Metaphysics in Montreal: why I (still) skateboard
A toy, a nuisance, or a method of connection across space, time, and class?
by will spencer, contributor
Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to Montreal. Simultaneously my first time in Quebec and being that far east in this vast, colonized land; so far that I left the numbered treaties behind. And why did I do this? To marvel at the architecture and scenery? To enjoy the world-renowned nightlife? To bask in the sublime historic sites, museums, and galleries? To partake in those delectable Quebecois dishes? No, no, no, and, emphatically, no. What, then?
To skateboard, of course. For the better part of my life – 16 years and counting – this wooden toy has occupied my mind to such an extent that it has shaped my entire being, as anything will if you let it play such an intimate part of your life. It was this insatiable craving to play on a wooden toy in a faraway land that was the impetus to transmute me across 2,800 kilometres. And I allow this toy to warp my life around it, an adult that finds infinite joy in pushing around on a piece of wood, despite the inner and outer struggles it presents: the psychological and physical struggle within the individual, and the societal struggle presented by hostile passersby, and the inevitable interactions with the marginalized.
What is it like to be an adult who still indulges a childhood whim well past its expiration date? First, you are given the unique pleasure of fulfilling some of your playful desires from childhood – one of mine being to travel like the tours of skaters I saw on TV in the early-aughts. This produces an experience that I can only describe as a glimpse into the manifold of existence: you arrive at a spot, one that you have seen multiple times in many skate films, skated by a panoply of skaters before you. Confronting the space, all of the completed tricks by those before you suddenly appear in your mind. I liken this experience to occupying a space you have seen in a film, where you can recall the scene from the past and the present moment simultaneously, which produces a vertiginous feeling of being thrown around in time.
When we arrived at the Olympic Park in Montreal, we headed straight to the Big-O, the sculpted entrance way for the Olympic athletes. I had an ineffable collection of tricks come to mind, too many to name here. The cement graffiti-ridden sculpture is odd and slightly imposing at first glance: an open, curved extension continuing into an enclosed pipe with an opening in the roof near the end. It looks as if it were a half-pipe transitioning to full-pipe for skateboarding, and designed exactly for that purpose. However, from afar, the structure reveals the shape of a whistle, such as those worn by coaches and referees at the games. This enigmatic sculpture became internationally famous, inducing skaters of all stripes, from average joe to pro, to flock to this odd sculpture in Montreal and take part in a piece of skate history.
The second spot I must badger you with before moving on, and wherein I experienced the above (at first glance, I felt dizzy from all the tricks invoked in my mind by the spot), is the Place de la Paix – more colloquially known as Peace Park. This black marble plaza was inaugurated in 1994, devoted to remembering the casualties of nuclear war. Despite the noble message behind the plaza, it finds itself home to many people living in crisis, given its proximity to the heart of Montreal. It is also a popular spot for skaters because the marble makes for perfect grinds and slides, and manual pads. Peace Park also offers sublime flat ground and a few small staircases to pop tricks up; essentially, it’s a skateboarder’s dream.
If you watch any skate films, you will eventually see people living in crisis. At worst, these people are used as comic relief or, at best, as merely a nod to their existence. This is a deplorable side of skateboarding and we, as skaters, must be more solicitous, assisting in whatever ways we can, and avoid turning them into a spectacle. Because of the nature of skateboarding, occupying a single spot for up to several hours, it tends to induce interactions of a certain kind, generally with people living in crisis or self-anointed vigilante skate-haters. I advocate that we end using people in crisis in our videos. But, if the self-anointed assholes want to cause a scene, let them be exposed.
As an adult pursuing childhood whims, it brings into question your relationship with yourself, with the object, and with the activity. How could it be that I let this toy shape my life well into my adulthood? I still ask this question: some days I’m sure of my answer, and others I am not. But is this not like anything we engage with for an objectively long time – a decade, or so? Does there not come a point in everyone’s relationship with an activity, a thing, a person, that they question why they are there, why they do it, why they want to continue to do it? Is this not, to some degree, what is quintessentially human: to question their circumstances, to compare with others, to desire the best for oneself? To this day, however blasé I become at times about it, or enraged, I insist that I love this toy.
On the last full day of our trip, I was filming a line at Victoria Park. It was late in the day, I had rolled my ankle the day prior, and I was getting indignant with my performance. During a few attempts, one trick began to categorically fail, and I snapped a few times. My friend, who patiently filmed with a fisherman’s dignity, waiting for hours for that sublime catch, said to me in a subdued voice: “I don’t think I want to keep filming you if you keep screaming like that. It’s not my style.” I nodded, knowing he was beyond right. I had forgotten everything and needed a reminder of my influence, how subjective anger creates an objective atmosphere. And I completed the trick shortly thereafter.
In any case, I don’t regret my time spent with this wooden toy, nor do I regret it dragging me across the country to numerous places. I embrace it wholeheartedly. If I haven’t made it clear, I hope you may find a similar solace in an activity. For me, this activity serves manifold purposes, and so could yours: connection to community, access to creativity and free movement, unintended health benefits from excessive cardio, hopping, and bailing, and the pride that everything you do is earned by sheer experience, something that can never be purchased. I hope you, dear reader, find your “skateboard,” and may it take you in unfathomable directions.