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Tompkins Square Park was for many years the largest open space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Built in the 1830s to spark development in the Dry Dock neighborhood, which was home to a pre-Civil War shipbuilding industry, the park was a meeting place for workers and activists who would gather there to march on City Hall or Union Square. In 1894, Tompkins became one of the first city parks to host a children’s playground, and in 1936 New Deal funding led to a total renovation to further accommodate play and recreation. The Fifties saw the park decline amid concerns over rising crime and spreading heroin use. A 1966 makeover introduced a band shell just in time for the rise of the East Village: then came Charles Mingus, the Grateful Dead and an era of protest, arrest, eviction, violence and all flavors of love. In 1991, the band shell was torn down. Ten years later a new group arrived, uninvited, to claim the northeast corner of the park, the paved section pinched by Avenue A and 10th Street.

These “multi-purpose courts” have, at time of press, one written review on Google: “Good for multiple purposes.” They measure about 150 by 260 feet, or just under an acre in size. Across their pale black and once-red surface, which in summer months can go a bit soft, runs a network of cracks darkened by water sealant and tar. Objects will appear, sometimes, and remain until they’re destroyed or taken: a handmade wooden box, an orange traffic cone, a hijacked police barrier, a tipped-over trashcan wedged purposefully into a crack in the pavement.

I discovered Tompkins first through novels, as a place of mystery and strange power. Karen, the recovering cultist of Don DeLillo’s Mao II, wanders into the park while hunting for a disappeared novelist named Bill Gray. “It was something you come upon and then stop in your tracks,” she thinks, “a world apart but powerfully here.” Tompkins is central, too, in the opening sentence of Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections, when, after endless hours sitting on a bench watching “the men walking in and out through the comfort station’s brick columns,” the gay poet-hero Arnold Hawley stands and steps cautiously into the men’s room. “This place is huge, cavernous, immense!” he marvels, “How could the place—inside—have been so big?” Well, there’s a mirror, for one, but when it comes to real, unseen borders such as this, reason plays only a bit role in their crossing.

In 2007, my own longing brought me to the so-called “TF,” a nickname I’d come to know online for the Tompkins multi-purpose courts. The courts that day were crowded and, as a result, my feet did not work properly—I kept falling—and I didn’t stay long. The following year I found myself back in the neighborhood and went again to sit with a notebook on one of the shaded green benches along the fence. On that day Tompkins was mostly empty but for two men, Stefan Janoski and Tim O’Connor, both of whom I’d have recognized with paper bags over their heads. For an hour I watched these two men fuck around on flat ground directly in front of me.

In my notebook I have: “Tim O’Connor: ‘No junkie has spare change. It’s like having extra drugs, it just doesn’t happen.’”

I say “fuck around” because what these two men were doing is meaningless. And when I say “fuck around” I’m also telling the world’s tiniest and most private joke, as if I haven’t been trying to describe what they were doing for the past six years.

I was eleven when I started, I am 38 now, and I’ll be dead or immobilized before I stop. But it was fifteen years of fucking around before I began thinking even remotely about what I was doing. Skaters typically avoid thinking. This is partially a matter of self-preservation: there is no surer guarantee of hurting oneself than to consider the thousand failures that could come of an attempt. More crucially, there’s the nature of fun on which skateboarding is premised. Fun that, like humor, risks collapse the moment it becomes a critical object.

Let me try to convey an epiphany. It is 2004 and I am splitting time and selves between the world of graduate school and the world of fully grown skateboarders. One night I sit on a couch to watch a new film called Bon Appetit! from the French skateboard company Cliché. I don’t know the skaters at all—they’re foreign, as I could have expected. The settings are all cobble-stone avenues lined by white marble and cast-metal street lamps. Ten minutes in, during a section shared by Jan Kliewer, a German, and JJ Rousseau, a Frenchman, I recall wondering: How had this happened? By what ship had my senseless American hobby, classmate to the yo-yo and hula-hoop, crossed the Atlantic? And how were these old-world practitioners so suddenly and insanely good? It might have been the soundtrack, Nina Simone’s soul-bop cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” that did it. Here in the depths of Bush-era ambivalence, I had discovered a most American pride in this most American invention.

There’s a bit of religious witness to this, I suppose. Have you accepted skateboarding as the most interesting product of American culture since 1950? Please don’t be misled by the long, motorized device beneath the highly remunerated man zooming through the bike lane. Transportation is not the point. Nor is competition, despite what the networks say, or some TED-talk paradigm of disruption-slash-innovation. Whatever money there is to be made skateboarding or trafficking in its affects is destined for a very small, and generally unfun, minority. These are only the most commercial extensions of a singularly American, postmodern folly: a kind of salve for the end of history. First the earth was flattened, then the earth was paved, and now I push my board laughingly across the courts of Tompkins Square Park. There is only one point to skateboarding, and that is play.

TF at 1: Ten Years of Quartersnacks, released late last year, celebrates a decade of the internet’s most interesting source for skateboard content. In 2005, Quartersnacks began as a scene-specific website for clips of friends, updates about spots in the city and writing that was, by its editor’s admission, “littered with references that only a dozen people would understand.” For many years, the California-centrism of the skateboard industry had resulted in the cosmic rarity of New York City claiming, legitimately, to be “underrepresented.” In the decade since, the Quartersnacks agenda has been to represent a certain grimy, hyper-cool New York corner of skate culture in a steady output of photos, videos and written posts.

Aesthetically, the site’s design is design’s absence. Their logo/mascot “Snackman” is three Little Debbie snack cakes (that cost a quarter) stacked in a snowman-like formation: an Oatmeal Creme Pie on top of a Fudge Round on top of a Zebra Cake. Snackman is smoking a cigarette out of his creme-pie mouth, a gold chain draped over his fudgy torso. Since it launched over a decade ago, Quartersnacks’s one-off shirts have evolved into a micro-fashion brand, and the brand’s novelty Snackman boards are now collector’s items. Like many who succeed in giving the impression that they don’t give a shit, Quartersnacks has become an arbiter of cool in skateboarding and beyond.

Now there’s a tangible, hardbound book available at your local skate shop and on the shelves of MoMA’s gift store. With its hundreds of candid photos and maybe five thousand words total, the primary work of TF at 1 is historical. Skateboarders, you see, are gluttons for skate media. A decade of Quartersnacks goes from “obsessing over every frame of a VHS tape to complaining about the overload of skateboarding shared on social media.” Aside from its glossy, hardbound cover, TF at 1 looks and feels the way DIY skate media has always felt—the paper is heavy and matte, and the layouts of images are wonderfully senseless and disorganized. It’s the most evolved zine you’ll ever read. Moving chronologically through four parts means that the photo quality improves as the book progresses. Even with this linear progression, though, the medium always works against clarity and resolution: colored paper bleeds through the printed images—usually amateur photos that are blurry and pixelated from over-enlargement.

The book, like the demimondes of skateboarding and New York City, thrives by a balance of exclusion and indoctrination. Note the illustrated glossary of such useful terms as “bodied” (hurt), “kit” (an outfit), “struggle face” (an expression that demonstrates frustration or a hangover) and “mad bodied” (very hurt). Flipping through these two hundred pages feels a bit like watching one of those photo montages that people play at their weddings; you’re the plus-one, but not knowing these people feels weirdly okay. Inside the front and back covers we find a pair of illustration collages with seventy or so nicknames: there’s Sketch Sketch, Drippy Kevin and Squirrel Master. There’s also Russian Steve, the Irish Potato and John the Mexican, which highlights another characteristic of Quartersnacks: their frank treatment of race and ethnicity, or “multi-cultural skate life,” as Andrew Brown calls it in his brief essay. The few short pieces of introductory writing tell stories of local characters and friendships that have floated into the purview of the TF’s famous green benches, an “ever-critical front row of a fashion show with little semblance of a show.”

For anyone remotely familiar with skateboarding, the pleasures of the book are many. When I came across a photo of the backhoe parked to demolish the small section of the Brooklyn Banks, I was thrown into a spiral of memory—I skated the famous Banks exactly once, deeply hungover, with my pal, the Denim Czar, and a very well-known and polarizing professional named Jason Dill, who was wearing chrome shoes, thigh-high yellow socks and bright white shorts. I landed a nollie flip on the little bank and Dill gave me passing props and, for a moment, I was privy to a world I’d previously known only from a distance.

The ethos of Quartersnacks is shaped by a 27-year-old named Konstantin Satchek. Roughly 170 times per annum Kosta posts one hundred to two thousand words on his website. There are occasional guest posts, but any writing that is unsigned bears, in its anonymity, Kosta’s signature. His language is clear and declarative, charged by a few-fucks-given pragmatism that is un-theorized but not uncritical. He is funny, and happy to point out where an idea has been trodden into cliché—including the popular armchair ontology that celebrates the way “skaters see the world differently.” Kosta once conducted an extensive oral history of the nickname “white rapper” for a trick that, by the technical language of the activity, is classed as a “switch varial heelflip.” Compiling the “Chillest Lines in Skateboarding History: 1993-1999, 2011-2012,” he excluded the entirety of the 2000s because “people spent the decade thinking the most important thing in skateboarding was being good at it.”

Kosta’s 2011 post “TOSQ-1001: Intro to Tompkins Square Park” welcomes students to “the most legendary skate spot of modern time” including what he calls in a 2013 update the “ever-so-critical green bench,” from which onlookers issue judgments nonstop. But these judgments, he makes clear, should ideally be like Kosta’s own, betraying no fidelity to any higher-order standards beyond taste and style. In the 2013 update Kosta writes, “The T.F. is no longer for people who are good. Go to the skatepark if you are good at skateboarding.”

He’s joking, but the command exemplifies Kosta’s rejection of the model that would judge skateboarding like gymnastics or diving, with official standards for difficulty and execution. The joke of the TF, short for “training facility,” is that the courts replace obstacles with an audience of assholes laughing on a green bench—a protest against the activity’s inevitable slide toward the Olympics. I share Kosta’s resistance, which makes it all the more difficult to figure out how to voice my criticism of TF at 1: Ten Years of Quartersnacks. Perhaps I should start by saying, as subjectively as possible, that I found the book disappointing.

Satchek may not want skateboarding to become a sport, but he does seem to share with pro athletes the enthusiasm for profit. In TF at 1, this means sacrificing voice and style in favor of brand building, mostly by way of authenticity. Heritage is not, as a rule, fun. But heritage is this book’s indisputable currency. After his straight-faced and informative introductory essay, Kosta’s voice recedes. From others we hear echoes of that exhausting refrain about New York City today no longer being the New York City people once loved. Isak Baun is happy to frame “New York skateboarding” with scare quotes, but only until genuine nostalgia overcomes the risks of cliché (as only nostalgia can, it seems). “This is a child-proofed version of the city I knew,” he laments. The photos are more or less compelling, but in the end they prove little more than that a series of moments has indeed elapsed. The camera phones go from flip to Blackberry to iPhone. Finally all that we’re offered is time and setting. Ten years, New York City.

“Looking cool as fuck really does overcome all,” Kosta wrote in a Quartersnacks post last February. Style, as Kosta knows, is an irreducible quality, but this is exactly why skateboarding, an activity with no complicating meaning of its own, can be so difficult to write about. For all that the verb denotes an activity of a wooden plank mounted upon four wheels, skateboarding is largely a matter of perception. Here I speak from my other world, as an academic. What I saw then, and still see now every time I look, is a strange and mysterious object. And how difficult it is to speak of mystery without reducing or imposing on that mystery.

Last year, my wife and I traveled to Paris and spent four days—well, our honeymoon, in fact—avoiding taxis and exploring the city by foot. We packed into the cable car and climbed to the Eiffel Tower’s second-floor observation deck. Crossing the Seine on the Passerelle Debilly, we held hands and strolled beneath a clearing sky onto Avenue du New York. We approached the Palais de Tokyo from the south, through the open marble courtyard with large fountains, gradual steps and reclining statues. At which point something changed, and not symmetrically. It was an experience I’d had a couple of times before: once in San Francisco in 1996, and again in Philadelphia in 2005. Though I’d never been to the Palais de Tokyo courtyard, I had seen it more times than I could count. Here, as Nina Simone sang her final “the way that I love you,” JJ Rousseau popped a nollie heel frontside noseslide on the out-ledge of the three-flat-three doubleset (please forgive my language). On top of the ledge is a marble statue of a woman, nude, in repose.Its name to me was “Le Dôme.” Standing there with the person I loved, I was overcome by a kind of dream logic, as if, like DeLillo’s Karen, I’d been drawn to the place without realizing it. Like Delany’s poet, Arnold, I had stepped through a portal. Is it melodramatic or cliché, even necessarily metaphorical, to say that, at that moment, I was standing in a place that my wife was not?

Art credit: Jennifer Diamond; Eden, Janine & Jim (CC BY/Flickr)

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This essay appears in issue 12 of The Point.
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symposium on the question “What is poetry for?”)
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