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The Saga of a Girl and Her Flexdex

By Inga M. Muscio

APRIL 10, 2000:  Violence, near-death experiences, death itself, emotional trauma, alien abduction, and disease are among some of the things that might cause a quality-of-life epiphany. However, motivation for positive change doesn't always have to come from a negative source. Occasionally, a "shot in the dark," one of the few life-altering occurrences that doesn't generally involve catastrophe, can trigger personal evolution.

A shot in the dark is a thought out of nowhere, often completely irrational and senseless. The overwhelming tendency is to ignore these thoughts. After the following very true events took place, I learned to heed shots in the dark.

Part I: San Francisco

One quiet spring night, a month or so before my 32nd birthday, I was rudely awakened from a blissful sleep. Chest pounding and breathless, I bolted upright in bed and turned on the light. A thought -- one powerful enough to wake the dead (precisely the demographic I most resemble when slumbering) -- resounded (tong! tong!) like a grandfather clock:

"Must have skateboard, bah-dum.
Must have skateboard, bah-dum.
Must have skateboard, bah-dum."

"Where did this come from?" I wondered, as I turned out the light. Unable to get back to sleep, I lay in bed thinking for the next two hours: Why on Earth would a perfectly sensible person wake up in the thickest blanket of sleep with self-imposed demands to acquire a skateboard?

When I was a kid, I remembered, I used to occasionally steal my brother's and ride around, but skateboarding never enjoyed a starring role in my childhood. Heck, even as I moved forward in history, I couldn't even recall having sex -- or even dinner -- with a known skateboarder.

Finally, I fell back asleep thinking, "Maybe I'll buy me a skateboard for my birthday. Now shush." But the thought didn't shush. It receded to the medulla oblongata region, pounding in time with my heartbeat. For the next month, "Must have skateboard, bah-dum" became an uninvited mantra. My anti-skateboard rationale became explicit and relentless:

For starters, I didn't really want a skateboard. As an avid Schwinn five-speed beach-cruiser rider, I knew all too well the abject hell motorists create on public thoroughfares. I couldn't imagine the nightmare of riding a goddamn plank on wheels across town. Also, going into some boy-ego-infested skate shop -- to be treated like a clueless chick who probably just wants to impress her new pro-skater boyfriend with her willingness to take up his interests -- was very unattractive. In addition, I would in all likelihood kill myself.

I finally decided that my skateboard obsession was some rarely reported symptom of a pre-midlife crisis, an attempt to reclaim a deeply buried part of my youth before I got too on in years. While schizophrenically recognizing this as a bald-faced lie, I managed to dress it up fairly convincingly and made do. My birthday passed, and like magic (poof!), the skateboard thought disappeared.

So now it's well into May, on a day that sucked harder than a Shop-Vac. Every interaction with fellow human beings was, at best, mildly horrifying. The gear housing on my bike jammed with absolute finality. After a hard day's labor, my beloved Schwinn and I walked home. In the pouring rain. But the moment I got home, things shifted.

As I lugged my bike up the stairs, Shug breezed down, kissing me lightly on the cheek, saying there was a package by my door. As I disencumbered myself at the top of the stairs, Bambi bustled by: "Oh, baby! You look like you had a hard day! I made some nice soup! Oh, and you got a package! See what it is! See what it is!" Sini poked her head out of the TV room: "We got a good movie! Come watch it with us after you open that big, mysterious box by your door! And bong hits, sweetheart, we got sticky, green bong hits, for you!" Espying the package, one final housemate, Alisun, came out of the kitchen, a bowl of steamy nice soup and warm bread in her hands. She said, "Thanks for doing the dishes this morning. You rock. What's in the box?"

I looked at the box for a few minutes, wondering what it could possibly be. I took it into the dining room with a pair of scissors and carefully slashed the strapping tape.

Inside ... Inside ...

Oh, inside was a brand spanking new Plexiglas skateboard, with metallic pink trucks and smooth wheels that whispered soft promises when I flicked at them! My heart lurched as I retrieved a little bag containing multicolored butterfly and pretty flower-shaped grip tape decals. This was some deliciously diabolical magic, indeed. Who in the name of Christ and Satan burrowed into my subconscious and produced this miracle?

A W.I.G. Magazine-letterheaded note on the board's underside: "Hey girl! I did an ad trade with these folks, and they sent me two boards. I don't know if you could use one or not, but happy belated birthday anyway! Love, Kathleen."

I screamed.

The next morning, I had a coffee date with my dear friend Bridget Irish (100% Irish, born on St. Patrick's Day). Looking forward to a solid blast of caffeine, I hustled into clothes, and before gathering the wits of consciousness about me, carried my 45-pound bike down the stairs.

"Fuck," I said, as I promptly lugged it back up, remembering that only the day before she had suffered a disabling gear housing crisis. Was this gonna be another bad day? How was I gonna get deep in la corazón de la Mission? The bus would leave me 10 damn blocks from the coffeehouse. Then I remembered I did have another mode of transportation now, didn't I? Sure, I had no idea how to negotiate it through 25 city blocks, but I knew in my heart that if I didn't ride it that morning, my beautiful new skateboard would languish, possibly for years and years, before I overcame my fear.

"Fuck it," I said, grabbing that gorgeous metallic pink truck and hauling ass downstairs again before I could talk myself out of it.

On that first morning ride, I walked across all the intersections and stumbled over every crack in the sidewalk. But I made it in one piece, without so much as the threat of road rash. Soon after my inaugural ride, I began spending a lot of time in empty parking lots. "Good" and "bad" pavement became part of my lexicon. I chased down random skatekids and asked them questions:

How do you carry this thing?

(By the front truck. You may notice most skaters have threadbare spots on the side hip of their pants. Grip tape = sandpaper.)

How do you get over the F Car tracks on Market?

(Subtle manipulations of weight make it possible to "step" with the board. This is also how people get up curbs -- something I will probably never be able to do. Too scary.)

How do you get down curbs?

(Go fast, fly, land, keep momentum.)

How do you go down hills?

(Most skateboards have "lips" that curve upward on the front and back. This design enables one to shift the direction -- left, right, or completely horizontal. Most skaterfolks take the hills in San Francisco by maneuvering in and out of the horizontal position, zigzagging down. Since my board has no lips, it was suggested that I drag my foot. Two 14-year-old girls and a 12-year-old boy instructed me in this maneuver. While one foot holds the board's velocity, the other perfectly balances in the mosh pit of physics and slides behind on the pavement. At first I had to slam my foot down over and over, but the balance of dragging my foot became an eventual reality. All my right foot soles are worn to shit.)

Shug's girlfriend Stephanie said, "Constantly scan the ground in front of you. You will not fall if you can figure out how to watch the ground, the cars, and the lights all at once." Which unveils the mystery about why skateboarders are known for cutting pedestrians off, or worse, colliding with them. Think of all the things you have to negotiate: poles, newspaper boxes, cars, rocks on the ground, aluminum cans, trails of mucous clams, dog (?) shit, et cetera. In the grand panorama, banging into a human being is neither as life-threatening nor (in most cases) disgusting. Therefore, pedestrians rank relatively low on a skateboarder's list of potential pitfalls.

I soon discovered both the camaraderie and the cattiness of skateboarders. Often, when we pass on the street or sidewalk, we smile and slap hands. Girls never fail to light up with joy when we see another girl skateboarding. We chat at lights and trade boards for a block or two. Sometimes, though, boys (and boys exclusively, in my experience thus far) sneer as if to say, "Yeah, you can't really ride that thing, you wuss poser."

And, of course, they are right. I can't 360 off ramps or jettison down parking garages at 40 mph. But then again, I've never (knock on wood) had to carry around a chopstick so I can reach the itches inside the cast on my arm. This reality is far more attractive than being considered a "real" skateboarder.

A brilliant woman named Kim Aires once told me why she likes to dress up as a man. Kim loves going to porn theaters, but men tend to focus on her when she goes as a woman. So Kim dresses as the sleazy "Leo LeGennaro." Thus transformed into an anonymous patron, she is free to enjoy her pastime. My butchie-poo friends have challenged me about why I refuse to dress up in drag, even once, just to check it out. I've attempted to force myself, but you know, I think I'm terrified to see how men get to cruise around with freedoms that are just not a part of my life. It would kill me inside to even glimpse all the freedom that is not available to me. It would make me sad that I am a woman, and I have never in my life, not one single solitary time, been sad that I am a woman.

But then ... Riding home from Doc's Clock latey-late at night, some of the truly beautiful realities of being a woman on a skateboard arrayed themselves before me.

Generally, it seems that when non-skaters hear a skateboard, their brains automatically register "boy." This creates an assumption that may or may not be countered. It is the strangest, most convenient thing. This renders me invisible to precisely the group of people I most prefer to be invisible to when I am alone late at night. Men who hassle women are generally not interested in young ruffians on skateboards.

On the other hand, the sound of a skateboard is psychologically associated with "potential babe" to a huge population of women -- gay, bi, and straight. On top of these fabulous bonus prizes, regardless of the perceived gender factor, the feng shui of a skateboarder's physical arrangement is graceful: You look like a cool badass on a skateboard.

But let's say I were to be hassled while riding alone at night. A little skaterdyke taught me how to kick up my board and catch it by the front truck. That's right: hop, kick, and catch: instant blunt object, shield, and projectile device. Float like a buttahfly, sting like a bee! In fact, Southwest Airlines makes you check your skateboard because they consider it a potential weapon. (This policy, may I add, is a nerve-racking pain in the ass. They are the only airline that requires this, and it totally sucks. Although, I suppose one could conceivably cleave the skull of a preoccupied businessman tapping his foot against the back of one's seat if one had enough room to swing.)

So there you have it: Skateboarding has transformed me into an freer, cooler, albeit armed woman without altering my gender. Seems like a perfect-world setup here, now don't it?

Part II: Austin

On the West Coast, where I've lived most all my life, it isn't rare to see a woman or young girl on a skateboard. In Seattle and San Francisco, I'd see at least four skateladies a week. Not a massive population by any means, but at least enough so's a girl don't feel all by her lonesome. Naturally, then, it was astounding to travel across America last fall and see nary a skatelady. No doubt we exist, but in three months, in our whole country 'tis of thee, I didn't see one girl on a skateboard.

Here in Austin, I ogle the grade of tar you people use on your main roads. It is optimal. Sweet Austin's soft hills and curvaceous grades make for positively breathtaking rides. You can take the bus way up South First and swoosh downhill for miles and kilometers and miles.

We even have Tekgnar (used to be Blondies), an awesome woman-owned skate shop, fully staffed with lovely boys from heaven above. Where, then, are all the skaterchicks? The folks at Tekgnar told me that maybe one or two ladies a month come in for boards or equipment.

Cindy Wade, program supervisor for the Austin Park and Recreation Department, says she's "never seen one girl at the skate park in all the times I've been there." Not one, ever. What up?

Through a massive amount of research, I managed to track down two Austin skateladies, who also happen to be two Austin drummer ladies, Michelle Schreiber and Stephanie Tower, to sit down and discuss this very issue.

Michelle, the drummer for Austin band Buttahfly, just got a skateboard two weeks ago:

Why'd you get a skateboard?

"Cause I realized how much fun it was after I rode my friend Sarah's skateboard. It just hit me: I needed to have one again. I had one when I was in my late teens, but I guess I just kinda phased out of it and got more into riding my bike."

What do you mean by "fun?"

"I mean freedom, baby. I think it brings out a real childlike quality inside me that I like, and there's something about being on wheels in the open air. There's no dependency on anything else, on anyone else. Like you have to wait for the bus, and when you're in a car, you're trapped in traffic. You can also carry a skateboard with you, so if you want to hop on the bus, you can. You never have to lock it up. And I use muscles that I don't use in any other way."

How come girls don't skateboard around here?

"I'm wondering the same thing."

Well, why didn't you skateboard when you didn't skateboard?"

I dunno. [Long pause, reflecting intensely.] I really don't know, but I've had a number of great dreams about skateboarding since I started again."

Stephanie Tower, drummer of the kickass punk band the Applicators, started skating seven years ago, and the passion hasn't abated:

How often do you skate?

"It depends. If I'm feeling healthy, and nothing hurts, and I'm not on the rag, I try to skateboard every day. I have to feel good physically to skateboard."

Do you consider yourself a "real" skateboarder?

"Uh, well, I guess I'm just a dork. It's not like I have my room all plastered with pictures or read the [skateboard] magazines. I don't even know who any pro skaters are. When I see advertisements with skateboarders, I think, 'That's not what I do.' I skateboard because it's challenging and rewarding. The reward being that you don't get hurt if you do it right. Skateboarding is challenging in a similar way as drumming. It makes people aware that they may have the tendency to think someone else can't do something because of the way they look. Like it forces people to think, 'Wow, maybe girls can do things like that.'

We [the Applicators] recently played a show at a skate shop in San Antonio. They had a small half pipe in the parking lot and kids were all skating around, but there weren't any girls skating. And I didn't really want to start skating around because I was the only girl, and I knew everyone would stare or whatever. But I did anyway because I felt like I had to represent. Once I started skating, the boys were all totally supportive and cool and all. But then again there's stuff like when I used to go to the skate park and the kids there would, like, roll their eyes at me, or mumble things. And that was hard, you know. That's another thing I like about skating and playing drums, they both make me face my fear of embarrassment. No matter how good a musician is, there was a time when they looked stupid, and no matter what, when you're skateboarding, you're gonna fall at some point. You're gonna have to literally pick yourself up off the ground. ... Skateboarding gives you so much freedom."

Like what kind of freedom?

"You're all by yourself, going your own speed. I feel like I'm totally in my own world and the rest of the world is kinda like a video game -- an obstacle course with all these things not to run into."

How come more girls don't skate?

"You got me. I honestly have no idea. It's a total mystery to me."

Yes, indeed. It is a mystery to us all. Perhaps women simply never consider the option. Lordisa knows, I never did before all that weird stuff happened before my birthday a few years ago. But it is funny how a single weird and irrational thought can have a massive, positive impact on your life.

If you let it.

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