Skate Jam. A Play in Four Acts.

Bruce  c wealth skatepark

It’s the mid-1980s, and being a skateboarder is worse than being a nerd.  To be a skateboarder is to be a loser.  People wonder why you spend so much time riding around on a kids’ toy.  They think that you pose a threat to society by running people off benches downtown and wrecking the atmosphere of neighborhood parks.  You may get the occasional stray remark about being a surfer dude, but most people realize that surfers look a lot more clean cut than the ratty crew you hang out with. 

Although you consider yourself an individual, a rebel going against the grain of society, you and your friends wear a uniform.  It consists of a pair of Levi’s jeans, Vans or Converse high-top sneakers, a skateboard T-shirt of your choice, and a flannel shirt worn untucked and only partially buttoned from the bottom up. (Buttoning it the opposite way would make you a cholo: a Mexican tough guy or gangster.)

You are bad news.  Old ladies jump out of the way when you clatter down the sidewalk.  When you arrive at a loading dock in the industrial zone that serves as your makeshift skate park, warehouse workers curse you and threaten to call the cops.  During lunch at high school you are relegated to the corner of campus where the goths, punkers, and other oddballs hang out.  No one aspires to be a skateboarder. You don’t ever expect to see your image on a soda can, video game or box of Wheaties, the way other athletes do. But for some reason the thrill of making your own adventure, finding unusual places to skate, and escaping from security guards keeps most of your spare time occupied.

Act 1

I am a high schooler in Northern California, sitting on a skateboard in someone’s garage. A scratchy cassette tape on a boom box is playing a pirated copy of the Misfits’ trademark three-chord punk rock.  My rag-tag crew of skateboarders, known as Team Bruce, is busy at my side.  There’s my best buddy, Ron, who is fully dedicated to the team and is the most talented skater in our crew.  Chris is sharp, outspoken, and always up for an adventure.  Last there’s big Neil, goofy and bumbling, but so goodhearted that we can’t bear to ditch him.

We’ve been constructing ramps, cobbling them together from sheets of scavenged plywood, and now it’s time for the final phase of our plan: We’re going to hold a skate jam. For a jam, homemade launch ramps, wall ramps, quarter pipes, and other skatable obstacles are set up in a big, paved area, often a school yard. Dozens of skateboarders (hundreds, if we’re lucky) will show up from all over the valley to ride and have fun.

Today we’re pasting together flyers to distribute in skate shops, to friends, and on backyard ramps. But neither our names nor our contact information will show up anywhere. Skate jams are uninsured, unofficial and possibly illegal.  If the cops show up, we’ll probably run: nobody is in charge.

Act 2

On the day of the jam, Ron is the first to arrive, pushing a ramp on top of his skateboard.  Neil shows up a little later, hauling a 20-foot-long PVC pipe.  Chris has a ramp that fits neatly against a wall, allowing skaters to “get vertical.”  We’re soon set up and ready for action.

The jam starts out slowly, but by mid-day we’ve exceeded the hundred skater mark. Guys are riding on ball walls, flying through the air, sliding on boxes, and having a darn good time showing off their latest tricks.  A few neighbors are amazed; others are annoyed at how their sleepy school yard has been transformed into a thriving skate park.  We’ve succeeded and we’re in heaven.   A few older guys are furtively drinking beer, skateboard stickers have been applied to a basketball pole, a car, and a sign; and a few guys are smoking as they skate, but by and large, everything is on the up and up.

Act 3

A launch ramp had been assembled for this event.  As you might imagine, it is made for launching a guy high in the air, Evel Knievel style.  Kids line up, skate as fast as they can, take to the air, do a trick, and with any luck, land on their wheels, circle back and do it again. The guys are doing just that until my pal Chris comes along.  He certainly flies through the air, landing mostly on his board, but he’s off center.  He reaches an arm out to brace himself before he wipes outs. But there’s more weight on that arm than there should be, and a cracking sound is heard over the tumult.  The whole scene comes to a momentary halt.  There’s no blood, but the bump in Chris’s forearm is no bruise: a broken bone is pushing the skin out at an unnatural angle.  I am frozen, partially in horror, partially in dismay that I’m going to have to leave this awesome event and take Chris to the hospital. Moments pass, as if in slow motion, while I stand there. But before I can do anything, a good Samaritan shuttles Chris away.  I feel a guilty sense of relief.

Act 4

When I see Chris at school, a week later, I’m still feeling guilty for thinking – even for a moment – that I didn’t want to leave the skate jam to bring him to the hospital. When he walks up to me, I’m certain he can read my mind.  I expect him to tell me off for being a fair-weather friend.  His eyes are piercing when he speaks.

“Dude, you looked so shocked when I broke my arm at the jam. Were you ok?”

I felt even guiltier than before.

3 responses to “Skate Jam. A Play in Four Acts.

  1. i always knew you were a bad man, bruce. now you’ve provided the proof. So did you stay friends with Chris or did the guilt kill it?

  2. Great story!

    Seems you and I have lead a somewhat parallel existence, but in opposite sides of the country. I skated through much of the late 80s and early 90s in sw Florida. And now I’m into all things boat and art related, but in the Midwest.

    I can remember the industrial parks, construction sites, launch ramps and wall riding. Getting chased by cops across golf courses, parks, downtown, etc., My first drop-in and wind knocked out of me when landing at the bottom of a ten foot vert ramp, also probably my first concussion. Skate comps, bad haircuts, Vision Street Wear, Vans, Converse, etc. All good stuff!