Using so Little

Sean Wilsey

Clopp. Ssh … RRRaaaaooooowwwwwwrrr rrrrrrrrrrr – reeeeee eeeeeeeeeeppp – rrraaaaooooo wwwwwwrrrrrrrppppppp – tic! – rrraaaa ooooowwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrr – reeeeeeeeeeee eeeeppp – tic!-schrapp! –

BAM! COMBP! – RRrraaaoooowwwwwwrr rrrrrrrrrrrrr –

– TNK! – rrraaaaooooowwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Skateboarding’s inspiration springs from adversity: surfers without waves; pools without water (1970s skating owes much to the California drought); kids without family. It’s a particular product of American rootlessness. A 1952 photograph of kids on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, taking part in the Children’s Aid Society’s Anything on Wheels derby, shows a handful of rogues (all out in front) with steel rollerskate wheels bolted to planks – the first skateboarders. There are girls and boys, black and white, from the city’s poorest neighbourhood, and they outnumber the spectating parents in the photograph by 13 to one. The boy whose father takes him swimming, the girl whose mother takes her to the theatre, children whose parents ‘do things’ with them – these are not skateboarders. Skateboarding has always been a ‘sport’ for fuck-ups.

From the outside it looks more like a metaphor than a thing in itself. A metaphor for something inexpressible. Like the following pictures from old skateboard magazines: a girl in jeans, hightops and T-shirt, arms outspread for balance, high up on a halfpipe with a floppy white prom bow in her hair. A boy sliding a handrail four feet above the pavement wearing only a right shoe, because his entire left leg is in a cast. Another kid all in black, like a ninja, but with white socks, sliding along the lip of an indoor pool, with delicate blue tiles at its edge (most of them ripped out by skating), rubble in the background, a toilet seat in the foreground, and a big skylight, with what looks like a sheet hanging from one corner, providing the only light. Four kids in sleeping bags sacked out in the bottom of a pristine pool behind an unsold, newly constructed suburban mansion.

The steepest hills in San Francisco – where I grew up and learned to skateboard – lead up to and around Russian Hill, which isn’t a hill, but a series of hills. From North Beach, at the bottom, you can see Russian Hill’s hills rolling – planed into paved geometry, but rolling underneath. The steepest of these crests is in the middle of Filbert Street between Hyde and Leavenworth. The roadway mid-block seems to disappear, like an incomplete section of elevated freeway. It looks as if the street is dangling nine hundred feet in the air. When you drive a car up to the lip it drops too steeply even to see over the hood. The drop is demarcated by two yellow and black signs that say: steep grade ahead buses and large trucks not advisable; sharp crest 10 miles per hour.

My best friend, a boy now dead, whose name was Blane Morf, got a skateboard while I was away at an Eastern boarding school. When I came home for summer vacation – on probation for a straight D-minus average, largely attributable to the fact that I was hazed mercilessly for being from San Francisco (making me a ‘fag’) – I discovered that he was a skater. Since there weren’t many other skaters, Blane didn’t know any other skaters. And even if there had been, the kind of personality that’s drawn to skateboarding is the kind of personality that’s not given to sociability.

Skateboarders are lonely. Skateboarders are not well loved.

I was lonely and not well loved!

I tried his board. He taught me a few things. It was no fun watching while the other skated. He begged me to get my own. I got some money out of my mother (guilty about boarding school), went down to the skate shop, and bought myself a skateboard. Then I climbed to the top of Russian Hill.

At the crest of Green, where it meets Leavenworth, is the lower of the summits of Russian Hill. Green then slopes down again, levelling off mid-block on its way to Jones and my house, behind which is the higher summit, at the end of Vallejo. By San Francisco standards, this half block of slope isn’t a hill, because it kinks back to horizontal after about 150 feet.

I set down my board, stepped on, pushed off. My plan was to roll the whole slope and use the flat to slow down gradually before the intersection. I had no back-up plan.

The acceleration was instant. In a matter of seconds I was moving faster than my legs had ever taken me. After thirty feet I was moving faster than I’d ever moved outside of a car. Faster. Without thinking I locked my legs at the knees and stood as if I were trying to look over a fence, the instinct – a terrible instinct – being to get as far away as possible from the rushing tarmac. My knees should have been bent, body low, arms out to the sides. The board started rocking side to side, trucks (the metal suspension/steering system) slamming back and forth, fast, hard left, and then fast, hard right. It felt like the board was possessed and wanted to throw me off. I had what’s known among skaters as the (dreaded) speed wobbles. And once they start there’s no way to stay on.

I bailed just before the bottom of the slope and tried to run it out, knees aching when I hit the ground, going so fast it was like a wind was pushing me from behind. I kept my feet for ten feet and watched my new board rocketing down the block towards the intersection. Then the speed shoved me over. I pitched forward, screamed ‘Fuck!’ with more anger than I’d ever expressed in public (skateboarding, like learning a foreign language, offers a whole new personality) and as I heard my voice echo off the buildings I slammed onto the street, hands first, torso second, thighs third, calves and feet up in the air behind me – and began to slide.

This was like bobsledding! I had all the speed of a bobsledder. But without the sled, or snow. There was just me and some fabric and the concrete.

I was no longer going down the centre of the street, but, since my last step had been off my right foot, I was ploughing into the oncoming left lane, towards the parallel-parked cars on the far side of the street, my destination the front tyre of a dark-blue, two-door Honda. I braced for impact, closed my eyes, missed the tyre, and instead went under the driver’s-side door – a deeper dark filled my head – and kept going, calves banging against the car’s plastic frame and flopping back down, head dinging off something in the undercarriage and then down to the street, until I was wedged under the trunk, between gas tank and pavement, my cheek jammed up on the kerb.

The kerb is the piece of the city that skaters are most often concerned with. Mine was cold, and I could smell it: oil and salt. I also could taste it in the back of my throat. I’d never looked properly at kerbs until I learned to skate, and I haven’t looked at them the same way since. Steel-edged ones make for long, fast grinds (slides on your trucks). Regular ones make for loud, sloppy grinds. This one was plain and clean and angular, no rounded steel edge (coping, as skaters and masons call it). I was feeling a strange mixture of sensations: pain, embarrassment, isolation, and a pleasurable sort of intimacy with the hidden parts of the city. I felt like I had just survived a rare experience. I was glad to be still. I thought that beneath a Honda might be a good place to lie low for a while and nurse my wounds. I had never crawled under a car on the street before. There was something good about it. It was like a cramped and filthy fortress.

Then – shit! – I remembered my board. I scrambled back out.

I stood, but I couldn’t move. The slide beneath the car had ripped my trousers off. I stood on top of Russian Hill in my underwear, ankles cuffed together. I pulled my trousers back up. They were full of holes. My shirt looked like someone had thrown acid at me. My chin was sore. The skin was grated off the palms of my hands. I started to run.

A man and two women, all middle-aged, him in a light brown suede jacket, came running towards me. The women hollered: ‘Oh my God!’ The man bellowed: ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’

‘Yeah, yeah – I’m fine! Fine!’ I said, angry, and then I ran faster, chasing my board, which had made it across the intersection, my hamburger hands throbbing, holding up my trousers, feeling slow compared to what I’d been doing. I got on and pushed the last twenty feet to my house.

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[*] Century, 354 pp., £9.99, September 2002, 0 7126 1537 7.