Thumbs and Smiles

Living as a weird skater kid II

7 p.m. Wednesday night. Loathing myself in a heap of self-inflicted procrastination. I came across a two minute clip on Facebook about a portrait photographer named Richard Renaldi. His project is called Touching Strangers and it starts with him standing in the middle of a busy street with an old fashioned, large format camera and a concept.

He snags a stranger off the street and puts him in front of the lens. He then adds another volunteer, pulled out of the masses. You can see the wondrous confusion on their faces. The photographer asks the strangers to embrace like close friends. It was weird. It was beautiful. Their body language was relaxed and comfortable, even though they never met before. After the social experiment, they reported to have felt an enhanced sense of empathy for their fellow strangers.

These pinpoint moments of humanizing energy radiate with hope for our future. This photographer conjured up that energy and brought it to blossom at the front of his lens. But it lurks in crevices that we pass over in our daily lives. It’s simple, really. We just all use different tools to extract that energy.

This road has seen a lot of us

My friends and I happen to use skateboards. Bright smiles and largely desecrated shoes with our dirty thumbs out, hoping to get back to the top. We watch the cars pass as they give us various hand gestures, smiles or frowns. But no rides. Until one driver out of the masses rolls the dice and pulls over. Maybe they are safe kids, the driver speculates.

Once we recognize they pulled over for us, there is a certain mixture of stoke and achievement that courses through our veins. A driver pulled over is an outstretched hand, waiting for a reply. Assuming that they are not stopping just to condemn our “dangerous and stupid” practices, we clamber into the car. The established tradition of saying hello and thanking them for the ride up is the preface. After settling, we try to get a good look at who the driver is. Really it could be anyone.

That’s the great weirdness of it, they are strangers that rise out of a cloud of nobodies. But by picking us up and outstretching their hand, they became real. They are moms, adrenaline junkies or just curious folks. They all have something to say. And something to ask.

“How do you stop?” is one of my personal favorites. It opens up an answer that is much bigger than me and will take much longer than a car ride up Grizzly Peak.

Glen is mid-power nap waiting for the next line of cars.
Glen is mid-power nap waiting for the next line of cars.

Nevertheless, the basic analogy to car drifting adequately explains the bare essentials, the roots of our fanatics. As I teach them, they teach me. Like any good instructor knows, learning is a two-way street. Sometimes my favorite conversations are the simplest ones. “I picked you up because…”

Sometimes they are the parent of another skateboarder, a retired O.G. freestyler or simply fascinated with our ravenous hunger to skate down mountain roads. I’ve met the wife of one of Liam Morgan’s old high school teachers and Big Dave’s aunt accidentally while trying to get to the top of my local favorites in the bay area.

The wife of Liam’s high school teacher asked “Do you know if he still skateboards?”. She was honestly surprised to hear that he gets paid to skate around the world. Big Dave’s aunt told us about his broken bones and told us to try our best to stay safe. And on one freakishly warm winter day with Glen Vance, we got a ride from a young man driving a beat-up black sedan. He was asking all of my favorite questions. “How do you slide?” “What wheels do you ride?”. some people are bothered by the novice questions about downhill, but I tried my best to articulate that it doesn’t matter what kind of wheels you are riding or how fast your bearings spin, it’s about practice. I smiled at his story about how he used to ride a flex 3 loaded dervish because not too long ago, I was (and still am sometimes) a grom out kooking around on the hill.

He explained to us why he was in California. Originally from Georgia, this dude pretty much bolted out of his house at 18 and now is going around the country to see new things for himself. He seemed really excited just to be autonomous. Excited for new things.

Glen and I hitch up a local favorite

Sometimes the best conversations are the broadest ones. The stories of nomadic travelers across the country remind me of my own hunger for leaving a place, like an eternal footman. But I also understand the anxious ones, that honestly worry for us as skaters, but largely as kids.

I’m a white cis-gendered male so my experiences may be a bit different, but it seems that within those conversations, a lot of boundaries dissolve, at least partially. Often times we are on very different journeys. Coming back from work to a family or taking my handful of runs before homework. But those short conversations balance in a space that are at a dramatically slower tempo than our daily lives.

Maybe I am too optimistic for humanity. Maybe I am confusing these moments of clarity with fool’s gold. Maybe that’s okay. If we can do one thing, I know we can tell some damn good stories. Don’t hesitate to write down or at least mull over your own tales. These short, out of context blurbs from our lives develop into beautiful narratives of adventure like rolls of film. And I’m sure your shots are crisp.

Good luck out there folks,

– Fish


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