Surviving Hell on a Skateboard: A Hawaii Kai Native Learns to Surf Concrete in New York's Streets
Copyright © 2014 by (Lindsey Okubo)
Supreme. This word has been slapped onto mailboxes, streetlights, urinals and most aptly, skateboards. It is often the word that surfaces when New York and skateboarding appear in the same sentence. My cliché skateboarder has tattered, black, high-top Vans, a tattoo of a dinosaur in an unforeseen location, hair long enough to hair flip but not long enough to tie into a hipster top-knot, a Thrasher shirt, jeans that they've had since high-school, a Supreme hat and a deck that's been destroyed to the point where the graphic now looks like etch-a-sketch. I’ve seen them lined up outside of 247 Lafayette Street, where Supreme first opened its doors 20 years ago in 1994, waiting for hours to cop a pair of $150 sneakers or a wool coat priced at $548.
Supreme is for the glitterati riders, or the posers who think that their Supreme bottle opener ($16) renders them a part of the skateboarding community. I was neither. Though I work at a skate-shop in Brooklyn, Supreme’s atmosphere was like being at a skatepark feeling like you’re not “swaggy” enough to skate. Three Supreme skateborgs bobbed their heads to trap music behind the storefront counter, glaring at all of the phonies in their realm, breathing dragon-fire. Because I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, my dislike for concrete, honking horns and assholes is staunch. New York makes me homesick. I wanted to change that so I walked out the door.
When I think of home, I think sunsets on the water, feet dangling over the sides of my surfboard waiting for a last wave to catch in. The day’s crowning exhales spill out onto the sky's canvas in hues of blue, red and pink, turning the faces of my friends from tan to golden in the changing light. Waking up my first week back in Manhattan after summer always begins with tears. Yet I hoped that by turning the pavement into an endless wave by learning how to street-skate I could transform the city. Could I truly be here without constantly wishing that I was somewhere else?
I bought my first skateboard from Aegir Boardworks on 99 Water Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn. I slapped a bunch of stickers over the sorry, winged-skull graphic on the deck in an attempt to make it feel more like “mine.” Joining the 13,500,000 skateboarders who took to the streets in America in 2013 as reported by the Skatepark Association of America, I was what we call a “kook”, a noob, a novice.
Oafishly, the Thrasher-esque skateboarding we know today somewhat morphed out of homemade scooters (patented in the 1920s) and primitive forms of roller skates which have been around since the 1600s. By the 1920s and 1930s, three-wheeled scooter-skateboard hybrids appeared. Some even came with a set of poles or removable handles. Fast forward. Trailing World War II, shell-shocked and dry-gilled veterans and Southern Californians alike turned towards the ocean for healing. Surfing’s popularity boomed and surfers needed a way to transport their unwieldy, hardwood boards to and from their playground along the coast ergo the origination of the skateboard.
From West to East Coast, skateboarding wasn’t mentioned by the New York Times until 1964. Additionally Life Magazine in 1965 put skateboarding under the national spotlight placing Patti McGee, a female skateboarder, on the cover along with an article titled “Skateboard Mania—and Menace: A teeter-totter on wheels is a risky new fad.” Now in 2014, the New York area boasts 208 skateboard shops and 34 skateparks, including one built by the likes of sports-bigwigs, Joe and Gavin Maloof in 2010. The Maloof family owns the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. In that same year, the coveted shoe and apparel firm, Vans, built the House of Vans, a semi-private 25,000 square-foot skatepark in Brooklyn.
Other players like the sugar-high, soda-maker, Mountain Dew moved into the New York scene this year, hosting the Dew-Tour in Brooklyn for the first time. The tour showcased streetstyle BMX and skateboarding bringing the biggest names in the industry and national attention to the city’s skate scene. Skateboarding has arrived and it appears that it is here to stay. In 2008, a study by the National Sporting Goods Association reported that skateboarding exhibited a 74.1% growth in the past ten years, proving skateboarders are still slashing down New York’s streets.
Perhaps I was just another statistic in the growing popularity of New York skateboarding, tell-tale as the newly purchased wood underneath my feet felt like a bluff. I had been on a skateboard before, I grew up around them but I could only manage a turn. Knee-busting change began on a Sunday morning at Brooklyn Bridge Park this fall when I had my first “skate-lesson” with my co-worker, Denzel France (better known as Deezy). He’s been skating for about 12 years, is the captain of the Aegir Boardworks' skate-team and he founded the ZeroGrav skate-gang with five of his friends. Deezy is lanky with an apparent affinity for leopard print and can be identified by his distinctive use of “yo,” recited “YOOOOO!” He was teaching me how to ollie, the most basic trick in the book, where board and rider defy gravity.
I quickly learned that concrete is not as forgiving as the ocean when you fall. This created another dimension to the learning curve called: fear. “You gotta break that mental block,” he said as he did a fakie backside kickflip. “I’m not scared of nothing no more. When I was a kid I used to be scared to come outside because I was in the hood you know, where they were shootin’ dudes and shit. But now I’m just like this is the only life we have so fuck it, live it while we can,” he said.
In my mind this is what skateboarding stood for; an unbridled freedom and a worldview that justified the gnarly-ness of cities. Yet attempted ollie after attempted ollie, I still wasn’t registering the fun in repeated failure. I was concrete’s bitch. I needed some reassurance, some inspiration to make me think, “holy shit, YEAH, I still want in.”
I turned to Michael Cohen. New Jersey born, New York City raised, Michael’s generation of skaters followed the kick-pushes of those who pioneered New York skateboarding. He transitioned from grom to becoming SHUT Skate’s (New York’s first skateboard company) current Vice President.
We’re crammed comfortably into Michael’s lair downstairs at SHUT’s storefront on Orchard Street. I ask him what growing up with skateboarding was like back then. He’s wearing Huf plant life socks, a SHUT hat emblazoned with the vestige of the Brooklyn Bridge. He stared at me from behind square-framed glasses. “I remember when I was a kid, I was looked at as a fucking derelict, like an outcast or part of a weird kind of crew growing up being a skater,” he said remembering the ‘80s. “We listened to the heavy metal, we went to the punk shows, except we weren’t violent. Skateboarding was weird.” He said skateboarding was his “paintbrush”, it was as much of an art, as it was his language.
Michael was 14 when SHUT Skates launched in 1986. Birthed sans uterus to combat California’s golden-boy vibe which had no place in the graffiti-filled, sneering streets of New York, SHUT was the brain-child of New York skateboarding’s dream-team: Rodney Smith, Bruno Musso, Alyasha Moore, Eli Gesner and Adam Schatz. The bowls, salty-aired boardwalks and ramps to vert off of out West were for long-haired fairies, in Gotham, the skaters had the streets. This street-driven mutiny evolved pronto and the original SHUT riders blew up so quickly that by 1991 they were lured away by the growing industry to California. SHUT’s cycles of bust and boom personify the industry’s fluctuations throughout the ‘90s through the early 2000s amid lawsuits, injuries and worry-wart parents snapping a “z” in skateboarding’s face.
SHUT embodies East Coast skateboarding, it is homegrown, unfeigned and raw. “We don’t do too many bytes or too many leans. Our graphics are New York. It’s what we’ve always been doing”, Michael said straight-faced. As I was leaving, a guy at the front counter gave me some stickers. One read like a name-tag, “HELLO MY CITY IS…NEW YORK.” I didn’t know where to slap this one, I wasn’t “New York” enough yet.
I wanted Rick Sulz’s memories. I wanted to know his New York. He founded NYskateboarding.com in 2009, creating a resource for the next generation of skaters while fostering community. We sat near the door at Sweet and Vicious, a bar on Spring Street and chatted over Stella’s. I was staring at a 36 year old, hefty, six-foot something Rick who wears his hat backwards.
Two decades ago, Rick could be found sitting abroad the Long Island Railroad on the last train to Manhattan. Rolling 16 deep, he and his crew waved bye to their parents and split with nothing but their skateboards and backpacks holding clean shirts, an elephant wrench, an extra pair of socks and a sack of quarters. Disembarking at Penn Station, Rick would set his Zoo York board down and check his pager for a 143 (code for “I love you”) from his girlfriend before skating uptown on 7th Avenue. “We were like astronauts but instead of seeking out soil samples we were hunting ledges and stairs. The people we met and things we experienced along the way to skate spots truly made me love NYC,” Rick said reminiscing while his foot subconsciously rocked the skateboard beneath his feet back and forth.
Here was a guy who had been impacted by skateboarding so much that he found a way to make it a part of his livelihood. “You coming here, I know the feeling, it’s overwhelming and there are so many directions to go. But eventually you’ll feel it, you either become a New Yorker or you’ll want to get out,” he said taking a swig. His words leave me thinking that he’s right. In every idle minute my thoughts ran back to the Pacific Ocean.
As the beer in our cups was no more, we headed out into the night. I watched Rick push off, he was just happy to be on that board. As the words "New York" on the back of his sweatshirt faded into exaggerated shadows, I swore they would always know something I didn’t.
Upon our parting Rick suggested I contact Jaime Reyes, a former pro, female skateboarder who too was a Hawaii to New York transplant. She no longer lived in the city but resided in Virginia. She’d return to the city during the last weekend of October.
Jaime’s attempt at a disco-nap after her six-hour drive was a failure so I met up with her for the first time at Max Fish, a bar on Orchard Street. It was Halloween, spiders dangled from the ceiling and kids popped in screaming “TRICK OR TREAT” eager to fill their plastic pumpkins. Jaime walked in wearing a denim jacket and hoodie and immediately went over to the bar, hugging everyone including the bartender. “Reyes!” they shouted. It was a homecoming.
“Jaime!” I peeped from a couch opposite the bar. Yepp. Hi, that’s me.
Jaime moved to New York at age 16 to skate and never expected to stay, she always thought she’d end up in Hawaii or California. If she wasn’t skating she said she probably would have been “knocked up with five kids by now and still in Hawaii.”
I decided against recording our first meeting, but jotted things down like when her friend with the red lipstick and tattoos mentioned that Jaime never eats her greens. We talked about our parents. I told her about my parents’ divorce, my mom kicking me out of her house over Spring Break and the un-denying toxicity of our relationship. She told me about her losing her step dad back in 2009; his fall, her flight home to the islands in response and standing at passenger pick-up on the phone with her ride only to be given the news of his passing. A few rounds of pool were played and chatter ensued. “See you tomorrow then,” she said waving at me as I put on my coat.
We met up the following day at Arlene’s Grocery, a bar on Stanton Street. Michael from SHUT was bartending and I saw a few familiar faces from the night before. Spencer Fujimoto, better known as “Fooj,” ranted about how everyone needed to watch Johnny T’s Tourist Tips on YouTube, the “Get Outta the Way” version. We were laughing, having the kinds of agenda-less conversations from back home that I missed.
“You wanna do this thing?” Jaime said motioning to my notebook. In the span of an hour we talked about everything from New York, to to-go margaritas from The Hat, to skateboarding being a drug, to her concept of home. The latter subject hit home hardest, that was what I was looking for here. Jaime was living out of hotels for much of her career. Skating pro for the likes of Vans, Globe, Alphanumeric, Venture Trucks, Town & Country and in4mation took her to almost every continent. “I was always on the move so I never really quite got settled. So mentally, even though I didn’t wanna do it, I had to make myself adapt. That’s what I had to do because this [skateboarding] is what I love doing.”
“Is home a single place or is it a feeling?” I ask.
Jaime replied quickly. “A feeling. Hawaii is always going to be home. Hotels used to be my home back when I was traveling a lot. Home is where you make it. I guess that’s why that saying is a thing.” She then told me about the necessity of a good rice cooker, meaning stainless-steel and non-aluminum because aluminum causes Alzheimer’s. We Hawaii people love our rice. “As long as you have good things surrounding you, I think that’s how you can adapt better. Honestly if I didn’t have what I have here, friend wise, I would’ve probably been out in 2000. Peace out muuuuthafuckaaas. But YOU,” she said pointing at me. “You gotta surround yourself with better people, you need the right people to make it your home.”
I hug Jaime before heading back to my apartment. She’d go back to Virginia the next day and somehow I’d miss her but I thought that maybe if she could do it, so could I.
I thought about what Jaime had told me to do, from becoming a regular at Arlene’s Grocery on Sunday’s, to interviewing Fooj. I usually don’t listen to anyone, but Jaime felt like my own unorthodox guru. I texted her the next day for Fooj’s number.
Huff, puff, huff, puff, it was a Saturday morning and I was following the back of Fooj’s beanie-capped head up three flights of stairs on Essex Street. Pushing open an iron-like door revealed a rooftop. “You can see all the way down Avenue A, Essex and Stanton if you stand right here,” Fooj said craning his body over the railing. “Oh, and this is Peter,” he said pointing to a dark-haired, bearded guy double fisting with two cameras.
Today Peter was shooting the lookbook for El Senor’s Holiday 2014 line, (skateboarding’s first and only jewelry company that Fooj started seven years ago) and I was supposed to interview Fooj. Grudgingly leaving the sun’s warm abandon we headed downstairs. “Asian style household, shoes off!” Fooj said unlocking the door to his apartment.
“Skater girl” a voice yelled at me. The voice belonged to a curly haired teenager. I had never been called a “skater girl”, or thought of myself as one but the board under my arm perhaps spoke silent volumes. Her name was Laila, 13. Jaime had been her babysitter and Fooj taught her to skate but her forte was illustration. I asked to see her portfolio and stumbled upon a palm tree and the ocean perfectly laid-out in two-dimensions. Could I ever get away?
We ate lunch at Vivi’s on the Lower East Side. Washing curry flavored fried chicken down with mango flavored bubble tea, I looked around at these faces mid-chew. Fooj and his gang had taken me in, and whether that be just for the day or for the rest of my time in the city, it didn’t matter. Fooj checked his phone and told us that Sammy was back at his place. I didn’t ask who Sammy was, I didn’t want to remind anyone, including myself that I was still new here.
Sammy’s apartment was every bit of a man-cave as it was a photo studio. A steep flight of stairs led us up to a room where the walls were host to “Comme Des Fuck Down” canvases and a pull-down white screen. Steven Cales, a pro-skateboarder, co-owner and president of 5th Avenue Skateboards (founded in 2012 with a mission to manufacture quality goods justifying skateboarding’s roots) who I had just met only moments ago outside pulled the screen and down it came. “Oopsie,” he said grinning.
Rap and talk of “bad-bitches” flooded from the speakers while the flash from Peter’s camera left us all starry-eyed. From indoors we couldn’t tell but the sun had already begun its descent towards the horizon. What started out as a need to interview Fooj turned into my immersion into this skate culture and its community. Surely part of it was going out to spots and hammering down tricks like I had done with Deezy but more-so I think it was this sense of extended family, of belonging. “That’s it, we’re good,” Fooj said calling an end to the feigned modeling and camera clicks.
We were heading back to Fooj’s apartment to do the interview but by then it felt dispensable. The day had been enough. I remembered something Jaime had said about the people from back home being the same as the people out here, in terms of being able to call them “good people”; same people, different scene. Walking on the Bowery with Steven on one side of me and Fooj on the other with my board under my arm was like making the trek up the trail to our cars after surfing till dusk at Diamond Head at home. It was all coming together.
We hit Orchard Street where a five foot tall, orange, plastic roadblock was squatted in the intersection. Two words: wall ride. Fooj honorarily hopped onto my skateboard, Steven bolstered the block so it would’t fall, I whipped out my camera. An old lady walking across the street in front of me, took one look at me, Steven then Fooj and disgustedly muttered, “you crazies!” That was us. Not them, but us. Ending the day on a board felt right. The sun had finally set.
I didn’t know when I’d see them again but Fooj told me that being a New Yorker is all about understanding the New York minute.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It means you could live a lifetime in a minute and there’s how many minutes in a day?” Fooj paused briefly. “There’s like 1,140 or something like that. Whatever is in front of you, shred. Because you know most skaters don’t think about the future too much and why should we? Just have fun today.”
Applying Fooj’s logic, today I had lived 1,140 lives. I felt like I did. I was given a glimpse of what home in the city could look like from people who had been strangers to me 24 hours ago. I had been a part of something, not anything large in retrospect, but the feeling I found aboard a foreign piece of wood with four wheels would linger.
Home will always be a feeling, New York and Hawaii are only places. I’ve been trying to remember that when I wake up but when I forget, the skateboard in my room tries to remind me.
Written Winter 2014