The Daily

First Person

Contaminated

June 6, 2014 | by

Getting back on the skateboard.

nc skate 2

Not long ago I went to lunch with a gracious, well-intentioned editor who was not, I quickly realized, interested in publishing my book, the worst possible pitch for which is: “It’s a middle-grade novel about peak oil.” Having tabled my hopes like a used napkin, somewhere between the Lebanese tea and the shaved fennel, the editor asked what I’d rather be doing with my days, “in an ideal world.” I was surrounded by sandwich-eating professionals and suffocating, psychically, at the thought of being one: that’s when I remembered kickflips.

I’d given up skateboarding when I was fifteen, after breaking my wrist—I hadn’t been on a board since. When, shortly after graduating high school, an acquaintance of mine went pro, the specter of his early success strengthened my resolve not to skate: Why confront my talentlessness when it was more easily avoided? But at lunch that day I realized I was thirty years old and viscerally hating myself for matching the workaday worst of Lower Manhattan in my light-blue button-up and tan oxfords.

So I started to skate again, taking mostly to a ten-block loop in Brooklyn that I call the Greenpoint Skate Lab, a toxic hat-tip to the ecological impact tours that roll through the Lab while I’m there most Saturdays. It’s a deeply unhappy spot, physically and psychically—haunted by the same oil spill (“three times worse than Exxon Valdez”) that, at home, a few blocks away, I only ever remember after having drunk from the bathroom faucet. As a reflective-vested guide explained to a small, inexplicable crowd on one of my first days out, a drunk driver once crashed through the barricade on Apollo Street where it dead ends next to the BP oil refinery. The car dove nose-first into the shallows of Newtown Creek. The water was so contaminated with oil that it was on fire for days.

Unsurprisingly, the Lab is also where the local BMX kids go to smoke and sell pot, and where you sometimes see cop cars idling, keys in the ignition, as their drivers relieve themselves against the encroaching ruin. It’s the kind of place you want to punish, where you become slightly more open to the realities and rituals of flagellatory living. Somehow, these environs made it easier to bully myself—after months of bruised heels and Achilles tendonitis, I kept going back.

It helped that I could measure my progress with metrics like number of scabs collected, number of inches ollied. There was an objective truth to the sport; unlike my writing, my powerslides were self-validating. At home, a printout of my manuscript lay untouched on my desk.

“What’s it like to fall in your thirties?” my friend Scott asked after seeing one of my clumsy skate pics. “Like, really fall.”

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Terrible. Exhilarating.

After a happy summer of fastidiously sweeping the dead end of loose asphalt and Snapple caps, though, I finally gave up on the Greenpoint Skate Lab. Not because I’d had any luck on the novel front—I was, at this point, nominally “revising” (i.e., skating two to three hours a day)—but because one day I arrived to find the charred chassis of what looked like a Civic in the center of the once-manicured block, covered in a sickly beige foam and radiating shattered glass and plastic.

From then on, the Lab belonged to the Fire Department and their weekly drills, which consisted mainly of setting a beater on fire and then smashing it into its component parts.

It was just as well. It hadn’t been the same since I made sustained eye contact with a man in the backseat of a parked sedan. He was, I realized belatedly, a john, mid-transaction, and I’d been practicing my pop shove-its next to him—cursing loudly and with abandon—for at least an hour before I felt him glaring. Sunbaked and full of Zebra® Cakes, I’d started to feel tough and acclimated to the empty streets—but after that, I couldn’t skate without looking over my shoulder for his runny, Ecklebergian eyes.

Though I had to leave the Lab behind, I wasn’t about to give up on skating again. At this point in my descent into action sports, having subscribed to “the magazine” (Thrasher) and purchased a handful of skate vids, I had more favorite skaters than authors. Lizard King (referred to, in my household, as BigBizLiz, his Instagram handle), Spencer “Monsanto Kills” Hamilton, Aaron “Jaws” Homoki, and a fourteen-year-old king-of-the-world who goes by “Baby Scumbag.” In graduate school, I always said I was into onomastics—the study of names and name origins—and I told myself that possibly my obsession with skateboarding was academic, that I was more interested in their myth making than their varial flips.

Meanwhile, as fall and then winter set in, I layered up and expanded into an industrial zone on the far side of the BQE, specifically an abandoned build site on the corner of Stewart and Cherry, my attention drawn by a mystifying ENYA tag that looked like it came from the same doomed romantic who had scrawled “Go Away, Evil” in looping girls’ cursive. Having dragged a parking block to the center of the floating slab, I avoided thinking about my edits. The market, I had been advised by a friend, wasn’t really looking for dystopias anymore. Clearing my head, I practiced boardslides as crews demolished the surrounding lots, my ragged breath hanging visibly in air that was sweet with rot from a nearby dump.

I never did perfect my slappies, though, and Stewart and Cherry got fenced the week before my book sold.

It still needed edits and a sequel, but as eager as I was to get started on those, I gerrymandered the Lab again, this time settling closer to Greenpoint proper. Skating next to a row of sound stages in the shadow of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, amid understated signage for the cast and crew of The Good Wife, it was a relief to cloister myself from the increasing anxiety of my writing life. A few blocks over, a bar blasted Bob Marley’s Legend, and, popping ollies and manualing down the empty street, I shamelessly emoted.

Every little t’ing…

“Hey, come’a this biker bar,” someone shouted, holding a thick hand, chapped from overwashing, in front of my chest, forcing me into a skidding stop.

Startled, I was expecting one of the homeless guys who bivouacked throughout the Lab, but it was a muscled, older man in pressed and faded jeans. “Lemme borrow that board,” he said, grabbing my palm and pulling it to his chest in a tight squeeze. “Just kidding, lemme buy you a drink at this biker bar over here.”

He gestured magnanimously toward the eight towering, scintillating tanks of the sewage treatment plant, happy to have met a friend, or a victim, or maybe both. He was the shambling Gatsby of Greenpoint’s sludgy eggs, stepping up, when no one else would, to scare me back to my laptop and the relative safety of Literature, which—typically self-absorbed—hadn’t even realized I was gone.

Nick Courage is the author of The Loudness, which will be published in 2015.

7 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. Jack | June 6, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    dude, you’re a good writer I guess, but the notion of a 30+ male making a big deal about falling via skateboarding is fairly ridiculous. you’re not that old. if you got it, flaunt it, but perhaps you shouldn’t make note of what is not a particularly spectacular achievement. I’ve never been much of a skater, but at 60 do activities that my peer age group would never think of doing. I surf, snowboard, triathlon, etc.. I’m no specimen of genetic good luck. I enjoy myself in those activities, but honestly was never an excellent performer in those pursuits 20+ years ago. Modesty seems to have vanished from our society; pursuing an activity that is basically narcissistic and then bragged about is unnecessary.. but I guess you’ve got to write about something

  2. Brian McElmurry | June 6, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    There is a huge connection between art and solo-physical activity like skateboarding. Skateboarding and writing you can do on your own, all you need is time, vision and a process. I’m almost 36, and still skate though I have to do yoga stretches and warm up for 10-minutes and sometimes ice my ham string and knees. Skateboarding down the street, I’m looking for little things to ollie off, or slant to sidewalk surf, a curb to slappy grind (I miss California red curbs). I mostly just ride it to the grocery or liquor store. I’ve had a skateboard since the 8th grade, over 21-22 years, and my goal for my 36th birthday is to learn 360 kickflips. I’ve done a few before, but not well. And I was 16 at the time. My plan includes riding a stationary bike before hand and doing a bunch of ollies(every ollie is like a moving squat, a no-longer teenager realizes), and just going for it (similar to a first draft). It’s amazing the cultural impact of skateboarding with the like of the movie “Kids”, the art of Mark Gonzales (The Gonz), and I love the Epic’ly Later’d on Vice. The niche world of skateboarding is similar to literature also. Who knows who Andrew Reynolds, Ed Templeton, Harold Hunter or an Ethan Fowler is but a skateboarder. Just as most people don’t know who William Gaddis is who aren’t interested in literature. You may enjoy the new video “Cherry” from Supreme–great skating and style with NYC representation. Hope the book and skating go well. I enjoyed this. :-)

  3. Lucha | June 8, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Fun read!

  4. Bob | June 9, 2014 at 11:11 am

    jack, pot kettle black…heh

    falling after 30 creates existential and physical pain. our fellow “adults” might see a peter pan syndrome, but those who haven’t loved the useless wooden toy will never be able to understand the appeal.

    skateboarding, like poetry or prose, alters your perceptions of everything around you. it immerses you in your surroundings like nothing else. i would’ve loved to have seen plimpton write a book on it…

  5. Craig | June 17, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Great piece, Nick.

    As a 29-year old whose setup has been sitting in my closet, untouched, for the past seven or eight years, reading about your experience was refreshing and inspiring. When I was coming up, I always wanted to skate at a high level or not at all, always pushing it, until my ankles were perpetually swollen and the heels of my hands, scraped raw, were never less than a dark shade of purple. Now, when I see people just cruising through the city, I miss that feeling I used to have, that freedom, and want to dive into it again, all the way. Few people realize that once you love to skate, it’s so difficult to just do it part-time, just for kicks; it becomes a lifestyle, an obsession, and the parallels to reading & writing are by no means a stretch. Nice work – keep doing your thing.

2 Pingbacks

  1. Mumo Active says:

    […] Nick Courage recently wrote a piece for The Paris Review chronicling his return to skateboarding after a fifteen year hiatus.  Despite the countless falls […]

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