The language of skateboarding is all about compression.
Take the nollie frontside flip. An image of a young man performing this trick off a loading dock, both arms raised and wrists pointed down like the beaks of swans, used to hang taped above my bed. Its constituent parts are: the ollie, which is a jump. A nollie is a nose-ollie, a jump performed with the front foot. The flip is a kickflip, where the skateboarder slides his foot off the skateboard to make it rotate. Frontside refers to the direction of the counter-clockwise 180 degree turn.
Memory, too, has a way of compressing experiences, made up of many discrete parts, into a smaller image, feeling, smell. I was a skateboarder for about a decade, from the ages of nine to 19. I remember lonely childhood afternoons at the basketball court near my house, and sweaty teenage nights on the mini ramp in a friend’s basement. Then, about the time my interest in men was waxing, my weekends skateboarding waned.
I spent the next decade away from the skateboard. It had come to seem foreign to my identity. Gay men might lust after skateboarders; they don’t often participate in the sport themselves.
But last summer, I found my eyes lingering on the handrails, ramps and ledges of the skatepark near my home. I showed up at a local skate shop far too early in the morning. Entering the shop and preparing my speechI used to skate, I was prepared to admitI found I didn’t need to say a thing. The tall employee, immediately sizing me, said, “Let me guess. You used to skate, and now that the weather’s nice, you want to start again, and you don’t know what kind of skateboard to buy.” I nodded dumbly.
My new skateboard, chosen for its neutral size, was decorated with motives that looked like shit. I took the train to my city’s largest skatepark, getting off at the wrong side of the park and walking for nearly an hour through the flat grass under the exposed sun.
Those first few hours felt like encountering an old lover again after years of separation. They were physically awkward, fraught with danger, exhilarating for the small kernels of familiar memory that revealed themselves in time. I was the only person there, and so I made conversation with imaginary skateboarders under my breath, trying to unpack the compressed terminology of my teenage years, which remained just beyond my synapses.
A few days after my first reencounter with the sport, I went out again, and met a boy from New Hampshire. “Little nollie frontside shove-its after you land your trick are really in right now,” he told me, and I nodded along politely, barely comprehending. As the summer lengthened, sentences like this began making sense to me again. The tightly coiled phrases of skateboarding language were reconstructed in my mind, like a trauma victim who, through occupational therapy, rebuilds the myriad connections in his brain. Long-dormant muscles in my body began first to hurt, then to regain their strength. And I remembered the beautiful low stakes of skateboarding, where, like Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte,” the defining moments are often incidental.
For the first time in a decade, I also remembered what sheer physical mastery could feel like. A good ollie was in the toes and effortless. A kickflip down stairs, the distillation of courage to an angle of posture. (If I leaned back even a little, I knew I wouldn’t land it, even before I jumped.) A smith grind, a diagonal positioning of the skateboard’s axle along a rail, was all in the readiness to lean back. A normal manual, like a wheelie on a bike, was decided the moment I landed on the curb; a nose manual, not until I was off it.
As the motions and words returned, so did my capacity for imagining skateboarding. I’d sit on the bus like I used to as a teenager, looking at the ledges, stairs, curbs, railings, inclines, grass gaps, hills, and loading docks of my city, and think about the way some ideal skateboarder could make use of them. It was a relief to have something new to think about in moments of boredom or anxiety.
There was a time when I felt that the only place for a gay man to practice a sport was the gym. But the gym is unappealing to me because it lacks danger and adventure. Riding my skateboard on a sidewalk, my left foot stabilizing my body over the grip tape, or sandpaper, the right pushing me forward like an oar, I feel the city opening up.
Virgil, in “The Aenid,” writes of youthful athletes competing “Like a storm cloud driven before a storm wind, all / Intent upon the goal.” That is the unique, invigorating atmosphere of the skatepark on a crowded weekend afternoon: children swooping down inclines to impress their parents; stick-thin teenagers, “soaked and slippery,” performing tricks of unimaginable complexity; men past their prime, like me, some trim and stylish, others heavy-set and jowled, staggering and slipping, and following down, faces flushed red with the endorphin rush of their occasional success. I’d often stop to admire the beautiful male bodies in motion, but, perhaps because skateboarders are always watching and appreciating one another, it hardly occurred to me that this should make me feel out of place.
Whether it’s because of the fear and discrimination we face in puberty, or a chance result of the hormonal imbalances in pregnancy that allegedly create us, gay men are prone to crippling anxiety. I’m no different. Each person deals with this in different waysand this winter, as I’ve waited for the temperature to rise and the rain to stop, I’ve been thinking about the ways skateboarding has helped me. Sure, it’s a sport, and exercise makes you feel good. I also think it goes deeper.
Part of being gay is feeling vulnerable and fragile, like others might see through you at any time. Skateboarding, on the other hand, requires an arrogant assumption of invulnerability. A great skateboarder is like the Prince in Elfriede Jelinek’s satirical retelling of the fairytale “Sleeping Beauty,” from her Death and the Maiden: Five Princess Dramas: “Maybe I already am the Eternal One, since I haven’t died yet.”
Skateboarding, that sport of straight men, allowed me into that protective confident aura that these men seem to carry with them from their birth.
What is any sport but a make-believe version of war that sublimates courage in a game? Gay men I know search for adventure and belonging in all kinds of ways: rugby, compulsive travel, long days and nights in clubs.
After a summer on my skateboard, I realized how badly I was missing this. Virgil understood that the need to show bravery, no matter how pointless, is embedded somewhere in the our psyches. (And the heroism in skateboarding is pointless, with nothing to ever win except the sound of others smashing their skateboards on the ground in appreciation.)
One day in the autumn, I leaned forward too early on a ledge and my uneven weight heaved me down several feet. There was blood in implausible places. I staggered over to a bench and sat down. The only other skateboarder there came other, rolled a cigarette, and made small talk to distract me. In the Aenid, two male lovers compete against each other in the Trojan races. When Nisus falls flat, he trips up another competitor, allowing his lover Euryalus to take first place.
That day, like the injured Nisus, I still felt pleasure. Gay or not, I had finally rediscovered the human need to play at games of camaraderie and danger.
image via Getty