Last weekend, with a car full of scooters, skateboards, helmets, pads and water bottles, we took the boys to a skate park in Boston. Situated directly beneath the breath-taking Zakim Bridge, it is, despite the absence of color, remarkably beautiful yet manages to be heart-breakingly representative of a world so different from the one in which I live. The very fact that it is under a bridge conjures up many visuals, none of which are pleasant.
On the fringe of the skate park that includes deep concrete bowls and ramps and metal bars upon which to skate, sat a broken down car alongside a tent – presumably ‘housing” – for an unfortunate soul or, worse, an entire family. In one corner, abutting a small-but-mighty bowl – as in 20’ deep – a group of teenage boys with their boards casually (yet quite deliberately) propped alongside them, their undersides proudly displayed, unabashedly passed a joint around, each taking a hit before passing it on to the next guy.
Nearby, but definitely apart from them, a just slightly older group of young men were imbibing cans of Keystone or Schlitz or whatever cheap beer they’d managed to procure in such a way that I half expected to see a charcoal grill and wading pool just outside the frame.
While it sounds like a undesirable, even questionable place for us to have brought 10- and almost 12-year old boys, there was nothing scary or sordid or unnerving about it. In fact, the older kids were as respectful as one could hope or wish them to be given the fact that we had shown up in what was unmistakably their park. Had the situation been reversed, I am not so sure the same respect would have been shown. True.
The brief, infrequent conversations among the regulars were primarily gestures, nods and eye motions which were endlessly upstaged by the constant symphony of wheels and landings and thuds and whooshing and whirring surrounding us. The incessant, spontaneous choreography melded so seamlessly with the sound of wheels hitting pavement resulting in an exquisitely melodic, captivating and entirely accidental musical crescendo.
There was an undeniable culture in this park under the bridge.
The skaters were male, tattooed and, truthfully, many of them, should we meet on the street, would likely prompt me to cross to the other side. They were sweaty, muscular and had an affinity toward Nikes and graphic t-shirts. And, despite being well-versed on the ins and outs of the park under the bridge, a ridiculous number of them were limping, rubbing their butts, knees, hips and wrists and wearing splints and braces. Yet they never stopped moving for very long. I am fairly confident that the splint on this guy’s finger could be traced back to the park…
As much as this middle-aged white mom stood out, so, too did two scrappy girls, Heather and Renata. 12-year old Heather and her father Joe were regulars at the park. Before chatting with them, we had observed Joe gently coax Heather into first balancing and then teetering on the edge of the bowl before rolling down into it, a space so vast and deep that, not for nothing, neither you nor I would consider climbing down on foot, let alone on four wheels with no brakes.
With long dark hair hanging down her back, she rocked back and forth only a few times before she leaned forward into the hole, shot down like a rocket before riding up the opposite wall, her hair flying wildly behind her. Joe stayed with her until he knew she was comfortable and confident enough to go on her own and then gently backed away, allowing her this moment. As the back wheels left the rim, his smile was even broader than hers. I hadn’t expected to have a ringside seat to such a great father/daughter moment at the park under the bridge, but did.
And then there was Renata. All of seven years old, she was the definition of scrappy. A little bit of a thing, she assertively weaved her bright blue scooter in and around the throngs of young men darting (so damn fast) on and off the ramps and bowls. At one point, as we were walking the perimeter of the park (hoping, frankly, to avoid being run over) I noticed her sitting with her parents begrudgingly hydrating and, despite being visibly tired, was clearly annoyed that she was missing out on skate time. Me being me, I approached to tell them that I’d been watching her and wanted her to know how cool I thought she was. Needless to say, she loved hearing that and thanked me so politely that it was everything I could do to not hug her. About twenty minutes later, one of the boys told me that she had just done a total face plant on the concrete. Imagine my surprise then, when I saw her not ten minutes later, right back up on the scooter, her tears having mixed with sweat leaving her with dirty, well-earned streaks against her freckled face. She was handily the coolest person in the park.
Right before I took this picture she told me (with just a touch of effrontery) that this was the “millionth time” she’d descended the ramp that was steep enough to make me itch.
This park under the bridge, full of people with fire in their bellies for wheels and jumps and bowls and speed and height actually awed me. As I sit here days later, the sights and sounds still so vivid, I marvel at the bravery and grit and spunk of these folks, part of what one might call a “sketchy” crowd who have found a passion, consider the stretch of concrete a slice of heaven and care not one whit that it is under the bridge.
And a thank you to them for sharing with the likes of me.