Monday
Apr112011

The District Skates Alone Tonight

The warmth of this spring night reminds me of one many years ago when I witnessed the messy destruction of a local landmark—an underground skateboarding scene known as "Fight Club". The intensity of the scene inspired me to write about it; however, my ambition grew big and my time grew small. The following piece is the beginning of an article for Concrete Wave magazine that I was supposed to write. I intended to turn it into a book on skateboarding and subcultures in Washington, DC (evident from the lengthy exposition of what's below). I never did. Several months ago, I noticed a piece in The Washington Post that covered the same topic but not as well as I intended to. I had seen a lot more history up close and with some big names, such as Bob Burnquist (drop!). At least their piece got completed and published. (The video below is pretty cool.) Someday I may take up the topic again. I believe subcultures are an important part of DC, potentially the cornerstone of the city's true cultural heritage. Someday...someday...

The District Skates Alone Tonight
by Seth Thomas Pietras 

Several blocks from the White House I stood in the dank basement of a decaying, abandoned warehouse – rust-colored rainwater seeped in the background; the smell of pot and a bonfire thickened the air. Midnight neared, and all around me were the chainsawed remnants of wooden ramps and corners, all that remained of an underground skate park known as Fight Club. As I took in the cheerless faces of some of those responsible for the disaster, the thought gripped me: Skateboarders secretly run our world. They enforce public policy and make legislative decisions. They try court cases and oversee government agencies. They create weapons systems that kill our enemies and keep our children safe. And in our nation’s capital, you will find them, existing in an undeniably obvious skateboarding paradise. Only the marble structures of ancient Rome and Greece would be more nurturing to a plank rider with a creative mind. At dawn, at lunch, after work, and late into the night – come winter, come summer – you will find skateboarders carving up the urban environment of Washington, DC. Yet tourists, residents, and even other skateboarders, rarely take notice.

Nocturnal skateboarding is not the type of story to overwhelm the noise on Capitol Hill – the hum and bustle of national politics and the numbing chatter that attends power. For that matter, very little news time has ever gone toward assessing lifestyles in the District of Columbia. Weeks after my late-night realization, The Washington Post stated: “Washington is often accused of being a city without character or community.”  The Post’s editorial board was responding to the fiery destruction of two beloved local landmarks, the Georgetown Library and Eastern Market. The paper never mentioned the comparatively violent demise of Fight Club. In fact, the city’s largest and most widely read daily rarely gives much thought to Metro events at all. But DC is a place possessing both character and community, and direct evidence rides hidden with each skateboarder in town – whether they know it or not. 

Six blocks south of where Fight Club once was, and within sight of the White House and the U.S. Capitol, is the District’s skateboarding hub: Freedom Plaza. Here “skateboarding is illegal,” a member of the Park Police told me without irony one beautiful morning. We stood at the center of the flat monument, commonly known to skateboarders as “Pulaski.”  The expansive plaza consists of smoothly waxed slabs of stacked granite and marble that stretch for half a city block. It was designed in 1980 mainly as a tribute to the civil rights movement. At one end there is a large bronze statue of a Polish military commander who fought and died on behalf of Americans during the War for Independence. Despite all evidence to the contrary, “no one is free to skate here,” the park ranger informed me. “Skateboarding is a danger to the tourists who visit, and it contributes to the decay of the monument.” 

While it is the job of the Park Police to patrol the area – and they do so vigilantly, handing out tickets, confiscating boards and occasionally locking people up – Pulaski remains a well-used park by skateboarders: civil disobedience at its best. Would you expect anything else from the citizens of a city whose default license plate reads “Taxation Without Representation” – a clearly raised middle finger to the federal government, which operates inside DC, but confers it with zero Congressional representation? Neither would I.

To think, Pulaski rests in one of the most policed stretches of land in the nation, between the White House and the Capitol, where there are four separate enforcement agencies on patrol: the U.S. Park Police, the Capitol Police, the DC Police Department and the Secret Service. Yet people still skate there. Every single day. Even while talking with the ranger, skaters could be observed hovering around the park’s edges – waiting, watching. 

The draw of Pulaski is that it consists entirely of classic skateboarding features – extensive flat-ground, perfect marble ledges, different size gaps, manual pads and numerous planters. The monument’s creators inadvertently built a near-perfect street course. Pulaski as a confined space is unique in this sense, because it offers everything; but oddly enough, the city as a whole is constructed in this skater-friendly fashion, and from Pulaski skateboarding spots radiate out in all directions – efficiently distributing hassled youth throughout the city. There’s Archives, Welfare Banks, Chef Ledges, White Steps, formerly a spot known as MLK, and of course the famous Golden Rail at Metro Center – an eight-step drop with a perfect handrail (as seen in 411vm, Plan B’s “Virtual Reality”; New Deal’s “Cigar City”; Krooked Skateboard’s “Krooked Kronichles”; and The Kayo Corp’s “It’s Official,” to name a few skate films).

The reason there are so many places to skateboard is because the majority of buildings in the District, erected in the post-World War II era, draw on a bizarre confluence of neoclassical and mid-century modern designs – lending long, sweeping ledges and curvature to the structures – which make the city a virtually endless terrain park. Even newer buildings echo the existing styles. “Some cities are depressing. This city is fun,” Bradley Rosado, a local professional skateboarding videographer, told me. “There’s always new stuff to find.” It is, thus, rather poetic that the architecture chosen to represent our highest governing body is the terrain of choice for those who would seemingly be the first to rise up against it. But there’s a reason why this relationship works.

As we all know well, skateboarding is typified by the D.I.Y. mentality. (The neighbor’s swimming pool wasn’t exactly going to empty itself, was it?) In the District, this most-American of traits has been cultivated into an art form. As a long-neglected city, Washington, DC has forced its residents to take their destinies into their own hands – for good or bad. It was not until 1975 that the city had its first mayor, and not until the late-90s that it had one that was competent. Without direction and corrupted by poverty and drugs, the city limped away from the destruction caused by the riots in 1963, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The District, officially country’s first majority black city, literally destroyed itself in response to racial tension.

So, fostered by the terrain, liberated by oppression and overlooked because of federal and local politics, skateboarders have thrived in the District for decades, becoming known for their well-rounded abilities and bigger-than-common “pop.” With a constant flow of new youth coming into the city with every election cycle and school year, the District’s skateboarding community is continuously refreshed. The city has, as a result, perhaps one of the most sophisticated skateboarding subcultures in the nation – one that transcends racial division and socio-economic lines on the most extreme levels. As Bradley related to me: “We’re a family” – an especially poignant statement coming from a guy who keeps a blog about skateboarding in the District called “The Forgotten City.”

In the spring of 2005, however, that subculture, which spawned a community far-reaching into diverse grouping of people, quietly divided itself on philosophical lines—and Fight Club was born....

Wednesday
Mar022011

Edward Hopper's Middle East Peace

Edward Hopper would have painted Dubai. Yes, the light and structures lend themselves to the sharply lit geometry of his work. But it’s more about relationships.

The emirate—which mainly extends a narrow strip 15-plus miles in length with two distinct urban centers, one commercial, one residential—traverses as well from the ancient to the contemporary, from Istanbul to Las Vegas. It does so as much architecturally as culturally and socioeconomically.

Hopper painted a post-Depression, pre-World War II America—one that was moving quickly into the modern age. When not focused on the sober structures and landscapes that defined an America trying to comprehend its new place in the world, he displayed how people grappled with the interpersonal issues within it all—at the theatre, at restaurants, at home, or just taking in the sun.

His subjects were contemplative, rarely making eye contact, with each other or the viewer. To me they look like they’re suffering from a hangover, one induced by the highs and lows of a society moving too fast, of keeping up with expectations.  

As I sat with the sun worshipers on the Leisure Deck of the new Bonnington Hotel in Jumeirah, I recognized similarities in scenes and emotions. Dubai is dealing with a post-financial crisis world, while its visitors and residents still bask in the awkward glories of the idea of what Dubai is supposed to be—all amidst a rapidly changing Middle East.

From my seat I noted a host of nationalities, starkly lit people tentative in their presence. The Europeans on vacation. The Asians conducting business. The Indians working for a better life. And all were interchanging these roles as well. Each deeply internalized with their own purpose. The paradox was that while I felt disconnected from the individuals around me, I had never felt more a part of the world at large.

Hopper would have seen this and conveyed it in oils: everyone looking to each other for how to define themselves, but no one looking at each other to see that we're all up to the same thing—just making our way in a world whose ceaseless pace is what connects us all.

Amidst all our methods of communications, there may still be a place for painting yet, and it is in Dubai. 

Tuesday
Mar012011

Friend for a Moment, an Indian in Kuwait en Route to Dubai

The large crowd began to move quickly with people shouting and some running away. Because everything being said was in Arabic, which I do not speak, I could not tell what was going on. Something was happening though. Chaos ensued—more shouting and shoving—and I tried to keep up with the throng so I wouldn’t get trampled. Then, amidst the tumult, our eyes connected: a friend.

From recognition came relief, and it felt as if we actually were old buddies. Although we had only met an hour earlier while waiting in line, a bond had formed—the type of strong but temporary connection that is made by a mutual acknowledgement of situational vulnerability. We met at ticketing—both alone and lost—and together had braved the masses.

As a result of the holiday, thousands of people filled the Kuwait airport pressing the airline desks, no ropes, no rules. Just hot, frustrated people of every origin and seemingly with every item they owned crammed in their luggage. I despise lines, and this was the worst I’d ever seen.

To the young Indian fellow behind me, whose ticket I spied and knew was on the same flight, I said: “If you wait here and save my spot, I’ll find out whether the online check-in desk is legit. I’ll wave you over if it is.” He understood what I was doing, but I could tell was doubtful about my motives. When the airline desk proved to be taking only our type of ticket, I signaled to him. He cut through the crowd. We established a trust.

Once past that point, we parted ways without words—until later when hundreds of people, angry from a delayed flight, bolted upon finding out the airline changed the gate at the last minute. My new Indian friend and I slipped easily into conversation about our shared confusion, and so we stuck together.

Interestingly, due to the panic, people were gathering based on nationalities. Pakistanis found Pakistanis. Kuwaitis found Kuwaitis. Emiratis found Emiratis. I could not identify any Americans, but my new companion brought me into the Indian fold. A group of them had formed a splinter line ahead of a random security check. And for that, I made my flight.  

“We have been speaking a while, and I do not know your name. I am Rony,” he said to me later. Turns out he was there to deliver his nephew to his sister. He had never met his sister’s son before, a two year old who was raised by his grandparents in India. Ronny spent three days with him, and then the two boarded a plane for a thousand mile trip from Karivellur to Kuwait. “He bit me in the arm once,” Ronny confessed, adding: “I don’t think I’m ready for children.”

At the point of our meeting, he was headed back to Bengaluru, where he lives and works as a systems integrator for an IBM subsidiary. He made clear throughout our conversation his determination to succeed. He lives alone, works the night through—while it is daytime in the U.S.—and spends his free time learning more about his job. As a 25 year old, he is on his way professionally. As one of more than a billion in his country, he seemed isolated, kept company by only the Hollywood movies he downloads. Work now, the rewards would come later. It is an ethic I can respect.

But from bike accidents and broken bones to stories about epic dusty bus rides, it turned out we had a lot in common. Traveling can be lonely and confusing, and at times life can be too. If occupied or encumbered, however, I would have missed this momentary connection—a couple hours in an airport on the far side of the world. We were just two friends chatting while the world around us on almost every level swirled in disorder and discontent. No work, just waiting. And that was reward enough. 

Thursday
Feb242011

The Painted Words of an Illiterate Man

Kuwait lacks graffiti. I like graffiti—good graffiti. Not bubbly words and goofiness. But something someone put time into. Heart-felt, painful expressions of urban plight. Joyous exuberance etched in windows. Political exclamations pasted to walls. Coded communications glued on billboards. Even inside jokes stenciled on street signs. In Kuwait, though, all I got is a bad speller who was happy on his birthday.

During a long walk today, I realized this lack of wall-side scribbling. At first I noticed a number of stencils. It turned out they were for official use—noting utilities or something. The Arabic threw me off. But they did have an aesthetic quality to them.

Then I saw discrete red lettering on the sides of buildings. Surely this was some sort of cipher. Nope. Turns out it was a numbering system for newspaper stands.

Only after a good search, did I find a bus stop, tagged in big bold letters. It read:

7 December 2010
A day of celebration
A day of anniversary
A day of Ahmed

“He is…um, you say, ah…illiterate?” my translator said.

OK, sure. But he does have a sense of composition. His lines of text reflect the square shape of the wall, but are raised and offset, resembling a soft diamond. The posted bills over it add depth, and the vomit makes it truly gritty.

I’m reaching. It is bubby silliness.

Tomorrow I’m off to Dubai for the weekend. I wonder if I’ll find any serious tagging there.

Wednesday
Feb232011

Sleep, Jetlag, Coffee, Alcohol, Water and Mosquitoes 

There is a mosquito in my office and I’m not sure whether it is real or just my imagination. I’m delirious from irregular sleep. The insect appears silently, floats about and then vanishes. The space is fairly empty—only a desk, several chairs and a filing cabinet, so there isn’t anywhere to hide. Perhaps it is a delusion. 

Never have I had such terrible jet lag. Several days into this trip and my mind and body are still not adjusted to the 8-hour time difference. I feel drugged. Thoughts spin about, and I’m open to the slightest distraction. That, or I’m hyper-alert.

The error I made was in taking a nap after arriving, at about 3pm in the afternoon. I should have forced myself to stay awake until the night. This has been compounded by a constant workflow here and from Washington, drafting and redrafting documents and proposals. I’ll be in the office until 8 or 9pm, return to the hotel and work intermittently for another couple hours.

Usually it only takes a day. When I traveled to Bora Bora last fall, I did not have jet lag either going or returning—and that was a 10-hour difference. Now it seems no matter what I do I cannot find a rhythm.

Yesterday, I was awake for more than 22-hours, on the heels of less than four hours of sleep. Last night I fell into a deep sleep quickly, but then was wide-awake a couple hours later. It felt like I slept an entire night. When I saw that it was 3am, frustration overwhelmed me. I lay for the rest of the morning alternating between staring at the ceiling, watching videos on my iPad and writing. By the time my alarm went off at 7am, I dozed off again for two hours, and then could barely shake myself awake.

Plenty of water, along with the right doses of coffee and alcohol, do the trick normally. Here those ingredients are skewed. The coffee seems stronger, and I tend to drink too much of it. And there’s no alcohol, which can induce sleep quickly. I tried drinking one of the fake beers they have in the mini-fridge, in an effort to fool my brain. My friend ML says this is an effective tactic. I found it to be disgusting—a frothy rice drink that left a terrible taste in my mouth.

For now I catch mosquitoes…out of the corner of my eye. At least I haven’t begun itching, the result of real mosquitoes. I’m only twitching, the result of imaginary ones.