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.

For the next four years, being from San Francisco meant being from the world capital of skateboarding. The city where Thrasher magazine was published, and half the photos in it were taken. After sliding beneath the car I came out in another city. I’d never understood skateboarding before that fall. Skating is a feeling – if you really want to get it, you have to do it.

The magazine – which has been around for 22 years, starting up at the lowest point in the history of skateboarding, with no hope of making any money – almost succeeds in conveying skateboarding, without skateboarding. Every skater reads Thrasher. To thrash, according to Webster’s, means ‘to dispense a beating’ (to kerb, ledge, handrail, coping); ‘to move in an uncontrolled, restless manner’ (inevitable on a skateboard); or, in sailing, ‘to move against the wind’. There is no higher honour that can be accorded a skateboarder than to be considered a thrasher. And, though Tony Hawk is the most famous skater in the world, and has had a video game named after him, he’s never been a thrasher.

Thrasher used to sneer at those of us who carried our skateboards. So for years I would skate up hills, which is much harder and slower than sprinting up them. They also used to disparage skaters who didn’t skate every day. I never understood these people. Obviously you should skate every day. And think about it every minute of every day. I never went anywhere without my skateboard. I watched less TV than my parents. There were good days and bad days as a skater, days you fell down and days you landed, but nothing felt better than the way you’d sleep at the end of a day when your feet had hardly touched the ground – drifting off, skate beside your bed, reliving it as you went under, still feeling the motion in your body, like the way you feel the rocking of a boat after you’ve come ashore, and then dreaming about doing it all over again.

At the height of my skateboarding abilities – and I was never better than average – I would fly down hills, turn the board sideways and slide the wheels to decelerate, then pull the slide all the way round into a 180, ride backwards, then kick-turn forwards again, then do another slide, plant one leg and boost (‘boneless’) off a notch cut in the hill for someone’s garage, fly, replace my foot on the board, land, roll, pop off the kerb into the intersection at the bottom of the hill, and stop. There are various stopping methods: stepping back on the tail, taking the board from level to a 45 degree tilt and then skidding wood on concrete (acceptable then, distasteful now); dragging your rear foot while maintaining balance on the board with your front one; or, most elegant and difficult, turning the whole board sideways and putting the urethane of your wheels into a controlled slide.

The skateboard is the most versatile urban conveyance. In a crowded city, no one on foot or bike or in a car can ever hope to keep up with you. Up and down stairs. On buses and trains in an instant. Holding onto the backs of delivery trucks. The city a body of water. Skaters like fish.

One summer day, a year after I’d started skating, a few months after I was kicked out of the boarding school, Blane and I were cruising down Market Street towards the Bay. Market is a great, long diagonal slot through the heart of the city to the Embarcadero. We were moving through the edge of the Tenderloin, and I was feeling confident from the good skating I’d put in the day before. Blane was about ten feet ahead.

Market Street is like a river for skateboards. It slopes slightly, heads towards the Bay, and requires almost no effort to ride to the end. It takes you past run-down buildings and drunks in the Tenderloin, canyons of buildings and businessmen in the financial district, and then both mixed in with tourists at the end, as it empties out like a waterfall into the basin of the Embarcadero Plaza, where all the city’s skaters used to gather. Market’s sidewalks are polished brick and so beautifully laid as to be almost seamless (again, only a skater or a mason would notice). The seams are just wide enough to make a lot of noise without slowing you down. When you click over them they send a wall of sound ahead: the unmistakable skateboard rumble of rolling urethane interrupted by wood tails hitting cement and occasional squeals of wheels going sideways into slides – Market being so easy to slide, the polished brick offering much less friction than tarmac. Cloppssh . . . RRRaaaaooooowwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrr – reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepppp – rrraaaaooooowwww wwrrrrrrrppp . . . The noise put us in a trance. We’d push off for more speed, the decibels would spike, heads would whip around up ahead, conversation would go back and forth.

After a few minutes we passed a dirty brick building. A punk kid – skinny, bitter expression, tight, pale face broken out with zits, black pants pulled close to his legs with glimmering silver safety pins – stepped out of its doorway, looked at Blane, sneered, cocked his head at me, and said: ‘Skaters suck.’

Then he kicked back and smirked.

I looked him in the eye and said: ‘You suck.’ This was something I would never have said as a pedestrian.

His face fell in surprise. ‘What?’ he said, jerking straight. ‘What did you say?’

You suck,’ I said.

He faded into the doorway. I thought, for some reason, that he was hiding in shame – then I heard a voice shout ‘fuckers’ in a San Francisco accent (an accent that makes ‘San Francisco’ sound like ‘Sam Rocisco’): ‘Fawkers!

I drew level with the doorway. He re-emerged. And four skinheads in flight jackets and Doc Martens popped out behind him. The punk pointed at me and shouted: ‘Get him!’ All four leaped and missed.

‘Holy shit!’ Blane and I shouted together and started flailing our legs – kicking way out in front of our chests and all the way back behind us – and propellering our arms, crouching down low, doing all we could to move our boards as fast as possible. They started running in their heavy, many-eyed boots, awkwardly. We pushed hard, going for all the speed we could get, our skateboard sounds amplifying and people in front of us turning and scattering – which, through my own terror, I was just able to register was totally cool.

Their boots weren’t stopping. They weren’t just trying to scare us. They kept shouting: ‘Come back here!’ We skated harder, and their shouts, as they explained how they were going to kill us (first pummelling us down to the sidewalk with our skateboards, then kicking and stomping), started to get strained. We skated harder – we were going to get away unless we hit a big crack.

From the point of view of a 16-year-old, skinheads were the most terrible force in America. Arousing sufficient anger to provoke pursuit: this was an honour, like being in a movie, or the pages of Thrasher. There were fabled skinhead murders, and whole San Francisco neighbourhoods – the Haight – under their dominion. We were skating for our very lives. A single skinhead possessed the might of an entire high school. But four of them? If we won, made them look weak, it would be truly awesome. Like having skate-granted super powers. Our skateboards made us better than them. And skateboards were what had provoked them. They were envious.

After a couple of blocks I dove down a stairwell for the mono-line subway which runs the length of Market Street – useful as a sort of skateboard chairlift to get you back up so you could flow down Market again – kicking my board up into my hand without stopping, almost falling down the stairs, then leaping the turnstile while Blane ducked into a dusty sports memorabilia shop. On the platform there was silence, no sound of pursuing boots, and then a train. In the sports memorabilia shop Blane feigned interest in an autographed San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl game ball (there was nothing skateboard related). After fifteen minutes of browsing he got the owner to see if it was safe to leave (this always amazed me, a store proprietor helping a skateboarder, but Blane brought out such qualities), and then skated away to the Embarcadero.

We arrived at the same time, told our story to the twenty or so assembled skaters, in an adrenalised rush. And then a semi-homeless skate rat kid, who I considered a friend, stepped out of the pack and said: ‘You shouldn’t go fucking with skins. You’re gonna get our asses kicked.’ Everyone was silent. Then he smiled, a chip-toothed skater’s grin (one that I would copy after slamming directly onto my upper incisors a couple weeks later), and shouted: ‘You suck!’

Skating was a community, and now I felt I was part of it.

A lot of letters were sent to Thrasher about running, or being hurt, or persecuted, or lawless, or luckless – written by skaters with names like Erik Tunafish, Kenny ‘Gator Bait’ Walsh, Bug, Chunk, Skinard, Duckie, Schmoe or, frequently, Incarcerated Skater. Skaters were lonely and harassed and unsupervised and rolling around all over America with nobody but each other to talk to.

Some of the best moments in Thrasher were when it forgot skateboards and simply showed the world through the eyes of skaters. No other ‘sports’ magazine has ever published anything like its (now defunct) cooking column. ‘Skarfing Material’ gave such suggestions as: ‘Gather as many pickles as you like. Wrap each pickle in a piece of ham and skarf. Dip ‘em in peanut butter for extra thrills.’ At least one recipe an issue was for a passable, or even skater-gourmet meal (like risotto). Thrasher knew nobody was cooking for us.

In a stack of the magazine, dating back to the 1980s, I found the following shouts of ignorance, confusion, despair, joy and rebellion. From Kinston, North Carolina: ‘Hey, we live the fast life – it rules being a skater . . . Ever since I picked up a board my entire life has changed up. Right now it isn’t really so great. I am locked down in a reform school for flipping out at school and for threatening my teacher.’ The Deep South: ‘Me and the other skaters from the neighbourhood built a halfpipe. While we were having a session, a bunch of Klanners pulled up in a pickup and threw a Molotov cocktail on the ramp. No one was hurt but the ramp burnt to the ground. The cops won’t do anything because half of them are in the Klan.’ Lake Zurich, Illinois: ‘I went to the local 7-11 . . . the manager hit me in the back of the head with a can of beef jerky.’ Colorado Springs, Colorado: ‘We were having lots of fun and then . . . our neighbour, “William”, started drinking beer and staring at us. Then, out of nowhere, William started up a chainsaw and cut my extension into six pieces.’ Westtown, New York: ‘I have been riding skateboards since 1976 . . . I’m glad that skateboarding is a crime. I love being a fucking outlaw asshole.’ New York City: ‘I’m in a body cast and I can’t wait to get out so I can skate again.’ Fort Grant, Arizona: ‘Fuck your ‘zine and everything about skating. I’m sitting in Arizona State Prison for two years because of it.’ Redwood Shores, California: ‘I’m a 12-year-old skater . . . I have a problem. My parents don’t really like to buy me shoes. I just wanted to know if it could happen – if I could get some shoes. If you guys could get me some free shoes, that would be great! If not, I’d understand.’ Melbourne, Florida: ‘Sometimes in conversation with acquaintances the question will come up, "What do you miss most about freedom?” Without the slightest hesitation, I say: "Skateboarding.” The looks I get in return are shocking to say the least. "Dude, what about chicks? Beer? Parties?” Obviously these people have never spent all-nighters ollieing the gap in downtown’ (to ollie is to jump and kick the board so that it stays attached to your feet). Jacksonville, Florida: ‘Today is my birthday and the only thing I found in my mailbox was the March issue of Thrasher. Thanks for remembering!!’

A typical recent letter said: ‘Skateboarding is going corporate. The one thing to blame for this, I think, is that fucking Tony Hawk video game. It’s got little seven-year-old kids playing with finger boards and saying that me and my friends suck at skating because we can’t launch off 15-foot vert ramps or do 900s.’

And it’s hard not to hate how skating has changed. Tony Hawk, skating’s celebrity, and the man Big Brother Skateboarding magazine refers to, unironically, as ‘our ambassador’, is a perfect video game character. He’s a technician, all heartless precision. In the 1980s, as a teenager, pushed by his father, the president of the National Skateboarding Association, he won every contest and was the exception that proved the rule of the parentless, lonely skater. He was also the exception that made it big; that cashed in. Hawk, whose annual income has been reported to be ten million dollars, is responsible, more than anything else, for the current watered-down hugeness of skateboarding. The arrival of skaters as athletes. People for whom skateboarding is a sport instead of a last resort. The fact that no pro will attempt something really hard without a full video crew there to document it. The fact that to produce these video snippets pro skaters go through the antithesis of the true skating experience – uninterrupted flow – and do one thing over and over and over again: killing the imagination for the image. The fact that skateboarding has been reduced to doing stunts for money.

But real skateboarding – the non-stunt variety – makes for bad watching. Pictures are deceptive. Videos don’t convey anything. How someone looks doing it has very little relation to the experience. So skate videos cut from skater to skater doing trick after trick, making the whole enterprise (I refuse to call it a sport) seem more like the workings of an automobile plant at full capacity, welding chassis after chassis with skater robots. There’s something inhuman about it. The removal of all the trial and error and experimentation. Video games are better at communicating the feeling of pulling something good – like a long grind – but without the pain and practice that makes a trick more than a trick: the word ‘trick’ itself being almost a travesty of what can be done on a skateboard.

The best skaters of the late 1980s and early 1990s – Natas Kaupas, Tommy Guerrero, Mark Gonzales, Rodney Mullen – would skate the Embarcadero just for fun, not for cameras. They were street skaters. They skated and talked to everyone, then flew back into the city in search of spots. Stylistically, Natas Kaupas (Satan Sapuak backwards, Sapuak, according to Thrasher, means ‘God’ in some ancient language) was my favourite. Today everyone cites him as an influence. Physically, he could have been a double for Tony Hawk, but with grace and style and imagination. Natas got very little recompense from skating (according to a letter in Thrasher, he ended up in porn). But in the late 1980s Hawk and the other ramp guys were just going back and forth, stuck there like hamsters, while this backwards Satan kid found a way to take skating into the real world, pushing his board through the transition from horizontal to vertical and riding on walls – no ramp required. He could ollie straight from the street to the wall, roll for up to twenty-five feet, depending on how much speed he had, and then kick back to the flat. And he was constantly inventing. I saw him skating at the Embarcadero that same skinhead summer, when he wasn’t yet a pro, and it was the greatest skating I ever witnessed. He got lined up on top of a huge concrete wall, fifteen feet above the plaza. There was a launch ramp at the end of the wall, and he pushed towards it, getting up to speed, all the skaters watching in the plaza below anticipating a huge air when he hit it, and then he ollied right over the ramp, floated across a huge expanse of space, and landed impossibly far out in the plaza, as if to say: ‘I don’t need your ramp. I don’t need anything but my skateboard.’ We were all so awestruck nobody got so much as a picture.

But it’s Tony Hawk everyone knows. He pulled his famous 900 (two and a half spins in the air over a halfpipe) at the X-Games, which are broadcast on ESPN. (A recent Thrasher letter read: ‘Fuck ESPN! Fuck TV!’) Thanks to Hawk most Americans think spinning in circles is the highest achievement in skateboarding. The ‘900’ was a moment manufactured for TV. And, like the 900, a lot of current skateboarding is styleless, flourishy, has nothing to do with getting from A to B, which is what skating is, at its best: getting down the street as smoothly and quickly and entertainingly as possible – riding on (or off) walls if you have to – and never, ever, putting both feet on the ground.

Skateboarding is having filthy hands from always touching the street, and not washing them before going to McDonald’s for lunch. Skateboarding is feeling that every flight of stairs is nagging you, begging you to boneless, or ollie over, or railslide down it. Skateboarding is looking into toilet bowls and fantasising about skating them. It is using the word ‘transitions’ to refer to curved areas between horizontal and vertical. It is three skyscrapers in Manhattan with transitioned bases (47th and 3rd Avenue; 49th and 3rd Avenue; and 96th and Columbus). It is a review of a new California skatepark that says: ‘As usual, it’s behind the McDonald’s.’ It is a California newspaper reporting on a law requiring all underage skaters to wear helmets: ‘Skaters . . . think the new law – the toughest helmet law in the nation – will signal an apocalypse for the sport. "They’re going to ruin the sport, and everyone is going to go home and do drugs,” said Ray Rusniak, 13, after hearing the news.’ Skateboarding is 96 term papers available for downloading on the Thrasher website.

Skaters are people like Jerry Hsu:

‘What do your grandparents know about your personal life?’

‘Not very much. It’s a pretty sparse relationship I have with them.’

‘What are their names?’

‘I have no idea. Grandma and Grandpa?’

‘You don’t know their first names?’

‘No, they’re not English names.’

‘But you must have heard their names mentioned around the house?’

‘No, never.’

Or Ricardo Carvalho:

‘We should bomb Germany,’ Ricardo declared one day at lunch . . . ‘Germany sucks, man’ . . . We were at a loss . . . until he described how he had struck his head at the Dortmund contest this summer. His German doctor sent him to a mental hospital where he was forced to remain for two weeks.

Skateboarders are not role models.

Skateboarding is observing things minutely. It is tuning the world out: cutting your hand and not noticing till hours later. Looking at the world like a skater means looking down. It means rarely raising your eyes above kerb level, constantly monitoring the smoothness of concrete and being alert to the presence of pebbles or grit, experiencing an instant elevation in your mood when you roll through a spot where you’ve successfully pulled a trick, and depression and superstition in a place where you’ve slammed – no matter the scumminess or beauty of the location in conventional terms. Skateboarding is bringing emotion to emotionless terrain – unloved parking lots, vacant corporate downtowns long after the office workers are home. I remember skating in such places and feeling I was somehow redeeming these sites from their daily functions, giving them a secret life.

Skateboarding is unresearchable: anecdotal, singular, self-expressive. And that’s the problem with The Answer Is Never, Jocko Weyland’s history of skateboarding (which began as an article in Thrasher),[*] as well as the recent skateboarding documentary Dog Town and Z-Boys. Both try to do it all. I found myself scratching in the margin of page 141 in The Answer Is Never: ‘it’s like the book starts here.’ That’s how long it took before Weyland supplied more than a paragraph or two of his own experiences. I knew Weyland was hardcore when he described taking a bus from the mountains of Colorado to Austin, Texas, because he’d seen a skateable ditch in Thrasher. It’s a great story. But why does he make us wait so long?

Dog Town and Z-Boys wastes an equivalent amount of time on a single manoeuvre, the bert, being executed by every Southern Californian skater of the 1970s. All I wanted was to see different styles of skating, and to find out why Jay Adams, the original thrasher, went to jail instead of pulling down ten million a year like Tony Hawk.

The best, most personal history of skateboarding is in back issues of Thrasher (which contain more than enough material for an anthology); Weyland’s original Thrasher piece is the best chapter of his book.

At my second East Coast boarding school, my parents had my intelligence tested and discovered that my ‘performance IQ’ was 90 – in the 25th percentile of all Americans. I was miserable, and incapable of seeing past my misery.

Despite my affection and high regard for Thrasher, it seems to be in a similar state at the moment. My wife, Daphne Beal, got to something I’d been trying to figure out for years when, after reading a particularly asinine article in the February 2003 issue, she said: ‘It’s really not OK that these people are using so little of their brains.’

‘Using so little.’ It’s the perfect indictment of everything that’s wrong with, and the most succinct encapsulation of everything that’s great about skateboarding. The beauty of using so little in a country that uses so much. Living for a plank and four wheels in a profligate culture. And the saddening fact that Thrasher has stopped moving against the wind. Jake Phelps, the editor, a San Francisco skater to the bone, wrote a sort of suicide note in the March 2003 issue: ‘I’ve never felt as depressed as I do now . . . I try to stay focused on the mag – my life is in this mag. And its life is in me . . . I feel distant from the spots, skaters and special people I’ve known . . . God this is awful.’ These desperate words, especially jarring in contrast to Thrasher’s ironic dirtbag voice (it used to be ironic, big-hearted, dirtbag), were wedged into an issue stuffed with ads and bright pictures. An issue 54 pages longer than February’s Vanity Fair.

Skateboarding has joined right in with commercial American culture – and there’s something frighteningly involuntary about this numbing and succumbing. Skateboarding never wanted success. (That’s what the title of Weyland’s book means.) And now it doesn’t know what to do.

I used to think skateboarding would never get too big because it hurts too much. Because you can’t take the pain out of skateboarding. But what I didn’t realise is that you can take the skateboarding out of skateboarding – make the act a mere accessory to being into skateboarding. It’s an American speciality: selling things that are not themselves. The screening of Dogtown I attended, in a private theatre at the Sony corporation’s New York headquarters, was filled with MTV Vjs and their posses. I was the only person with a skateboard. A guy in a long black leather jacket turned to his girlfriend and said: ‘Ooh, he brought his board.’

There has never been a good movie that makes use of actual skateboarding. It’s hard to make a movie about something so personal and inward be about anything more than skateboarding itself. But as I left Dogtown, I had a vision, one of horror and desire, of a skater action picture in the style of The Warriors or Escape from New York, or, more likely, Armageddon or XXX: skaters as a crack anti-terrorism squad dropped into the Middle East to seize the ‘Islam bomb’ and kill a tyrant. An extreme slow mo of the birdman ollieing onto a detonator, destroying the despotic lair. Extremely tight on a tear sliding down a burka’d woman’s face. Hawk with the American flag draped over his shoulders. A generation of Arab kids stoked on skating (in Nike shoes).

This is a strange time in the history of skateboarding and its homeland. It looks both more alive and more dead than ever before. Every ad and photo in all the skate magazines is eerily the same. In a ‘sport’ that’s all about imagination – like a country all about freedom – nobody has any idea what to do. Skateboarding seems both ashamed of itself and not nearly ashamed enough. And it doesn’t get any more American than that.

The last time I saw Blane Morf was in the summer of 2000. I lived in New York, and he lived in a small town in Northern California. I went out to visit for a few days, and in the middle of remembering how we used to jump the fence and skate the playground of a Chinese elementary school (nobody else knew about it), he said, ‘Wait! I have to show you something!’ and got a ladder. He climbed up to his ceiling, pushed open a hatch, rooted around, and returned with an object I never thought I’d see again – my Natas Kaupas pro board. I’d bought it immediately when Natas turned pro, and I’d lost it when I got sent to reform school.

Seven months later I got the news that Blane had died. I went out to San Francisco. His mother asked me to speak at his memorial service, and I found myself talking about skateboarding. The new ways of perceiving the world that Blane introduced to me when we were two boys rolling down the street together. I told people that the last time I’d seen Blane he’d mentioned with amazement that our parents had never tried to separate us. I think they saw how essential we were to each other as we grew up. I believe this about our friendship, and about skateboarding.

Skateboarding is the most lasting gift a friend ever gave me. I now skate on that same Natas Kaupas board, every freezing, New York, wish-I-was-in-San-Francisco day.

Back in the mid-1990s, the last time skating was at all marginal, a pro skater called Salman Agah wrote in Thrasher, somewhat disjunctively, but all the more truthfully for his ollies over syntax and logic:

One of the many things I love about skateboarding is the freedom to ride whenever and whatever I want. There is no practice, no conditioning, at least, not consciously . . . Some of us are driven by our hearts, some by reputation, and some by money. But regardless, no matter what the motivation, the dance that we do compares with nothing at all. Am I exaggerating? I think not! . . . If you don’t know what I mean, get on your board in San Francisco, shoot the hills, scare yourself to death, and then tell me your heart is working involuntarily!

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