Thursday, December 27, 2012

Skateboarding: A Terrible Way To Get Around

When I picked up my first skateboard in 1984 I was seeing it with almost no preconceived notions. In those dark days between the high-water mark of the late 70‘s and the post bones-brigade mid-80‘s A lot of kids who stumbled into skateboarding via a cheapie banana board bought on a whim saw their skateboards the same way. Even now, reducing skateboarding to its simplest state is an interesting exercise. Put yourself in that headspace where preconceived notions do not exist and you can break skating down into its elemental forms.

In the most basic sense a skateboard is a vehicle, but its a pretty terrible one. In speed and versatility it can’t compare with a bicycle, and every kid has a bike. You also need good pavement to ride a skateboard, and a stray pebble can still take you out. Even under ideal conditions pushing around on a skateboard punishes your knees and requires levels of concentration way beyond what a bicycle requires.

In the working class industrial sprawls of a middle-sized midwestern city like my hometown of Terre Haute, sidewalk surfing was even more of a worst case scenario. I lived in one of the many semi-rural subdivisions where the midwest's middle class tend to settle; big clusters of dozens or even hundreds pre-planned houses just far enough out of the city proper to lack any sort of pedestrian infrastructure or any of the other basic zoning requirements that create decent skating conditions. Kids within the city limits didn't have it much better. The streets were usually paved a little nicer but you still couldn’t actually get out of your neighborhood to get anywhere without braving multi-lane commuter roads or heavily traveled, well rutted, and gravely straightaways of rough macadam, i.e. places sketchy enough for travel on a bike, much less the wobbling, hang-up machine that was an 80’s era budget board. Even in the city proper, everything was structured around low density automobile traffic. A lot of neighborhoods didn't have sidewalks. Many streets had no curbs. It was kind of ironic. We lived in a place where it was safe to go out for a stroll anywhere at any time day or night, but nobody ever walked anywhere.

But forget about my quaint little hick city limitations for a minute. Even a skate mecca like San Francisco lays bare the shortcomings of the skateboard as a pure vehicle. If you have your shit together enough to bomb the hills of S.F. without getting rundown at an intersection or speed wobbling yourself into a clumsy, knee-twisting, pavement sliding runout, you still have to go back up those hills to go back where you came from. Sure, riding a bike uphill sucks, but it's a trolley ride compared to skating uphill. Riding a skateboard uphill is basically limping on roller bearings. Even in S.F. the skateboard is a one way ticket.

So why bother with the damn thing anyway? Even if you picked up a skateboard without knowing anything about the sport or culture, which was exactly what kids like me were doing, the limitations imply something: That skateboarding was about being somewhere and doing something rather than getting somewhere. A lot of people who have never skated still don’t get this. It was why, back in the day, the whole idea of riding a skateboard after you were old enough to drive seemed idiotic to most norms. It’s also why, when skating finally hit it big in the sticks, you would see the contradictory sight of kids riding their bikes to spots with their boards precariously balanced on their handlebars or Macgyver rigged on the frame somewhere with shoelaces, bungee cord or duct tape. (none of these methods, by the way, ever worked well, making the 2 mile bike ride to the shitty parking lot you were pedaling to as harrowing as any move you were likely to attempt on the busted up parking blocks you skated when you actually got there).

All in all, its amazing the skateboard even exists. No one is really sure when the first skateboard was invented or who did it (sorry Won Ton Chin). One apocryphal version has the skateboard being a serendipitous result of a broken peach-basket scooter and an unnamed and possibly unhinged suburban spazz gnarly enough to ride it without its namesake wooden-crate handle. Others believe the invention of the skateboard was a natural intuitive leap taken by idle surfers on some ancient occasion when the surf was bad. This latter theory establishes the development of the skateboard as something fated and inevitable, something people discovered instead of invented. The one thing that is evident either way is that, unlike the bike or the roller skate or the hula hoop or the frisbee or the inline skate, the first skateboard was not something created by a corporation or an inventor with dreams of a profitable patent. It was something that was created spontaneously and simultaneously in different places and passed person to person individually like some ancient viking saga. The skateboard was not the result of somebody filling a market niche or contriving a pastime in order to sell something. It was made by individuals with no ulterior motive other than the search for some primal stoke born of something new, fast, and hard to control. This is a crucial point because it means when skaters preach about their culture being an outsider phenomenon they aren’t just footplanting off a high horse. The underground element goes all the way back to the zygote created when a surfboard first got it on with a set of broken roller skates.

Since skateboarding’s initial development wasn’t tied to commerce there wasn’t any corporate or commercial money to sell it to the masses. This meant no large group could take control of it and define it in simple, easily marketable terms. It seems fitting in light of skate culture today, but early on that was a tremendous drawback. With corporate money you can create leagues and worldwide associations. These things put sports into sanctioned, uniform boxes. They make it so everyone, everywhere not only understands the “real way” to play, but it also creates a framework that codifies excellence and success. This is why soccer is played in Iceland in exactly the same way as it is in Zimbabwe. Leagues and organizations create an infrastructure to grow a sport while simultaneously locking it in place. Leagues and professional organizations, regional tournaments, pronouncements of champions on all geographic levels, are all manageable and highly successful ways to promote an activity and make it easy for anyone to understand and participate in. In short, they provide the how and the why of a sport.

But skateboarding couldn’t do that. It still can't. From the 70’s all the way through the dawn of the 80’s, organizations of well-meaning skaters and park owners were always trying to jam skateboarding into the athletics template, but in the long term the nature of the sport always defied them. This is why the sport moved in crests and crashes for so many years.

Any form of organized competition is essentially about defining an activity. By implication pronouncing “winners” and “losers”, no matter what the criteria, inherently creates limitations. “This group played better than that group on this day”, etc. In skateboarding, no matter how inconsistent contest judging and results could be, each pronouncement of winner or loser was a statement saying “how” you should ride a skateboard. Skateboarding couldn’t mature under those definitions.

The whole idea that skateboarding is about re-defining rules and boundaries is more than a conceit. It goes back farther than the first street skaters, who looked at the most mundane urban spaces and somehow saw an endless, free skatepark. It goes back farther than the dogtowners, who looked at empty swimming pools and schoolyard embankments and made them into concrete waves. The ethos of creation through deconstruction and re-definition is encoded in the DNA of the very first skateboards. To make a board you had to saw a set of rollerskates in half and nail the pieces to a piece of scrap wood. You took what was lying around and turned it into something new. In that action you can find the soul of skateboarding. It was always there.

How could a contest develop and advance that? A contest is an event that tries to define something by giving it rules and boundaries. That’s why skating couldn’t fully mature until contests were sideshows instead of the main event.  The absurdity of making skateboarding competition-driven is especially evident for skaters my age and younger. We encountered skating in a decidedly post-contest context. From today’s perspective it’s easy to be baffled by the nasty stylistic rivalries of the 1970’s contest era.  Hawk vs. Hosoi, or technical vs. stylish just doesn’t compute in a world where professional skateboarding can encompass both Ryan Sheckler and Mike Vallely. In the context of the contest era though, you can see the stakes that made competition such a factionalizing influence. Contests weren't the lucrative and over-organized irrelevancies they are today. They were the voice of the sport, the centerpiece of magazine coverage and ad copy. Every contest Tony Hawk won back in those days was a message to guys like Duane Peters or Tony Alva or Steve Olson that said “this is the best way to skate”. Of course they would spit on the new kid with his varials and knock-kneed inverts. His success was a threat not just to their livelihoods, but to their freedom to succeed by doing things their own way. Competition, by its nature, narrows what is valid, intentionally or not.

But by 1984, the contest culture and much of skateboarding was dead anyway, so kids like me couldn't even get the distorted, competitive view of skateboarding. Who was the best skateboarder in the world? How do you "win" on a skateboard? To a skater, these are stupid questions, but these are the questions that traditionally define a sport and create its substance. You take for granted how unique skating is until you try to go back to that time before you were part of it and the only frame of reference you had to figure it out was mainstream sports.

Put all this together and you get the situation I was in back in 84 when I was looking at that banana board for the first time and wondering why I should step on it. My parents couldn’t tell me why. My friends, even though a lot of them had boards couldn’t tell me either. The gym coach couldn’t tell me. You couldn’t go down to The Boys Club and join the skateboard league.

In the short term, this void was a big obstacle, and because of it my first board sat unused in a corner of the garage for six months. In the long run, that lack of structure and absence of objective measurements of good and bad became the greatest thing about skateboarding. It meant that when I did get interested in skateboarding I knew from the very start it wasn’t going to be like basketball or football. No one was going to come along and tell me I was doing it wrong. No one could take it away from me. My friends with skateboards weren’t going to suddenly qualify for the Jr. High team and abandon me so they could practice and play with other people. I could skate and do it for no other reason than that I liked skating. I could do it even if all my friends quit.

I didn’t hate sports, I could shoot baskets for hours even when I was terrible at it. But shooting baskets wasn’t playing basketball, and once you actually “played" that act of aiming for the rim and letting loose a shot was meaningless in and of itself. It only mattered when you made more of those baskets than anyone else. I hated the organization that sports required, and came to love the lack of them in skating.

Let’s face it, no matter how much your parents or your coach told you sports were all about friendship or teamwork or good manners, it always sucked to be the loser. In skateboarding it didn’t matter if you were the loser because everyone was a loser. You don’t beat gravity and no matter how good you got, you were never the best because being “the best’ would mean there was some sort of narrow criteria for what skateboarding is. Even if you were the best kid in your school, almost everybody you knew could do at least one thing on a board that you couldn't.

That said, the isolation in those early days was a massive impediment to taking skateboarding to the next level. Unrestrained freedom is great in theory, but without inspiration that freedom can be equally discouraging because of its formlessness. There were no winners and losers in skateboarding, but there were certainly levels of skill. When the magazines and other media portrayals finally filtered down into my world, it did make me and my friends feel like we sucked, but our advantage was that all those years of carving around in blissful ignorance meant that by the time we learned we sucked, we had already fallen too in love with skateboarding to care.


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