I kept my right foot planted on our driveway as I rolled the skateboard back and forth, feeling and hearing the slow rotation of steel ball bearings turning inside the wheels. Specks in the black sandpaper-like griptape reflected the sunlight and the grit scraped my sneaker. I heaved in the thick, humid air that kept my sweat from evaporating.
I was psyching myself. I couldn’t determine if I was psyching up or out. I was delaying gravity. I looked like I was supposed to ride, but I wasn’t riding.
It wasn’t even my board. My buddy Dylan had loaned me his board. I had biked home with it on my handlebars and then hid it in my closet. I’d been practicing rolling down the driveway since I came home from my new bus stop.
I didn’t yet know the meaning of the words shape, flow, and pop. I would come to know those words as the feel of a board; the motion of arcing in crisscross lines on the ground like a surfer riding up and then looping—cutting back—on a wave’s crest; and the pound of the tail and then lift of the nose into an ollie that raised the board magically above the ground.
I was still at the top of our driveway—Mom was out on errands and Dad had hours left at work—in the lull of the suburb’s afternoon. I was considering riding into the street.
I took my right foot off the ground and placed it on the board’s tail, careful not to set my weight on it and seesaw backwards. For a second, I stood still. Then, the board began to roll.
I was headed down to the street, but first the gutter. I’d jumped off or run out and away from the board the other times I rode toward it. This time, I stayed on. I bent my knees. I led with my shoulder.
The front wheels dipped into the gutter. I tipped forward, the board’s nose dove, and then I was pitched off. My knee shredded along the asphalt.
Blood leaked down my leg. I wouldn’t be able to hide the blood that would ooze through pants. I was marked and I would have to show my parents what happened and then tell them how I wanted to do that forever.
On a sheet of Mom’s stationary I wrote:
I want to skateboard.
Then I added a comma and what I meant:
I want to skateboard, and you can’t stop me.
I tore the sheet from the pad. The sheet underneath had a ghost of my sentence above. I tore that second sheet off the pad, too. I crumpled it together with the first sheet. I threw them both away in my bedroom’s trashcan.
I had taken the stationary from Mom’s drawer by the telephone. I only used my desk in my room to work on freshman geometry homework. I didn’t have any small pieces of paper to write important notes on.
I set the board on my lap and the stationary pad on top. I tapped a pen on the image of a panda printed on the bottom of the board. The panda looked like the logo from one of Mom’s World Wildlife Fund posters. Except this panda’s eyes drooped. Also instead of WWF the skateboard company’s name enjoi was written next to a turd behind the panda.
I needed to tell Mom about skateboarding. She would be the first one home. I didn’t want to wear pants and cover up my scraped knee. I didn’t want to practice rolling down the driveway when my parents were gone. I didn’t want to keep hiding the skateboard in my closet.
I tried again, explaining what would happen and why:
I am going to buy a skateboard. I want to ride. I like it.
I tore the sheet off the pad. I set the board against my bedroom’s wall. I thought I might as well let it be seen.
I walked down the hallway from my side of the split-plan house to my parents’ bedroom by the garage. On the way, I replaced the stationary pad by the phone. Then, I placed the note on Mom’s pillow. I went back to my room to wait.
Soon, Mom came home and said, “Hello” to the house. I scrambled for my math book so it looked like I was working on equations. Mom appeared around the corner of my bedroom’s door.
“I want you to wear a helmet,” she said.
I looked up from my desk. It wasn’t the argument I expected. I wanted to skate the way I wanted to skate.
“No,” I said.
Mom stared at me. I glanced back at the geometric combinations of angles and sides like they were important. I felt Mom fill the doorframe.
“Think about it,” Mom said.
I shook my head.
“I’ll buy one for you,” Mom said.
“I won’t wear it,” I said.
I felt Mom leave.
The next day at our family computer I printed out a list of reports on head injuries for boys playing high school sports. Football topped the list. Skateboarding was a footnote.
* * *
The last time I skated over to Dylan’s, his mom pointed me to his room. I found him holed up. I noticed the enjoi board that I had returned sticking out of his closet, while he was studying for engineering exams at his desk.
I was always skating by myself. I downloaded skate videos from the Internet. Issues of Transworld, Slap, and Thrasher filled the mailbox. I brought skateboarding to me.
I started buying skate gear for cheap off the other quitters. I didn’t go back to Dylan’s house for boards, because I hoped one day he might roll again. Instead, I paid this one kid Francesco, who lived at the front of the neighborhood, twenty bucks for his scuffed up Toy Machine board with a graphic featuring an orange Cyclops’ unblinking red eye.
At home, I waved a hairdryer over the worn griptape and then fit a razorblade between it and the board’s wood. I stripped off the griptape in pieces. Underneath, I discovered the wood was dyed green and a graphic printed on top of the board, too. I left a gap in the new tape near the tail to show a cartoon drawn yellow-horned devil with a black, spiky mohawk who said out of a word bubble, “Grip it and Rip it!”
* * *
I had scoped out several houses with pool filter machines churning on the side of garages. I found crabgrass-clogged lawns and gnats that swirled out of the weedy shoots sprouting up higher than the deed restrictions’ limit; junk mail that crammed boxes; and fliers stacked on doormats. I ding-dong ditched those places and noted where nobody answered the doorbell.
I had narrowed it down to two houses with their backyards ending at a lake-size retention pond: one with an unlocked chain-link fence and the other a shoulder high wooden fence. Both were on the corners of intersecting roads. I would have several directions to scatter if someone called the cops.
The chain-link house had a kidney pool with a nice curved shallow end that sloped into a bowled deep end. I imagined pushing off in the shallow end by the stairs and swooping up in an arc over the light in the deep end to clack my wheels on the tiles. Maybe I could push myself to grind over the deathbox where the water filtered out to get cleaned in the pool system.
I walked around the back porch. Through the sliding glass door I noticed a yellow light. I curled my fingers around the door clasp like grabbing the edge of my board during an air. I pulled and the door slid along its track.
Just inside, a single bulb shone from a lamp without a shade. The thermostat was set at 79 degrees, probably to cut the humidity, but speckled black dots of mold covered the carpet. A stale smell hung in the air. I went back outside to breathe.
The wooden-fenced house had a square pool with a plungingly deep deep-end. I would have to deal with skating several feet of vertical cement after draining the entire thing. If I rode up its walls, then I would be parallel, and a dozen feet, to the flat bottom.
When I climbed into the backyard, I felt a presence like someone squatted there. The dried scrub grass was short. I wasn’t sure if it had been cut. By the pool, several dusty, unbroken beer bottles sat next to a sagging deck chair. Under the porch, ashes swirled when I lifted the lid of a grill.
I chose to drain the kidney pool because it felt safer. One night, I rode over there in the dark. I unraveled a coil of garden hose. I plunked one end in the pool’s murky water and then spooled the hose’s length over the deck, across the lawn, threaded it through the chain-link, and put the other end to my mouth. I sucked in through my mouth and breathed out through my nose. I pulled the water out of the pool through the hose. I could taste the empty rubber. I hacked when a mouthful of water siphoned out. I aimed the hose out to the retention pond. I camouflaged the hose’s copper end with brush so it just looked like a swampy spot.
* * *
My wheels held to the ground bumping over the pebbles and crushed seashells mixed in with the asphalt. I stomped my back foot down as I flicked the board by pushing out with my front foot out at the same time. The board clicked against the ground, spun a half-rotation clockwise below me. I pulled up my legs and then caught the board with my feet. I loved doing pop shuv-its with the crack, swirl, catch that quickly traded the nose from the front with tail in the back of the board.
I carved around the corner, away from our street off to check on the kidney pool. On the small stretch I did a 180 and then quick shuv-it, no pop, just to set my board back up. I was riding fakie so I 180-ed again to ride in my regular stance onto the main street.
I heard the clink of metal on metal and then the slap and clip of urethane landing. Whoops came from a lanky kid with exaggerated long legs that sloppily careened with his board while his arms swung. I couldn’t figure if he was grasping the air for balance or pumping his arms in joy. His smile got me stoked.
I saw a sheet of particleboard, not even plywood, hauled up on top of a plastic green recycling bin set next to a rail in a house’s driveway. This kid had been rolling up, grinding across, and then hopping off. The metal on metal sound must have been from a 50-50 grind.
It was janky do-it-yourself-itude. I knew exactly how that felt. To make something happen with what you have, like finding a backyard pool to skate.
I figured the pool would still be there as I showed off to this kid skateboarding in my neighborhood. I started stretching my foot as far forward on the ground as possible and then pulled my board along and pushed fast, faster. I set my foot on my tail and tilted back, lifting my front truck off the road and balancing a manual in front of the kid’s driveway with my back to him.
I set the front wheels back on the ground and pushed off again. I wanted to snap and grab my board on the wedge-like driveway a few houses down. As I pushed to pick up speed again, I figured if I made the trick I would introduce myself, but if I bailed then I’d pick up my board and skate off to the draining pool.
I rode up the driveway and popped an ollie. Up, up. My trailing hand grabbed the side of the board in front of me between my legs. My thumb caught the griptape and my fingers curled underneath on the board’s laminated bottom. I floated and turned in an arc.
I released the board. My wheels landed. So, I rolled across the street to the kid.
He introduced himself as Adam and said, “That was rad, man.”
“Thanks.” I nodded my head. “This is kinda cool, too.” I pointed to his ramp-to-rail setup.
“Wanna try?” Adam asked.
We tried each other’s tricks: grinds and airs. It was like a demo: showing off and having fun just sessioning. I skated with Adam until the streetlights flickered on.
* * *
A few weeks later when I remembered to check, the kidney-house’s chain-link was padlocked, the hose gone, and the pool refilled. I thought about going back at night with bolt cutters and renting a diesel pump, but I was skating every afternoon with Adam. I could already boardslide—that perpendicular shush sound as the middle of the board’s wood skimmed across the metal railing was thrilling—and Adam could launch up and tap his fingers to his board in a quick grab.
* * *
Dad squeegeed the condensation off his car’s windshield. He wore clip-on shades over his glasses even though the sun’s orange ball of fire barely lifted over the horizon at the end of the street. I walked down our driveway. My cargo shorts swished above my Vans. When I opened the passenger door, jazz on the radio hummed with a doublebass and swishes from the brush-sticks on drum skins with occasional tinkerings on cymbals. We always listened to public radio on the way to my high school, because we rarely talked.
Dad shook his wrist and droplets of water flicked from the squeegee. He set his squeegee underneath his seat and sat down. Dad started the car, but left it in park.
“You know,” Dad said, “You need to write your application essay?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and nodded.
Dad drove me half-an-hour to school everyday before driving back south another twenty minutes to his work. The bus stop was only one mile away. I walked home every afternoon. I never asked Dad to drive me to school, he just did every morning.
As we started to roll down the road, I stared out the window at spots I skated on our street: The bricked driveway my wheels clicked over. The border of hedges I carved as I imagined their green semi-circle to be a wave. The manhole cover I ollied. The curb I scraped with my trucks as I took the corner against traffic.
Dad drove out of the neighborhood. At the bus stop for another high school for kids zoned in our neighborhood, I lifted my chin to Adam. He waved.
The land opened wide to fenced-in pastures. I imagined crooked grinding from one railing over the post and then sliding and rolling to the next along the entire row parallel Dad’s car. I stared out my window framing the landscape and put myself on it, riding it, like playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater and finding impossibly connected lines.
I projected myself skating onto a strip mall: powerslide down the parking lot, slappy the curb, and then roll up the wheelchair accessible ramp to launch into a wallride on the side of the building. My eyes connected the line and my feet on the floor of the car twitched.
A fart-like honk of a saxophone from the radio pulled me back into my body. I wished I had that bag of tricks and that release from physics to float all over the constructed world. I glanced ahead on the road filmed with rainbow slicks of oil dripped from cars like ours following a track to school and then jobs. I turned back to look out my window.
* * *
My wheels clacked over the spaces between the orange-stained sidewalk blocks. I pushed along the zigzag next to the curving road. I listened for Adam’s wheels echoing behind me.
As I picked up speed I bent down and reached out my hand to brush the spongy Saint Augustine grass. Sprinklers clicked in yards and misty well water stunk.
We had skated almost two miles out of the neighborhood. We passed the red-sided silver roofed open-aired elementary school. We skated where a few years before there had been only cattle that chomped on scrub brush and slept under the shadow of an occasional oak draped with the curly seaweed-green of Spanish moss. This new neighborhood was called The Preserve. An egret with its golden eye staring out was stamped on an emblem of both sides of the front gate.
A cluster of pines bordered a retention pond. When I spotted a low, gray rectangle of thin wall supported with arm-thick steel pipes rising out of its edge, I stepped off and scooped up my board. I walked through a mound of bark mulch piled around squat palms. The landscape sunk toward the pond and the gray walls.
Two brownish wedges faced each other with a straight flat bottom between them. Trails of parallel-lines curved and arced and traced on the surface. I made the marks with my skateboard’s wheels when I first discovered the drainage ditches.
I dropped my board at the top of the bank and shoved off. My wheels dipped over the angled transition to flat bottom. I pushed one, two, three quick times. I set my foot on the tail and carved up to the lip of the bank, which jutted out and where the sandy soil had washed out an edge. I locked my back truck and Smith grinded. Metal crushed rock. Speckles of aluminum flaked off.
I shifted my weight off my back truck and unhooked from the lip, turning back into the bank. I skated to the other side. I stepped off my front foot, my back foot snapping the board’s tail to the ground and then I lifted up and turned doing a no-comply. I looked like a stereotypical plastic flamingo in a retiree’s lawn, except that I spun and then stomped back onto my board and continued my line.
I crossed the middle of the flat bottom. I leaned forward with my weight to pump the board, to keep momentum. My wheels etched a figure eight onto the concrete. I rode up the angle, bent down to grab the edge of my board, took my front foot off the board, and pushed off the ground and pulled up into a boneless.
My right foot rose and my left foot lifted. I floated. My left foot returned to my board. Then, I landed with my wheels spinning and I rode up the other side to Adam. He gave me a high-five as I heaved in the dusty air.
* * *
My sweaty T-shirt felt shellacked to my back. After skating, I grabbed the bottom and tugged up. The shirt made a wet smack when it landed at the bottom of the plastic laundry bin in my room.
I noticed a piece of paper on my desk. Dad must have printed the University of Central Florida’s application essay questions. Question four was circled: What qualities or unique characteristics do you possess that will allow you to contribute to the UCF community?
I knew I needed to write an essay for my college application there. Everything else was done. I sat at my desk and took out a pencil.
I set my middle finger on the tip and my pointer finger on the middle of the pencil. I used the tip as a tail. I popped a mini-ollie up and onto the edge of my A/P American History book and slid the pencil along the hardcover’s edge. I flicked the pencil off, spinning it around, and then caught it with my fingers to land on the desk.
I looked at the question again. I only had to fill one page. That wasn’t too much. The only thing I had honed for years had been skateboarding. It hadn’t just been a physical activity. It was natural history: surfers evolved out of the waves and carved up onto the asphalt and over the concrete landscape. It was physics: establishing and breaking rules. It was law: freedom and happiness by trespassing and destruction of property. It was life: I woke up staring at the Popsicle shape of my board leaning against my wall and I thought about riding through each class period where I used my pencil for fingerskating just like at my desk. At home, I skated until dinner and sometimes went back out again in the evening. At night, my legs shifted under the sheets with dreams of landing tricks.
I remembered a video I watched sometimes before I sessioned called Modus Operandi. One skater, Marc Johnson had an interview at the beginning of his part. Over the clip of him grinding on a desk dumped in an alley, he said something about the process. How he did it.
I grabbed the question sheet and took it to the family computer. I booted up the PC. I put on a fresh shirt. I knew I’d want to skate afterward.
I opened up the video I had downloaded. I clicked forward and found Marc’s part. His head was shaved bald and he spoke with a coastal vibe:
“The craziest thing about skateboarding is you say, ‘What if I could do this? You know? I think I could probably do this.’ And you can do it. You can take something that was pure thought and you can make it reality.”
I leaned back in the chair. I scribbled about how I could bring creativity to UCF. Then I clicked back on the video. I wrote Marc’s final sentence down about making a thought a reality, like wanting to go to school and then going to school. I had filled up the entire page.
I knew that what Marc said applied to more than my college essay, it also applied to how I had been trying to land a full-Cab. On the street, I would roll backwards and wind up to turn, but then make a 180 and maybe my wheel’s would screech a bit more of a turn on the ground. I would be facing perpendicular to where I had been going. I couldn’t get myself to fully rotate and return back in the same position.
I watched a full-Cab video online in slow-mo. I noted how the skater’s shoulders directed him. If I could turn my shoulder, then my body, legs, and board would follow. I grabbed my board and headed outside.
I rolled down the driveway, hopped the gutter, and then started pushing backwards. I set my foot on the nose. I crouched down ready to spring. I snapped an ollie and turned 180, but then kept my shoulders twisting and my board followed around full circle. I landed and continued to roll.
Photo: flip out flip up by Alex Ingram