothing.” I didn’t pull it, I didn’t slam but it would hurt. It doesn’t do that anymore. I can go out and skate for two hours now and if I don’t fall, like slam, I don’t have any real pain. My foot hurts sometimes. My toe. I jammed it trying to backside ollie some gap, the rotation, my foot kind of slammed in the tail wrong way and my toe still kind of hurts now but I got these new insoles and that seems to be helping.
How often are you skating?
I try to skate once a week. Now that the weather’s getting crappy that may turn into once every two weeks. I try to go out every weekend, maybe twice a week if I’m lucky.
About how long are you out for when you do go?
An hour or two. Never three or four. Even when I went to the skate park in Rome a few weeks ago, it was a two hour session. It still takes me an hour to really feel warmed up. I don’t go out and start trying tricks right away. I go out and just cruise around and I work it up. I work up to getting to where I think I am, and feeling comfortable, because even if I don’t skate for a week, when I put the board down it’s like wobbles. You are like “holy shit it’s only been a week and I don’t even have balance anymore.” It can take half an hour just to get balance again. Then you begin doing the tricks you know you can, on lock. Until I get the tricks I have on lock working, I won’t really try anything new.
So how often do you skate?
Once a week. Twice a week occasionally. I go for four or five hours but the parks get busy and there is a lot of talking. If I go to Owls Head, where no one ever goes, I’ll only stay two hours because I have it to myself. That’s the park where I can actually put in work learning new tricks. The other parks, there is often too many people, even early, so there is a lot of just hanging out.
There is a social element to it. You wrote about that, when the social element disappeared, you quit skating.
Yeah it’s really nice. I didn’t even realize I missed it. Sometimes I do like being alone though.
So what’s a trick, even if it’s something basic, that you can’t get that you feel like you need to get?
On tranny, everything. I can’t do anything on tranny so that’s not even a…. On street, a kickflip. I guess it’s not basic, but it is now. I know I could do them back in the day, you have video attesting to the fact that I could actually land them. I have a block, I think, now. Every time I go out I try a couple kickflips and I think I’m afraid of landing primo. My mind just won’t let me try to commit to it for fear of landing primo. I don’t know why that’s so scary.
It hurts and you fall back and jam your wrists.
That’s the idea. I have wrist guards and a helmet but still you don’t want to land primo. Your mind doesn’t want to do it. I think I’m afraid of that more than anything. You know when you reach a certain point with some tricks where you can’t unlearn learning them the wrong way? I think that’s where I am with kickflips. I can’t get out of the rut of trying to land them with one foot and not putting the other foot back on. It’s just like my brain won’t go there anymore. And I’d have to unlearn that whole thing and try it again from scratch, but I don’t know if I can do that so I’ve kind of given up on them. It doesn’t matter that much, you know, flip tricks, they’re cool but….
Your author learning FS 5-0s. Hoboken, NJ. 2015.
Mine is just frontside 5-0s on transition. Not even a slash. That’s what I’m working on now, I’ve got them so that on small things I can tail drag to stop and then kind of teeter and fall into the ramp, sometimes, but I can’t do that fully committed, manual, leaned back….
I don’t think it’s an easy trick though. It wouldn’t be in my top ten first tricks on tranny. It’s also kind of scary because if you slip out, boom, you fall to the coping.
Yeah, you do.
You go right on your hip on the coping. It hurts.
I have the same problem with curbs. If I’m skating a decent curb that grinds… not a ledge, because ledges are kind of high, but a curb, I can’t do a 5-0. I can ollie up to 50-50. I can do a few variations, little tailslides, noseslides but whenever I try to ollie into a 5-0 I over ollie it and land up on top the curb or I twist too much and get to where it’s almost to tail but it’s a really hard thing to do I think
I got them in Richmond, when I was there. There was that skate park that was pretty good, downtown, the concrete one, and they had a perfect manual ledge, which was the only perfect manny ledge I’ve ever skated because you can’t find them. One of the sides was like a 6 inch curb, you know? And it had metal coping and I got 5-0s on that pretty consistently, that day, but that was the only time. I started doing them without really thinking about it because I was doing manuals already so it just seemed like it was easy, just on the coping. So sometimes you get things you didn’t expect to be able to get, like I got 50-50s to front shove-it out and that’s a trick I could never do before. But it’s easy, because once you get in the 50-50, if you know how to front shove, you just kind of flick it and there it goes. It just kind of happened without thinking about it. It was like “that was easy!” Because sometimes you are surprised by things you can do that you didn’t think ever that you could do them.
Back disasters were the ones that surprised me. I didn’t remember being able to do them, so I never tried them again but one day….
What happens is these kids… these kids are just like “can you do this? Can you do that? Try this” and after I’ve been skating for a little bit I forget that I’m 41 years old and I just start going for things. Missing a back disaster is sketchy. If you get up on that deck instead of catching on the board, you are going face first into the flat. Or you are going to noseblunt without meaning too….
No you don’t want that.
I’ve definitely done that before and you just go barreling forward…. But I got them, after just a few tries.
I remember back in the day mini ramping, my backside disasters were pretty much on lock. If you look at those mini ramp parts from like 1990, those pro parts…. That wasn’t like advanced mini ramp skating but at the time there was all those combo tricks, like back disaster smith stall, fakie hangup back smith stall or you’d revert it, all those little combo tricks, I remember learning those things with Jeff B and Young in 1990. We were doing all that stuff, rail to smith over the spine and what not. We could do a lot of stuff back then, for the time. We weren’t really bad.
Young doesn’t have much in the old video I have but he has a line or two on Dookie ramp where he was doing some crazy things.
Like disaster slides to smith revert.
Yeah, he was doing lots of little sliding in and out of things that I didn’t remember him doing.
Yeah disaster slide smith grind revert. It’s in the video. I remember him doing them. He had them on lock. He was really good. He had a great pop too. He could really ollie high. But again we are talking about stuff that is still prehistoric skating by today’s standards. I would say that the last video that was in anyway approachable was Useless Wooden Toys. Where you felt like you might be able to get to that level if you skated well enough. Those people were that good then, that they would just blow your mind, but that all changed with Plan B Questionable.
Its different on transition. The guys that rip the bowls, it’s like smith grinds through the corners, frontside ollies over the hip and maybe something crazy in the deep end that I would never thinking of doing, like a back disaster slide on three feet of vert. But something like a smith grind, that is within the realm of possibility of me learning again. I don’t know if I ever will but that’s not unimaginable to me. A lot of transition skating is almost the same as it was in the ’80s.
Yeah in bowl skating it is, bowl skating is bowl skating unless you are going to kickflip noseblunt in the deep end of a bowl, I mean, come on.
I mean that’s kind of antithetical to the bowl because the bowl is all about lines. It’s not about just doing a trick.
Yeah, a lot of the guys that skate the bowl just carve and do lines. Bowl skating is like retirement skating. You can carve a bowl into your mid 50s, which a lot of these guys have demonstrated to me. I still feel like I’ve got a few years of learning left though. I still feel like there is a bunch of stuff I can get if I put the time in.
You were a flow skater. You never had a huge bag of tricks back in the day. You always did the same things for the most part but you always had good flow, good consistency. That’s the way I always thought of your skating, more consistent than lots of new things all the time. Is learning tricks an important thing for you now?
That’s how I still skate. I just do the same things over and over and over again because I want them to be perfect. I don’t want to have to think about them. Then I slowly start to work in something new. It does feel great when you learn something new though. My goal, when I started back up, was to just look like I knew what I was doing.
I think you’ve gotten there.
Yeah. Some days I’ll learn like three new things and other times I can’t do anything. I get frustrated with those bad days, but generally, if I’m not feeling it, I’ll just roll around and talk to some people.
You are skating primarily alone aren’t you, or are you hanging out with kids sometimes?
Marc with a FS noseslide. Perugia, Italy. 2015.
Sometimes I do, but it’s difficult. The kids around here, the skater kids, they all know each other so they are always in contact so they all kind of organize to go to the same spot at the same time, so if you are not part of that you might run into them at that spot, but you are probably not going to. Because here the spots are few and far between. There are no skate parks. I usually go to the same four spots. It depends on what I feel like skating. The best all around spot is that place with those banks, because there is flat, those banks and a bench, it’s about the best you are going to find around here. So it is also where most of the skaters go most frequently, and it’s the site of our future skate park if that ever happens (this spot has beentemporarily closed by the city since we did the interview). Usually who I run into there though are kids who don’t really know how to skate. You get these 11 or 12 year old kids with some crappy K-Mart board their dad bought them and they are trying to learn to ollie. They look at you like you are a god because you can ollie and do a couple of tricks, because for them, it’s probably like you and I looking at Chris Cole or something.
It blows little kids minds when an adult can actually do tricks because generally their parents aren’t doing anything and that is who they relate adults to. The parents are just sitting on a bench playing on their phone while the kid is pushing around. So to see an adult do it, they are like “oh my god you are so good!” and you’re like “Not really.”
Right, but again it’s all frame of reference. If you can’t even ollie and you see someone 180 ollie it’s a big deal and of course if the dude has a beard and is losing his hair, it’s like cognitive dissonance. Which is kind of cool in a way but then again I just want to go skating, I don’t want it to turn into teaching the kid to skate. Because that is my time, I don’t have a lot of time, I’m not hanging out at the skate park all day every day. So for me when I go skating I really skate hard for like two hours. I don’t sit down a lot, I don’t rest a lot and I stop when I am tired and sweaty and just can’t do it anymore, or if it’s dark. Those two hours for me are really concentrated skating. An hour of that is warm up and an hour of that is working on something I want to get. You can only roll around on a mellow bank for so much, so if you aren’t working on a trick there isn’t much to do. So I do end up working on new tricks a lot but there is also a sense of satisfaction I get from learning new tricks. I almost always skate alone, though.
Are there any older people at all, even guys in their mid 20s?
Yeah there is a core group of people who are probably between 20 and 25, they started this… you know the Majer crew in Texas? Well they all want to be like the Majer crew now so they started this YouTube channel and they have this crew identity now. Some of them are in the 20s but you don’t get much older than that. I’m the oldest person out there by at least ten years, maybe fifteen years, every time.
What kind of reaction do you get from those guys? Do they think you are weird?
Well those guys, they don’t talk a lot. They are really into their own thing. They come out there with their earbuds in, their iPods on and they don’t talk to anyone. They just skate around and do their tre flips and their crook grinds and then they go off to some other spot together. Sometimes they’ll get involved in a game of skate and it’s like “hey do you want to play?” and I’ll be like “yeah right, I can’t kickflip.” The funny thing is I’ve ended up winning some of those games, because they can do the flippy dippy stuff but they can’t do a backside 180 ollie. So you end up winning games of skate against people who can technically skate your ass off.
There is not a lot of communication but it’s cool though. There is no ribbing, no “hey old man”, because they see that I can skate. They see that I’m not just out there with a longboard and my Thrasher shirt on, or whatever, being a dork. So I think there is a certain level of respect because they kind of know me now and they see that I can skate.
I remember skaters were really judgmental back when we were kids. You always felt like everyone was judging everyone else, there were the cool kids and… us. I don’t feel that any more. Maybe I just don’t give a shit because I am older but I don’t even see that between the other kids. There is not a lot of snickering if someone can’t do a trick or the feeling of that you are not cool because you can’t do the cool stuff. I remember that whole crew of guys who were just one year older than us but I felt this huge abyss, like they were cool and we were just dorks. There was the perception that if you wanted to talk to those guys they wouldn’t even talk to you because you were a dumb kid. And now, I see the younger kids and the older kids and it seems like they are cool together. It seems like there is not as much of that, or none of it. I don’t know if it’s an Italian thing, if Italians are just more laid back.
What about the adults in your life? What do they think about you skateboarding?
They think I’m cool. The people around here, who never really thought I was cool before, now that I’ve started skating and they see the videos on Instagram and whatever, some of them think I’m cool now, because they are my age and they can’t skate. They’ve probably always wanted to, or they skated when they were younger and always thought of skaters as being cool and that changes their perception of me. It surprised probably everybody because it kind of came out of left field.
I told my wife recently, “Hey, I’ve been skating for a year already!” Her comment was, “You’ve lost weight.” But she’s come around, too. She’s no longer afraid I’ll kill myself.
Is skateboarding popular in Italy now? In NYC there are a bunch of older people who have come back to it and they all come back with their vintage Powell Peralta decks, with no nose and no concave, and if they stick with it they eventually get a more modern board. Also longboarding, which may be past its peak, but longboarding… there are just kids pushing mongo down the street everywhere.
Skateboarding isn’t super popular here yet, not like in other places like Brazil, for instance. I still never see random kids skating the streets. It’s just this core group of maybe twenty guys here. It’s probably more popular in bigger cities where there are skateparks, like Rome and Milan, though. Even American pros make a pit stop in Milan to film.
In some ways skateboarding is kind of accepted now but I still feel like there is a stigma to it. People at my work know I used to ride my bike more seriously; they think of me as a cyclist. On Monday, after a nice weekend, they’ll be like “so did you go for any rides this weekend?” and I’ll be like “no I was in the park all day.” But I don’t say I was in the skate park, because then I’d have to explain it.
Like when they ask “did you go to mass yesterday?” and you are like “not really, I went to the other church.”’ Is it like not wanting to say you are an atheist to your colleagues?
Yeah, I don’t want those weird sideways looks and….
That’s the exact analogy I made to my wife. Skateboarding is the atheism of the sports world. There is a stigma attached to it. Sometimes I wonder if the stigma is just in my mind from when we were kids, from the skateboarding is not a crime generation.
Marc as a grown ass man.
It’s still there. I was getting off the subway, had my board strapped to my backpack and I hear “look at that, grown ass man with a skateboard, he’s got to be 40 years old.” It’s the only time I’ve heard it out loud but it’s there. There are always articles about skateboarding as a mid-life crisis, it’s a constant theme. No one would think twice if I was to dress up in spandex and go ride my bike for hours but the fact that I’m grey and bald and dirty and have a bleeding cut on my leg and dragging a skateboard on the subway, people won’t even sit near me. Like “oh god who is this weird old guy.” I feel it.
Cycling is considered a serious sports. It’s always been looked at that way, its Olympic. In the culture, skateboarding is something that kids do.
Yeah its a toy and adults aren’t supposed to play with toys.
Useless Wooden Toys, just the name of that video says it all. Toy Machine. It is looked at as something for kids, something you experiment with for a little while and then you grow out of. Real, serious people, adults, don’t do it, it’s not considered an adult-compatible pursuit or sport or whatever. Which is one of the reasons I like it.
I’m curious what your opinion on that is, because in my opinion skateboarding is not a sport.
Okay that is debatable. I don’t know what it is. I don’t really care if you call it or sport or not, it doesn’t matter to me either way. Sometimes it seems like a sport, other times like a philosophy. My wife does martial arts and the two actually have a lot of aspects in common.
I compare it to dance. I read something somewhere that said that Rodney Mullen invented the tricks and then Gonz made them look like dancing. That’s what I think about it. You just go out there and do these weird physical motions for almost purely aesthetic reasons. Like you are chasing some kind of Platonic ideal of what a trick is. If you don’t film it, it’s like… sand mandalas or butter sculptures or something. You created this beautiful thing and if you didn’t film it is it gone forever. Its this really aesthetic thing which is why I compare it to dance. You just do this beautiful motion and you take pleasure in the fact when you know you did something perfectly.
But now there is the tendency to try to film everything. Which is kind of an obsession and I don’t think it’s really positive all the time. I think it takes away from a session. Sometimes I feel like I’m too obsessed with being like “I have to film this thing I did”, instead of spending the last half an hour of a session just skating. It’s like “oh my god I learned something, I have to film it right away”, otherwise it didn’t really happen.
I’ve been trying to figure out why it feels so good to me. Like we were talking about earlier, it really isn’t so much about learning tricks to me. Just carving the walls and not doing anything… there is something deep in the mammalian brain that likes going fast and gliding. Like riding a bike down a hill. That rolling feels good, but that’s obviously not it.
One of the things I have really enjoyed about skating again is I get hit with these constant waves of nostalgia. I’ll be standing on top of a ramp and have an instant flashback to standing on top of Jeff B’s ramp. Like I was right there. The smells, the sounds, the leaves on the ground…. It just comes back. I’ll remember exactly where I was and what it felt like when I learned a trick. I’ll remember being at Lutherville at 8am, trying the same trick over and over and over. It just floors me sometimes, the stuff that it brings back.
I think because for us, for most skateboarders, it was this intense experience you identify with entirely. When we were skateboarders, it wasn’t like we played soccer, or we had bikes and sometimes we skateboarded. It was what we did. It was all we did. That was our social life, our physical activity, what we thought about in our beds at night, that is what we talked about, that is what we watched on television, that is what we read in magazines, that is what we drew in our notebooks.
It was all encompassing, it was 100% who you were. The music you listened to, everything was connected to this thing, that is why I guess you are kind of right in saying it’s not a sport. It’s kind of a culture. It’s 100% of who you are when you are a teenager, and that kind of experience is so total that it can’t not leave tracks in your psyche. The whole idea that twenty years later, you have not stepped on a skateboard and you still walk down the street and you skateboard in your head. You see a handrail and you think, I could do that.
I still play with my fingers, on the edges of tables, doing lip tricks. I did that for the entire twenty years I didn’t skate. I would just be sitting bored in a restaurant and doing disasters on the edge of the table with my fingers.
I would imagine that every person who ever skated is exactly the same way. It just gets into your brain. I played basketball, I played football, I played soccer but none of them left that… aftertaste. I never think about kicking a soccer ball. Now it’s even worse, now that I do it, because now I spot hunt when I’m driving. It’s like “Oh shit, I almost got in an accident because I saw stairs.”
You never stop thinking about it, it’s totalizing and that’s got to be unique. I imagine if you are a pro cyclist you think like that. But just kids who ride bikes, they don’t think about riding their bike all the time.
Maybe the BMX kids… but yeah, there are very few things like it. Maybe it is tied into teenage tribal identities.
It’s beyond that though, it’s not just about that, it’s about the fun. Nothing makes you feel as good as just doing a smooth ollie on a bank, or a powerslide down a hill. There is something about it that is different than kicking a ball around. There is something about it that is just so satisfying. When it goes well. It is frustrating when it doesn’t, obviously. There is something so satisfying about whatever it is we are doing out there. I have no idea how to explain why that particular thing is that satisfying.
I saw this cool video by this guy named Dr. Tae. He’s a physicist. He did one of those TED talks. He’s an eccentric guy but he’s a decent skater. He did this talk about how he was trying to learn this trick and he filmed the entire process and condensed it into a five minute video where he showed the 100s of times he didn’t make it, only to make it once. And he said, essentially, this is skateboarding. You go out there alone with the board and the pavement, the ramp, the obstacle, and you just work on it, and no one can make it easier for you. No one can short cut it for you. No one can do it for you. It’s just you and the board. It’s up to you.
I think, for me, that’s the core thing with skateboarding and probably why I love it and why I came back to it with such verve. It’s so individualistic. It’s like a martial art. It has the same discipline to it that martial arts have. It’s almost a meditative experience. Sometimes I almost like skating alone, it’s almost bothersome when there are people there. I like people and I like to skate with other people but sometimes I just want those two hours of me and the board. To have that time to just block everything out and forget about work, forget about whatever else in life and just concentrate. It’s an intensely inner experience.
Maybe it’s just that we are skateboarders. The kind of people we are were drawn to this. It could be as simple as that. It speaks to who I am. Maybe we are looking in the wrong place for the answer. Its nothing mysterious. Maybe we are attracted to this because that’s the kind of people that we are. Again though, it does seem like skateboarders suffer this very particular and very peculiar pathology. And we are seeing it more now, because when we were kids, old skateboarders didn’t really exist.
Well they did, but they were just kind of off the radar
But an old skateboarder in 1990 was like someone who skated for Hobie in 1965? Now we are seeing people who are “real” skateboarders in the sense we understand it, who are 50, sometimes 60 years old. Tony Alva, Caballero, those guys and they’re still fucking good too. You read comments on the internet and it’s from people who are 45 years old, and they’re not a minority. They’re part of the demographic.
Skateboarding was so big in the the ’80s that every weird, creative, physical kid of our generation skated, or at least tried it. The smart creative misfits were the ones that gravitated towards skateboarding and that is generally my peer group now. All these musicians or artists…. My friend Brian, he skated when he was young and I got him to go to the park with me. He probably won’t go back again, but he rolled down the banks, got an ollie out of a bank, landed a kickflip….. It was probably his first time on the board in years. I see it all the time, these guys are just like “oh! I could do that!” You can see them thinking “maybe I should try this again?” Most of them don’t. Maybe they have other things going on, maybe they don’t have time, maybe they are afraid of getting hurt, but so many of them…. I see it. All I would have to do is lean on them a little bit more and I could get them out there the next weekend.
You’ve always been the Pied Piper kind of person. Even in high school you were always in to contaminating other people with your obsessions.
I think it’s always been part of your personality to sort of export your obsessions. It’s cool though. I’m glad actually, because if you hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t be skating now. If you hadn’t already been doing it I don’t think I ever would have thought of doing it. It wasn’t just about watching the videos, it was about seeing you actually out there doing it successfully. I was like “holy shit, I can do it too.” This is the right time, before I get too old.
I don’t think that happens with 40 year old ex-lacrosse players. Its part of who you are, forever. You can be anyone you want to be, but underneath it all, you are still in some ways a skateboarder. It’s something to do with how you think about the world. How you approach life and I guess there is a DIY element. I don’t think you can really explain it, it is so complex. So doing it again, it’s like, can I ever stop?
Marc at around age 13. Cockeysville, MD. 1987-88.
I don’t know why I ever stopped. I mean I know why but….
We were 18. You don’t think about it like that. You just think at the time…. It just wasn’t cool anymore and it was going through a lull and wasn’t as popular as it had been in like ’88. So maybe we were just victims of waning popularity.
What’s nice about being an old skateboarder is you have the excuse of being an old skateboarder. No one expects you to be able to do anything, so if you can, it’s like “you’re good, for an old guy!” You’ve got that built in excuse.
I don’t feel like I have to ollie stairs now, or drop in on vert, like you did.
I remember at Cheap Skates, just standing there with the tail over the vert ramp.
That thing was huge, it was like twelve feet.
But still, you feel like you have to do it. I’m a skateboarder, I have to drop in on vert. I have to do it. I would stand there, almost in tears, looking down, my heart just pounding, and I’d step back. I’d almost cry because I couldn’t make myself do it. I was always too prudent to have been a really good skater.
The kids at Chelsea are always like “can you drop in on the deep end” and I’m like “I can, but I won’t because I’ve got nothing to prove” but then I did it. I was hyped up that day at Riverside. I told my buddy Andrew that if we went up there that I was going to have to drop in on the vert ramp and that he had to do it too. I just kind of hyped myself up into it.
I’d never even entertain the idea. It’s like saying “I’ll ollie down ten stairs.” But I guess you feel comfortable enough on transition to try it. I think when I was at that park in Rome I dropped in on a four foot quarter pipe. It was fine, but at first I was like “oh shit, if I don’t make it I’m going to slam on the concrete.” Of course it was nothing.
If you had a park and skated transition all that stuff would come back pretty quickly.
Yeah I’m sure, but I don’t.
So do you really feel like a skater again?
Fuck yeah, are you kidding me? It feels like I never stopped skating. You go out to the park and throw your board down and after ten minutes it feels like you never stopped. It’s not perfect but it feels right, it feels like what I should be doing. It makes me feel better as person, too. I feel physically better, I feel mentally better.
Exactly, we’ve got a little while longer before it starts to get too painful. Hopefully into our 50s.
I want to be able to do it for a while. Nobody twenty or thirty years ago would have thought that at 40 you could come back to skateboarding. So already we are beyond the ken of our imaginations. So now when you are like 50…Cab is 51 and he’s still doing demos. Bucky is still winning vert contests.
Yeah I hope to be able to just carve some bowls in ten years.
Think about how good you are going to be in ten years.
This post is coming in well late. Of course I have no real deadline but I’ve tried to keep to a roughly once a month schedule. I struggled with this one. Writing about the past is much easier for me than writing about the present. So let me start this off by rehashing a bit of skateboarding history. It has a point, I promise.
As I’ve discussed in many of my previous posts, skateboarding has gone through a number of different phases. The initial sidewalk surfing fad of the ‘60s faded quickly but rose again in the mid ‘70s, thanks largely to advances in equipment, such as the invention of the polyurethane wheel. Pioneers like the Z-Boys pushed skateboarding out of the streets and in to pools. By the late ‘70s, a glut of skate parks opened up across the nation to cater to this new trend of transition skating. Almost all of these parks would close by the end of the decade. Commonly referred to as “when skateboarding died”, what this did was force the remaining skaters to build their own spots, in the form of backyard vert ramps. These ramps, and the scenes that developed around them, ushered in the mid ‘80s vert craze and the height of skateboarding’s popularity. The kids of this Bones Brigade generation (your author included), not having access to skate parks and too young to build their own ramps, took to adapting vert tricks to the street. This was the first wave of modern street skating and it was marked by launch ramps, street plants and bonelesses. Branded “street style” by the professional contest circuit, it joined the two other existing disciplines, freestyle (which was essentially just flat ground skateboarding) and, of course, vert.
MG Midget ad at Carlsbad during the height of the ’70s skate park craze.
By the end of the ’80s both freestyle and vert died. Many of the freestyle tricks invented by Rodney Mullen merged with “street style” in to the new form of street skating that took over in the ‘90s. This style of skating, technical tricks done on re-purposed parts of the urban environment became the dominant form of skateboarding for the next two decades. Vert skating made a comeback of sorts, in the form of corporate sponsored televised contests, but that was only for professionals, the kids all skated street. No longer confined to skate parks or backyard ramps, skaters swarmed to urban plazas and the marble courtyards of office buildings. This caused a major backlash and the public quickly began to see skateboarding as a nuisance activity, associated with petty crime and property damage. Overzealous private security guards and town ordinances banning skating in popular public places, such as Love Park for example, left skaters “kicked out of everywhere” and with limited options. Skate parks in ’90s and early 2000s, at least here on the east coast, were few and far between. Outside of the remnants from the ’70s and the few private indoor parks, the public skate parks that did exist were often pre-fabricated metal ramps. These tended to be generic and, not built by skaters, poorly planned out. Designed for small children, they also generally had strictly enforced hours and pad rules, both of which were anathema to the lawless undercurrent of skateboarding culture.
While backyard ramps never completely went away, what happened in the ‘90s was that DIY spots began to replace them. The concept of DIY was nothing new. Since skateboarding began skaters had been propping up pieces of wood against walls, dragging parking blocks to unused slabs of concrete and placing ramps in public places. Much like the first incarnation of Lutherville, most of these early DIY spots were a temporary rag tag collection of junk. What changed in the ‘90s is that skaters began to pour concrete. The spots became more permanent. Built in abandoned or unused spaces, under bridges or on the foundations of razed buildings, these spots often began as just a few poorly poured bumps and lumps. While generally unauthorized, the places that were isolated enough to avoid detection, or were tolerated and ignored, began to grow. Places like Burnside, in Portland, and, several years later, FDR in Philadelphia, became fully-fledged concrete skate parks, the likes of which had not been seen since the late ‘70s.
Not all of these places were giant transition based parks either. Many of them were just a few makeshift obstacles on a flat plain of concrete. Two in this style worth mentioning are Ridge and the Slab (aka Shantytown) both of which are places that I would have written about, had I not quit skateboarding for twenty years. Ridge was one of the more popular DIY spots outside of Baltimore, and the Slab, which was built on the then undeveloped Brooklyn waterfront, has an entire book about it. There were many, many more. There still are. While outside of the crumbling BQE spot, New York City doesn’t have much; there are two great DIY spots nearby in New Jersey. However, much like how DIY spots mostly replaced backyard ramps, public skate parks are now supplanting the DIY spots.
We are in an absolute golden age of the free public skate park and this is largely due to the popularity and success of the DIY spots. Local governments finally started to realize that the answer to the scourge of skateboarding was not to outlaw it but simply to build places for people to skate. I would suspect that some of this shift in attitude is because the skaters of the Bones Brigade generation are now in their 40’s and, no longer surly disreputable teenagers, are in positions of power that allow them to lobby on behalf of skateboarding. This has led to a massive amount of skate parks built around the country in the last decade. Philadelphia wisely allowed FDR to continue to grow and, attempting to draw people away from the still illegal to skate Love Park, built an amazing open plaza not too far away. Even impoverished Baltimore managed to build a great three-pocket bowl next to a junky DIY spot and create an official Skate Park of Baltimore. They are currently in the fund raising process to re-do the adjoining street section. New York City, being New York City, has an embarrassment of riches. There are almost too many skate parks to name. They are scattered across all five boroughs and range from small manual pads and benches in basketball courts to giant concrete spaces. The two premier parks are in Manhattan, of course. These are LES, the more street oriented park under the Manhattan Bridge, and Chelsea, which is a big bowl and flow park on Pier 62.
I can honestly say that without the skate parks I doubt I would still be skating. They were one of the primary reasons I started again; I wanted to experience something that I did not have growing up. Without them I would have kept at flat ground skateboarding for a while, found some out of the way ledges and then probably gotten bored and slowly tapered off. I often feel a bit guilty that I don’t skate street more. New York City is known for street skating. So much iconic footage and great street skaters have come out of here, but let me tell you, skating street in New York City is hard. Most good spots are busts. Famous places like the Brooklyn Banks have been shut down for years. The roads are all in bad condition. It is intensely crowded and the automobile traffic is incessant. I often long for the smooth empty parking lots, painted red curbs and manual pads of my suburban childhood. If that kind of idyllic environment existed in New York City I would surely skate street more often, but the reality is that I don’t want to hit a pebble and shoot my board out in to the throng of pedestrians. I don’t want to slip and lose my board under a cab. I don’t want to slam and hurt myself in front of a gaggle of tourists. That’s not a good look at 41. Rolling around on transition is much more dignified.
It’s an absolute luxury to have so many parks to choose from. I’ve tried to check out as many as I can, but some of them, like the parks in the Bronx or Queens, are just too far away for me to justify the trip. There are others, like 181 at the northern end of Manhattan for example, that are great fun but because of the distance, I only visit once or twice a year. I now live in south Brooklyn, very close to Owl’s Head, close enough to skate there in fact, but I have relegated that park to what I call my “hangover spot”. As an adult, with a busy work schedule, I can’t “skate every damn day”. I normally skate only on the weekends. If I’m lucky, I may get out twice in one week. So, if I get a late start, or don’t have much free time, I will go to Owl’s Head, but most weekends I get up early and take an hour-long subway ride in to Chelsea. Despite being so far away, it was Chelsea that I made my “local” park.
Chelsea is something of an oddity among the New York City skate parks. The Parks Department has a vague “nothing over three feet” rule when it comes to building new parks. Outside of Owl’s Head and the big metal ramps of Riverside, all of the other parks are small. The Hudson River Park Trust manages Chelsea and it therefore somehow skirted this rule. It’s also unique in that it was built using structural foam, the first of its kind I believe. This gave it a flowing and organic feel, different from the more geometrical or squared off aspects of other parks. It’s located in a large fenced in oval on a pier behind the Chelsea sports complex. Complete with nearby café, park and public bathrooms, it is in an ideal location. Being at a major tourist attraction, it’s also the cleanest skate park I have ever seen, with no graffiti and no trash. It features a large three-pocket bowl up top and a series of banks that drop down around the sides, with ledges, steps, rails, euro gaps and hubbas along them. In the center is a snaking section of banks and transition, ranging from around four feet up to a massive over vert clamshell. It is New York City’s version of Burnside or FDR.
I first began going to Chelsea in the late fall of 2012. As I talked about in my last post, I had initially been too intimidated to go to the popular Manhattan parks. Once my confidence level increased and I finally got up the nerve to go to Chelsea, I largely stopped going anywhere else. I was instantly hooked. As luck would have it, we had a mostly dry winter that year. It was extremely cold but the park was open for most of the winter, unlike the last two years where it has been buried in snow until late March. I would go as early as 8am and, because of the time and the temperature, I would often be one of the only people there. This was good because it took me a long time to get the hang of the place. While it is the kind of park that I had always dreamed about skating, even at my best it would have been too big for me. Some sections in the middle are huge, with easily three feet of vert and even the shallow end of the bowl, at around six foot, is bigger than most of the mini ramps I skated as a teenager. It is also exceptionally fast. Just dropping down the three levels of the banks along the outside was the fastest I had ever gone on a skateboard since I had started back up. I spent my first day there just rolling down and ollieing out of those banks. Over the rest of the winter, I slowly began to relearn my lip tricks on the small quarter and find lines through the center section. That’s about all that I still do there, though I’ve recently taken to skating the bowl more often. While most of it was designed for people much more comfortable on big transition than I am, there are a number of small nooks and odd features that let you get inventive. Up at the top there is a small bump that levels out to the deck of the bowl. It’s a frequent joke among the older skaters that, while growing up, that bump alone would have been a spot. It would have had a name and people would have traveled to skate it. Now it is the most insignificant feature in the park, which really goes to show just how lucky we are to have what we have these days.
Chelsea, winter of 2013-14. This is the bullshit we have to put up with each year.
While New York may be famous for street skating, it has a strong, though lesser known, history of transition skating as well. There was pool skating going on as far back as 1978, at the Deathbowl. In 1995, Andy Kessler designed and helped build one of New York City’s first skate parks, the ramps at 108th and Riverside. This park is still there and is home to the only vert ramp in the area. Owl’s Head, with its double section bowl, opened in 2001 and was instantly popular. The Autumn Bowl, an indoor DIY spot, was built in 2003 and lasted until 2010. Chelsea opened that same year and has since become the primary destination for transition skaters from the greater New York area. Owl’s Head and Riverside are now often empty on the weekends.
Chelsea, with its bowl, draws a large group of men, and some women, in their 30s up to mid 50s. I’m often at the young end of the age range on weekend mornings. There are many guys, slightly older than I am, that were vert skaters in the ’80s and only skate the bowl. The ones younger than me prefer the more street elements of the park. I am of the age that I straddled both worlds and try to skate a little bit of everything, albeit poorly. I used to refer to the morning sessions at Chelsea as “old man time” until, a few years back, one local told me he preferred the term “gentleman’s hour”. I like that. It sounds much more sophisticated. While Chelsea may skew significantly older than the other skate parks, it has also fostered an entire generation of new transition rippers. This crew, both young and old, and the community that has developed around Chelsea is one of the defining features of the park.
All Ages Jam, 2015. Photo by Tony West.
It is, by far, the friendliest skate park I have ever been to. I don’t know if the times have simply changed and skaters are not the dicks they were in the ‘90s, if it is its posh Manhattan location or if I am just old enough that I am immune and oblivious to any attitude, but I have never felt uncomfortable there. Even in the beginning when I knew absolutely no one, I didn’t feel like an outsider intruding upon on a closed scene. By nature I am reserved and a bit of a loner. I generally prefer to do things on my own but once I was skating again I realized I desperately needed skate friends. Sometimes it is fun to have a park all to yourself; you can just put your head down and try the same trick for hours without getting in anyone’s way. Often skating alone gets boring quickly and skating at a crowded park where you know no one can be very intimidating. Having people to skate with makes the entire experience much more enjoyable. Once I began going to Chelsea regularly I made it a habit to act against my nature and to talk to literally everyone. It paid off. I now show up on the weekends and know the majority of the people there by name. I look forward to seeing them. Some have become friends.
Time moves differently as an adult. Even though I feel like I just started skating again, it has been over three years. I’ve been a regular at Chelsea for two and a half. I’ve seen a number of the locals come and go as people move in an out of the city. I’ve seen many people make marked progress, getting much better much faster than I would have thought possible. I’ve made my own progress as well, though at a slower pace. I’ve lost some tricks while gaining others. I’ve seen children grow up there. I will see them in the fall and then, come spring when the park is finally free of snow, I will see them again and they are easily a foot taller. That one is strange to think about. Lutherville, at least the metal ramp version of Lutherville, lasted at most two summers. Jeff B had his vert ramp for one summer. Dookie ramp lasted only two years, I think. Chelsea has already been there for five years. In twenty years time one of the local kids is going to be writing his own blog of skateboarding memories and Chelsea will be where he spent the majority of his childhood. There is now a stability that didn’t exist when I was young. Chelsea is one of the best skate parks I have ever been to and it will be there for years to come. It won’t randomly get bulldozed or torn down. It won’t get knobbed or fenced off. The kids really don’t understand how good they have it, but I’m glad they do have what they have and I’m glad it wasn’t too late for me to enjoy it as well.
After what was essentially a twenty-year hiatus, in the summer of 2012, at the age of 38, I began skateboarding again. Much like as with quitting, there is no easy answer as to why I decided to start again. I had not forgotten about skateboarding. The roar of wheels on the street (or the clack clack clack on the sidewalk) still instantly grabbed my attention. I still saw skate spots everywhere I went and I still watched skate videos online. During the latter half of the 2000s, that video viewing increased. If I had to choose one thing that inspired this, I would say it was the John Cardiel Epicly Later’d episodes. These came out in 2008 and were my first exposure to the series. Cardiel had been Thrasher’s Skater of the Year in 1992, the year I quit skateboarding, so it seems especially fitting that his story is what pulled me back in. Epicly Later’d led, more or less directly, to me immersing myself in skateboarding culture again. Yet, while I lurked on skate forums and visited Thrasher’s website with increasing frequency, I had never planned to start skateboarding again. For years, friends and acquaintances had suggested I try and I always blew off the idea. “I ride bikes now.” “I’m too old.” In fact, I had felt too old since my late 20s but at 38, despite being in probably the best physical shape of my life, I was well in the throes of a mid-life crisis. I was bored with my hobbies, unhappy in my marriage and frustrated by my job. I was very acutely aware that I was running out of time, time to be happy, time to still be young and vital, time to try to live my life on my own terms. I tried making art but that caused more frustration than anything else. Reaching blindly for other things that I used to enjoy, I seized on skateboarding. In an impulse purchase, I bought a blank deck, trucks, wheels, grip and hardware off of Amazon. I was too embarrassed to go to the local skate shop. I didn’t have any real plan; I just wanted to see if I could still do it and possibly film my failures, for comedy’s sake. Little did I know that skating would soon start to consume my life again.
I had followed my girlfriend (and future wife) to Brooklyn in the fall of 2003. During my post college years in Philadelphia, all I had really done was drink and play video games. Of course, I had a girlfriend and a job, all of the normal things, but I hadn’t been physically active in years. I had always been a bike commuter but my commute in Philly was very short. I had started to ride longer distances, for exercise, during my final year there and after moving to Brooklyn my cycling increased. For the first several months in New York, after applying for jobs in the morning I would then go ride laps in Prospect Park. Over the following years, as I got more involved in cycling, I began doing longer weekend rides out of the city and up the Hudson River, but Prospect Park laps remained a standard. Since New York does not have the endless smooth empty parking lots of the suburbia of my youth, when I decided to give skateboarding a try again, the park was where I chose to go.
I put my new board together last week but between work and excuses I didn’t get the chance to ride it and then was out of town this past weekend. After work today I went to an out of the way corner of park and gave it a shot.
I jumped on and felt fine, pushed and felt a little clumsy. Then, without even thinking, I tried to slide it backside 180 and fell on my ass. So I spent a bit of time first turning 180 frontside and backside off of my nose while rolling and then re-learning to slide them around.
I went to the grass and instantly popped a pretty good ollie. Doing them while moving took a bit longer but I got them down. They are slow and small but stable, though I am occasionally landing a bit weird. I then worked on frontside 180 ollies until I could get them. Those aren’t always so smooth but they will come, I can feel that. I didn’t feel confident enough to try backside 180s yet.
I did a bunch of front side ollies to axle stalls on a small curb but couldn’t get ollies to tail down. I balked a few times at trying to ollie to axle stall on a bigger ledge, and decided to put that off. Instead I worked on more fluid stuff, like ollieing up a small curb at an angle rolling along and 180ing off again, until I could do that consistently. I also did some manuals but couldn’t ollie into a manual without dragging the tail.
Finally, I tried some four-wheel slides and probably because the road was rough and I was being cautious and going slow, I could only slide the rear out 90 degrees, not get the front wheels sliding as well.
All told, I spent about an hour and am now probably as good as I was when I was 12. The muscle memory is amazing, simple things you don’t even think about you can still do out of instinct.
I skated for about two hours but didn’t learn any new tricks. After a brief “I think I forgot everything I learned” period I got comfortable again and focused on getting my “line” smoother and faster than I was on Monday. I got video of it.
I look less sketchy than I thought but definitely slow. It’s amazing how out of breath I was after just doing a few little things. I thought I was in shape from the cycling but this is different. My pushing leg hip and knee are sore.
I purposely chose one of the interior roads of the park that I knew was not heavily trafficked. I was intensely self-conscious and I wanted to avoid embarrassing myself in public as much as I could. None of the random joggers who passed me by had the slightest interest in what I was doing, though I did meet a trio of young kids with skateboards, who were not quite sure what to make of me. I hid there, in Prospect Park, for two more weeks. I only went out for an hour or so once or twice a week but that was enough time to relearn the basic flat ground tricks, frontside and backside ollies, half cab and shuv-it variations. Each time I went to skate there was initially a feeling of dread, a feeling that I had forgotten everything that I knew. It didn’t feel natural. I didn’t feel comfortable on the board and while some things came back fast, other things didn’t at all. I could have spent months slowly building back up my repertoire of tricks, but flat is not what I wanted to skate. I wanted to skate transition and that meant going to a skate park.
The skate park I chose to go to first I also knew about from cycling. I participated in the Five Boro Bike Tour my first year in New York. That ride is something I would recommend that any person who enjoys cycling and is new to New York do at least once. While a bit of a clusterfuck, with over 30,000 cyclists clogging up the roads, it is worth it just for the chance to ride on the BQE and over the Verrazano Bridge alone. It was during this ride, while on Shore Parkway and heading towards the Verrazano, that I first saw the park at Owl’s Head. The skate park sits right off the parkway and, built in 2001, would have only been two years old at the time. I was dumbfounded that here, in an out of the way part of south Brooklyn, was an amazing looking park, the type I had always wanted to skate. It had a deep and shallow bowl, with the shallow end opening into a more squared, spined mini ramp style size section as well as an adjacent “pit”, with steep transition and banked walls and a spine, a three sided quarter and hubba box in the middle. Most importantly, it was empty. That amazed me, that something so incredible looking was not being used. That is the major reasons I chose Owl’s Head as my first park. I didn’t want an audience.
I went to the skate park at Owl’s Head today. I had it pretty much to myself and holy shit was it humbling. I could barely pump or kick turn in the bowl. I was so unsteady on the board I was afraid to try to “street” part, which is actually pretty steep and burly itself.
Today pretty much trashed any confidence I was developing.
Thinking back on it, I got discouraged way too easily. I’m more pissed at myself now than anything else. I just gave up today. In hindsight, I should have messed around on the smaller ramps in the street section instead of trying to dive right in to the bowl. I should have flown down the banks and just popped over the little box and gone and practiced dropping in and axle stalling on the bigger box and spine, but I felt so out of my element I was… well honestly, I was afraid.
I’ve vowed to go back next weekend and get my revenge.
I killed the Owl’s Head today!
By killed I mean I bounced over the box and did some ollies and carved some walls and didn’t look like an idiot. This is about all that I set out to do I think, so any further progress I make it is just icing.
That first day was soul crushing. I left in complete defeat. I was afraid to even roll down the steeper banks. I slammed pump fakieing in the bowl. All I did were kick turns and carve a corner while some kids on scooters laughed at me before I slunk away and left in disgrace. The following weekend made up for it. I ignored the bowl and just focused on rolling down banks and kick turning on the walls. I didn’t do anything but I could skate it and that alone felt great. I wasn’t good but I wasn’t embarrassed either. I skated there two more times before they closed it for the season. Owl’s Head is one of only two of the NYC parks manned by the Parks Department. It and the metal ramp park of Riverside have helmet and/or pads rules and are only officially open from around Memorial Day to Labor Day. The rest of the parks are open year round, weather depending of course. All the kids break in or jump the fence at Owl’s Head in the off-season but I was still too new to skateboarding to feel comfortable doing that. While I was disappointed it was closing I didn’t really push myself to learn anything new those last two weekends either, though I did make sure to drop in on the bigger section of the pit the final day. My objective was not so much to learn tricks but to just get more comfortable on the skateboard. During those few weekends at Owl’s Head, I had met a few other skaters and asked their opinions on where I should skate. They all recommended Chelsea but I was still too intimidated to go to one of the big, popular Manhattan parks so I picked a small ball court at a Park Slope school as my place to skate next.
Best. Day. Yet.
Last weekend I got a late start and went to check out both small court parks near my house and they were already too crowded so I just bailed on the idea and just skated around the streets.
I felt really sketchy skating street since I’d just been skating transition at Owl’s Head for the last couple of weeks. I didn’t want to try anything and make a fool of myself. I’ve got to get over this self-conscious thing.
Today I got up early and went to the Gowanus park near me and there was an 8:30am basketball game going on, so I went to the other one in Park Slope and it was empty.
Today was the first day I felt like I could actually skate. I got little ollies up and down the small box, board slides on it and the curving rail, landed a bunch of backside 180s and actual pop shuv-its and, since that court slopes downhill, flat ground ollies, frontside 180s, four wheel slides, half cabs and stuff like that at a decent speed.
I even left some skin on the ground thanks to an acorn.
I skated this little park for the next two weeks, getting back some more basic ledge tricks like FS 50-50s, tail slides and board slides. Without any real forethought, I had followed a fairly rational path of progression. A few weeks skating flat, a few weeks getting comfortable on transition again and then a few weeks skating small obstacles. It was at this little park where I first started to hang out with other skaters as well. I met a few young teenagers that ignored me at first and then began encouraging me to try different tricks. I met several people more in my age range, of various levels of ability, including one former ‘90s pro who really made me push my comfort level. My confidence was increasing and I was finally getting up the courage to try Chelsea when Hurricane Sandy hit.
Sandy caused quite a bit of flooding and damage along the coastal and lower lying areas of the city, but my section of Brooklyn was almost completely untouched. The main impact the storm had on me was that since most of lower Manhattan was without power, I was off work for a week. I used that free time to skate. While most of the people I had met had suggested Chelsea as where I should skate, several people had also mentioned Canarsie as a great beginner’s park and it had a glowing review on Quartersnacks as well. Being so far away, it was not a logical choice, but now, with a week worth of unexpected free time, I decided to check it out.
I’m off work thanks to the hurricane and decided to ride down and check out the park in Canarsie because I’m sure Chelsea is flooded since it is on a pier.
It was another big progress day!
It was empty when I got there. A few trees were down over on one side and there was a lot of debris so I mainly skated the curving small quarter. I got normal and fakie rock n roll, some 50 50s, slash grinds and some FS ollies on it.
Then some kids showed up with a broom and we cleared a lot of the rest of the area and I got ollies up the little euro gap and backside 180s off the little kicker.
Cleared of debris this place is going to be SO much fun, the back path is alternating curved banks and quarter pipes, so it would be a sick fast snake run kind of thing without sticks and fallen trees blocking the way.
I skated Canarsie twice more that week; it was the ideal next step. Almost everything there is small and mellow, even the handrails were tempting, though I wisely decided not to try them. The one larger, deck-less “half pipe” was too big for me to mess with but the tiny clamshell of a quarter pipe was a perfect size for me to work on relearning my basic lip tricks. Besides being a great place to learn in, skating at Canarsie was also important in that it helped me finally get over my self-consciousness. I had been skating now for several months, but only actually skated less than twenty times. That is the curse of being an adult skateboarder, between work and social obligations, it is impossible to “skate every damn day”. While mentally I was a becoming a skateboarder again, physically I was still an awkward beginner in many ways and I was acutely aware of that fact. I was also a 38-year-old white man in a largely black neighborhood and the other skaters were all young black teenagers. Yet we got along fine. While I may have been the “weird old guy”, I was also just barely good enough to be accepted as a “real” skater again and not some random kook. From here on out, I wasn’t so worried anymore about what other people thought of me. I wasn’t so self-conscious. I was skating. I was a skater. I may not have been good but I no longer felt like an interloper or a tourist. I was finally ready to stop hiding and go to Chelsea.