FLIP: A Column About Skateboarding
Joel Rice is still coping with the sobering reality that he never became a professional skateboarder. He now writes this column about skateboarding and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. In addition, his work has appeared in the Believer, ESPN The Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Skateboard Mag.
The Last Toy Machine Demo of the Summer.
BY JOEL RICE
On an oppressively hot, late-August afternoon, professional skateboarder Leo Romero—along with other members of the Toy Machine and Foundation skateboard teams—appeared at a downtown skatepark for their final demo of the summer.
Most skateboard “demos” follow a similar template, or protocol. Usually the event begins with a skateboard demonstration in which the visiting grandees display their physical prowess, followed by a signing in which the skaters sit behind a table and autograph t-shirts, posters, hard-goods, body parts and the occasional baby. The event often culminates in a “product toss” during which the visiting athletes hurl—as a bride her bouquet—complimentary clothing, stickers and/or skateboard equipment into a rapacious throng. In tone, demos are not dissimilar to a politician’s campaign stop. Like a rally its purpose is to stoke positive associations, make common cause, burnish a brand.
Toy Machine’s final demo of the summer—held at a downtown skate-shop/indoor skate-park in a medium-sized Southern urban center—hewed closely to the long established rhythms and rituals of this received form.
A PORTRAIT OF THE CROWD JUST BEFORE THE TOY MACHINE DEMO STARTED
Prior to the commencement of the demo a reporter—standing on an observation deck which offered wide views of the recently refurbished mini ramp and street course—bore witness to several parent/child interactions. One visibly frustrated father— paunching in a grey t-shirt, plaid shorts and shoulder length (what appeared to be) dyed blonde hair—shrilly ordered his young son to dismount from the mini-ramp. “Pearson, damn it!” he yelled. He rushed down the stairs as his son insolently “got air” on the ramp. In more sanguine moods, several mothers sat in chairs against the wall. There they talked amongst themselves or typed at laptops, absently checked BlackBerrys and other smart phones, as if the activity their children were engaged in down below were nothing more exceptional, nor less wholesome, than chess club or fencing. (Skateboarding is in the midst of a soccer-mom renaissance.) A reporter asked one father—he with shoulder-length grey hair and glasses with an aviator bar—if he had ever partaken of skateboarding’s pleasures. “Not a lick. Not a lick,” he lilted. “We were into dirt bikes and waterskiing. We didn’t have a lot of concrete out in the country.”
Among the adolescents, clothing associated with Deathwish, a skateboard company, was commonplace. One African-American youth wore a blue baseball cap which simply read DEATHWISH.
A tawny-toned adolescent, with short dreadlocks and a shirt depicting the rapper Old Dirty Bastard in the style of the iconic Shepard Fairey posters of President Barack Obama, was standing by the barricade.
Was Mr. Romero his favorite skater? “Nah. Antwuan Dixon,” he replied. Mr. Dixon, who rides for Deathwish, is nearly as well known for his legal struggles, florid substance abuse problems and extensive facial tattoos, as for his skating. Given his self-destructive tendencies one might wonder if Mr. Dixon himself has a deathwish. But Dixon is also, as our interviewee correctly stated, an exceptional talent. “His style is, like, sick,” he added. “Everything is so cool about it.”
What, asked a reporter, about the tattoos? “It’s cool, but I wouldn’t do it. He got it, I think, because he got rich as a skateboarder, so he just thinks, ‘Ok, I can do it now.’ Plus it kind of goes with the whole skater lifestyle.”
An overweight adolescent—black hair streaked with purple, an isolated air— clutched a Deathwish skateboard as though it possessed talismanic significance. Who was his favorite skateboarder?
“Rob Dyrdek,” he said. “And then on Deathwish, there is a British guy. I can’t remember his name.”
Soon Leo Romero, the man of the hour, strode towards the mini-ramp for a warm up. By far Toy Machine’s most prominent rider, Mr. Romero is a sinewy, shaggy-haired 25-year-old and the most recent winner of Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Year award, still one of the sport’s highest honors, its most prestigious post. His celebrity within skateboarding was not such that the crowd immediately surged towards him. He was not mobbed. But the whispers and stolen glances made clear many registered his presence, knew that they were in the presence of greatness.
Indeed, Romero has what skateboarding has sorely lacked of late—a touch of drama, actual attitude.
A diminutive and slightly built Mexican-American, he was wearing a plain white T-shirt, arm tattoos, a pencil mustache (sometimes referred to as a “scumstash”), fitted but not “skinny” matte-blue jeans with large cuffs and a green mesh-back Toy Machine hat emblazoned with buttons and a giant white eye. The high, rough-hewn ridge of Romero’s nose lends his face a faintly savage aspect, as if obsidian had been interred between his eyes. There was a classic-Americana-folk-hero-Dean Moriarty-in-On-the-Road-quality both to his attire and quietly commanding persona.
(It brings to mind a conversation this reporter once had at a cocktail party in Cairo, Egypt of all places. An erudite Egyptian attorney, with a donnish accent he had acquired at Oxford, said, “The best thing about America is the misfits.” Though that conversation also occurred in stifling summer heat, the speaker in that instance wore a grey tweed suit, a blue contrast collar shirt.)
Expertly and without incident, Romero dropped into the mini ramp, threaded through clutches of young children. With pendulous-power he executed a textbook perfect blunt to fakie that made the most satisfying snapping sound.
THE DEMO DURING WHICH WE ARE REMINDED WHY KICKFLIPS WERE ONCE CALLED “MAGIC FLIPS”
A proprietor of the skate shop had assumed the MC duties and, into a booming microphone, issued a warm and hearty welcome to the visiting dignitaries. The 200 or so spectators had assumed positions along the grey metal barricades that lined the street course, the observation deck, and the top portion of the mini-ramp. Loud pop-music began playing on the sound-system.
A one-armed individual with a camera stood in the middle of the course photographing the proceedings. The professional skateboarder Dan Murphy’s small dog, Indy, also ran throughout the course dodging the skaters in a practiced fashion, sometimes stopping to watch the action unfold.
In years past there was a great gulf between how skateboarders performed on video, and how they performed in person. Not so with today’s top-tier. Now an attendee at a demo can reasonably expect to see exactly the same caliber of tricks performed in person as they have seen performed on film.
But even by these elevated standards, Mr. Romero’s skating is something to behold. Though the other skaters acquitted themselves admirably, he was clearly the star. You see why he is Skater of the Year.
As a giant, black and white poster of Johnny Cash glowered upon the scene, Romero began with a fakie ollie fakie 5-0 on the “hubba” ledge. With a martial artist’s assurance he then threw in a massive backside 180 kickflip for good measure. The Velvet Underground song “Rock & Roll” reverberated… It was alright…
Whereas countless professional skateboarders have ridden handrails by approaching them from the top and riding down, Romero is hailed for having been one of the first to grind and slide up rails from the bottom up. Many in the crowd were surely hoping to see Romero’s paradigm shifting, trademark tricks, to see him grind or slide up something.
They were not to be disappointed.
After personally waxing “the hubba” with his own wedge of wax, Romero made a small handful of attempts to crooked grind up the ledge, quickly meeting with success. [A hubba is a wide ledge which slopes downward like a handrail. “Hubbas” were originally christened by professional skateboarder James Kelch in reference to a specific ledge near San Francisco’s Embarcadero plaza, where persons would congregate to smoke crack cocaine, at the time colloquially known as “hubbas”.] Romero then, after only a few tries, noseblunted up the hubba. The crowd clapped and cried out. Wasting no time he rolled back to the same ledge and landed a fakie ollie, fakie 5-0 backside 180 out. Then, as a finale, Romero proceeded to kickflip up two giant steps. They were huge steps and he kickflipped up them and not off a bump or anything, just a flat ground kickflip that went up and across something very high and very long. Just jumping as high as he did would have been something of a feat, let alone getting that useless wooden toy to follow after you, flipping in the air. It’s almost not skateboarding anymore. It’s practically parkour.
“There it is!” the M.C. exalted and the crowd cheered and The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley” reached its crescendo.
It’s only teenage wasteland…Oh, yeah…
END ON A POIGNANT NOTE
Was the demo a success? Mike Sinclair, Toy Machine’s team manager, thought so. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. There was air conditioning. A bunch of kids showed up. Leo is on it. He loves skating so he’s amped up every time. He gets the kids hyped, you know? I’d say the kid’s here are generally more stoked because they don’t get to see the pros every day. In San Diego you can see them at the supermarket.”
“Leo skated rad,” said the one-armed photographer.
A blond 14-year-old, who sported a Confederate flag sticker on her white helmet, reached this verdict. “I thought he was pretty beast.”
In preparation for the product toss Toy Machine rider Matt Bennett, who would not look out of place were he to be photoshopped into a vintage Woodstock crowd scene, brought out a beautiful neon orange deck emblazoned with a giant cyclopean eye. Soon the crowd scrambled after it the way fans at a baseball game go after homerun balls.
As the signing wound down and the crowd began to thin, Mr. Romero stood behind the table on top of an obstacle known as a “pyramid.”
What, a reporter wondered, was his impression of the demo? “It was chill. It’s great having fun, skating with your friends. Luckily Toy Machine is a really awesome, laid back team when it comes to responsibilities and stuff,” said Mr. Romero. “Mostly everybody on the team knows what they have to do and they do it.”
Was Mr. Romero sad to see the season end? Was this—the last Toy Machine demo of the summer—a poignant occasion? Somehow bittersweet? He took a moment to reflect. “I’m flying home tomorrow. It was pretty much a mellow trip. We went to this strip club today called Gabrielle’s. It’s here in town,” he said. “We were the only people actually in the strip club. That’s the first time that has ever happened… But, it’s been a great summer.”
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