Not to be outgrown

Author: James Seidler ’02

Crosscurrents Skateboard Final 1
Illustration by Cap Pannell

I bought a skateboard recently. It was definitely a middle-aged dad move — a little case of “man faces death; man buys mode of conveyance to hasten it along.” An impulse buy at a used sporting-goods store, the deck set me back about $20, and I paid that much again for a set of soft, sky-blue wheels good for cruising around my suburban Indiana neighborhood.

I don’t plan to do tricks with it. (That’s a good thing, as I have no aptitude for doing tricks with it.) Instead, every now and then I like to pop on my helmet and push myself over the blacktop, enjoying the chunk of the wheels as I roll over cracks, savoring the little wobble of danger when I cross my feet or hit a bump and have to bail, leaving my board to skitter on without me.

My skateboarding history is limited. I wasn’t a teenage trickster, weaving through the streets of South Bend while looking for rails to grind and cops to flee. I did have a skateboard — a big boat of a board as wide as Bigfoot’s shoe, with just one rudder for launching tricks. It came home with me after Uncle Frank generously took me to a skate shop during the Thrasher era of the late 1980s.

Predictably I walked out with the sturdiest thing in the place. Called “The Demon,” it had a sinister grinning gargoyle on its underside. It really should have been called “The Tractor,” though, because the main selling point, as I recall, was that it couldn’t go fast enough for you to hurt yourself.

I welcomed that. As a child I was never gripped with a need for speed. A debility for stability was more my thing. If my hometown skate shop had carried a model with safety rails and an ejector seat, I would have begged Uncle Frank to leave the Demon on the shelf.

As it was, I tried to ride it. I would carry the board out to the street in front of my house and gingerly step onto its frame. I would push it a few times, launching a gentle, right-leaning arc that saw me inevitably clack into the curb. I would then dismount, straighten the board and repeat this sad process until I was frustrated enough to go inside and play Nintendo.

It’s not that anything was wrong with the board. Other kids could whiz down the street with it and tried to impart this knowledge to me. One older friend, a cool teenager named Cormac, tried to teach me how to “ollie,” or jump, the thing. He even made me promise I would practice this skill every day while he was away on vacation. But the Demon didn’t leave its roost. I still remember the disappointment on Cormac’s face upon seeing my feeble hops when he returned.

So why on earth did I buy this new skateboard? One reason is that I have a weakness for modes of transportation. When I lived in Chicago, I liked to ride my bike to work, cruising past the bus stops and parked cars on Lincoln Avenue. I still ride it now, not as often as I should, but more frequently than I strap on my rollerblades. Those touch the pavement maybe once a year, about as often as the Green Machine that sits in the corner of my garage — a grown-up’s three wheeler with two upright metal bars that riders push and pull to steer. At full speed, you can jerk those sticks in opposite directions to throw the cart into a 180-degree tailspin . . . or do a barrel-roll across the pavement, which is what happened the first time I tried it.

The Green Machine is out of commission at the moment. Its seat has a healthy crack, the consequence of aging bodies taking a not-so-grown-up toy for a spin. But this wear and tear testifies to its appeal. Few adults who’ve seen it have been able to resist riding it. They settle into that low seat and pump the pedals, making the little flag at its rear whip back and forth as they build up speed to throw the machine into a spin, a little giddy, as if they were 10 again and had just caught sight of the oversized box at the birthday party.

That whiff of nostalgia is another reason I took the new skateboard off the shelf. It’s a cliché to admit, but I’m sure I bought it because it reminds me of a time when I was younger — when my responsibilities were few and the wind blew through my hair and blah, blah, blah. A new vehicle is the benchmark for midlife crisis, and while I’ve never been much tempted by hot red convertibles, I can see myself adding a pogo stick or a pair of stilts to my garage stash.

Linked to that nostalgia, though, is a simpler explanation: Skateboards are fun. Sure I might’ve almost killed myself the first time I took my new board out. I hit a crack in the asphalt and had to bail so hard that I pulled a muscle in my arm while windmilling to stay on my feet.

Admittedly, if I’d eaten the pavement, that wouldn’t have been very fun. (It might have been fun for the old lady watching me from across the street.) But part of the fun for me is knowing that I might eat the pavement. I’ll never nail that ollie, but having a skateboard reminds me there’s something else I can do with my time: I can waste it, at least a little bit, cruising around with no destination, no goal, nothing being tracked.

Riding around my neighborhood is like hitting the snooze button on the great clock of life, the one that’s going faster and faster, the one that could stand to be ignored every once in a while. The skateboard is a perfect vehicle for enforced leisure. Good luck checking your smartphone notifications as you rattle along on four wheels.

Nearly every board has art on the bottom, and my new one is no exception. Its centerpiece is a large, blue wolf holding what looks to be a ribbon in its mouth. This ribbon has no inscription. I’ve considered stenciling in the words “memento mori,” thereby doubling the odds that I’d break my neck the next time I went out. There’s no need, though, because there’s already a phrase that serves to remind us that our time here is limited and we should enjoy it while we can. You may have heard it: Skate or die.

James Seidler is a writer/total dad in Munster, Indiana. When he’s not skateboarding (which is most of the time), he’s gearing up to start another novel.