i got thinking lately about the question: who's your favorite person to skate with? We all tend to talk about our favorite skaters and about video parts that get us hyped up but even if we get to watch them skate in person, most of us don't get to regularly skate with those pros. So it comes down to, who do you most enjoy skating with? i get thinking about the group of us that all started skateboarding together in elementary school back in the 1980's. i think about the great friends i made on a board throughout high school as we were all coming of age and coming into our own as people. i think about the guys i started up conversations with in college just because we were all wearing skate shoes. i think about the people i've met at various skate parks, people i've bonded with at various jobs over skate discussions, and of course all the great people i've met through now owning my own skate shop. Many of these people are folks i still talk to and call friends to this day. i've enjoyed skating with so many incredible people and hold those memories dear. So is there really one who was my favorite to skate with?
Fuck yeah there was! Phantom Skater!
i went to college in Lowell, MA. Lowell has incredible street spots to skate and in the 90's there was so much crime there, you could skate just about anything at night when no one was around and the cops didn't really care. They had bigger problems to deal with. Sometimes those problems became your problem but it's incredible how fast a skateboard and lots of adrenaline can get you away from someone.
No need to get into what teenagers do newly on there own without supervision at college but when "hanging out" with my fellow scholars - every few nights i'd hear 'that sound'. Every skater knows that sound, the sound of bearings as a skateboard rolls by outside. It doesn't matter how loud it is or who's talking, that sound pierces through it all and summons those of us who've been called to the board. It's like our own Bat Signal or dog whistle. But no matter how fast i moved or who got pushed out of the way i could never actually spot him. He was a PHANTOM.
i was making new friends who skated and was hitting great spots but i had become obsessed with finding this Phantom Skater. i started going out every night at midnight, no matter what i was doing, to go skating in hopes of finding him. It started to become a running gag: "Where's Tom going?", "Oh it must be midnight, he's looking for Phantom Skater".
Meanwhile, i was having some of my favorite skate sessions of my life. i was skating every day. As an absolute night hawk, around midnight has always been my favorite time of day and here i was doing one of my favorite things during my favorite time of day. i also am a true introvert (to say the least) and skating at night, all by myself, with absolutely no one around was so liberating and granted me such a pure skating experience. Those midnight skates became my favorite part of the day and i was constantly thinking of them when in class, in the dining hall with friends, and even when "hanging out".
i'm sure to some i seemed somewhat obsessed with finding this Phantom Skater by going out every night but really i was finding myself out in the darkness rolling on a wood plank. i was finding freedom, my own personal freedom, as i became in charge of my own life.
As with many things in life, once i stopped looking i found what i was looking for. While out with a friend our car broke down. My friend called a new friend he had made who supposedly had a roommate who had a car in hopes of getting a ride. Very few of us had cars so getting a ride was an adventure in itself. Friend's friend's roommate wasn't in but he had another friend who had a car and they'd come get us. Some time later in the darkness of Lowell a totally blacked out SUV comes flying up to us. Are we going to get jumped? Should we run away? Suddenly "La Cucaracha" starts getting played by the horn. It was our ride and who was at the helm? None other than Phantom Skater.
On the street that rounds itself from North Campus to Fox Hall there is quite a bump at the end of the curve. Never taking his eyes off the road and barely opening his mouth as he spoke, he mumbled "this is my favorite part" and gunned it to 90 so that we'd get air as again he played La Cucaracha over his horn. i was completely unafraid because not only could i die happy knowing i had finally found Phantom Skater but he had never lost focus or control for even a nanosecond.
Once back on campus thank you's where exchanged and we all headed back to our dorms.Heading back to Fox Hall i noticed he was following me in. We got on the elevator together. Silence (which was not all that uncommon for an 18 floor dorm of science geeks who chose to have single rooms). 15th floor... as i walked out i quietly asked "want to skate some night?" "Sure, see you out there." i tried to maintain reserved excitement as i walked back to my room.
For the rest of the school year we'd meet up every so often to skate together while not encroaching on each other's alone time. Once the snow started falling if we noticed one another getting the skate-jonesing-shakes we'd go hit up a local parking garage just to get a taste. As spring came around and the temperatures started to warm up again, one day he just cut all the legs off his Dickies. Genius - buy pants in the fall, cut them into shorts in the spring, rinse and repeat. We never talked much when skating and we really didn't have to. We both understood. A little nod or the inflection in a grunt was more than enough to emote all we needed to one another.
Here i was a freshman in college and him a junior but on our boards none of that mattered. None of the rules of society applied to us any longer once we got on our boards. He taught me so much, not just technically - as he was the most incredible skater i've ever seen, but philosophically. During arguably the most closed minded time in skateboarding's history - the 90's, he helped remind me why we got on our boards in the first place over a decade ago and helped me relearn that once on our boards, all rules go out the window.
Its not about pant size, its not about new school vs old school, its not about trick selection or deck size or brand or age or any of the bullshit that we all can fall victim to when those voices of self doubt creep into our heads. Its about us and that board. That escape and that sanctuary we all found in that motion and in that sound. Life builds up this hardness on us over time like plague on our teeth but Phantom Skater helped show me how to continually find that purity in skateboarding and how to at least protect that one aspect of our lives from getting the dirt of the world on it.
That's why i have a mini in my garage, that's why i still hit the streets at night, that's why i go to parks first thing in the morning or last thing at sunset, that's why if i'm with a group i'd rather be filming. It's not because of anyone else, it's because of me. Skateboarding is something i do FOR myself and i've found that when i do it BY myself i can get closer to that purity that i so love and crave. Its almost become such an intimate endeavor that when i do skate with other people i feel quite exposed like some dream where you show up to school in nothing but your underwear.
The next school year i got so excited to skate with him again but he was not around. He just didn't come back to school. This was way before cell phones and email was still in it's infancy. This was a time when people, especially Phantoms, could simply disappear. A few mutual friends who had know him much longer than i had tried calling his family but there was no response.The Phantom Skater had just vanished.
Skateboarding has helped me meet incredible people and has introduced me to close friends, but when it comes time to roll, i still prefer to roll Phantom Skater style - dark and alone.