Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010

It is a sunny Sunday in Hollywood and Matt Gottwig, a skater who one day hopes to become a pro, is attempting to perform a trick at a “bump over a hydrant,” on Orange between Hollywood and Franklin.

Our crew of six, which includes two skaters, two “filmers,” my brother Aaron and me. The “spot” is in front of the Hollywood Biltmore hotel across from the back of the Kodak Theater, which will host the Oscars in two weeks. The hydrant is yellow with a red top on it, flanked by red curb cutouts, which the skaters will use as a ramp, or “bump,” to launch themselves into the air and over the hydrant. The filmers, the photographers and I quickly take our positions and the session begins. Matt decides on a “heel flip,” a trick where he will “ollie” or pop the board into the air and use the heel of his front foot to flip the board one time on its horizontal axis.

This is a difficult spot to skate and it will take a few tries to overcome the myriad tiny challenges that the surface presents. We are also right in the center of Hollywood and we won’t go unnoticed for long, which adds to the pressure to perform.

Matt flies down the sidewalk, skateboard wheels making a loud whir on the cement, and ollies into the air and attempts his heel flip. On the first few attempts he fails badly. In between takes, Matt looks at the digital photo on Aaron’s camera to confirm that he’s lined up properly.

Matt is starting to get a feel for the space and is getting closer to landing the heel flip. However, a person from the hotel, with STAFF written on the back of his shirt, comes out and tells us we have to leave. One of the skaters walks over to the man and politely tells him that we’ll be done in a few minutes. But STAFF insists we leave now, and whips out his cellphone and tells us he’s “calling the cops.” Nobody seems deterred by this threat. Marko returns to his filming position and signals to Matt to try again.

The tension increases. All of the crew (except me) has been in this situation before, and they know it takes a while for the cops to actually arrive, but now the pressure is mounting. If Matt cannot land the trick before the cops come, he will lose the opportunity to get “a clip” — documented video evidence of a skateboard trick — and all this effort will be for naught. I take my cues from the others who are doing nothing, but I also begin to develop a slow rage toward STAFF.

This is public space. We are not on the grounds of the hotel, we are on the sidewalk, and in the street, and we are doing nothing destructive to the property, or upsetting to traffic, and not only are the hotel guests not complaining, some even stop to watch. It is, however, surprisingly loud.

Matt stays focused. Though aware of the situation, he is concentrating on his skating. STAFF, meanwhile, is increasing his rhetoric. On Matt’s ninth attempt, he comes cruising down the sidewalk heading for the hydrant, in clear defiance of our accuser; he pops into the air but just misses landing the trick. Thinking that maybe the guy now understands a little bit better that Matt is trying to achieve something creative, dangerous and possibly even interesting, Billy goes over to STAFF and tries to reason with him.

The pressure is mounting, Matt has likely got only one or two more tries before the cops arrive and send us away, leaving Matt’s work unfinished. On his 11th attempt, Matt rides down the sidewalk, pops into the air and executes a perfect heel flip and lands cleanly on the board, and rolls away down the street. The crew lets out a cheer, and in seconds we are gone, leaving STAFF standing there with his jaw hanging, phone to his ear, on hold with the police, looking silly.

No mention is made of the cops, or STAFF, or that we got away with one; skateboarding is illegal in most American cities and this is just part of the process of being a professional street skater.

This book is about professional street skateboarding, a highly refined, athletic and aesthetic pursuit, from which a large number of people profit. (Skateboarding has been estimated to be a $5 billion a year industry.) Street skateboarders see the world differently, because they are skating on it, and to do so they creatively interpret architectural features — ledges, banks, gaps, stairs and handrails — as sites to perform tricks. The tricks they perform are filmed and photographed and then disseminated to the rest of the subculture via numerous platforms — videos, magazines, social media, websites. Skaters do this to increase their reputations, and hence their earnings. This model is similar in some ways to the academy where professors publish original research articles (tricks) in the most prestigious journals (magazines) and, from these published feats, money and other rewards follow.

The careers of skateboaders has been advanced by their own media efforts, in which skaters document and disseminate skateboarding feats to a global audience of consumers and producers of skateboarding content, i.e., tricks performed on street obstacles. As a result, there are numerous support careers within the skateboarding industry, which come from the need to document, disseminate, design and distribute skateboarding content and skateboarding products. This means that what I refer to as the “skateboarding subculture” supports the career aims of not only highly talented skateboarders but also “filmers,” photographers, video editors, writers, journalists, shoe designers, clothing designers, graphic artists, team managers, web designers and company owners, to name just a few. All of the participants in this industry have one thing in common: They are skaters.

Despite this professionalism and worldwide popularity, skateboarding in much of the United States is illegal. Skaters are enmeshed in a constant battle with security guards and police to skate on public spaces. The result is that they are always getting kicked out of spots and constantly have to be on the lookout for police. But for the most part the consequences of illegality are merely a nuisance: Skaters are often ticketed and forced to pay a nominal fine (which pro skaters can easily afford) but they usually are not arrested or given jail time; they are simply forced to leave. But they always come back.

Matt Gottwig, left, with the author; Credit: Gregory J. Snyder

Matt Gottwig, left, with the author; Credit: Gregory J. Snyder

Thursday, May 12, 2016. NYC

It’s been a cold spring, but today it is beautiful. I ride my bike into work for a department meeting. At 2 p.m. I leave, but I don’t have to race home to pick up Luna/cook dinner/just be home. Instead I’ve got time to enjoy my city on my bike.

My Urban Sociology students have to do an ethnography of “mixed-use public space.” This year Bryan Paternoster, a skater, is doing his on Tompkins Square Park, a spot skaters have referred to as the “TF” (training facility) for years. I decide I’ll pass by on my way home, to see if he is doing some research. As I’m straddling my bike checking out some skaters I don’t recognize and looking for Bryan, I hear a familiar whir coming from the street behind me and I instinctively turn my head — that sound is inside me now — and I see this big blond dude with a shaved head and glasses, who looks familiar. I sheepishly say, “Uh, Matt?!” He stops and looks at me strange, like who the fuck knows me in New York, and more specifically who is this old dude. “It’s Greg,” I say. And he smiles a toothless, ear-to-ear grin and we embrace in a giant hug.

We are both flabbergasted. This is incredible. We haven’t seen each other since May 2011 and in that time we’ve had relatively little contact. And now, as this project comes to a close, the dude who opens the book is standing right in front of me. In the last two months Matt, as skaters say, has been ripping. He’s gotten on Huf, a respected skate shoe brand, and Krooked Skateboards, and his star is on the rise. And here he is, and here I am, at this exact moment, to help me finish this book. I am self-consciously acting in a moment that I know is going to make for good writing, and it’s thrilling. If I had done anything differently, this moment would not have happened, and yet it did. I’m in glorifying disbelief at the skating gods, and just want to bask in this new Gottwig. First off, dude has grown, he’s taller and wider and full of rock-solid muscle. And he’s happy and confident. And also, Matt is my friend. He’s crazy smart, super giving of his time and energy at the beginning of this project, and I am overjoyed to see him.

I congratulate him on his recent successes and say, “So… what’s your plan? Where are you planning to skate, do you have anything that you’re trying to get?” (This, by the way, is a very common question — it’s like asking actors or writers, “What are you working on?”)

Matt says, “I’m just gonna skate the spot these guys [the pros like Brad Comer] go to. But there’s only one thing I have to get, a varial heel over black marble. I’ve gone there like four times and gotten robbed every time and they already ran the photo so I have to get it.”

Whoa, that’s serious.

For the next two weeks we text back and forth and I don’t really have time so I don’t ask where he’s skating. But on Tuesday night, May 24, I text him: “Hey, have you been to black marble yet?” Meaning, have you completed the monstrous task you set for yourself, and if not can I witness it?

Matt: “Yeah, went yesterday. Going back tomorrow morning too.” Meaning, failed yesterday, going to try again tomorrow to varial heel flip black marble for the fifth fuckin' time. Yes, no one has ever done it before, so it’s worth it, but imagine the torture. You know you can do it. You’ve gotten so close it’s ridiculous, so close it feels like the universe is just not on your side, so close. But close doesn’t fucking count and if the photo is already in the ether, you cannot give up. You cannot lie. You cannot have a midair photo that isn’t followed up with video evidence of a successful make. Matt has to land this trick, not only because if he does he will get closer to everything he wants to accomplish, but because if he doesn’t, he’s committed a cardinal sin of skateboarding, and absolution will be extremely difficult.

Now, it wasn’t Matt’s idea to run the photo, and these scenarios are not completely unique, but still, to allow people to think you varial heel-flipped black marble (NBD) when you actually didn’t, well, that would just be wrong.

I show up at black marble, which is a marble hubba, meaning a ledge that goes down stairs, which often anchor handrails, but skaters have removed the handrail, somehow, on one of the obstacles and this spot remains skateable. How and why I do not understand. Thomas Paine Park is located in the triangle between Centre, Lafayette and Worth streets, across from the U.S. District Court Building, next to City Hall. And the gaggle of lawyers and defendants strolling through couldn't care less whether some fuckin' kids are willfully throwing themselves at this aesthetically pleasing, but otherwise totally inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, piece of architectural flourish.

I arrive on this summerlike spring day wearing a Primitive Brand tiki shirt and Vans sneakers, quietly signaling some but not actual skateboard affiliation. (Primitive and Vans also sell to civilians.) I slowly approach two skaters sitting in the shade, when I hear the familiar sound again: It’s Matt approaching on his board with iced coffee and a bagel from Starbucks.

Matt is not paying attention to people around him and he weaves by me. “Matt,” I say. And he breaks out of his nervous, anxious, assassin mode for 10 seconds to greet me. “How you feeling?” I say, and he doesn’t really respond with actual words, but the clear answer to that question is, “Out of my fucking mind.” The energy coming off of him is a mixture of nerves, excitement, focus and control, and I know to leave Matt alone. Matt introduces me to his friends as “Aaron Snyder’s brother,” which gets a “cool” nod. I say, “I’m also a sociologist who loves to witness other people do amazing shit.” Which for me works as informed consent and Matt already knows I’m going to write about this.

I make small talk with Brad Comer, pro skater for Krooked Skateboards, whose name is on the bottom of the board Matt is riding, and Tyler the filmer. I discover that they are leaving today, 5 p.m. flight, JFK to LAX. But instead of casually spending the morning packing and reflecting on their trip, they are here to see if Matt can get this elusive trick that has beaten him now, four times in a row.

Matt skates around a bit, breaking in the new deck he’s just put on, adjusting the trucks, scraping the grip side of the board on the pavement. He does one flat-ground warm-up trick — a varial heel, which he lands perfectly. He goes for a second one and he misses and for an instant it seems like his board is going to careen into my ankles, but of course as he’s falling he reaches out with his hand and stops the board, before it can do damage. This is not uncommon; all skaters on this level have a very special relationship to this thing, and they know exactly where it is at all times, and they would never allow a board to go flying and hurt a civilian. Matt gets up and skates over to the obstacle and does a few tricks on it, but he is not yet flying over it.

Tyler sets up his camera and Matt begins. I’m not sure if he’s going to warm up — maybe he’ll ollie it first — or just heel-flip. Matt speeds at the obstacle and with his back foot pops the tail, while also pushing the board 180 degrees front side or clockwise on the Y axis, while at the same time letting the heel of his front (right) foot flip the board 360 degrees on the X axis. All the while he's flying about 6 feet in the air over a 15-foot span, and landing with a controlled thud on the cement hexagonal-tiled plaza floor.

He rattles off four tries and each time he’s forced to kick the board away in the air. He hasn’t really committed yet to “catching” one and fully attempting to land it. (Understandably, because this shit is petrifying.) On attempt five Matt flies at the obstacle and ollies right in front of a mother and toddler, Matt misses the trick, but nobody — the mom, the child or the skaters — cares; only I was like, 'holy shit the kid,' but I kept my nervous dad act quiet.

Matt is in complete control of his board and his surroundings; he is not going to hurt anybody. Skaters on this level of professionalism have the ability to do something incredibly risky and amazing while weaving their way through the civilian masses. In fact, with all the skateboarding that is available to view on the internet, you would be hard-pressed to find instances of a professional skater injuring a civilian — that’s how good they are at this. They are not simply good at doing tricks; they are good at riding, controlling and being on a skateboard, as if it were an extension of their mind.

Attempt No. 6 is close and Brad, Tyler and I (a bit) are clapping, trying to be encouraging, and then on the seventh try, he makes it, and just skates by us. Silence. I’m stunned, like, what’s wrong, wasn’t that good? On all the videos I’ve watched, when the dude makes the trick, the witnesses go crazy. Matt is off taking a moment for himself, and now I’m thinking how come none of these dudes are cheering — is there a problem? I realize that they’re sort of in shock. Tyler points the camera at Brad and says, “What did we just see?”

Brad says, “Gotti just varial heel-flipped this thing.” Seconds later Matt returns to us, just beaming. He jumps off his board and tackles Brad in a bear hug nearly, knocking the camera over. Then a huge hug for Tyler and then one for me. Matt is crushing me, and I am beside myself with jubilation and pride. I say something like that was amazing. Matt is so relieved and so happy and he is relatively unscathed. He finally slayed this fucking monster that had been fucking with him for the past six months. And now all of the negativity has been turned positive by a factor of a million with this one make. Matt says, “I think it’s the pressure. I like it, the more there is the better I skate.”

And so for the second time in my life I have witnessed an NBD (shout-out to Nick), and also for the second time in my life, Matt has taken a potentially stressful situation, like impending police, or missing a flight, and solved it all by just landing the trick. To think about how devastating it would have been if he didn’t get it is also to understand the pure, unadulterated and well-earned joy. Congratulations Gotti, now I get to say I was there the day Matt Gottwig varial heel-flipped black marble (NBD).

Excerpted with permission from Skateboarding L.A.: Inside Professional Street Skateboarding
by Gregory J. Snyder, published by NYU Press. Snyder will discuss his book at the Last Bookstore on Friday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. More information here

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