It seemed like a very bad idea. I’d recently watched Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, an excellent documentary about the skateboarders I’d idolized as a kid, guys like Steve Caballero and Tony Hawk who helped carry the sport from its infancy into the mainstream X-Games era. I told my buddy Jason about the film, and as a fellow retired skater, he had the same reaction — let’s dust off our boards. The last time either of us had done so, Jason was living with his wife in a condo in Old City. They were a young couple enjoying urban life. Now he’s in South Jersey, with three kids under the age of six, running a company. We’re both in our late 30s. I wondered if we’d be fulfilling a wish to recapture a bit of lost youth, or just fulfilling our medical insurance deductibles.
We staged our comeback at Paine’s Park, nestled along the Schuylkill River trail just south of the Art Museum. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we parked near the museum and rolled down an asphalt path to the 75,000-square-foot skatepark, a wonderland of concrete and metal. What’s striking about Paine’s is the way it serves a dual purpose — plenty of obstacles for skaters to carve lines and throw tricks, but also space for onlookers to watch the action without fear of being clubbed by a runaway deck. Benches offer great views of both the river and the skating. As you descend the stairs into the lower level, the benches aren’t for sitting — they’re for grinding and sliding.
We were also struck by the park’s low-key vibe and surprised to see only about 10 guys cruising around on this summer day. If a skater falls and sends his board flying, someone grabs it for him. Pull off an impressive trick and you’ll hear a chorus of boards clattering against the concrete — a skater’s ovation. A young white guy with dreads and no shirt carved runs while a young girl filmed him with her smartphone. A shirtless black dude buzzed past an oldhead with salt-and-pepper hair. All ethnicities and ages were well represented. For those who still think of skateboarding as a pastime of delinquents, there were no drugs, alcohol or even any foul language.
Jason and I uttered a few choice words to ourselves while we tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to regain our old form. We’d both picked up safety gear, and as I strapped on my knee and elbow pads, I noticed we were the only ones with any protective equipment (save for a young teen with one wrist guard who was landing very big kickflips over the stairs). Skateboarding is not like riding a bike — you don’t pick up where you left off years ago, especially when your reflexes have slowed a bit and your body knows what grown-up pain feels like.
We hung mostly in the south section of the park, with low ollie boxes and benches and a lot of flat ground for cruising. It felt like a de facto old-folks zone, which suited us fine. My ollies were weak. Jason’s shin bore evidence of a kickflip gone wrong. I bailed on a backside boardslide that would have almost certainly ended with an ER visit. We both laughed at how antiquated our boards were. Yet none of the other skaters mocked our full-body armor or our rusty skills as they whizzed by. Maybe they respected the antiques we were riding, or just the fact that we’d showed up. More likely, they were too busy having fun to care about us.
After about an hour, Jason successfully pulled off a couple moves that impressed us both but don’t have names — they were more like “Ride Over the Spine Without Hurting Yourself,” “Don’t Tell My Wife I Tried This” and “Wall Ride to Don’t Break Anything.” I perfected an ollie to 50/50 onto the edge of a step that was no more than a foot off the ground; if that sounds cool, then you don’t know skateboarding. But it felt great to land it and feel the smooth concrete under my wheels again.
With both of our T-shirts soaked in sweat and Jason due back at the office, we decided to end our session on a positive note (i.e., with no major injuries). As we headed out, a park attendant named Paulie approached and asked if we knew about the new skate site that just opened in South Philly, near the Gray’s Ferry Bridge. He looked about our age, knew a lot of the skaters by name, and had the old Santa Cruz skateboards “screaming hand” logo tattooed to his neck. Paulie said he was headed there later to meet up with Joshua Nims, his boss and one of the masterminds behind Paine’s Park. We said we both had to get back to work, and he encouraged us to come check it out some time. “The young ones and the old ones love it,” Paulie said. I told him we’re definitely in the latter category and we laughed.
As Jason and I drove away, that brief exchange felt better than any of the meager tricks we’d pulled off. One legit skater talking to a couple guys well past their prime as compatriots. That’s what the Bones Brigade documentary and our visit to Paine’s Park stoked — a forgotten sense of community. We vowed to play hooky again soon.