When I was 12, I stumbled across the last 30 minutes or so of a movie on TV. I didn’t know what it was, or even really what it was about, I just knew that Christian Slater was skateboarding through windows, leaping out of cars to bypass a traffic jam and hanging on to the back of a sports car speeding down the highway to save a girl while his buddies followed in a Pizza Hut pickup driven by Tony Hawk.
That movie turned out to be Gleaming the Cube, a 1989 film about Brian (Slater), a skateboarder who, while trying to find a reason for his brother Vinh’s death, learns Vinh (Art Chudabala) had uncovered a weapons smuggling ring being run out of a Vietnam aid organization.
And I loved every bit of it. There was a lot of good drama between Brian and his dad that’s my jam now and might go along way to explaining my love for family dynamics in fiction, but 12-year-old me was mostly all about the skateboarding. The X Games premiered a year later, and that’s when I realized I’d fallen hard for the sport.
I still love it, actually. I love to watch it. I love to watch things about it. I love to listen to it — seriously, I love the sound of wheels on pavement, boards grinding on benches and rails, and even (especially?) the pop-silence-slam of an ollie down the stairs.
Skateboards are my rain on a tin roof, and it all started with that silly movie.
So, you might think maybe I could do it a little.
I bought my first skateboard when I was 12. It came from a garage sale, was super wide, flat-nosed and just didn’t fit me for more reasons than the giant Bart Simpson decal smack in the middle, between a huge gap in the grip tape. My second board I bought from Wal-Mart with $40 I’d saved from my weekly paper route. It had plastic base plates (metal axles/hangars, though) and I’m pretty sure the grip was sprayed on, but it was all mine, not somebody else’s reject, and I was ready to go.
But here’s the thing: Skateboarding got really weird in the early 90s. It was starting to come back around about this time (See: X Games), but it wasn’t a super popular thing in my part of Kansas, and there REALLY weren’t any other 12-year-old chubby girls doing it.
Every now and again, I could convince a few neighborhood friends to go to the school playground, and we’d take turns riding down a gently sloping path — sometimes on our bellies, if I brought the Bart board — but it was rare, and we could never quite figure out how to make the turn onto the sidewalk.
These days, if you don’t know how to do something, you can google it and probably pull up a half dozen youtube tutorials and an online community of supportive people in a matter of seconds. That’s definitely true for all things skateboard now, but as a kid? I had a library book full of pictures that somehow neglected to include little things like turning your front foot when you’re done pushing, and there was nobody there to say “that picture’s wrong; here’s how you put your feet,” or “there’s a better way to do that,” or “you can loosen the wheels on your shitty Wal-Mart board and they might roll for more than 2.3 seconds, oh, and by the way, you might want to clean your bearings from time to time (and here’s what a bearing is…).”
It was extraordinarily lonely, and with the balance of a baby deer and the strength of a baby human, I couldn’t even really get the hang of pushing on flat ground for any length of time. I felt dumb, I’m sure I looked dumb, and I absolutely was not brave enough to ditch all my insecurities and just do it until I didn’t look or feel like an idiot.
So I stopped skating, but I never stopped loving it.
In 2007, roughly 12 years after I’d stopped trying to skateboard, I spent some time in Philadelphia training up for a journalism internship, and every day as we walked from the dorms of Temple University to the classroom, all I could focus on while trying to keep up with my faster-paced compadres was the variety of ledges and stairs that would be cool to skate. There was one day where we got a break from studying maps, general knowledge and AP style to go sightseeing. We went to the Constitution Center, saw the Liberty Bell, ate real Philly cheesesteaks and saw a super cool art installation. But the thing I was looking forward to most was seeing the LOVE sign in person.
I’d seen a video a few years prior about the last days of LOVE and all the skaters who came out for their last chance to jump the fountain, and more than anything, that stupid sign was what I wanted to see.
A few years ago, Rodney Mullen did a TEDtalk on innovation that I still seek out probably a couple times a year. I’m always trawling Youtube for skate videos that don’t have loud music over the top of them. I feel a little pang of joy whenever I see a kid skating home from school on my way to work, and I am downright giddy when we print photo packages from the local skate park. And, yes, I have Gleaming the Cube on VHS and a VCR to play it on whenever I want.
I also still have the Wal-Mart skateboard I bought in 1994.
Though it was mostly used as a shelf, seating and a makeshift dolly for heavy things, that board has followed me for more than 2o years from college dorm rooms to apartments near campus and my first job at a newspaper in Alabama. I returned to my home state of Kansas five years ago, and with its crumbling wheels, the skateboard almost didn’t make the trip back. It was only a disappointed hum from my sister, who I guess knew what it meant to me even more than I did, that convinced me to make room for it.
It’s been sitting in a corner of my living room since I got here, a home for all the other misfit things that have no place. I started looking at it a little differently this year. Instead of doing random searches for videos, I subscribed to some dedicated skateboarding channels. First RIDE, which was adequate, and then Braille Skateboarding, which is almost as much responsible for this post as Christian Slater. Almost.
Seeing what the Braille crew was up to became a part of my daily routine. Stupid Skate; You Make It, We Skate It; and Skate Everything were fun, and yes, I may have spent 20 minutes one day just watching these guys see how many boards they could ollie over. But what I was really impressed with was the community they’d built and how supportive they were of everyone they saw, regardless of skill. They even have a series called Skate Support dedicated to helping people troubleshoot their tricks.
It was around this time I dumped the accumulated pile of junk off my board and pulled it out of the corner. The wheels were still in bad shape, so I didn’t actually go anywhere with it. I just set it on my carpet and stood on it from time to time, sometimes lifting up the nose and confirming that yes, indeed I do still have the balance of a baby deer.
The more I did this, the more the wheels started to break down, and eventually I got tired of picking little brittle black chunks of polyurethane out of my carpet. So I did some more poking around Youtube and found plenty of examples of switching out wheels (some even by Braille), and figured I could probably do that.
But, you see, I’m a retailer’s worst nightmare. I excel at hemming and hawing and repeatedly talking myself into and out of things – sometimes making it all the way up to the cash register with my card in hand before backing out. I am a master of indecisiveness. So, when I started to think that maybe I could change out my wheels, this is what my thought process turned into:
“I could probably do that. But how much do wheels cost? And do I need new bearings, too? Of course I need new bearings; those have 20+years of dirt and cat hair caked into them. Is that really what I want to spend my money on? I mean, it’s not like this is going to break the bank. I don’t even need top-of-the-line stuff, because let’s be honest: I’m totally just going to skating around my garage where nobody can see me. But if all I’m going to be doing is maybe skating around the garage, why bother? I mean, it would be really cool to finally actually do this thing I’ve always wanted to do since I was little kid. But I’m 34 years old and live alone. What if I break my arm or my leg? Remember that chapter in IT, where Bill’s all ‘Sure, I can ride this kid’s board down this giant-ass hill! FUN! Oh, wait, no. I’m old as hell, and that’s dumb.’ OMG, IS THIS WHAT AN EARLY MIDLIFE CRISIS FEELS LIKE?”
So, that’s where I was. Going back and forth while leaning ever closer to putting the board back in the corner — maybe pulling off the trucks and just using the deck like a balance board — while continuing to live vicariously through people on the internet.
And then I saw this video, and he said everything I was thinking and had done everything I was thinking about doing:
And then I saw this video, and all the women in it became my heroes:
I’ve probably got a decade on the oldest of them, but there was something gratifying and reassuring about seeing these women who wanted – and still wanted – the same thing as kids that I wanted as a kid but found it just as inaccessible as I did. And when they introduced Tara Jepsen, a 43-year-old who started when she was 36, all my 34-year-old’s indecision melted away.
I bought myself a skate tool and while I was visiting family out of town stopped at a Zumiez, because I wanted to talk to a real person about wheels and bearings and that’s what was available. It wasn’t the best of experiences. I’d done some research and knew I wanted wheels in the 52-55mm range, but I didn’t commit enough of the details to memory to really know the virtues of different sizes in that range. So I asked the guy at the counter what the real difference was between them, and he pulled out a 52 and a 55, displayed them in front of me and said “The 55mm, as you can see, is taller.”
And then he just stopped. Like that bit of obviousness was all I needed to know. And I guess I just gave him a look or something because he finally came back with the 55s being better for going over cracks in the pavement and whatnot. So, that’s what I got (I completely forgot to ask about durometer), along with a set of Shake Junt bearings (billed as “the best of the worst,” so nice sales pitch, dude).
I don’t typically feel burdened by the weight of the patriarchy or whatever the hell, but this was definitely one of those times where I was probably treated different because of my gender. Or he was just a poor sales guy, who only makes sales because it’s the most convenient option.
But either way, I got home the next day, traded out my wheels (and really wished I’d asked the Zumiez guy to put the bearings in, because it was harder to do by hand than I expected, and I’m still not sure one is pushed all the way in) and fooled around on my teeny tiny back patio for a few minutes before work.
And when I got home that night, I realized there were still little black plastic pieces of crap littering my carpet. I hadn’t noticed, what with the disintegrating wheels and all, but apparently the bushings on my trucks were also in their end days. For about a nanosecond I toyed with the idea of trying to get new bushings and swapping them out before remembering that a) I’m not that handy and b) it wouldn’t hurt me to have full-metal trucks. Aside from the deck, it would almost be like having a new rig.
With that in mind, I measured my board and ordered my trucks and was so excited when they arrived, I didn’t even care that they weren’t the precise color I’d selected … and then was immediately deflated after learning that either standard sizing has changed in 20+ years or Wal-Mart always just did really bad things, because the holes on my deck weren’t even close to matching my new trucks.
So … I didn’t go into this experience expecting to build my first complete, but that’s what I ended up doing.
I was mostly concerned about the grip tape. Everything else is just nuts and bolts, but grip tape requires a degree of precision with laying it down, smoothing out the air bubbles and cutting away the excess, and I can’t even put the screen protector on my phone without screwing it up.
But, I took a deep breath and gave it my all:
It was a struggle and I’m a little concerned about the bit in the lower right corner, which I think also illustrates where my problem came from: While making my outline, some of the tape got really pressed into the sides and I wasn’t at all sure how to deal with that.
But overall, for the first time on what may as well be a first board for all the use I got out of the others, I’m very happy with it.
I didn’t spend a lot of time laboring over deck choices, because that way lies madness and never actually doing anything. I like the graphic a representation of where I’m at right now. I think it’d be kind of cool to get stickers as I progress and eventually cover that part up, or maybe get another skateboard if it seems like this is something I’ll actually stick with this time around. I could totally see myself as a person who collects sneakers and skateboards the same way rich people collect cars and art.
But that time is a ways off. For now, I may not have much more confidence than I did when I was a younger, but I’ve got a brand new skateboard with wheels that turn, an empty garage, a gym membership (because this would probably be easier if I lost some weight and strengthened my legs and core) and I threw a little love to Braille for the first volume of “Skateboarding Made Simple.”
I guess we’ll see what happens. If you’re still reading this long essay, thank you. I know it’s different from what I usually write, but once it got into my head, I had to get it out.
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