skateboard

Playing in the traffic

skaterWgggg crack blat. Most afternoons. Wgggg crack blat.

The wgggg is a young man, piloting his skateboard across the tar for the 40th time that morning. Crack: he has jolted his skateboard five inches off the ground and has collided with a low concrete step. A moment later, blat: the board has skewed away and tumbled over and the young man has jogged to a stop nearby.

For hours. Wgggg crack blat. Over and over and over and over again. The wgggg never gets longer or louder: his approach speed is constant. The crack is always just a crack, never a whoosh or a bang. And the blat is always a disappointing quarter-second later.

I used to think he was practising, gaining the skill and confidence he needed to launch further and higher and more dangerously, but now I think he is doing exactly what he intends to do. These are not failed attempts. They seem to satisfy him. This peculiar ritual of 40 or 50 small, controlled collisions is where he finds his skateboarding pleasure.

The sound is fantastically irritating. It occupies the same short-fused part of my brain where large flies knock stupidly against windowpanes and leaf-blowers moan pointlessly at pavements. Sometimes the wgggg crack blat falls silent and peace returns and then there it is again – wggg crack blat! – because the man has decided to collide with the step five more times, just because the afternoon was becoming too gentle; and I want to storm over there and say cruel things to him about how small and wretched his stunt is.

But apart from being unkind, that would rather miss the point, because he’s not doing it for an audience. At least not a real one. He’s doing it for an audience in his imagination. And because it’s all imaginary, it doesn’t really matter how clumsy he looks in reality.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons you must never see video footage of yourself playing your chosen sport. I used to play cricket, and when I imagined myself batting I pictured a sort of 1940s fever dream of grace and poise, all cummerbunds and foxtrots and Spitfires doing slow rolls. Then I saw a clip of myself. Imagine a bear finding one of those tiny bottles of anchovies. It rears up, collapses onto its rump, awkwardly picks up the jar and tries to unscrew the top. Then it has its middle stump knocked over. No, you must never see footage of yourself.

I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining that I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life as a skateboarding stunt demon, and I am happy to live and let live. I can even deal with the noise.

But I have one condition: the man and his dreams of skateboarding pyrotechnics must stay where they are, in his driveway.

You’d think this is a small thing to ask; that daydreaming skaters wouldn’t want to go out into the sobbing chaos of Cape Town traffic. But you’d be wrong. Suddenly, the fantasists on four wheels are everywhere.

I don’t mean the ones who whiz down the city’s steepest and most twisting roads, ripping past you with the sound of tearing canvas and the half-whispered, quickly denied thoughts of pedestrians wondering what it would be like to see a face hit the tar at that speed. Those guys have been around for years and I must confess I quite like them. Not only do I admire their courage but they are also helping a dear friend of mine, who specialises in plastic- and reconstructive surgery, to put his daughter through university.

No, the scary ones are the gentle dreamers, because they have left their driveways and brought their denial to the streets and now my reality is starting to disintegrate.

As they roll serenely into oncoming traffic, or dawdle along in the middle of a lane, anaesthetised by their headphones and their fierce solipsism, you can see them dreaming: that they are physically indestructible; that their slow pace and erratic path are somehow an expression of interesting authenticity rather than the wandering of, say, a village idiot. And those dreams are making me question my assumptions about everything.

I mean, do I really brake? What if I just curled up in a barrel and rocked it back and forth until it wobbled out into the traffic? Wouldn’t that be better than owning a car?

On the weekend, a skateboarder entered an intersection near my home. He had fitted a small motor to his board and he stood perfectly still and upright, buzzing along at a slow jogging pace. The cars he was holding up hooted at him. He looked up, delicately bemused, as if he had heard a nightingale sing. The dream fluttered, stirred. For a moment it seemed that he might wake.

But to ride a skateboard in traffic requires a profoundly deep sleep; and so he trundled on, a soft fool on a plank, drifting through a sea of murderous metal.

Wgggg crack blat.

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Published in The Times

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