I was rummaging through stacks of old shoe boxes, decluttering and organizing, when I came across a dozen or so skateboarding videos and dusty issues of Thrasher.
That magazine, founded in 1981, the year I was born, was everything to me growing up. I’d often tear out the pages and use them to decorate my bedroom walls, pictures of gods like Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk, who turns 47 this month, occupying nearly every inch of space from the floor to the ceiling.
Aside from cult classics “Public Domain,” and “The Search for Animal Chin”—the first skate film to make an attempt at an actual plot—there were other tapes that had long been stashed away. And my two sons, five and seven, saw my eyes widen as I read off one of the labels. It was a home movie filmed with neighborhood friends called “Skate or Be Stupid, 1989.”
“We have to watch this,” said the oldest.
“We have to watch this,” echoed his brother.
My boys love it when I tell them stories of my skating adventures and so a treasure like the one we’d just discovered could not be ignored nor postponed for viewing at a later date.
For me, skateboarding was once the most beautiful form of freedom imaginable, every motion taking me further from home and yet connecting me more deeply to my surroundings.
When I wasn’t watching films, I was outside growing braver and adding to my arsenal of tricks. My parents fought like enemies and when their arguing turned to yelling, I would grab my board and shove off with the quickness.
The four wheels of my Powell Peralta hit the pavement and led me to wherever I wanted to escape, so long as it wasn’t anywhere passed our community’s entrance/exit sign.
Of course, I didn’t always follow such orders and I’d spit on it as I rolled passed—sometimes managing to get all the way to Mr. Bill’s, a local convenience store, to steal gum and as many Airheads as I could fit into my Vision Street Wear shorts.
For my friends and I, skateboarding was both ecstasy and sweet rebellion—and it brought more joy than anything else even came close to providing for the first two decades of my life.
It used to be that skateboarders were perceived as threats, grimy vandals without a single care and their middle fingers permanently outstretched to the law.
That I once got sent home from school for wearing a t-shirt that read “No Code of Conduct” confirmed some of that, sure. In those days, many cities across the United States were implementing strict skating bans and getting creative in their efforts to stop skaters, from attaching metal prongs to ledges to manipulating pavement surfaces by making them rough. And though, given the heavy commercialization of the sport over the years, the prejudices toward skaters are not as stringent, there is still an underlying rebellion that is at the very heart of the sport. And at the heart of the skater.
After digging out the VCR, I hooked it up and we three sat to watch, expectant. I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness but one of the first sequences was of eight-year-old me mooning the camera, a stunt the boys naturally found amusing.
Soon enough, though, I was flying through the air, using curbs and speed bumps as launch pads for my courageous and frequently careless acrobatics.
The boys were impressed by my skill, shouting for me to rewind parts and captivated by each moment projected on the screen. I felt the sting of pride and pain, and a longing that I’d been suppressing for some time.
Serious skateboarding, with all the focus and mental and physical toughness it requires, is a truly singular dance. It shapes you, makes you, calls you to respect your environment in ways no other sport does.
I think of veteran skaters like Mike Vallely and Mark Gonzales, their fluid gyrations every bit as poetic and dazzling as anything Kipling ever wrote.
“Why don’t you do that anymore?” asked the younger after a nimble and seemingly elastic me cleared a two foot ledge with ease.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
What I wanted to say was that Daddy doesn’t have time because he has to work and his stupid damn back hurts too much to even think about trying. “Can you teach us how to do it?
Today, my skateboard is almost exclusively designated for trips to the mailbox, a distance of roughly 20 yards. In those seconds it takes to reach there and back, I miss it intensely. I miss how it made me feel, how the Miami sun warmed me as I practiced my shove-its and kickflips and eventually got better and more technical than all the neighborhood crew.
I fantasize about putting aside anything resembling caution and going completely mad on the board, ballistic. But I don’t, not full on anyway.
On some days I fear I’m losing something, that rebellion, that edge that’s hardwired in the DNA of the skater.
See, once you’re married and own a home and have children to take to practice and help with homework, you have to make a more conscious effort to keep a healthy dose of rage inside of you; to remember there is always something, some system or broken bureaucracy, to fight like hell and at which to wave a disapproving finger.
I often see the teenagers at local parks and am taken aback by how exceptional they are on the stick. And to add to that, their progress is so easily documented in our digital age.
Where the evolution of skate culture and the skater’s ingenuity were once observed mostly through magazines, live appearances, and professionally produced videos, the present offers a multitude of outlets for expression.
Channels like Youtube, Vine, and Snapchat have made it so anyone, anywhere, can show the world just how rad they are by using just a phone. And thanks to worldwide events like the X Games, skateboarding continues to gain fans and is on track to one day rivaling the popularity of traditional sports.
It’s true that my body is no longer the same machine. In the late 90s and early 2000s, skateboarding got hard on me.
Years of throwing myself down stairs and kissing the ground did their number on my bones, and my psyche. And of course, I’ve just plain gotten older, a bittersweet reality that comes after us all.
Still, there are more reasons to look forward than backward.
At one point in the home movie, I bring out a tall bucket from the garage and place it in the middle of the street. The idea is that we’ll ollie over it and see which of us gets the most air.
After several botched attempts, the bucket begins to crack with the weight of our failure. We drag our heads in adolescent, albeit-very-real frustration. I resolve to give it one last go, because relentlessness is a skater’s most prized commodity.
The slow build-up gets the boys excited and they wonder aloud if their dad will make it over the mammoth obstacle that’s been evading he and his friends for so many tries.
I do, and they go wild there in the dark of our kitchen. I’d persisted, and my biggest reward was—and I didn’t know it back then—that my kids would some day see it and beam. In turn, I have spent very many dollars on skateboards in order to train them up to do similar feats.
It seems they’re getting pretty good, and this feeds me more than anything. All the stuff about the sprains and broken bones, well, I keep that to myself. In time they’ll have to look within themselves and count the cost, and decide whether they’ll skate or be stupid.