In 1949, Life magazine called my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, a place as “nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.” Today the city of a hundred fifty thousand has one of the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime in the country; every year, it makes the lists of America’s worst cities. My friends, almost all of whom have left, are so accustomed to sharing embarrassing headlines that there’s an air of disbelief when something good comes out of Rockford.
More than disbelief, I felt envy when the director Bing Liu won an award at Sundance for Minding the Gap, a documentary set in Rockford, a city whose story I have tried—and failed—to tell. A documentary about skateboarding, no less. I grew up skating those streets. As the rave reviews poured in, I didn’t read them; I didn’t want to hear someone else’s take on my hometown. I felt guilty, but the jealousy gnawed at me. Still, I wanted to see Rockford writ large on a big screen in Manhattan. I brought my wife and two friends to an art house cinema where Liu was on hand for a Q&A. The theater was packed full of East Coast aesthetes eager to catch a glimpse of Rust Belt cinema verité.
The film opens with a stunning montage of two of the main characters, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, riding through downtown Rockford in the golden hour, popping tricks with a grace matched only by Bing’s work with a Glidecam. We meet Keire, Zack, and Bing, a character himself, through montages from parties and skate parks, much of the footage filmed when they were just teenagers. Portraits of youth’s joyful abandon. But that joy is fleeting.
Minding the Gap is more than a film about skateboarding and Rockford. Shot over several years, the film employs skateboarding as a lens to examine domestic violence, race, and the enduring effects of childhood trauma, all set against the dreary backdrop of a city’s decline. Bing, a few years older than the others, is unique in that he left Rockford for college and never moved back. Now he has returned, camera in hand, to find both Zack and Keire struggling with the demands of adulthood.
Zack is magnetic, funny, and reckless, a kid who left an oppressive home at sixteen. Now in his early twenties, he’s going to be a father. Woefully unprepared, he sometimes roofs houses and struggles to get his GED. Mostly, he drinks and skates. His girlfriend, Nina, has just turned twenty-one and waits tables. Keire, sincere and winsome, grew up under the thumb of a disciplinarian father who passed away unexpectedly when his son was in high school. Now eighteen, Keire is unemployed and lives with his mom. At home, isolated from his family, he spends his time alone in his room. On the streets, a black kid in a group of older white skaters, he endures his friends’ casual racism, which litters the film. “I’m becoming a man, and I feel like that’s something I got fucked over on because my childhood was a really shitty time,” he tells Bing. The whole project might feel exploitative were it not for the compassion that comes through in Bing’s interviews. Bing, too, suffered violence growing up. As he tells Keire, “I’m making this film because I was physically disciplined by my stepfather, and I saw myself in your story.”
Two days before the screening, I was sitting in a coffee shop and transferring files to a new computer when I stumbled upon an abandoned project: a book about growing up, my father, shame, Rockford. Thousands and thousands of words, fragments of memories, a story I never figured out how to tell. Only a few years had passed since I’d written these pages, but I had forgotten them. I started reading the first chapter. I closed the file almost immediately. I did not want to remember. Now, as I watched the film, the memories washed over me.
I am three years old, staring at a glass of milk that is eye level from my seat on the burgundy vinyl booth. The booths are a hallmark of the restaurants we frequent, Greek and Albanian joints where seven bucks will buy you a chicken breast, soup or salad, a side of pasta, and dessert. My mother, who ordered the milk, tells me to drink it, but I refuse, clenching my teeth and defiantly curling my lower lip. After a few minutes, my father loses his patience.
“David, do you want to get hit?” he asks.
“Then drink your milk.”
I shake my head. A strange sound fills the booth, a grunt somewhere between phlegm-clearing and spitting rancid food: “Ach!” My father makes this sound when he turns off the news in disgust or walks away from an argument with my mother. It means, I’m done here. And with that sound, he picks up the glass and dumps the milk on my head. As it runs down my shirt and pants, I burst into tears. The waitress arrives, as if on cue, and my father smiles and says I spilled. My mother whisks me to the bathroom and holds me under the hand dryer. By the time we get home, the milk has soured in my clothes.
“How did you get disciplined?” Bing asks Keire.
“Uh … I mean, well, they call it child abuse now,” Keire says. He looks away from the camera. “But it’s not really child … ” He trails off.
The scenario repeats itself: milk, pasta—whatever I don’t consume, I wear home. I learn to sit with my mother. I also learn that rice pudding can be thrown across a table. Another time, unable to reach me from a corner seat, my father flings a piece of cheap steak. I duck, and it bounces off the booth. “You missed.” He saws off more steak, grunting with each throw as though he’s serving a tennis ball. The meat hits me in the face until I slide under the table and my mother, mortified, begs him to stop.
Eventually, the restaurant abuses stop, but they continue at home. Variations on a theme: I am forbidden to leave the table until I finish my dinner. I play a waiting game. If my father, tired and grumpy from commuting ninety miles each way to his job as a school psychologist in Chicago, falls asleep, I sneak away. If not, the game is brought to its close with that familiar noise: “Ach!” He’s in his sixties—twenty-five years older than my mother—but he’s fast, and there is nowhere to run.
By middle school, I have developed what teachers dub “attitude problems.” I curse at my father. I tell my mother to go to hell. I buy a skateboard, but there’s nowhere to skate. Confined to the driveway, I roll around alone. Eventually, a friend invites me to his church with the promise of older kids who love skateboarding and punk rock. I meet Matt, a scruffy kid with a flat cap who compliments my skate shoes. Soon, he and his older brother start picking me up in an ’85 Mercury Cougar with a three-foot skull sticker on the hood and a back seat filled with skateboards.
The following year, my family moves from the outskirts of Rockford to an old colonial near downtown. Suddenly, the world opens up. All summer and every weekend in the spring and fall, Matt and I skate. Rockford has yet to build a public skate park, so we skate the streets. We skate parking garages. We skate the curbs of countless abandoned buildings and empty city parks. We are free. The streets become home.
As Zack begins another trick montage, we hear his voice-over: “To other people it’s funny … Oh, these guys are crazy. But in reality, [skating] is a control thing. You fucking have to control the most minute, small details to make you feel normal in a world that’s not normal.” Watching Keire and Zack skate those same streets, landing elaborate tricks, I remember what I wanted—to be a body gliding through life, bending the universe to my imagination. In these elegant montages, and in the skate tapes I watched until they broke, there’s perfect union of freedom and control—flow. I never achieved it. Skateboarding requires one to be confident, reckless, fearless, or, ideally, all three. I was timid, careful, and afraid of pain. “It was kind of like a drug, in a way,” as Keire says. “As long as I’m able to go skate, then I’m completely fine.” But the drug wears off. You go back home.
I am fourteen and sitting in front of a plate of watery mashed rutabaga. I loathe this bitter root, but my mother has cooked it because her mother is visiting from Sweden, and it reminds them of home. Dinner has long ended. I am alone at the table with my father, who watches TV while my grandmother does the dishes and asks me to finish my food. In broken Swedish, I refuse. She yells for my mother, which is all it takes. My father shoots up from his chair with a grunt, and I make a run for it.
He cuts me off at the end of the table, beside the glass sliding door to our deck, but something snaps inside me. I push him into the door so hard that he bounces. I grab him by the shirt and slam him into the glass over and over, threatening to kill him, while my grandmother pleads with me to stop. Eventually, my mother and sister pull me off, and my father crumples to the floor.
“David, are you out of your mind?” he barks as he storms off.
“You could have broken his hip or triggered a heart attack,” my mother yells.
“Good. He deserved it.”
“Are you stupid? Do you know what happens to you if he can’t work?”
“I don’t care.”
A couple of years later, I ask my father about his childhood. He was four when the stock market crashed. He tells me about hunger, and his father hitting him. My grandfather, a peddler from Persia, lost his business, and his six children often went without. He spent his idle time beating my father, who fled to the streets of Chicago to roller-skate.
“When I think of him,” Bing says of his stepfather, now deceased, “I get shaky and anxious.” My first month at college, I’m eating with a dozen new acquaintances when a sophomore seizes a lull to suggest everyone say something nice about me. I sweat until my shirt is drenched, and I flee. It’s the first of many panic attacks that will strike over meals. I begin to eat alone. When I eat with others, I rehearse excuses to slip away. I sit on the outside so I won’t be trapped—a custom I still keep. I see therapists for years, but I never mention my father’s cruelty. I’m in my mid-twenties before I tell anyone—and then only Matt, as I shift uncomfortably in my seat at a bar and look down, like the characters on the screen.
“Why did you dump food on my head?” I am home from my first semester of college, sitting with my father, who is watching TV from a new recliner. He is too weak to walk up the stairs to his bedroom. He has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer and has undergone his first round of chemotherapy.
He shoots me an annoyed look.
“I want to know,” I say.
“You were trying to control the family with your eating habits.”
“I was five.”
“David, you were very manipulative.”
“Maybe I just didn’t like the food.”
He sighs and turns back to the television. On the side table is a glass of Ensure that I ask him to finish. He reluctantly complies. His doctor tells me, privately, that he has maybe six months. He will be dead in a week.
Those times I might have deserved some sort of discipline—like when I tried to slip a bully a laxative—my father blamed the circumstances. I went unpunished. By most counts, he was a good man and a good father. Every night before bed, he told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him. In college, I write essays about him, lionizing him while chastising myself for the shame I felt over his age. I keep his photo on my desk and wear his watch. I commission a friend to paint his portrait for my mother’s birthday. She hangs it over the mantel.
Halfway through the film, Keire has found work as a dishwasher. “I feel like this place just eats away at you,” he says. “I just don’t want to get trapped here in Rockford like a lot of people have.”
A year out of college, I move home, broke and unemployed. Eventually, I find work at a staffing agency, where I run sex offender checks and process applications from the parade of broken souls applying for factory jobs that pay eight dollars an hour. But there are no jobs. The recession has begun, and Rockford’s unemployment approaches 20 percent. I get accepted to graduate school but can’t afford tuition. I apply for jobs in Chicago and New York with no luck. The city I loved so much when I sailed down its streets now feels like a prison. Matt is also back in Rockford, scraping by as a carpenter and living with his parents. We have stopped skating and spend our nights at the bar, our weekends working through thirty-racks of beer at friends’ Chicago apartments.
A year passes. I ask my mother whether I can check into the psychiatric ward where she works. Instead, she pays for an appointment with the ward’s psychiatrist. He writes a prescription—a “Band-Aid,” he calls it—and tells me I will feel better, eventually, when I leave town. I read a history of Rockford and then learn that the author left for graduate school at Cambridge only to suffer a breakdown and spend the rest of his life in Rockford. I wonder whether that is my fate. Finally, after two years, Matt and I both go abroad, he to Afghanistan, via the army, I to Sweden, via a master’s program. I’m dubious about studying literature in English in Sweden, but tuition is free, and it’s a ticket out. My only goal is to never move back. Two years later, though I’m back, working in a screw factory.
As Zack drinks more and more, his relationship with Nina falls apart, and she moves out with their son. Later, it emerges that Zack has hit her. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Bing turns the camera on himself as he interviews his mother, Mengyue, about her ex-husband, Dennis, who beat her, Bing, and Bing’s half brother. When Bing asks how much she knew about Dennis beating him, she tears up and sighs. “I don’t know what to say now. I wish I could do it over again, do it differently.”
When this scene played, I was elsewhere, transported to the moment in my late twenties when I finally confronted my mother.
“You were trying to control the family,” she says. We are sitting apart from each other on perpendicular couches joined by my father’s empty recliner.
“That’s Dad’s bullshit excuse. I was a kid.”
“I guess we were both inundated with Freudian ideas. Your father studied with, what’s his name, the psychologist who spanked children.”
She reminds me my father was beaten by his father. “I had my own messed-up childhood,” she says, referring to her alcoholic father. “I should have done something, but I had my own insecurities and fears.”
Keire is moving to Denver when the film ends. As the camera traces his Mercury heading over the river, due west, I think of the last time I was home, the Christmas before last. My mother’s house, too expensive to maintain, had fallen into disrepair. Mice had infested the basement, nesting in my boxes of books. I urged my mother to sell the house and leave Rockford. She won’t, though. She’s two blocks from the cemetery and my father’s grave. I salvaged what books I could, loaded them into a rental car, and drove to New York, seventeen hours straight, through a blizzard and freezing rain. I couldn’t get away fast enough. A few days later, I wrote my mom that I would not be returning home.
As the lights came on and Bing started fielding questions from the audience, an older man remarked, with surprise, that Bing’s mother’s home looks nice. “I didn’t expect such attractive homes—there’s a kind of haunted beauty to them. And that abandoned skate park building—a beautiful example of midcentury architecture. One would think someone could do something with it.” The spell was broken. I was back in Manhattan, among the people whose ranks I’d wanted so badly to join. Suddenly, I missed Rockford.
After the Q&A, my wife and my friends asked what I thought. But when I tried to offer an opinion beyond “masterful”—and it really is—I couldn’t put words together. The film had destroyed me. Part of me felt guilty, since several of the characters in Minding the Gap experienced trauma much worse than my own. But Bing Liu had given me an unlikely gift. In the weeks that followed, I watched the film several more times. I shared the full extent of my humiliations and shame with my wife. And for the first time, I told my therapist, euphemistically, then openly, the tears welling in my eyes. The jealousy had faded. In its place, I found only gratitude.
David Michael is a writer and video producer. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Commonweal, among others.