Midmorning on a summer Sunday in 1987. The smell of mown grass and auto exhaust, the asphalt soft underfoot, warmed by the sun. Signifiers of home for me.
Woodward Avenue, an eight-lane racetrack connecting downtown Detroit to its northern suburbs, was a place of rushing traffic even at this time of day, so we walked parallel to it, cutting through the yards of churches and synagogues, skirting the gates of faux-Tudor subdivisions, fording the grassy swales separating one glass-mirrored office complex from another.
Not so long ago this was all countryside, and we stuck to the shelter of the old-growth oaks and maples lining the road whenever we could. Otherwise we sweated under the sun, the three of us, in our Air Jordans and cutoffs, our knees scabbed-over from too many falls to count. We pushed ourselves along the sidewalks, bumping over the cracks and avoiding rocks, our right legs working like pistons. When there was no sidewalk, we carried our boards.
No one knew where we were. Friends, siblings, parents, no one–an exhilarating feeling when you’re 14 years old, on your own and unaccountable to authority. It’s a limited kind of freedom, circumscribed by geography and age. But freedom nevertheless.
After about thirty minutes we arrived at the parking garage, a five-story, poured concrete ziggurat a few blocks off Woodward, in a town called Birmingham. We had talked about skating this place for months, about sliding its steep ramps the way the guys in skate videos bombed hills in Malibu, and now here we were.
We stood out on the sidewalk for a while, scouting the scene. The garage was closed, so we didn’t have to worry about cars. We didn’t see any cops. We didn’t see another soul, actually. It was perfect.
I grew up about twenty miles outside the Detroit city limits. As close as the city was, nobody I knew went there very often, except for strike missions to Red Wings hockey games. For most white suburbanites, my family included, Detroit in the 1908s was an end-of-days place, its problems chronicled on the local news each evening. I remember sitting in front of the TV on Halloween night, watching the city burn from hundreds of arsons.
We weren’t old enough to drive, and rides could be hard to come by. There weren’t really any buses; this was the Motor City, after all. The lack of buses was also about race, because everything in Detroit was about race. Suburban leaders had assiduously walled off their towns from Detroit, and that included bus routes.
So, out of necessity, we walked a lot. My world was bound by tight circles.
My house became a gathering point, both because I lived near our school and because, in an era of absentee parenting, my parents were more absentee than most, consumed by work, social engagements, and, eventually, divorce. (Looking back, a friend said, “Man, I never saw your parents–it’s like you were raised by wolves!”) Our house was old and rambling, with ivy creeping up its white-brick walls, and I was an only child, with the upper floor to myself. People came over to skate or play Nintendo, or, when I got a little older, to drink beer or smoke weed. Sometimes, when the weather was nice, we climbed out my bedroom window and hung out on the roof. It gave us a bird’s-eye view of our tiny domain.
Earlier in the year, a developer began building homes in the field next to my house, a remnant of the suburb’s country past. I had grown up climbing the apple trees in that field, and I resented the intrusion. Soon, though, I noticed all the lumber sitting around the building site, unguarded. Ideal for building a kicker ramp.
The ramp, about four feet high and six feet long, catapulted us into the air, where we attempted a trick of some kind–grabbing the rail of the board between our legs, say–before falling back to Earth. We built it from specs we got from our local skate shop (we couldn’t just Google the instructions, of course), and spray-painted it in the best graffiti style we could muster.
We set it up in my driveway, and for weeks all we did was ride while a boombox played Metallica or the Misfits or Public Enemy. My driveway fell away steeply from the road, so sometimes we started at the top, next to the mailbox, and hit the ramp at warp speed. This usually ended badly, but I lived for that brief moment of weightlessness before gravity regained its hold, before I lost control and bailed out, sliding across the asphalt on my kneepads, earthbound again. I hadn’t learned yet to be cautious.
At some point that summer we discovered the bowl, which was on the grounds of our high school campus. Our school was part of a large, private campus that included science and art museums and a sizable lake. The grounds, heavily wooded and studded with surprises, went on for hundreds of acres. Abstract metal sculptures sat tucked away in the trees like deconstructed jungle gyms; the planetarium ran laser light shows set to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; rumor held that the lake’s decrepit stone boathouse was the site of faculty-student trysts back in the 1970s.
I don’t remember which of us first found the bowl, hidden in the woods behind the art museum. A reflecting pool that had been drained of water (presumably awaiting renovation), the bowl was kidney-shaped and maybe four feet deep, and partially shadowed by overhanging evergreens. It boasted a pleasingly gradual transition between the flats and the top–good both for small aerial tricks and maneuvers at the lip, where we’d smack the top of the bowl with our boards before rolling back down.
It was barely rideable when we came across it, muddy in places and filled with brush and leaves. So we brought brooms and spent a half-day cleaning it out, dumping the detritus over its back ledge and into a small valley below. The bowl’s only drawback was the rusty intake pipe at its center, which emitted a steady drool of water–not enough to prevent us from skating, but enough to create a permanent trickle down the bowl’s fall line, an obstacle to be navigated.
There was something bewitching about the bowl. Though small by the standards of the skate videos we devoured, it possessed a gravitas that our rinky-dink ramp couldn’t match. Sessions there felt more hard-earned: we had found this place and made it ours.
My friend Eric and I skated it the most because we lived closest. Evening sessions were the best, as the air cooled and the light drained from the sky. Eric was the most stylish skater I knew. His airs looked effortless as he floated above the lip, untethered by the laws of physics. Mine, by contrast, were ungainly things, brute-force reckonings as I willed myself towards flight.
The idyll lasted through most of the fall, but it was an impossible secret to keep. Though obscure, the bowl wasn’t actually that far off the beaten path. Skaters we didn’t know started showing up in rowdy groups. The campus security guards finally caught on, too. Some just shooed us along; others threatened us with arrest. Skating there grew riskier by the day. One day we arrived to find the bowl filled with water, our work undone.
As the calendar ticked over into 1988 we all got our drivers’ licenses, which opened up new vistas–concerts, parties, road trips to northern Michigan. We drifted away from skating. The ramp gathered dust in my garage. For a few years, though, this insular little world was the organizing principle of my life, my alpha and omega.
Back in the parking garage, we stood on the top floor in the half-light, the sun slanting through slits in the concrete walls. I looked out across the sprawl, its gridded neighborhoods and strip malls and burnt-green parklands. I could hear cars out on Woodward, the occasional voices of passerby. Otherwise, quiet.
The way to ride the garage was to slide it. Kick out your back foot and force the wheels to skid across the cement, your board fishtailing like a car in a high-speed chase. It amounted to a controlled burn and, done properly, it slowed you down and kept you on your feet. We had practiced these slides plenty of times. The garage was just a more serious application of the technique.
One of my friends, Danny, always the boldest of our group, pushed off and quickly disappeared around the first ramp’s corner, his wheels barking against the smooth cement. Eric went next.
I took a breath and considered what I wanted to do, planning my route like a skier staring down a mogul field. I got onto my board and began to move. Then, suddenly feeling off-kilter, I pulled up short, taking my right foot off and dragging it against the ground. False start.
Another breath and I let go. The first corner came and I slid through it, kicking out hard, almost losing control but holding it together. A level or two below me, one of my friends hooted with joy. The sound echoed through the empty garage.
Chris A. Smith is a writer, journalist, and college teacher in San Francisco, California who has written on everything from national politics to African psych rock to killer asteroids. See his work at https://chrisasmith.contently.com/.