New Poem up at Rattle

facebookprA few days ago Rattle published a poem of mine in  its Poets Respond series. Like most poems inspired by the news cycle, it was written at lightning speed and sent off almost immediately and with minimal revision. I’d like to write a post on the phenomenon of “news poetry” when I have more time, but right now I’m just bookmarking this one for posterity. Rattle is a fantastic journal and it’s an honor to be in such good company.

_____

WORTH IT

You, too, are currency. You can be saved,
devalued, spent, invested, thrown away
or burned. In this town roads are paved
with skeletons of folks like you and me.
Your net worth isn’t what you thought it was—
pursuing happiness, you work for free.
You’re better than this, you tell yourself as
you Google who you are. And who are you?
Data, as it turns out.
                                      Go now, erase
your name from the wine-dark sea of Facebook blue
before you’re bought and sold! But it’s too late.
The work is done. What more is there to do
but punch the clock and rue what’s left of fate?
In bed, you count your sheep and calculate.
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A Memory of the Gotham Book Mart

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/.a/6a00e54fe4158b883301bb087ebc4c970d-piBookstores are something I know from, as my grandmother might’ve said it. I worked in some of the most famous bookstores in the world, and accumulated a large backlog of anecdotes and memories which have served me well since I moved on to other things. They are a constant source of material for my poetry, for one thing. But then again, so is every experience in a poet’s life. Take a recent example: the other day I was writing a poem on the kitchen table – which is my writing desk for all intents and purposes – and one of the lines became something about my grandfather’s prosthetic leg. My grandfather – who had been born in Vilnius (Vilna, in Yiddish) – died when I was eight, and I had only ever seen him infrequently. That is to say, I have no conscious memory of his fake leg. My sister, however, confirmed that he had indeed lost his leg to gangrene and used an artificial limb to walk. There is no end to the surprises we find out about ourselves, and sometimes in the most surprising ways.

The following memory was written in 2007, after the Gotham Book Mart had finally closed its doors.  I hope some of the flavor of the place comes across. There will never be another bookstore like it anywhere.

_____

Everyone’s mother has some tidbit of wisdom that stays with them throughout their adult life. Here’s mine: when a person dies, an entire library dies with them. Therefore, it stands to reason that when a bookstore dies, an entire fleet of readers dies with it.

The Gotham Book Mart was, by some accounts, an ordinary bookshop in the venerable old style. Founded by Frances Steloff in 1920, it was there on 47th St. in midtown Manhattan before the diamond and watch merchants moved in. In its final days, it was the only remaining oasis on the block, a place where one could duck in amid dusty volumes of forgotten poetry and tumbleweeds of orange cat fur in order to escape the rabble. It was also a haunted house of literary legends. It was there that Steloff may or may not have scolded Marilyn Monroe for climbing on a ladder in high heels. It was there that Ezra Pound reportedly refused to enter because Steloff was Jewish. It was there that Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold under the counter when you could still get into trouble for such things. Rumor has it they used to assemble the loose pages of Joyce’s masterpiece copy by copy in the store, making it a kind of literary speakeasy. It was there that they filmed the bookstore scene in Rosemary’s Baby. It was there that Robert Crumb reportedly rode a woman down the stairs like a mule during his own book signing party…

As of 2005 the store’s bookmarks boasted “85 Years of the Best in Literature”, followed by a cascade of illustrious clients: Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, John Updike. I can personally attest that the store’s Rolodex contained the very private addresses of Greta Garbo and Lou Reed, both of whom lived on the same block on the Upper East Side in the 1970s. All this was part of the fun. The Gotham swept up all kinds in its wake: writers, artists, culture mavens, gossip columnists, executives, bookaholics, even the occasional schnorrer with his handfuls of change and a rehearsed joke: “A rabbi walks into a bar…”

After decades in the limelight, times changed. Days could often pass in the presence of no one but a few old-timers and a gaggle or two of tourists straying from Times Square. Steloff died in 1989, at the age of 101. Up to its ears in debt in one of the most expensive neighborhoods on earth, the store’s second owner, Andreas Brown, was constantly under pressure to sell. Finally, having no choice, he did. In 2004 the bookstore moved from W. 47th St. to E. 46th St (just across 5th Ave., for those unfamiliar with Manhattan’s nexus of streets and avenues.) Away from the whirlwind of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Diamond District and – significantly – a very convenient subway stop, the store battled bravely on for another two years. It closed, almost without a word, in late 2006.

This is not the place to do justice to the Gotham Book Mart’s legacy. One day there will be a full-length book to do just that. Word has it that they are still “negotiating a deal” with some business bigwigs, which means – in newyorkspeak – that there is almost no chance of the store’s ever reopening its doors again for business. The loss of the Gotham Book Mart is one of those things one would like to blame on the internet or chain-style bookstores. We could even try to blame the fact that “no one reads anymore”, but then they never really did. The store was a kind of unofficial New York City monument, the kind of place one was proud to shop – or browse – if only to admire the signed photos of Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin, the creaky wooden floor and the thirty-pound feline named Pynchon lazing in the window. It was, as it still says on the bookmark (quote courtesy of Woody Allen): “…everyone’s fantasy of what the ideal bookshop is.”

Emmes*, as my grandmother might’ve said.

*Emmes is Yiddish for emet – the Hebrew word for “truth”. It means something like “damn straight”.

2018 Update

Strand Logo
When I was there it was still only “8 Miles of Books”.

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.

_____

Snow

I have a complicated relationship with snow.

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.

The (not so great) helmet debate

Forgive the pun, but this is a no-brainer. It all started with a comment from my ex-stepfather, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1997.

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:

 (like this one)

Blah blah blah.  Nice helmet pussy.
Probably more attention was being paid to his helmet than to his skating, which is a shame because Josh can backside triple flip over a hip. Sure, he was a minority of essentially one, but what was the big deal? I mean it was obvious that he probably cared enough about himself to err on the side of caution. Which, in a subculture that has always had a strong component of delinquency (Baker, et al.), was kind of like Jonathan Richman singing “I’m Straight” at the height of Haight-Ashbury. It’s a bold move to go nerd. Anyway, the more I read of these comments the more my estimation of Josh and his refusal to be bullied grew. He even made a video responding to his trolls in which he lays out the four most common arguments against helmets: 1) they’re uncomfortable. 2) I don’t care. 3) they’re not cool. 4) you’ll never get sponsored. To which Josh responds:

I’d rather look a little bit goofy wearing a helmet than be a vegetable for the rest of my life.
It’s hard to argue with a line like that. So when Mike Vallely, the biggest street skater who came up when I was a young skater around 1988, dropped his recent part sporting a powder blue helmet, I took notice. Say what you will about the retro skating (looks fun to me), the helmet was a bold move. In his defense – because apparently a helmet must be defended by its wearer – he said something like “I have a family, I have responsibilities to them.” And bang, that was when it hit me. I have a young daughter. Do I really want her to grow up with a brain-damaged parent because of something so stupid as “helmets aren’t cool?” I have a wife and a sister and, hell, I have a brain, without which – or the proper functioning of which – I’m not, well, me. Am I ready to give all that up for a backside ollie?

Of course not. And since I really enjoy skateboarding and have no plans to stop any time soon, I might as well get with the program. I just turned 41, I have a family and run a small business. I’m interested in lots of things, not the least of which is science (difficult to appreciate with a damaged brain). There are so many reasons I can think of to protect my cranium and literally only one against it: it’s not cool, which isn’t even a reason in my book.

Long story short, I got a helmet. And, as if this were all part of some cosmic jest, the first day I wore it I fell backwards and hit my head on the pavement. I wasn’t even trying some gnarly trick, either. I just hit a pebble and went flying. But I was glad I had a helmet at that moment. And it didn’t even feel uncomfortable. It felt, well, kind of cool. Like being smart.

Progress report

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”. 

My new setup

IMG_0307As 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.

My setups

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.

On skateboarding at 40

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!

In which the author reminisces about skate videos and goes off on a tangent

Ollie by Alan Gelfand, skateboarding’s ur-trick.

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 Questionable in 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.

Oh, and I finally began landing the pop shuvits.

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Frontside pop shuvit. Landed it! #skateboarding

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