Just Flop

More than one way to fall off a skateboard

Robb Field. "The straps on the elbow and knee pads had been tied into knots by previous renters."
  • Robb Field. "The straps on the elbow and knee pads had been tied into knots by previous renters."

The few times I’ve seen the Robb Field Skateboard Park in Ocean Beach, it’s been while sitting at the end of I-8, waiting to turn left onto Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. The park lies straight ahead. Sit through one red light on a weekday during afterschool hours, and you’ll see 25 helmeted boys gliding along concrete paths, jumping, and twisting in midair, all on skateboards. It looks like fun.

But is it fun enough to induce a man of nearly 30, with a job and family, to risk injury and embarrassment? Last time I sat at that intersection, I decided to find out, but only if I could find a guide.

The first thing I needed was a skateboard. I’d seen them at Big 5, but I suspected the ones they sold were the skateboard equivalent of the Yugo. Instead, I called the downtown skateboard shop Street Machine and told store owner and pro skater Eric Obre my plan to try the Robb Field Skateboard Park.

“Great,” he said with a French accent “We’ve got a guy working here who’s a local there. I’m sure he’ll be happy to show you the park.”

He gave me the name of Tim Amerine, who would be working the next day. I called Amerine and told him my Robb Field plan. I said I needed a board and confessed that I had no idea what they cost these days. “We can get you set up,” Amerine said, “for about $90. The park requires helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads, but you can rent them there. How much skateboarding have you done?”

There was no point in lying. “Very little," I told him. “And that was 15 years ago.”

It was still close to a lie. True, it was 15 years ago, but it was a point-A-to-point-B, no-frills brand of skating. I never learned any tricks. I could never do that “ollie” thing, where skateboarders snap their boards into the air to jump up curbs and onto park benches or stair rails. I suspected Amerine’s definition of “very little” would include these things.

Next day, I rode my bike down to Street Machine on the west side of Fifth Avenue, just south of Broadway. Tim Amerine, a midsize man of 22 with close-cropped brown hair, introduced himself from behind the counter of the narrow, well-appointed shop with wall racks full of boards, wheels, and trucks (the apparatuses that connect the wheels to the board) along with skateboarding clothing and shoes. I asked what he recommended as an economical but adequate board for a 200-pound, 29-year-old man trying to learn to skate again. He pulled one off an upper shelf. It was black on the bottom with the words “Street Machine” painted in large bold letters and “X-lrg” in small letters near the edge. Shiny metal trucks and white wheels were already in place. Black, gritty tape, similar to the type placed on stairs for grip, covered the top surface. Both ends of the board angled upward. “Try this,” Amerine said.

I set it on the carpeted floor and climbed aboard. The board had a lot of lateral play in it. “Trucks are too loose,” Amerine said, motioning for me to hand him the board, which I did. He flipped it over on the counter and, with a small wrench, gave the nuts in the center of each truck four or five quarter turns before handing the board to me again. “Still too loose,” he said as I tried the board a second time. “The board is touching the wheels. If that happens while you’re going, it makes the wheels stop...”

“And I fly forward...”

“Exactly.”

Amerine tightened the trucks further, then adjusted the wheels with the wrench so that they would spin freely but not jiggle. “That should do it,” he said.

“Do I need shoes?”

He leaned over the counter and glanced at my well-worn basketball shoes. “Those will be fine.”

I paid for the board, $96.70 after tax, and Amerine and I agreed to meet the next day, around 10:00 a.m., at the Robb Field Skateboard Park. “Keep it real,” he said as I walked out. I wasn’t sure how to respond and stammered, “Right on.”

I took my new board and rode back to my office, where the parking-lot attendant, Sean, asked to see it. I gave it to him and he stood on it for a minute and shook his head. “When I was a kid,” Sean, who is 38, said, “our boards were much narrower than this. And they had bigger wheels, and we used to cut the front into a point.” He skated off toward the other end of the parking lot, turned, and came back, “and our trucks were much looser.” With that he tried a 360, nearly fell, and turned the board back over to me. “That’s enough for me.”

I took a few turns around the lot on the board, pumping up to the high side, then coasting downhill to the other end, where I made broad, leaning turns around the attendant’s hut On one such turn, I leaned too hard, the board shot out from underneath me, and I landed on my butt Sean howled with laughter as I got up and chased after my board, which rolled off the curb and across the street. When I caught up to it, I flipped it over to look at the bottom. A white skid mark on the black bottom indicated that the board had made contact with the wheel That night I tightened the trucks up even more.

Though the park is just over a turquoise-colored iron fence from the intersection of I-8 and Sunset Cliffs, you have to drive another mile— south on Sunset Cliffs, right on West Point Loma Boulevard, right into Robb Field, and all the way to the end of the driveway — to get to it. It sits wedged into a triangle formed by the San Diego River jetty, Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, and a soccer field at the north end of Robb Field. A few skaters were already there when I walked up to the box office at the park gate at l(h05. After signing and initialing a few forms waiving the City of San Diego’s liability in case of an injury to me — even if I can prove it’s their fault — I paid $5 to get in; helmet and pads are free. The helmet they loaned me — bigger than a hockey helmet, smaller than a football helmet—was a bit tight. “Biggest I got,” said the man who gave it to me. The straps on the elbow and knee pads had been tied into knots by previous renters, rendering them too short for me to fasten. “The kids do that to make them shorter,” the man in the office said as he looked around until he found some that hadn’t been tied.

With helmet and pads on, my skateboard beneath me, I surveyed the layout of the skateboard park. Immediately in front of me, to the east side of the box office, two ramps led down into a sculpted concrete bowl. It was 50 yards from this end to the far end, and 20 or so at its widest point. The bottom of the bowl was flat except for three concrete structures. The first was a four-sided pyramid with the top cut away and replaced with a steel rail. In the middle of the bowl was a rounded hump, like a giant speed bump, and at the far end, in the deepest section, a six-sided, eight-foot-tall obelisk, each side rounded at the bottom, rose up from the floor.

To the north of this bowl, known as the “street” section of the skate park, sat two kidney-shaped “pools,” nine to ten feet deep, without obstacles. The half-dozen skaters on hand busily crisscrossed the bottom of the street section, riding up high on the rounded walls before turning and crossing the floor to try another trick on the opposite side. A couple of older guys worked the two pools, often flying up well above rim level — “mad air,” in skate speak. The speed at which they skated and the execution of their aerial maneuvers impressed me. I was starting to wonder what I was doing there, afraid I was just going to be in their way, when Amerine skated up to where I stood. “Is there anything I should know before I try?” I asked him. “Any etiquette about staying out of people’s way?”

Amerine, dressed in baggy jeans and yellow T-shirt, with an unbuttoned plaid shirt over it, smiled. “No, just keep an eye out for other skaters. They’d be watching for you too.”

He started to move toward the ramp, and I threw in one more question. “If I fall, how should I do it?” “There’s no one way to fall,” he answered. “I just flop.”

With that, he tossed his board out in front of him, hopped on it, rolled down the entry ramp, jumped off the topless pyramid and down into the far end of the street course. I swallowed and followed him down the ramp, swerved right around the pyramid, and headed for a banking wall, which I rode up at an angle. I was expecting to roll up, make a little U-turn, then roll down the wall and on down the course, the way a ball would. Instead, my board rolled straight up the wall, showed no inclination to turn, and started to roll backwards, the way it come up to the wall, then you turn on the wall. Your front foot should be ready to slam the board back down as the front wheels come off the ground.”

Armed with this advice, I started down the ramp again, hit the same high-banking wall, rode up about halfway, turned as instructed, and started heading back down the wall. But as the board started to roll down the wall again, I fell off in the direction of the wall, giving myself a healthy raspberry on my right calf. Peeling myself off the concrete, I chased my board all the way across the bottom of the bowl to the other side, while other, more talented skaters whizzed by.

My next two attempts to turn on the banked wall ended up in disaster as well. So I found Amerine talking to his bride, Vanessa, who was sitting on a bench outside the fence. “I keep falling off the board to the wall side,” I complained, “every time I try to turn on a wall.”

“You have to lean in, away from the wall as you turn,” he explained.

My fifth try to execute a simple turn on a wall, something even the few ten-year-old boys in the park had no trouble with, succeeded. I continued across to the left side of the course. This time, I would have to make a turn to the left, which, since I skate right-foot-forward—“goofy” as surfers and skaters call it — would be a back-side turn. Up the wall I rode, and when I kicked into my turn, my board went to the right as planned, but I kept going forward and slammed into the wall.

I found Amerine again and asked him if there’s anything different about turning to the back side. He shook his head. “No difference. It’s just not as natural as turning to the front side.”

As 11.00 am approached, I had made several runs through the street course, not trying too much. The skaters around me, 20 of them, didn’t seem bothered by my ineptitude. They simply skated around me—no comments, no scornful glances that surfers refer to as “stink-eye.” Perhaps it was due to the tattooed rebel look so many skaters exhibit, but I’d expected to feel unwelcome — maybe experience some of the hostility surfers often exude toward nonlocals. But there was none of it. Kevin Thatcher, publisher of the San Francisco-based skateboarding magazine Thrasher, spoke to me about that. “Skaters do have much more of a come-one-come-all attitude — the more the merrier and all of those cliches — despite the outer vibe,” he said. “For the most part, your average everyday skaters, and even guys at the pro levels, they’re a bunch of sweethearts. There’s new asphalt being poured every day. There’s plenty of skating terrain out there. It’s not like surfing or skiing, where you’ve got to go searching for a wave or a slope and make a big effort to set aside a weekend to do it. You drop off your porch, and you’re skating.”

One skater I talked to at the park, 15, maybe 16, described the general mood at Robb Field. “It’s usually pretty mellow here. You don’t see a lot of tempers flaring. Sometimes, in the afternoon, when there are a lot of kids around, it gets crowded, and guys will get frustrated and you will hear words. But if you come early, like this, everything is cool.”

“And people will be able to see you’re a beginner, so they’ll watch out for you,” Amerine added. “The only time they’ll get upset is if you get in their way. Even then it’s just for a second.”

It wasn’t even that bad when I was there. When I skated unaware into the path of one advanced-level skater, causing him to hurtle off his board onto the concrete floor, he got up and blamed it on himself: “My fault, bro. Are you okay?”

According to Thatcher, the camaraderie among skateboarders goes beyond advanced skaters tolerating beginners and into the realm of solidarity. “Totally,” he said, “because there’s an us-against-the-world feeling. It’s the last kind of rebel-spirited outlaw activity that hasn’t sold out. Surfing.. .sold out. Snowboarding.. .start at the beginning of the season, and you’re a pro by April. There’s much more of a dedication and a cultural vibe with skateboarding. And part of that is because skating is not for everybody. That’s what glues the skaters together is that it’s a rough-and-tumble deal” Returning to the comparison with surfing, Thatcher added, “Surfers resist any contact with anybody else. When a surfer sees you paddling out at his break, he’s thinking, ‘Get out of the water, get in your car, and get the out!’ With skaters, the vibe is, ‘Hey, you’re welcome because we’re all skaters.’ ” The last thing I wanted to learn before I left the skate park was how to “drop in” to the bowl. Dropping in is when you start on the rim and skate down the side wall into the bowl. I asked Amerine to show me. He took me to a section where the wall wasn’t too steep and only four feet tall. “Hold the board with your back foot like this.” He stepped on the tail end of his board, pinning it to the rim of the bowl so that the rest of the board hung out over the wall. “Then, you put your weight forward onto your front foot and...” he plunged down the wall to the floor of the bowl, turned, and came back. “Give it a try.”

I held the back end of the board in place with my left foot, took a deep breath, and stepped forward onto the overhanging board with my right foot. But, fearing I would fly forward ahead of my board and into the concrete floor, I didn’t commit enough of my weight to the front foot and the board slipped forward, out from underneath me. I fell backward and ended up on my side, scraping my right forearm and thigh. “You’ve got to get your weight on your front foot,” Amerine instructed, “or you’re going to fall off backward like that.”

My second attempt was an instant replay of the first. “Watch me.” Amerine performed another perfect drop-in. I paid closer attention to the weight shift this time and noticed that he was so far forward that his head was above his front foot, as if he was eager to put all of his weight forward in order to get the front wheels onto the concrete as quickly as possible.

On my third drop-in attempt I imitated his weight shift and was successful, though a little bit wobbly, or “sketchy,” in skater lingo. “Yeaaaah!” Amerine said, bestowing the universal skater word of praise upon me. “Now you’ve just got to keep practicing it.”

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