By Tim Schneider
I didn’t get scared until I saw our dad’s expression.
He glanced over from the Indians game when my brother and I walked through the door. But his usual smile snapped off midway like a dry twig.
He went to get up from his chair, then pulled back. I think he was trying not to act alarmed.
I mean, I was still walking, at least. That meant nothing was broken.
[blocktext align=”right”]I mean, I was still walking, at least. That meant nothing was broken. Didn’t it?[/blocktext]Didn’t it?
I wasn’t totally sure. I’d written — and often, drawn — on a lot of casts for classmates by the summer of 1996. They used to say I was “a good drawer,” which in text looks like I excelled at standing in for storage furniture instead of making pictures with markers.
But despite being pretty active in my 13-plus years, I’d never had my own cast to draw on. Both my dad’s face and the pain I was in suggested that streak might be over.
Only the pain wasn’t concentrated in any single place. When you’ve taken serious damage to one particular part of your body, doesn’t your brain block out the more minor aches and pains you’d normally feel elsewhere?
Someone in my family swore by that. Then again, my grandpa used to advise rubbing snuff into bee stings, and my uncle’s preferred poison ivy treatment was sandpaper and bleach, so…
The point was, the pain was plural. My knees. My palms. My elbows. My wrists.
The first three must have been the reason my dad looked at me the way he did. The cuts and bruises there were vivid. Some of them had already transformed into those jaundiced, muddy patches — the types of hues that grade school kids make when they start haphazardly mixing watercolors — that signal you’ve transcended the typical damage threshold.The dusting of asphalt particles, gravel, and dried blood didn’t polish my image any. But it wasn’t like there was any place for me to clean off before we’d come home.
Still, I was most worried about my wrists. I’d kept using my hands to break my falls. I knew I shouldn’t. It was better to roll with the momentum than try to stop it dead.
My brother and his friends had reminded me more than once. But it was a reflex. It was hard to retrain myself on the fly.
I didn’t intend to keep needing an exit strategy anyway.
Combined with the constant, dull throb around the circumference of each wrist, the sharp shot of heat through the center made it feel like someone was injection-molding my bones.
And putting pressure on them was unbearable. I yelped like a wounded dog when I unthinkingly pushed myself off the sticky-hot vinyl of Mike’s friend’s car seat in our driveway.
So I looked like hell. And I felt worse.
But it wasn’t the physical pain my mind was consumed with when my dad asked the obvious question:
* * *
I’d started skateboarding in the spring of seventh grade. My brother and his friends were first, naturally. I joined in because I revered Mike in typical little sibling fashion.
He was three years and seven months older than me. And after an era of conflict during my elementary and middle school years, we’d grown closer than ever.
At the beginning of our relationship’s thaw, the two of us spent afternoons and weekends collecting comic books, playing videogames against each other, going to arcades in the local malls to cheer one another on.
Then came skateboarding. It gave me an opportunity not just to spend more time with Mike, but to integrate with his whole social circle — guys I looked up to for being smarter, funnier, or better looking than I felt as a semi-skeletal short kid with braces.
Like so many other kids, the idea of turning pro at any sport was something I’d dreamed about growing up. But by the time I turned 13 I was sure that was never going to happen for me in any of the mainstream ones. Speed and fearlessness were my sole assets — a logical mixture for a kid whose size left him constantly feeling he had something to prove.
[blocktext align=”left”]I wanted to do things that made me seem bulletproof.[/blocktext]But I’d watched my early athletic advantages slough off over the years like a snake hide, leaving me pink and vulnerable and exposed by junior high.
Skateboarding was a chance to reinvent myself.
Very few other people in Amherst, Ohio, were into it, so skating retained for us the misfit allure that sustained it in so many other cities.
And in a prototypical suburban football town — a place where weekends after the season often pivoted on driving around with the music up until settling on late-night Wendy’s, Taco Bell, or Dunkin’ Donuts — skating also gave you something to do. It motivated you to bust out of your routine. It spurred you to explore.
It drew you to skate spots.
And spots could be anywhere. The home-built ramps in Mike’s friend’s driveway. A stair-step concrete platform at Oberlin’s Tappan Square. The curbs on the north side of the freshly built Amherst post office. It all depended on what you were in the mood for.
One type of challenge was the gap: two skateable planes separated horizontally and vertically by some makeshift span of territory, like two adjacent parking lots split by a grassy incline.
The goal was to do a trick — the most basic being the ollie, the standard skateboard “jump” — from the higher surface over the separation to the lower one and skate away clean.
Something always felt especially ballsy about gaps. Technically speaking, ollie-ing a gap was no different than ollie-ing a set of stairs. You could even argue that stairs were better because, generally, they had a built-in measuring stick. Tell other skaters that you ollied a six-step and they immediately had a frame of reference for how impressed they should be.
Gaps were more abstract. The only way that other skaters would know a given gap’s height, width, or degree of difficulty was if they’d seen it themselves, either in person or on video.
Gaps were their own local legends. Each one had its own character, its own standards, its own name. And in the abbreviated skater community, everyone knew who had set what standards at each one.
Gaps were the perfect embodiment of skating’s outlaw bloodlines. True, it was usually illegal to hit stairs, too. But they were readymade, always there for the taking.
Gaps required imagination. Someone had to notice the potential in some anonymous niche of the environment and will it into being as a spot. “Founding” one was a creative act — the purest form of making something out of nothing. Which, to me, was so much of what skating was about.
Jamie Thomas sealed my obsession with gaps. He was a pro mainly sponsored at the time by a skateboard company called Toy Machine.
One of the first skate videos I ever watched, Toy Machine’s Heavy Metal, opened with Thomas skying off the second-story balcony of a prototypically Californian stucco apartment building into a parking lot — just as the riff to ZZ Top’s “La Grange” seared in.
As a kid nourished on comic books and videogames, it felt like real world superheroism. I hadn’t even considered that physics would allow someone to do what Thomas did. It looked utterly fearless and openly antagonistic to natural law.
I wanted those descriptions to fit me, too. The scrawny seventh grader, the one who’d seen all his athletic advantages gradually nullified over the years, one among the untold thousands who were now mostly regarded as nerds… I wanted to do things that made me seem bulletproof.
* * *My first gap was at the Amherst Post Office. In what seems like an unbelievable oversight in today’s climate, after closing time we could skate right around to the loading docks at the back of the building unimpeded — no fences, no cameras, no security guards, nothing.
One of those docks was only about four feet high, with a landing of gently sloped pavement below. But you had to clear a drainage grate five or so feet out from the base to roll away safely.
In skateboarding, the key to landing anything is to commit. It’s as true for learning a new trick on flatland as it is for landing an ollie over a yawning chasm. It sounds simple, but it’s a mind over matter question.
If you bail in mid-flight, you won’t land the trick — but you’re also far less likely to get hurt. If you commit, your chance at glory comes packaged with higher odds of suffering.
Maybe your back wheel doesn’t quite clear that drainage grate, and your board anchors while you sprawl forward onto the concrete. Maybe the kickflip you tried on level ground doesn’t spin a full revolution before your feet catch it, slamming your arches onto the thin spine of the board as it reconnects with earth. Maybe you misjudge the handrail you were trying to grind and steeple your manhood on steel.
Committing potentially put you on a collision course with these agonies and countless more. But you had to risk something to gain something.
I didn’t commit immediately at the loading dock, but I landed the gap on my inaugural trip.
Naturally, then, I needed to go bigger.
So from the post office, I moved to uncharted territory. My parents’ house had a deck surrounding our above-ground pool, with four steps leading down to the backyard from the north end and a long runway starting at the south. Not a gap technically, but It was slightly higher and noticeably wider than the post office dock.
[blocktext align=”left”]If you commit, your chance at glory comes packaged with higher odds of suffering.[/blocktext]My brother and I hauled a big plywood panel from our garage to the base of those steps to create a landing strip. It gave me just enough real estate to touch down safely before my wheels rolled into the grass and forced me to jog off my board.
In its former life, that panel had been our makeshift roller hockey goal. We used to lean it against our garage door in place of a net. Mike had drawn the logos of every NHL franchise onto the panel in black Sharpie.
Whether because of randomness or intention, we placed those logos face up. I’d roll directly over them if I nailed the trick.
I did. It didn’t take me long, either. Mike even shot the process with our family camcorder. My confidence — and my rep among his friends — grew.
From there we ventured back into the suburban wild. The next most difficult gap was a slope between two parking lots behind an urgent care center. The drop there was the steepest of any I’d tried yet. The sinking feeling in my guts, the sense of weightlessness as my trajectory peaked and gravity sucked me back down to earth — they were the most extreme I’d experienced in skating. Rollercoaster-like, and, ironically, I never dug rollercoasters.
But again, I stuck it during my first session — which only Mike’s two most experienced friends, the ones who’d brought skateboarding back like missionaries from their temporary move to Florida, had done before.
That meant it was time for Society.
* * *Technically, it was wrong to call the bank “Society” by then. Key Bank had bought them out and rebranded the branches.
But the name’s persistence spoke to the mythic quality of gaps. It was “Society” when it was christened, so it would always be “Society.” It was like naming a boat: no matter how many times ownership switched hands, the moniker stayed.
Society was also a grassy incline between parking lots: the higher one belonging to the bank, the lower one tied to a bunker-like accountant’s office. It didn’t look like much to the casual observer. Society had a less extreme drop than Urgent Care. But it was double the horizontal distance.
Less vertical displacement meant you needed more speed to clear a gap. Society’s width and elevation demanded any challenger tear toward the launchpoint with no regard for human life. If you committed — and failed — you were going down hard.
I embraced that risk with no hesitation.
We pulled into the lower parking lot at dusk — late enough for the surrounding businesses to be closed (minimizing our chances of being kicked out), but still light enough for Mike’s camera and me to do our jobs.
The lingering humidity made my limbs feel like they were all wrapped in warm towels. The few overhead lamps in the Key Bank parking lot buzzed with their harsh hospital glare against the purple gloaming — my Friday-night lights.
I had probably an hour to nail Society. It sounds like an eternity in isolation, but basic logistical realities compressed your number of attempts. The more speed you needed, the longer the runway required. That meant more distance to traverse before and after each ollie, like the transit time to take a ski lift back to the top of a run.
And the shuttle time usually expanded as any session wore on. You got tired, hurt, frustrated. Eventually you needed a break — sometimes to rehydrate, sometimes to talk things over with your friends like a player consulting a coach on the sidelines, sometimes just to mentally reload before flinging yourself into the threshers again.
I staked out my starting point up top. Mike framed his shot with the camcorder. His friends retreated to spectators’ vantage points nearby.
I was anxious, but not scared. This was my prime-time moment.Mike and his friends had by this point begun to talk about me as a prodigy — someone who could potentially get good enough fast enough to get sponsored by a skate company, maybe even one day turn pro.
If I nailed Society at this age with this little skating experience, it would mean we’d have to branch out from the established spots to new challenges only I could meet. And skating the old ones would only be worthwhile if I was attempting tougher tricks than everyone else.
It would mean I could be special in all the ways I would never be in mainstream sports.
Granted, there was technically no reason I had to conquer Society on the first attempt. We could come back tomorrow and do the whole thing again.
But right before the shot of Jamie Thomas’s two-story superhero launch, he looks into camera and declares, “First try, ten bucks.”
Thomas wouldn’t need two nights to land Society. That was a pro’s attitude. I had to have the same. Or else this dream would combust like all the others.
I stared down the gap’s edge like a gunfighter from 20 yards back. Mike shouted that he was recording.
I pushed off.
I worked up all the speed I could muster.
I coiled my legs into a crouch. I timed my ollie.
I went airborne. The grass rushed by beneath me.
My board landed a few feet to the side of me and rolled toward the accounting bunker. I shook my head, retrieved it. No problem, I thought. You’re just gauging things. Like taking a called first strike to size up a pitcher.
I sprinted back to the upper level of the gap, kick-pushed back to the same starting point.
I turned, took a deep breath. My heart was the bass drum in a college fight song.
I streaked across the pavement again.
This time I committed.
I thought I cleared it. But my back wheels hit the very edge of the lower lot, grabbing them like the dead hands bursting from a cemetery plot in an urban legend.
Momentum hurled my body forward. Instinctively, I held out my hands to try to avoid pile-driving my face into asphalt.
The pain jolted through my forearms. Layers of skin stripped off the base of my palms. I grunted.
I got up, shook it off. Mike and his friends cheered me, like a boxer clawing himself off the mat to retaliate with a gleam in his eye.
Mike told me I’d launched a little early. Another split second and I would’ve had it. One of his friends reminded me to roll with the fall.
I nodded, agreed, raced back to the starting point — shaking the shock out of my wrists the way I used to when I hit a pitch too far down an aluminum bat handle.
I bull-rushed Society again. I committed.
And again, it punished me.
Everyone had an idea. I shouldn’t start so far back — I was tiring myself out unnecessarily. I shouldn’t try to ollie as high — horizontal distance was what mattered. I was still reaching out to break my falls — cut that shit out.
Ultimately, none of it helped. I don’t know how many times I tried that night, or what percentage of the time I committed versus aborting in mid-air.
I just know that there were plenty of both and no third outcome.
[blocktext align=”right”]I lost track of whether the tears I was holding back owed more to my swelling physical anguish or my deepening doubt.[/blocktext]Every attempt got harder — more discouraging, more undermined by the rapidly multiplying aches and pains.
The advice eventually petered out. Which was better, because the more humiliated and desperate I felt, the less I wanted to hear it from pure spectators.
Soon enough, I was flinging myself into oblivion in total silence.
I lost track of whether the tears I was holding back owed more to my swelling physical anguish or my deepening doubt. I couldn’t tell whether I wanted Mike and his friends to encourage me to battle back or excuse me from having to try again.
So I just kept going.
But as dusk slid into darkness, more and more of my attempts ended in bails than commitments. The fear of another fall overpowered the fear of failure.
It became clear to everyone that Society had beaten me. I just wouldn’t accept it.
Finally, mercifully, night caved in. Mike turned off the camera. His friends turned toward the car. I followed them in silence, my legs spasming, my wrists simmering in dull flames, my pride flayed.
Mike patted me on the back. I winced.
It was over.
* * *Whether he verbalized it or not, I’m certain my dad was pissed at Mike for letting me keep going kamikaze at Society. Mostly, though, I think he was just scared.
He and my mom had never been thrilled about the danger inherent in skating, especially for me, for how young I was, for how hard they could see I was throwing myself into it. But since up to that point nothing terrible had happened, they’d kept their misgivings pretty quiet.
Society changed that.
None of my injuries turned out to be serious. But my dad would only let me go back if I wore pads. He imposed a time limit on the rematch, too. He would come pick me up as a way to protect me from myself.
I fought him hard on both points. Pads were for amateurs and cowards unless you were on a vert ramp (see: halfpipe). No one was going to take me seriously. I might as well skate wearing a clown nose.
And as for him intervening to cut the session short, it robbed me of all the independence and camaraderie I felt as a part of Mike’s clique. Suddenly, I was just a kid again — not on their level, no matter how good I might have been, no matter how much they might have liked having me around.
I lost the argument. But it didn’t matter. I was never the same again after my failure on the first night.
[blocktext align=”right”]I was competing against myself — arguably, even harder than I would have against anyone else. I was chasing greatness for an audience of one.[/blocktext]The second session at Society mostly consisted of me running out the clock. I’d like to think I committed more than once, but I honestly don’t remember it. Mostly what I recall is feeling like a neutered colt being paraded through the breeding grounds to keep up appearances.
I even kept the pads on the whole time. I justified it to myself with the idea that my dad might show up early. But I was fronting. I wanted the protection. And I was ashamed by it.
I don’t know if anyone there for Society Redux actually believed I was going to land it. I feel like they all knew it was over before it began. My confidence was shot. My aura was gone.
But out of either kindness or pity, no one said anything. They all played along as I sung the same minor key melody I’d sung in sprinting, in baseball, in football, in basketball before.
I had partly started skating because mainstream sports rejected me. But the same drive was behind my choice. I wasn’t competing directly against other players. I was competing against myself — arguably, even harder than I would have against anyone else. I was chasing greatness for an audience of one.
And disappointing that audience was the worst of all.
It took me another three years to stop skating. But I never ollied another gap.
* * *Today, I’m 31. The past year has been dominated by an illness that two doctors, multiple specialists, and a battery of tests have so far failed to diagnose. I weigh 125 pounds on a good day — 20-25 lighter than the athletic body I crafted in high school and maintained as an adult.
Looking at my face reminds me every day that it’s just a thin layer of flesh stretched over a skull.
An appalling number of related hits have intensified the distress. Numerous fights with health insurers over prescription options. Botched test results. Absurd scheduling mishaps that delay more procedures.
A week ago, I went for a walk to clear my head — an imperfect substitute for the workouts I scaled back because of my malnourishment. I tripped over a curb in front of a traffic-jammed intersection in West Hollywood and pitched forward onto the concrete.
I should’ve rolled, but I broke my fall with my hands.
The shock went through my wrists. Two knuckles, one palm, one elbow gashed open. I walked the mile back to my apartment leaking blood onto sidewalks, thinking I’d been here before.
[blocktext align=”right”]…just like that long-ago summer night, despite all the outward signs I should quit, I keep throwing myself into the threshers, hoping this time — this dream — will be different.[/blocktext]I once again feel like the semi-skeletal 13-year-old trying desperately to define himself by what he might be able to accomplish. Only the digits of my age are reversed, and twelve years ago writing became my vehicle.
My mystery condition is only the latest missile aimed at my flight path. The entire mission has been far more brutal. Largely because, just like that long-ago summer night, despite all the outward signs I should quit, I keep throwing myself into the threshers, hoping this time — this dream — will be different.
Only the anguish has lasted so much longer, and the stakes are so much higher.
I wish I could settle — go back to the respectable day job with the medical benefits, the paid sick leave, and the nice salary that would have made my situation so much less perilous. Trade ambition for comfort. Decline the torture of trying.
I wish I could protect myself from what I want.
Because I know now that I’m incapable of owning up to the possibility that I may never clear the gap. I’ve proven it, and the self-awareness, the precedents, the history all haunt me.
Every day is Society.
But I still keep getting up. I still keep committing.
Because, even when the signs say I shouldn’t, I still believe.