Dogtown's Good-bye

Multiple generations gathered for skater Bobby Biniak's memorial.
PHOTO BY BABETTE VANDERPLOEG

Tony Alva is skateboarding. His dreads matted against his head, his ubiquitous hat missing, his demeanor so intense, so turned inward, that, at a glance, the skate-world icon might be mistaken for a homeless person. It's the glide that gives him away, so easy and cool it turns the asphalt into the Pacific Ocean at glass-off.

More than 30 years after Alva launched forth from a pool into the sky, he is still on a board. At 52, he is flying down a street in Santa Monica, tracing a route that will take him from Wilshire Boulevard and 21st Street all the way to Venice.

Around 4th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, he sees the light changing, but he's in a rhythm and doesn't want to stop, so he pushes his luck, plays with invincibility, runs a red, and comes razor close to a collision with a commercial van. Alva bails his board. His transportation takes the hit — the front hanger destroyed, wheels rendered useless.

He walks to a nearby skate shop.

Alva has known this ride since he was in junior high school, and today, March 27, he is taking the journey in honor of the friend he used to skate it with, Bob Biniak, Skateboarder, 1958–2010.

Biniak, a.k.a. Bobby B. He set two speed records at Signal Hill in the mid-1970s, standing up instead of the time's preferred luge style, and without the protection of leathers. He was small but tough; people learned not to mess with him. His ability to ride fast and smooth earned him his moniker — the Bullet.

Out on the Venice Boardwalk on this afternoon, the Hare Krishnas are doing their thing, but it is the skate park — the last human intervention in the sand as Los Angeles cedes ground to the Pacific — which today will feature religion: Biniak's memorial, Alva's destination.

The skaters arrive first, filtering in at around 4 p.m., hitting the lip for Biniak — the first of the original Zephyr Competition Team riders to leave this Earth.

Alva, Christian Hosoi, Tuma, Bennet Harada and Pat Ngoho share the pool easily with three speeding fearless specks, the new generation: Shane Borland, 10 years old; Asher Bradshaw, 6; and Kiko, whose last name and age are unknown, but someone in the crowd puts it at about 8.

About 5:30, people start gathering on the grass adjacent to the park, even though the memorial is not called for another hour. In the group are Dogtown's three founding fathers: Jeff Ho, CR Stecyk III, Skip Engblom, and nearly everyone who was someone in Biniak's constellation. Greeting one another are decades of skate-magazine images brought to life. Some are there in defiance of age, or accidents, or for a few, the excesses of 1970s culture.

Chris Cahill's frail body is lit by his charismatic smile. He is fresh from the hospital, wearing sneakers and using a cane. Ho has survived a bad bout of pneumonia and multiple emergency-room trips. For Jim Muir — a broken neck while surfing. For PK — a heart attack, out in the water.

Yet it is Biniak who is gone, succumbing to a heart attack, in Florida, while visiting friends.

"I never thought I would be speaking about him in these circumstances," Ho tells the crowd later. "He seemed unstoppable."

The sun has slipped into the Pacific, when Jesse Martinez, whose slight build and humble demeanor belie his stature as a pro skater, clears the pool. "Okay, this is the last run," he tells Borland. And so it is.

Alva stands by himself near a guard rail, staring at his board for a long time. Finally, he sees a friend and he opens up, becomes the larger-than-life figure people see and expect, and tells the story of his near miss on the ride down.

"Biniak. He was always talking about pushing the envelope," he says admiringly.

At the bottom of the bowl, Martinez and Dru Lewis set up a DVD, vid projector, sound system and mic. As darkness falls, friends, rivals, family convene, gathering at the rim of a pool at the edge of California to share their stories of Bobby Biniak.

By the time Ho gets the mic to deliver the eulogy, the sky is dark. Someone fishes out a flashlight, flicks it on, a minispotlight in the night on the pages Ho has in his hand.

Ho, who watched Biniak walk into the Zephyr surf shop at age 14, spans the trajectory of Biniak's life, from a quiet kid to his reign as a top skateboarder. Ho speaks about Biniak's loyalty, their years of friendship and Biniak's ability to make him laugh.

"One day he came by and asked to borrow my van," Ho recalls. He didn't return it for three days.

When Biniak finally brought it back, Ho asked him incredulously, "What happened?"

"I went snowboarding," was the answer. "There was 5 feet of powder."

Biniak went on to become a golfer, a successful ad salesman and a family man. Ho's final words are for that family. "I offer sincere condolences to his wife, Charlene, and his beautiful daughter, Bree, and his family."

Charlene tells the crowd that Biniak "has been around, and he's letting me know that he's happy." She keeps her remarks short because there is no permit for this memorial service. A police helicopter has buzzed over. She fears the group will be thrown out of the park.

But Biniak, who grew up being chased out of pools, will be given this last run. A video of his life plays, more skaters take to the mic, a giant graphic of Biniak's skateboard-line logo is signed, and two errant flares light the night. Alva is gone as the last one sparks the sky, on his way to the bus back to Santa Monica.


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