Getting back on the skateboard.
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.”
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.