It’s 2018, folks, and it’s time for an update. I haven’t published anything on this blog in almost two years. Frankly, it’s just too much work at times, and there are always more important things on my to-do list, like cobbling together poetry manuscripts, writing new poems, raising a family and – yes – work.
My intention is to use this space to track new writing as it is published. Last week, Poets Reading the News ran a poem of mine about the Strand Bookstore which was written on the occasion of the death of its owner, Fred Bass. The Strand was my alma mater, in a way. There is a lot to say about that time and place, about New York City in the mid-1990s. There is probably a novel in there somewhere down the line. But let’s let poetry do its work. Suffice to say it took 20 years to write this.
The King Is Dead
Employees stocked the fridge with beer, pocket
bottles of Smirnoff tucked
behind stacks for easy nipping. Lunch-
breaks were drinking contests, pounding
pints to dull ourselves before re-entry,
turbulent and dazed. After our shifts
we’d hit the bars along the Bowery
fueled on Chinese takeaway and pizza
by-the-slice. We were ‘bodies’
in their jargon, useful mannequins
for schlepping boxes full of books –
ten floors of them and counting.
The intricate small man sat at the desk
glasses clasping the bridge of his nose
bald pate shining like a headlamp.
“I need a body,” he would say. Someone
would pick up a phone, request
a body, one would be sent up
from the nether world. We were paid
minimum wage to build labyrinths
of boxes made of books made
of paper, miles of it, enough to pave
Broadway with a pelt of snow. Walls
went up between us, block after block after block,
a city within a city. Like Theseus,
I wandered through them endlessly in search
of my Minotaur. The king is dead.
My father – like all Italian fathers – thought it was important that I learn to ski at a young age. Perhaps this comes from growing up in a country with an Alpine border. So he took us to the local bunny slopes in Pennsylvania where I learned to coast gently on the powder and sip steaming hot cocoa by the fireside in my wet jeans. As a teenager I became a skateboarder, and so naturally in winter I began to snowboard. One winter we even took a trip – friends only! no adults! – up to the slopes for a weekend. While my friends were getting trashed and wrecking the room at the Days Inn, I hooked up with a girl I had never seen before, resulting in an unexpectedly hot night. The next day on the slopes I remember thinking, “Do I have a girlfriend now?” When we got home I promptly discovered she had moved in with my friend Jeff. At least I had an answer: I did not have a girlfriend now.
Years later, after I had moved to Italy, I was visiting a cousin in Zurich when I found myself again on the slopes. This time they were real Alpine slopes with staggering views of what appeared to be the entire continent of Europe. I was on borrowed skis for the occasion. With the Swiss there is no dilly-dallying on the beginner slopes. These people race right up to the top of a mountain and down the other side like rabbits. When I found myself on a slope, which for all intents and purposes seemed liked like a mountain-sized vert ramp made of ice, I began to have second thoughts. “There are only two ways down this hill,” I was told by my Swiss companion. “On your skis or on your ass.” I seriously contemplated the second option for what seemed like years, staring down at the infinite whiteness. A knot formed in my stomach. When I finally thrust myself from my shaky perch, I made it some part of the way down the mountain before hearing a distinct “craaaack!” and feeling my leg twist around like a rubber Gumby doll. I lay there sure I had broken my leg. The pain was intense. I had no phone, spoke no German and had no idea where my cousin or his family were. I was three hours outside of Zurich, eight hours from Rome, an ocean and a mountain range away from New York City (still home to me then), alone and writhing in pain on a mountainside in deepest Switzerland.
I spent the rest of the week reading Nietzsche’s The Gay Science in the lodge and obliquely chasing after Italo-Swiss ski bunnies. I wrote a lot of poetry in those days, continuing work on a Don Juan-esque epic I was writing (to be published after my death) and musing on what the fuck I was going to do when I got back to Rome. My leg, it turned out, wasn’t broken.
I haven’t touched a slope since then. When people ask why I don’t go skiing in the winter – settimana bianca is an Italian tradition – I say I don’t like having things fastened to my feet. Of course, as a skateboarder it’s becoming more difficult to make excuses for not wanting to ski. And now that our daughter is old enough to begin taking ski classes I envision having to return to the dreaded mountains again soon. Seeing the distorted smirk on my face, my wife says, “You can snowboard, you know.”
“I don’t like having things attached to my feet,” I repeat, changing the subject.
Marc never let the wounds and pains of falls ever stop him from getting back up and skating more. However, now that he and his bones are older I hope he can get a set of pads to wear for protection. Speaking from expierence (sic) having had a head injury from 9 months ago leaving me somewhat disabled I would also suggest a helmet.
Of course I wrote those words off as soon as I read them. My thoughts were something like, I don’t ride vert or jump down stairs, so I don’t need a helmet. Besides, they’re for wussies. And that was – kind of – that.
Until I started paying attention to Josh Katz, who has a semi-popular skateboarding YouTube channel. He’s probably young enough to be my son, but he’s almost the only person on my skadar (skate radar!) who wears a helmet. When I began reading the comments to his videos, I noticed that there were a lot of comments about his helmet:
Progress report 1: Marriage equality is legal across the fifty states, and I’m excited about that!
Progress report 2: But I’ve also been making my own progress skateboarding. Back in May I passed the six month mark, and noticed I’d been accumulating a lot of clips. Sure, I’d been uploading them to my Instagram account (that’s where I put all my skateboarding-related stuff), but it seemed the time was ripe to, well, commemorate the fact that I’m still skating. After all, there was no guarantee back in November of last year that I’d have kept up with it. Plus, I’m perennially irked by the fact that I have no footage of myself skating from 1987-1993 (other than some poor-quality video in the possession of my friend Pat Eisenhauer.) Not that I’m narcissistic – I’m not at all – but I now realize the importance of keeping personal archives, the kind of thing that never crossed my mind when I was a teenager. I’ll be happy I did this when I’m old and senile.
What I’ve done is arrange a representative selection of clips into a three-minute video. They basically follow chronological order, starting around December 2014 with what I consider my ‘first trick’, a frontside pop shuvit. I learned them before backside pop shuvits, although I now find them harder to do consistently. Progress is a strange thing, and it’s not really linear. I clearly remember thinking – back when I was 15 or so – that I’d never learn another trick, that I’d maxed-out my repertoire. And usually by the end of the session I’d have surprised myself with something new. My philosophy is: just keep at it. Progress will take care of itself.
My hope is that some modicum of progress is visible over the span of the six months or so that I’ve been filming. Not just new tricks, but perhaps something approaching style, or at least not looking like I’m always in danger of falling. As most of what I have available to skate is flatground and a few mellow banks, those make up a disproportionate amount of this video. There is some footage of the Ashland and 28th St. skateparks in Richmond, VA, and a dilapidated skatepark in Campello, Umbria; other than that it’s all street. I wonder what kind of progress I’ll have made by this winter. Hopefully, another amateurish video will be in the works in a few months.
Note: This is my first video and almost all the footage was filmed by placing an iPhone on the ground or on an elevated surface and touching “record”.
As promised, here is my new spring 2015 setup. My deck is an 8.125 from a Naples-based company called Plaza Boards. They’re the only Italian board company that I’ve found, and they have a pretty decent team and a fun beer-is-food ethic. You can watch their team video here. (At 22:30 you can see Pietro Bontà, a Perugia-based skater who has my favorite part in the video.) The scuff marks in the photo are of two days’ – or three hours’ – skating. I’m now riding Independent Grant Taylor 139 hollow trucks (painted a nifty blue and red), 52mm ‘Fatty Loser’ Taste wheels, which are also of Italian provenance, Bones Reds bearings and anonymous griptape.
It was weird at first moving up from a 7.75 inch deck to an 8.125 – it felt so big! Also the wider trucks and larger wheels (the others had been worn down to around 50 mm) take some getting used to all at once. The new setup definitely feels more stable, and my feet no longer hang off the sides, which is a relief. And since I can’t do flip tricks yet anyway I’m not complaining that the wider board is more difficult to flip. As my friend Pat told me, “Adults skate 8-inch boards.” I thought of Rodney Mullen in Rubbish Heap (1989) when Jeremy Klein focuses his freestyle board. Mullen leaps on a street deck and says, “It feels so weird, it’s so big,” but then starts flipping it all over the place like a chopstick.
Here is a short video of me ollieing on a bank at the percorso verde in Perugia. This is the site of the ‘future skatepark’ which has apparently been approved by the local politicos although they are having trouble allocating funds to actually build it. For now it’s a roller rink, and it’s the best thing we’ve got.
Ever since I got my current setup I’ve been trying to remember the ones I rode back in the day. My very first setup was a Vision “Gator” kaleidoscope model. This was 1987. I have no idea what trucks I had, but I probably had Slimeball wheels and Ugly Stix on that board. My next setup was a black SMA Natas Kaupas with the panther graphic. I was probably riding Independent trucks (we all were), and big, soft wheels of some sort.
This was the era just before the noses began to get longer and wheels began to get smaller and harder. The Natas model was ostensibly a “street” board, but by today’s standards it’s difficult to see how that could be. But we still weren’t doing flip tricks or noseslides.
Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the other decks I rode. I must’ve gone through a bunch of them between 1988 and 1993. Here are a few models I may have owned.
–H-Street Matt Hensley: You can see the shape is already morphing and the nose is getting more foot-friendly. Hensley was my favorite skater around the time of Hokus Pokus (1989).
–New Deal Ed Templeton: Something about this graphic looks very familiar. I loved New Deal in 1990-91.
–Blind Jason Lee Foghorn Leghorn: Or was it the Cat in the Hat model? Who can recall?? Jason was a big influence around the time of Video Days (1991).
–Pure speculation at this point, but I may have had this H-Street Mike Carroll (1991) with the Calvin & Hobbes graphic.
Of course I understand that memory is fallible and I don’t claim to have actually owned any but the first two on this list. It’s all guesswork at this point. It’s frustrating, actually. I wish I had a better memory. I wish I had kept a better archive of my past. All that I have are a few photos and a few minutes of poor quality video a friend has salvaged from his old camcorder from 1991. Thankfully, today things are easier with the internet and smartphones. I can even document my progress by myself so when I’m sixty-four and senility sets in I won’t have to rely on my faulty memory to reminisce about skateboarding in my forties.
This is my first setup, which is about to be retired as soon as the weather improves. It is an Enuff complete, 7.75 with 53mm wheels, Bones Reds bearings and Grizzly griptape.
But why worry about such things as what kind of skateboard you ride? Let’s just say that when you skate you personalize things, from parking blocks to clothes to the board you ride. It all becomes a part of who you are. This has never been so apparent to me as when I discovered I was unable to recall the boards I rode so obsessively in my youth. It’s like a black hole in my memory. For what it’s worth – probably only to me in the end – let me record the present for the sake of the future.
It’s been a bit over two months since I got my skateboard. It’s been so long I can’t even remember the last board I skated on over 20 years ago. Below is a breakdown of how it’s gone so far: tricks I’ve (re)learned, slams I’ve taken, bucket list for the next few months.
I live in a place where most of what’s available is a smooth piece of pavement to roll around on and the occasional curb to grind (and those are rare enough); consequently, most of my skating is what used to be termed “freestyle”. But that’s alright, because when you haven’t skated in 23 years and your body is getting old the last thing you need is a set of stairs and a handrail to kill yourself on. In the last two months I’ve gotten back much of my repertoire of yore, plus a few new tricks: ollies, 180 ollies fs/bs, fs/bs pop shuvs, fs/bs halfcabs, helipops, fakie bigspins, nollie 180s, no-comply 180s and no-comply shuvs (new!), and most recently I’ve landed a few 360 bs ollies (new!). I’ve also landed a few sketchy kickflips (see above), but not on pavement so they don’t count.
Believe it or not, I’ve only skated curbs a handful of times. The weather has turned horrible and I’m getting out less and less. I’ve done some noseslides and some railslides, but that’s about it. I’m trying to get a friend to help me build a portable grindrail so when the weather gets better I can take it to the local park and get back 50/50s and learn some new tricks like crook grinds.
The first and only time I’ve skated any sort of ramp or transition has been at a local indoor BMX park. It was terrible. All the ramps were covered in dusty Masonite. I slipped trying a manual over the box and hurt my ribs. Definitely not going back there!
I have a few friends who’ve also started skating again recently. We exchange tips and updates over Facebook. They live in places where there are public and private skateparks nearby (in the US), whereas I have nothing of the sort (well, there is this all marble skatepark in Tuscany). The funny thing is, I grew up in a time when skateparks were a rarity where I lived, and we were largely considered outlaws on four wheels. “Skateboarding is not a crime” is a slogan from that era. Today in the US is a golden age for skateparks, and I happen to live in a place resembling the late 80s skate scene of my beginner days. Only now the only skaters I come into contact with are between 6 and 12 years old. They look at me with amazement when I pop a shuvit, and I offer them support on how to tic-tac and jump off a moving board.
It looks like February will be a month of staying indoors and watching skate videos on YouTube, dreaming of the nice weather to come. I have a few tricks I’d like to get soon, though. Other than the obstinate kickflip, I’d like to learn 360 shuvs and bigspins. Another trick I can map out mentally is the late shuv. Once I get kickflips down, tre flips will be next. I just hope this constant pain in my upper legs goes away!
Anyone reading this blog can tell that I’ve gotten pretty much sucked into the world of skateboarding once again. When I was a teenager skating the streets and mini ramps of suburban Maryland, there was no such thing as social media. The internet was just being invented. You were lucky to have a friend with a handheld video camera. There were no mobile phones, much less ones with decent cameras. So, apart from a few rough-and-tumble videos which haven’t survived well over the past two decades, and a photograph or two lost in a box of old photos, nothing at all exists to document what was at one time an all-consuming passion of mine.
Which is kind of a shame. One of the things a skater coming back to skating after a long time does is watch all the old skate videos (many of them are now available, at least until they are pulled, on YouTube). Because that’s what we did back then on a rainy day, watch videos and study tricks, making mental notes for the next day. I had a collection of them on VHS cassette: beginning with Powell-Peralta’s Search for Animal Chin and Santa Cruz’s Wheels of Fire and Streets on Fire, Streetstyle in Tempe (a contest video from 1986 which illustrates the light-speed progress street skating made in the next few years; just compare it with Blind’s Video Days a mere five years later), Powell’s Ban This!and Public Domain, H-Street’s Shackle Me Not(that Matt Hensley sequence was my favorite) and Hokus Pokus , all culminating with Plan B’s Questionablein 1992. This last sounded the death knell for many of us at the time, I believe. Watching it again, it seems clear that we recognized that what those guys – Mike Carroll, Pat Duffy, Danny Way, Rodney Mullen, etc… – were doing had gone so far beyond what we could realistically hope to emulate, had become such a terrifying mix of technical prowess and sheer courage, that there was almost no point in trying to keep up with them. Skating had moved beyond us, had left us out in the East Coast cold. Unless you were willing to risk your very life for the lens, you were out. Skateboarding had become – perhaps always had been – a kind of poker. The ante was high, too high, and I folded.
But as any skater will tell you, it’s all about having fun. That’s the main thing, sure, but parallel to having fun is pushing yourself. It’s a kind of evolution, the way nature pushes itself into endless forms and niches. It can’t sit still and just do the same thing forever. Similarly, a skateboarder gets fed up after a while doing the same three tricks. Skateboarders push themselves, and each other, into new realms, new possibilities. That’s how skateboarding went from where it was to where it is, from Tony Alva doing the first air in a pool to Alan Gelfand doing it without hands (the first “ollie”), to Rodney Mullen doing it on flat ground, and then Natas doing it over a trash can. Then it branched out in a million different directions like the tree of evolution, adding infinite variations, to the point where today the ollie is the ur-trick of street skating, a discipline which has essentially cannibalized what was once called “freestyle” and brought its technical virtuosity to places like monster ramps and 30-stair handrails. The world of skateboarding is not for the weak-willed. It is a place where you could crack your skull open for the sake of landing a trick which has never been done.
These thoughts are on my mind as I nurse my most recent injury, a pulled muscle around my rib cage. At 40, you don’t need to attempt to tre flip a double set to get hurt. All you need is one wrong movement, to twist your torso just a touch in the wrong direction, and you are off skating for a few weeks. There is no room any longer to contemplate keeping up with the latest tricks. That is no longer what it’s about (and, as much as it was “all about having fun,” it was also about not falling behind the changing times). Now it really better be about having fun, getting your mind off work and money and car repairs and your in-laws, taking a much-needed break from adulthood. But the tricks, the impulse to push and move beyond where you are, never really goes away. I remember thinking, just a few short weeks ago, “I’ll be happy just to roll around without falling off.” That lasted for about five minutes. By the end of my first session I was already attempting pop shuvits. There’s no getting around it, skating is about moving forward, always and inexorably, from wherever you happen to be at the moment. Like life.
Today was the first (partly) sunny day we’ve had around here since I got my new skateboard, plus it was a holiday so I didn’t have to balance a short session with my work schedule. I was out early, around 10 o’clock, at the local park where there is a large flat cement area landmined with countless pebbles. This time I was prepared: I took a broom and got as much of the detritus out of the way as I could. Then I began to ride around and practice my newly (re)acquired tricks: 180 ollies, helipops, pop shuvits, half-cabs… (for those readers with a scarce knowledge of skateboarding tricks and terminology, these are the most basic street moves). I was never good at flip tricks, even when they were new and I spent all day every day trying to land them. This makes me irredeemably old-school, I realize. But I have nothing to prove to anyone this time around.
At a certain point I got bored and rode off down the street – long broom in hand – looking for new terrain. My neighborhood is completely residential, and the residents are not accustomed to the rumbling of skateboard wheels down asphalt, the clicks and pops of skateboards flying up and off curbs, or the look of a solitary man in a hoodie and wool hat making such a ruckus. I found a parking lot strewn with autumn leaves, set to work sweeping them away, and continued my little session. I managed to ollie both up and off the curb, which was a small triumph. I found a street sign on the ground, still wet from the recent rains, and did what comes naturally to a skater: I propped it up on the curb and skated it (see photo). This is exemplary of the art of skateboarding. It really is all about doing the best with what you have. If you have little or nothing, you invent something. When we were young skaters in the Maryland suburbs, that meant building our own ramps (upcoming post on our DIY mini ramps here). It still amazes me what we managed to do at fifteen years of age, essentially left to our own devices and with almost no money. I guess we were just desperate for some fun.
All in all, it was a fine morning. I banged my knee dorking around, which is usually how you bang your knee. On the way home I ollied a manhole. A man helping his son change a bike tire gave me a quizzical look. I ollied as I rolled by (broom still in hand) as I imagined his son, eyes wide, asking him for a skateboard. He would then have to explain why that was the one sport he wouldn’t allow his son to partake in, it was for degenerates and losers and that skateboarders worshipped Satan and took drugs, etc…
Which would probably just make it sound that much more fun.
Or whatever you call them. I’ve been hanging on to this small packet of ‘mystery’ objects since 1994, when I received it as a parting gift on the last day of classes at college. It was a painting class, and we were supposed to have a critique of our end-of-the-year projects. The teacher, being an artist, decided not to show up, leaving instructions that we were to critique each others’ work. He also left a box with a bunch of little brown paper packets, instructing each student to take one at random. Inside we were to find what was there and draw whatever conclusions we could from it. Say what you will, it was a memorable gesture.
Inside mine there were the following things:
a shark tooth
a New York City subway token (remember those?)
a dried leaf
In the years that immediately followed, I moved to New York City, dealt with a plethora of dangerous people and – yes – grew up. If I were of the mystical persuasion I’d probably think it was a real talisman. The truth is, I imagine any three objects could be imbued with narrative importance and adapted to any life, especially in the hands of a college art student with a yen for travel.
I’ve managed to keep this gift with me for twenty years, through innumerable addresses in various cities on two continents and assorted upheavals. I’ve never really consciously made a point of conserving it, but somehow there it is in my desk drawer, a quiet reminder of the streets I’ve walked.