A grownup attempt at kids' play
By Sean Davidson

It's a good thing we didn't move the couch, because it's right where I happen to land when I fall off the skateboard. Not that "fall" is really the right word -- it's more of a face-first catapulting across the room, a horizontal freefall, caused by my not-even-close attempt to do a pivot off the nose.

The couch is the only soft thing in the otherwise concrete room, and I plow into it pretty hard, knocking my head against the armrest. From somewhere behind me my instructor, Sam, explains my mistake, that I dropped the tail end of the board too soon through its 180-degree swing to the front, turning all my forward momentum into an uncontrollable diagonal, and am I okay?

I am. In fact I'm laughing giddily.

We're in the back room of Adrift, a shop in Toronto's Kensington Market where Sam James does a brisk trade this time of year giving skateboarding lessons -- usually to indestructible children but, in this case, to a stray grownup who has come in looking to give it a shot, to see if I can surf a two-foot plank of wood without any real embarrassment or injury.

I usually prefer bicycles but, with mine in for repairs, I'd bought a skateboard on an impulse, curious to try it out seeing as, at 34, I'd never so much as stepped on one. Never ollied or kickflipped, wouldn't know a 50-50 grinder if I fell off one which (who knows?) maybe I just did.

The skate park, as it is known, is a grey room about the size of a racquetball court -- with a few wooden obstacles and a giant U-shaped contraption in the back. (Not, technically, a half-pipe, Mr. James corrects me. More of a mini-ramp.) And the couch.

"Lessons for adults are pretty rare. I might do one every two months," he says, noting that almost all skaters start as kids. Mr. James is a lanky and cheerful 29 year-old -- in the usual baggy clothes and baseball cap -- and has been skating for a little over ten years.

And yet, he adds, grownups are quick studies, quicker than the kids who don't yet entirely know how to use their bodies or who have never studied physics. Children are just fearless and they heal faster.

Ain't that the truth? A few years ago I thought nothing of riding a bike down a flight of concrete steps and, if it went wrong, I'd bounce back up, with a bruise to point out and a funny story to tell. But now either everything's getting harder, or I'm getting more timid.

And the parts don't work as well as they used to. Knees become trick knees, backs become bad backs. The warrantee on human bodies runs out sooner than we think.

"I had kind of a battle with myself about starting to teach," Mr. James says, because the sport is traditionally self-taught by trial and error. "But after I thought about it a bit more, it [became] more about wanting to get the kids off on a good start," he says. To stop bad habits before they start. He's been teaching since last year.

We get back to the basics, both of us going back and forth in safe, straight lines. He corrects my posture and the positioning of my feet with a sprinkling of skaterly lingo. It's okay to ride "goofy" -- with my right foot on the front of the board, but not "mongo" -- with that foot parallel to the board and too close to the rear foot.

The most common mistake, he warns, is facing one's whole body forward, which makes it hard to balance. He tells me to line up my shoulders with the length of the board and adds, with a certain Yoda-like flourish, that I must "think sideways."

That, and keep my knees bent.

Even the straight lines are tricky. A skateboard is steered by angling it side-to-side with one's feet but, to unpractised ankles, it will keel and swerve unpredictably. I'm told that my running shoes are no good for this because the heels are raised. Skateboarding shoes are flat for better balance, and rimmed with rubber strips that help stick to the board.

Unlike a bike or a snowboard, it's also a lot of work to keep one of those things moving. Even on a smooth surface such as the floor at Adrift a skater needs to kick at the ground every few seconds just to keep from coasting to a halt. Being on a sidewalk or the pockmarked surface of a parking lot, I would learn later, is like trying to ride a brick across gravel. This is sweaty, wheezing work that requires a lot of unnervingly precise timing.

"Your front foot should always be moving. Always, always moving," Mr. James says, demonstrating on his own board, dancing it over the front two wheels.

This is also a problem because, given that the feet are over the wheels, moving either foot at the wrong time to the wrong position turns the board into a giant, $100 lever that will pitch the rider forward into god-knows-what or back, into an embarrassing butt-plant onto bare pavement.

This happens many times, the board springing out from underneath me, but after an hour of one-on-one I'm starting to get the hang of the basics, although I still can't do a pivot off the nose. Even some of the most basic moves can take a lot of practice and this does a lot to explain the habits of real skaters -- why they seem to live in parking lots all spring and summer, relentlessly, stubbornly breaking themselves against metal rails and concrete just to learn one or two new tricks.

These include the ollie, a basic move in which the board jumps off the ground, useful for getting onto sidewalks, or the more dangerous railslide, during which the skater skids the underside of his board along a rail or curb.

"There's always stuff to watch and learn," Mr. James notes. And to relearn. At 29, he's old by skater standards, and admits that he has to practise harder these days just to keep up with the moves he learned as a kid. Like me, his nerves are also starting to go.

"When I was younger, I'd jump down a flight of stairs, no problem. But now?" He rolls his eyes and winces. "You start getting hurt. And you start getting hurt badly."

No doubt, I nod. And yet, I can't help but ask about the mini-ramp, if I can ride down that thing at least once before I go.

Mr. James looks at me uneasily. "That wouldn't be a good idea," he deadpans. "There's too much that can go wrong."

The Globe and Mail
April 23, 2005