The Renegade Sportsman
Drunken Runners, Bike Polo Superstars, Roller Derby Rebels,Killer Birds and Other Uncommon Thrills on the Wild Frontier of Sports
A face-first dive into America's sporting underbelly.SEVEN
A lifelong sports fan, Zach Dundas asks: What happened to the fun, loud-mouthed, down-anddirty sporting culture he always loved? Has it been replaced with performance-enhancing drugs, fat paychecks and billion dollar arenas? Of course not! With a renegade's eye and a fan's resolve, Dundas scours the underground to find the games, fans, and "athletes" you won't find in the sports pages. He tracks a bicycle race across Iowa designed to confuse and downright torture its participants, chases a gaggle of runners wearing red cocktail dresses in Portland, and screams obscenities in Chicago with the rowdy fans of the DC United soccer team, and through these and other harrowing and hilarious adventures, he begins to reconnect with the thrill of sporting as he discovers a vibrant, beautiful, and thriving element of American culture- simmering right below the surface.
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How to Rule the World of Sports for Fun and Profit (Profit Not Guaranteed)
Admit it. You’ve wondered what it would be like—how it would feel to ascend to the ranks of sports moguldom. You’ve envied the power, the prestige, the ability to roll into your luxury suite on game night and idly wonder if you’ll fire the head coach just for the hell of it. Change team colors? Threaten to move the franchise to San Antonio? Why not? That power—what’s it like?
I can tell you firsthand. It feels pretty good.
On the surface, I suffer from a distinct lack of Master of the Sports Universe credentials. I share little common ground with the likes of Mark Cuban, the Steinbrenner clan, Roman Abramovich, or those party-boy bros who own the Sacramento Kings. Even so, after checking out the inspiring examples of do-it-your¬self empire provided by the likes of the alley cat racers, Guitar Ted, and the Hash House Harriers, I decided to give omnipotence a try. If they could create their own private sports worlds, so could I. It turns out that the real secret to athletic glory has nothing to do with how fast you run the forty. Sure, it would be nice to be a great athlete, but why limit your ambitions? Become an owner—it’s easy. Just make common cause with a few other would-be plutocrats and start your very own league. Based on my personal experience as part of a circle of flamboyant, megalomaniacal tycoons, here’s how you do it:
STEP ONE: Pick a Sport (Preferably One in Which You Will Face No Competition from Real Athletes)
We chose croquet. And not the arcane, chesslike elite version involving laser-leveled courts and maneuvers with names like “the sextuple peel.” No, that summer the Portland Croquet League would crown its champions and deify its legends in backyards and parks, using the nine wire wickets and crappy, supermarket-bought mallets and balls we all know from wasted afternoons of our youths. We had many reasons to embrace this great game. No one is actually any good at it. Men and women can play against each other, because the game relies more on deceit, cunning, and viciousness (“tactics”) than physical strength. Alcohol consumption improves one’s play. (Within reason, I would discover.) If there is such a thing as a famous croquet player, word has yet to spread beyond friends and relatives. I can’t find any official figures, but I estimate the total value of the world’s croquet industry at about $672. The biggest cultural splash for the game I can think of is the strip-croquet scene in the 1989 ’burb-goth/teen-murder classic Heathers. Behold a sport ripe for appropriation by talentless jackanapeses.
STEP TWO: Hold an Owners’ Meeting, for Organizational and Egotistical Purposes
The six PCL franchise owners gathered one fine spring day at the café co-owned by the league commissioner, where we drank Miller High Life, hashed out a bunch of needlessly complicated scheduling and competition rules, argued about game format, and compared possible team names. Unfortunate local health codes, with no loopholes for robber-baron gatherings, kept us from smoking cigars. I still felt like a king.
STEP THREE: Name Your Team
A mistake here can doom the enterprise. Your team’s success, failure, and entire existence will depend on your ability to con friends into sacrificing afternoons they could otherwise spend doing something.
I was disappointed that the other five PCL franchisees all took the names of nominal “sponsors”—two cafés, a coffee roaster, a design firm, and a popular local blog. (This selection said a lot about the PCL’s core demographic; no longshoremen.) On the upside, this gave the league a brassy Tour de France flavor. But given that league entry cost nothing, I considered it a craven bow to market forces. My team would have a real name—but what? Should we tap croquet’s Anglophile connections with a faux-classy name like “the Athenians,” “Wanderers,” or “the Pickwick Croquet Club”? Or explore the surreal world of made-up animal species popular with American minor-league baseball clubs and Japanese teams in all sports: NightFalcons; SuperPigeons; HyperCougars? In the end, I chose an aggressive brand that suggested heavy mescaline use and Latin American black-metal fandom. We would be known as the Jaguar Realm. That this decision would be the high point of our team’s existence only underlines its brilliance.
STEP FOUR: Launch a Media Onslaught
The National Football League thinks it’s all high and mighty with its own twenty-four-hour cable network. Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can compete. With a league blog, a YouTube channel, and an irritating Twitter account fed a stream of delusional proclamations, it’s easy to create an aura of hype and excitement. Hone a few basic propaganda skills, and you could soon crush the middling intelligences of professional sports marketing—after all, they’re the people who gave the world a hockey team called the Mighty Ducks.
For example, when my brother and his roommate organized a day of gaming at the park across the street from their house, they barraged their wider circle of acquaintances with breath¬less dispatches and HUGE ANNOUNCEMENTS. Whatever sport you decide to base your empire upon, I suggest the following as a model:
HEAR YE! HEAR YE!
We do hereby decree a grand festival of sport, fellowship, and mirth!
To be known henceforth as the Northside Games . . . on the
grounds of the venerable Northside Park! Beginning at Midday
and progressing without respite until Sundown! With a reception to follow, to last until all have been sated or dispossessed!
Activities and competition to include but not be limited to:
Two-person double-elimination bocce tournament!
Egg ’n’ Spoon run!
Particular style is less important than bombast and self-importance. If the so-called big leagues can go around pretending that everything they do represents a vital turning point in human history, why can’t you? In the PCL’s case, we documented our four-week season on a blog that did not let its approximate readership of ten discourage a portentous fake-British tone and dramatic close-up portraits of league players.
STEP FIVE: Create Pomp and Circumstance
The first match in PCL history took place in sodden conditions, as late-spring downpours reduced the host team’s playing field (the backyard of a ramshackle house inhabited by several PCL members) to a spongy mire. Even so, we all did our best to impress. One team swanned around the Players’ Lounge (a back-porch
table stocked with domestic twelve-packs) resplendent in thrift-store neckties. The captain of another sported a blinding white jumpsuit, matching headband, and a good-sized stogie. The host team made its entrance to the field through a haze of fog from a small smoke machine, intimidating the rest of us.
STEP SIX: Revel in the Thrill of Victory
The PCL’s season format required each team to host one day’s action. When Jaguar Realm’s turn rolled around, I scouted various neighborhood parks until I found a roomy, shady stretch of deep grass. On game day, my team and I arrived early to set up the course after I stopped at a convenience store for two bottles of cheap Spanish bubbly and some paper cups. One of my players turned out in full nineteenth-century regalia, complete with bowler hat. When our rivals arrived and proclaimed this the most impressive facility of the season, my inner Martha Stewart crowed.
The action commenced in a blissful neoarcadian stupor. I drank cava until I had a mild headache. The shaggy grass and sprawling course encouraged a lot of ill-advised long shots, a few instances of creative tree-trunk use, and a general atmosphere of shoeless camaraderie. Halfway through the match, a few fans showed up with a bag of Dairy Queen Dilly Bars. So what if Jaguar Realm lost miserably and finished next-to-last in the league? In the short annals of the Portland Croquet League, our performance would shine bright. Private jet be damned, I was now a full-fledged sports kingpin. And I felt confident that, of all the sporting events held in the world that day, ours was the best.
Over the course of a summer, as I steered my team to croquet iniquity and continued my pseudo scholarship on the sporting fringe, I developed a theory, which is the sort of thing that can happen to the best of us. I call it the Two Futures of Sports Theory, and it posits that the sports world will evolve on two parallel tracks. One of these Linnaean branches is easy to locate—just turn on the TV, and you’ll see the unstoppable process of Big getting Bigger, Glitz getting Glitzier, and Alex Rodriguez already thinking about his next contract, which will stipulate that he gets George Steinbrenner’s reanimated brain. Behold sports as we know them—the Show, which I was determined to ignore as much as possible as summer rolled on. I was interested in the other future of sports.
This alternative evolutionary line already exists; you can find it in just about every city in America. In the annual Idiotarod, teams of humans drag shopping carts through the streets of New York. The Scooter Cannonball Run, a biannual transcontinental rally organized by Vespa lovers, demands that these stylish but underpowered vehicles navigate some of the most remote highways in America. Such DIY efforts are essentially the sports equivalent of starting a band in your garage, brewing your own beer, or knitting your own scarves. According to my theory, these sporadic examples somehow add up to a potential movement, even if haphazard and decentralized to the extreme. I needed to test the hypothesis, so I spent much of the summer trying to see how an independent, grassroots local sports reality might look. This was, in part, a semiapocalyptic thought experiment that became slightly less far-fetched in retrospect, when global capitalism hit the minor rough patch known as 2008– 2009–?: What would happen if mainstream sports disappeared? What might the world look like if people really had to make their own fun?
Lucky me, I live in a town full of idler misfits with surplus free time. As one of America’s postmodern Left Coast cities, Portland’s traditional jock culture is weak, while its willingness to sacrifice dignity in pursuit of a good time is strong. We have just one major-league sports franchise, but two competing adult kickball leagues. I figured that if an underground sports revolution could thrive anywhere, it would be here. I would make Portland my laboratory. Interesting complications ensued. For instance, I ended up sitting in a listing rowboat full of discarded shoes, with the fecal-bacteria-enriched waters of a Superfund-designated river lapping at the gunwales. This provided some insight on just how far DIY sports could take me. It also provided an excellent opportunity to contemplate the fact that I am a very poor swimmer.
I met Jay Boss Rubin for afternoon beers on a gray day in July. He sat across from me wearing a striped, sailorish shirt, his hair an uncombed chestnut explosion, with a frighteningly avid look in his eyes and a notebook full of scribbled ideas, which, to judge by the one we discussed in most depth, all involved strenuous effort and zero economic return.
Jay and I talked about the Portland Challenge, an event (street theater? social activism? a quasi-spiritual exercise?) of his invention and relentless promotion. Jay wanted to make sure that I understood that the Challenge wasn’t a competitive endeavor—that would be far too mundane, Western, and right¬brained—and thus only counted as a “sport” under a very elastic definition of the term. I assured him that the Challenge met my criteria: it required all participants to cross the Willamette River, which bisects the city, without using money, motors, or bridges. In this, the Challenge’s fifth consecutive year, Jay expected a couple hundred Challengers to take the plunge, with or without human-powered watercraft. Seemed pretty sporting to me.
Jay liked to think of himself as the pioneer of a new discipline, which he called “Challenging.” He said he viewed the Portland event as a prototype and hoped the idea would spread. “You could do this anywhere,” he said. “There are just three rules—it’s simple. No money. No motors. No bridges. And you just apply those rules to any route from Point A to B, and you become a Challenger. True Challengers could make their trip to work a Challenge, as long as they applied the rules. Challenging turns any journey into a kind of empowering adventure. You develop a different relationship with your environment, especially a city environment. If you’re trying to get all the way across town on foot, without using any money, you need to know, okay, this is the best route, this is where the public restrooms are, here’s where my friend lives and I can bum a sandwich. You’re crossing a piece of territory, but you need its help in return.”
I didn’t know if I found this as mind-blowing as Jay obviously did, but I was willing to approach the Challenge in the spirit of inquiry. In fact, I was slightly disappointed to learn that the upcoming Portland Challenge would be a rather lite version of Jay’s original concept. “It was winter,” he recalled. “The time of year when you sit around and dream up adventures. And somehow I hit on the idea of crossing Portland, from one major geographical landmark to another, totally unassisted. And then I was like, what would that mean? Well, it means when you get to the river, you have to cross the river by your own strength and ingenuity. If you can’t swim, you have to build a raft. That was the original idea, and I was excited about it, but it sat dormant for a while, you know how it is. . . .”
Sure, I knew how it was. I could tell a certain improvisational flow was inherent to the Jay Boss Rubin creative process. I was not surprised to hear that Sweet Mother Alcohol had helped midwife Challenging. “So it was, I think, May, and I was with a bunch of friends up on Council Crest, which is, like, the highest point in the city west of the river,” Jay continued. “I’m sure we drank a keg of beer or whatever. And I was looking out across the city, and I could see Mount Tabor, the highest point on the east side. And I said, that’s it. That’s the Challenge: to go from here to there. I think I got about fifteen minutes of sleep, and at six a.m. we started out. There were five of us. Of course, the first part is all downhill, on park trails in the hills, and then through downtown. It was like we were just out on a walk. And then we got to the river, and we were, like, oh. Here we are. We’re on the Challenge.”
The Willamette is a sedate riband of sluggish-looking water, locally renowned for the unhappy fact that the city’s sewage system overflows into it every time a heavy rain falls, which hap¬pens, of course, often. While various green-sensitive measures have improved the Willamette’s health in recent years, one environmental group rates it as America’s third-most-endangered river. The official stance on swimming in the Willamette runs something like, Uh, sure . . . go right ahead. Aside from the risk of topical infection or, say, cholera, Jay Boss Rubin and his fellow hungover-or-still-drunk, sleep-deprived Challengers faced more than a casual dip. At city center, the river is about a quarter mile wide, equivalent to eight laps in an Olympic-sized pool. As I would discover, at water level that distance becomes very daunting. “We didn’t know anything about the river,” Jay said. “We didn’t know about currents. We didn’t even really know how wide it was. You cross it every day on the bridge in your car, but how wide is it?”
Most of Jay’s companions that morning decided that maybe the Challenge wasn’t quite for them. Somewhere in that polluted quarter-mile plunge, though, Jay Boss Rubin discovered a call¬ing. “The middle of the river is the crux of the adventure,” he said. “It’s psychologically hard more than anything—you’re out in the middle of the thing, and you can’t turn back, and you also can’t see how you can make it to other side. It’s great. I’ve prob¬ably done it twenty times now.”
Jay went public later that year, inviting all comers to join him on a trip across town. In the next five years, the Portland Challenge became something of a local institution, drawing hundreds of participants—which, rather unfortunately to Jay’s thinking, made it more street parade than rugged expedition. “Now that so many people do it, all that remains of the pure original concept—orthodox Challenging, I guess you could say—is the river crossing,” he said, wistful. “I’m still attracted to the more extreme version. A friend of mine and I put together this trip we called the Oregon Challenge, from the headwaters of the Willamette all the way up to Portland.
It took twelve days.
So that’s what I conceive of as real Challenging. But the Portland Challenge, it’s still true to the kernel of the idea. It’s a pilgrimage. A real-life pilgrimage, wherever you live. You don’t have to go to the woods to have an adventure—you just have to put yourself in that mental state. You just give yourself to the spirits of that place.”
Heavy. But I was into it—here was a guy who carried an entire new sport (or something like that) around in his head, complete with a fully formed mythology. I was excited. Except, I told Jay, my lifelong tendency to sink like a stone concerned me. I didn’t want to harsh the Portland Challenge’s mellows by becoming its first drowning victim.
“Oh, man, no problem,” Jay said. “I’ll just put you on the Shoe Boat.”
While Jay Boss Rubin’s enthusiasm and loopy psychogeography appealed to me, I suspected that the Portland Challenge would be crawling with hippies, who would drive me crazy. On Challenge day, I arrived at the Slammer Tavern, a broken-down saloon that looks like a haunted barn transplanted into the city, and discovered I was not wrong. A couple hundred Port¬land Challengers coagulated in the roped-off street, checking out each other’s costumes (yes, Jay encouraged costumes) and drinking Pabst. One guy had a red and black necktie around his head. A woman wore a Mexican wrestling mask backwards. Jay himself scampered around in cutoff jeans and a beat-up flannel shirt, distributing life jackets from a huge pile in the back of a graffiti-covered old wine truck. Meanwhile, a band composed of aged longhairs played on the Slammer’s roof, whimpering out jam-rock critiques of national policy. One long, bedraggled anthem revolved around the singer’s repeated declaration, “I . . . con-shee-ent-ious-leee ob-ject! I . . . con-shee-entiously ob-ject!”
I have a more robust tolerance for subcultural whimsy than some. In my tenure as an alternative-newspaper reporter, I inter¬viewed many conspiracy theorists, third-party politicians, life¬style activists, and self-styled “social change agents,” and never let the fact that these sources often teetered on the brink of out¬right vagrancy prevent me from presenting their provocative ideas to the public. I filed many stories based on the views of people the Wall Street Journal would expel from its offices with armed guards. All the same, scenes like the Portland Challenge preparty tickle the more misanthropic chords of my being. When I see a grown man wearing a rainbow Afro wig in broad daylight, I am liable to start talking in a loud voice about general military conscription. I was very glad I had invited my friend Jeremy along as my Challenger wingman. Jeremy is one of the most good-hearted and good-humored people now living, and I hoped his unfailing cheer would see me through the Challenge. He’s also one of those physically capable types—he builds things and so forth. I figured he could save me if I started to drown.
Jay Boss Rubin found us and handed us each an oar and gave Jeremy an orange hand-stenciled sign reading “SHOE BOAT.” “It’s tied to a rock on the riverbank, man,” he said. “Little white boat. Can’t miss it.” The idea was that the Challengers could dump their shoes in our boat, and we would ferry the chausseures to the far side of the river. (Ordinarily, the hygienic implications might give me pause. The previous night’s downpour meant a healthy combined-sewage overflow into the waves we would paddle, so I thought, what the hell.) While most of our fellow Challengers would swim, we would be part of a small fleet. Two canoes sat on the pavement next to a vessel fashioned from an old aluminum tub, lashed-together boards, and empty water-cooler jugs. This craft had its name, Desolation Row (ha!), spray-painted on its side and a tattered, homemade peace-symbol flag aloft.
At a megaphone signal from Jay Boss Rubin, a group called the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, a corps of marching-band percussionists in matching black jackets, formed ranks and started pounding away. The ragtag mob took shape behind them, and we started off for the river about eight blocks away. Challengers at the front of the pack raised a huge banner with the enigmatic slogan “Gone to Bongo,” and a couple hundred people in life jackets and quizzical headgear commenced to block traffic on some of Portland’s busiest streets. The drum corps’ cadences exploded off the asphalt and concrete over¬passes along the Willamette’s banks. Jeremy and I found our¬selves next to the crew of Desolation Row, a grizzled bunch who pushed their tub at a deliberate pace, so as not to spill the cock¬tails balanced on its plywood deck. Three twenty-something kids, including the fellow with the necktie on his head, scampered past us with an inflatable raft. “I’m ready for glory!” he hollered. “I’m ready for glory!” Who wasn’t? The spirit of Lewis and Clark was alive and well.
As we neared the river, unlikely people started to join in. A middle-aged couple, all in black, looked like they’d just stepped out of a suburban casino or a midnight public-access televangelism program: she had a big puff of frosted blond hair, strappy black high heels, and silver-spangled painted toes; he had a pattern-baldness pompadour, a black short-sleeve button-up, black slacks, and black tasseled loafers. Did they plan to swim the river? What about the gray-haired man in the kilt? Did the future of Challenging include unexpected popularity in the AARP demographic?
The Portland Challenge reached the riverbank, a tumble of grimy boulders underneath a freeway escarpment. Jeremy and I spotted a dubious little white skiff and made a dash for it—a few Challengers, confronted with the actual river, now struck me as potential Shoe Boat hijackers. I scrambled aboard, and Jeremy held up our sign. A rain of Teva sandals and mungy high-tops filled the shallow boat in about a minute. Challengers splashed past us into the water. The river now held a flotilla of bobbing, giggling heads, inner tubes, and rafts. Jeremy and I decided that the Shoe Boat was at capacity, and tried to shove off. A few last stowaways bum-rushed us, and we relented for two women with large sunglasses, digital cameras, and jarringly fashionable out¬fits, and a grinning Tanzanian man named Elvis. We set sail.
With five people and uncounted shoes as cargo, the Shoe Boat rode pretty low in the water. I noticed this at about the same time I noticed that Jay’s oars didn’t fit the boat’s oarlocks. Jeremy had handed his implement off to Elvis. Elvis and I sat next to each other and hacked at the water. In a photo Jeremy took from his station in the prow, our female companions look like they’re enjoying a pleasure-craft outing on the Seine. Elvis looks like he is doing the most fun thing he has ever done in his life (though based on our brief acquaintance, I would say he probably always looks like that). I’m holding my paddle in a manner that suggests I am completely unfamiliar with boats, water, and elementary mechanics. Also, as though I’m about to cry like a small child.
At about this point, I glanced over my shoulder, to see a few gawkers scattered along the civilized shore, twenty yards behind us. I admit that I wondered what the hell I was doing— all very well for Jay Boss Rubin to dupe goofball Portlanders into the Willamette, but why me, hard-nosed cynic and con¬firmed hydrophobe? I looked to starboard and saw Desolation Row. Somehow, the empty water jugs strapped to the tub with duct tape provided enough ballast to support four people. Just. A man in tattered jeans stood on the narrow deck, waving the giant peace-symbol flag and whooping in the shadow of the hundred-year-old bridge above us.
Under ordinary circumstances, this sight would annoy me mightily, so I was caught off guard by a surge of benevolent good¬will. The Row and its crew, maybe because they could sink at any second, made their silly Boomer-nostalgia banner seem bold and forthright—the world would, I thought in this moment of either weakness or insight, be a better place if we were all out Challenging instead of killing each other. Certainly it would have been hard to find a group of two hundred people happier, on average, than the Challengers at that moment. Fifty yards off the Shoe Boat’s port bow, I could see Jay Boss Rubin backstroking in his bright red life jacket, smiling like a holy fool straight out of Jack Kerouac at his most overwrought and excellent. The Challenge temporarily seized and reinvented part of the city, taking over streets and freeing ordinary places from their ordinariness. This is one thing the new world of DIY sport is good for: we Challengers changed the city’s fabric, even if just for a few minutes, and made it more interesting. Maybe this wasn’t strictly sport, but it was a very pure form of play, and I could see that it delighted those who chanced to see it. As the Shoe Boat crept along beneath the bridge, we passed a fancy sailboat, standing idle in the middle of the river. A man and a woman stood on deck smiling, applauding, and taking pictures. Maybe they would tell some friends about us over cocktails—about the mob of lunatics swimming the Willamette. Today, we were the Show.
No discussion of do-it-yourself sport is complete without skate¬boarding. I am, to be honest, slightly in awe of skateboarders, and not just because I can’t even propel myself forward on their contraptions, let alone do a trick or get from A to B. Skateboarders are the masterless samurai of the sports world. Where others see disasters of modern architecture and city planning— wasteland lots, brutalist garages, concrete “park” benches strategically located where no human would ever choose to sit—skateboarders see the Elysian Fields. This attitude helps skateboarding maintain its semicriminal status, a notch above trespassing and loitering with intent, in many places. That guarantees a certain level of petty police harassment and parental suspicion—which, in turn, ensures a steady supply of new recruits for a movement that has survived successive waves of persecution and commercialization for almost half a century.
It so happens that one of the great world monuments of skate culture, and one of the most spectacular examples of hands-on sports ingenuity anywhere, hides deep in one of Portland’s most unsavory pockets. The legendary Burnside Skatepark nestles under the bridge of the same name, surrounded by befouled concrete grottoes and weedy hillsides. The whole area looks like it recently got the Sarajevo treatment—and I’m not talking about the Olympics. Shiny-happy-progressive Portland sweeps many of its social ills under this particular rug, and for decades the bridge’s grim underbelly attracted vagrants, prostitution, drug
use, vandalism, and all-purpose scumbaggery. The city government always has a plan in the works for this part of town, and I suspect it always will. In the meantime, one genuine force for civic order and improvement asserted itself here: skateboarders.
The legend goes that sometime in 1990, a few skateboarders started hauling bags of cement down beneath the bridge and building obstacles on a forsaken patch of ground. (How forsaken? The land sits at the dead center of an American metropolis, a ten-minute stroll from million-dollar condos and the city’s business district—and no one, to this day, claims legal owner¬ship.) They threw up a couple of little ramps and started skating. Word spread. More wildcat construction followed, creating an elaborate and ever-shifting complex of ramps and bowls. So, too, did successful negotiations with surrounding businesses and quite a few encounters with the local street wildlife, as skaters faced down the disreputable element and made the place their own.
One spring afternoon, I headed under the bridge to meet Chad Balcom, a machinist from Nebraska who moved to Portland a few years ago. He’s obviously not one of Burnside’s founding fathers—in fact, he told me his status as a new arrival left him with “total white man’s guilt—like I gotta do whatever I can to help out to make up for lost time.” Since he showed up, however, his natural get-’er-done leanings have established him as a part of the loose community that, through a process that defies exact definition, runs the park. (Or as he put it, “I’ve been pretty much balls-deep in this project for a coupla years.”) For example, he is the master of the keys to the onsite porta-potty.
“This is definitely an organic thing,” Balcom said, as about a dozen skaters took turns lounging on a curb and cheating death inside the park. “That wall over there is being built as we speak. It’s a weird lack-of-hierarchy hierarchy. Like, that guy over there, he has influence because he’s down here all the time. He’s old-school and everyone knows it. And then that little guy over there is pretty young, but he’s a total pain in the ass, so he tends to have influence because no one wants to deal with his shit. It goes like that. It’ll be, well, we built this wall, but now we’re all a little better, so it needs to be higher. We pass out a few keys to the porta-shitters, and of course everyone loses theirs but me, so now I’m the guy who distributes keys.
“On day one, the dudes who started this place just put up a little something against the wall. Then they added to it and added to it. The voice of reason at the time said, man, we’ll get in trouble. And then opposite opinion said, fuck that, it’ll be cool. And somehow that logic prevailed, and continues to this day.”
Burnside not only survived, it achieved mythic stature. (Along the way, Portland’s city council voted to give the park a kind of tenuous, don’t-ask-don’t-tell legitimacy. It could be revoked at any time—if the council wanted an unmitigated PR disaster.) Skating video games feature Burnside, and pro skaters from around the world make pilgrimages to the park. In The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World, skater/author Jocko Weyland describes Burnside as “a massive renegade wonder¬land” (be still, my heart!). “[T]he right fanatics built it for the right reasons,” Weyland writes. “Their mission to make some¬thing out of nothing has been as influential as any trick or board-design breakthrough.” According to Balcom, the park’s only real revenue stream comes from Hollywood production companies that pay to film scenes there. A nonprofit board manages the funds, more or less. Balcom mentioned that he’d recently spent thirty dollars for a new padlock for the caged enclosure holding the park’s building and cleaning equipment; he would get reimbursed, y’know, sometime. Volunteer labor and construction raw materials that appear, without explanation, in the dead of night cover the rest of Burnside’s needs.
Balcom took me on a walk around the park. For all its renown, Burnside still resembles the kind of urban hellpit that inspires people to move to gated communities and arm themselves. Spectator facilities, such as they are, amount to a couple of holes in a retaining wall in the parking lot above the park and a scary concrete ledge where you could stand, if you really, really wanted to. As we talked, skaters caromed around the park’s complex of bowls, walls, and ridges. Like the punk-rock world to which it is forever wedded, skate culture isn’t particularly interested in sartorial evolution. The mostly male crowd (on an earlier visit, I saw a predominantly female contingent) sported torn denim, tats, and T-shirts referencing bands that would offend old people, except many of the band members themselves are now old people. Slumped on the curb outside the park, they looked like an old-fashioned after-school special waiting to happen. But on the park’s obstacles, the atmosphere bordered on studious—an air of focused calm and deliberation. Despite the growth of various competitive promotions, skateboarding remains at heart a matter of personal mastery, an art as much as a sport.* The park itself has an otherworldly sculptural beauty. In contrast to all the unconsidered and neglected ugliness around it, its undulating fantasy-forms show what concrete can do when applied with love.
“Skateboarding is like anything else,” Balcom said, as we stood about two feet from a wall that skaters were rocketing over and along at thirty-second intervals. “It’s precedent driven. As far as stuff to skate goes, there’s way better, but people come here because this is the mecca. This is an experience. It set the precedent that showed this could be done—that a bunch of skaters left to their own devices could create something that lasts. Now there are places like this in cities all over, and some of ’em last and some of ’em don’t, but this is the one they all look to.”
At this point, we broke off our conversation to look up. Behind a half-built wall overlooking the park, we could see a man with a shaved head and squared-off shoulders—he was working on the wall until that minute—in a loud confrontation with another party. “Dude,” Balcom said, “someone might be about to get his ass kicked.” It seemed a resident of a nearby homeless encampment took exception to something the skaters were up to. Now the burly wall-builder found it necessary to enter into a spirited exchange of views. “Stuff like that is never-ending,” Balcom said, peering up at the fracas. “Just the nature of the neighbor¬hood. We’ve had people shooting heroin, all that shit. We run people outta here all the time.”
When the city council considered Burnside’s fate, it sought advice from law-and-order types. The police chief (he later became mayor) offered this: “Patrol officers report that since the park has existed, a previous pattern of theft from autos in the adjacent area has been significantly reduced.” This represented, the city’s top cop wrote, “an unexpected synergistic effect.” In the great irony of the Burnside Skatepark, this child of anarchy became an experiment in bootstrapping good citizenship—in spite of the fact that, in Balcom’s delicate phrase, “as skateboarders, we’re somewhat desensitized to legality.” Most hours of the day, the skatepark’s disorganized guild of tattooed punks is effectively the only government that exists under the bridge. I hope the skaters don’t take this the wrong way, but they appear to handle the responsibility quite well. Negotiations with business owners and the city turned Burnside’s elders into adept students of municipal politics. Many of the founders now run one of the country’s most-respected skatepark design firms and execute contracts with cities all over the world. Balcom sits on the board of Skaters for Public Skateparks, a 501(C)3 advocacy group that he describes as “sort of a think tank, I guess.” In that role, he devised a formula to help cities determine how many skateparks they need to serve their populations. He also logs many hours at the kind of planning and public-comment meet¬ings that form local governance’s mind-numbing substance, try¬ing to make sure cities do right by skaters.
“Our whole thing is just to make sure they don’t fuck up,” he said. “Because if left to their own devices, they will fuck up. For all the skateparks cities try to build these days, maybe 25 percent are any good. So our mission is to try to improve that, or at least not let it get any worse. Tacoma—great example. They put up antiskating barriers at the main street-skating spot in one of the parks. Then they were gonna build, like, fifteen skateparks. So we were, like, why don’t you let us go back in, take off the skate barriers, and fix that place up? We can make it better and save you money. When we did it, I went up and set the granite at that spot, and I’ve never in my life seen people happier than the kids who came to see us do it. We just try to set the precedent that this shit can work.”
At Burnside, human creativity took on a nasty environment and won. The park’s existence proves a little anarchy can be a healthy thing. On any given day, some of the most dedicated athletes in Portland can be found in a setting that would otherwise be a minor lesion on the formaurbis—skating, hanging out, plotting. As one of several Burnside-oriented websites puts it: “The park is still not done. The beauty of Burnside is that it is never really complete. By being a nonsanctioned park, we are at liberty to destroy and rebuild as we see fit. It is how Burnside was started and it is how it continues to thrive.”
On a cold but bright morning at the very beginning of fall, I stood in the middle of a deserted industrial street, beneath one of Portland’s many bridges, and thwacked a tennis ball with a nine-iron golf club. The ball arced and hooked before plonking one of the bridge’s concrete supports and dropping into a cordoned-off construction zone. I noted with satisfaction that the plastic bottle cap I’d used as a tee had not moved. It feels good to hit things. The visceral joy of abusing an insensate object with a weapon of choice, then seeing where it goes and what happens when it gets there, explains a meaty percentage of human behavior. To smack a ball true and clean is to experience a crisp lift to the entire organism—a sense that, ah, yes, now everything makes sense.
“Man,” I said, as I handed the club back to Greg, its owner, “that felt pretty awesome.”
“Wait until you get a few drinks in you,” Greg replied. “Then you’ll feel like Conan the Fucking Barbarian.”
Greg wore a tweed vest, a green felt cap, and tight wool pants checked with a black and green plaid. He held a plastic cup one-third full of a martini, complete with floating olives, dispensed from a cylindrical cooler disguised as a golf club (the “Kooler Klub”) tucked in his wheeled golf bag. It was about ten o’clock. The morning sun gave the giant brick storage building across the street a superreal glow. Greg’s friend Robert looked almost as swell as he did, in a snappy brimmed cap, navy sweater vest, and pants refitted into knee-length knickers with some hid¬den twine. He also swirled the olive around his martini, took a satisfied pull of bracing air, and leaned on his driver—waiting for Gatsby to show up, maybe. Greg and Robert were ready for World Urban Golf Day, and now so was I.
In a few minutes, about seventy-five people would join our little party in Portland’s old inner-city industrial quarter. Together, grouped not so much into foursomes as amoebalike pods, we would play eighteen “holes” plotted across a few twist¬ing miles of city streets. In a concession to health, safety, and the windshields of parked and passing cars, we would use tennis balls; instead of little cups dug into sod, our targets would consist of found objects and hunks of municipal infrastructure marked with bright orange pennants. Maybe some people would actually keep track of their scores, but our main objectives were the five licensed premises en route, the beer and liquor for sale therein, and the amount of collective havoc and puzzlement we could stir up in between. Besides these obviously worthwhile goals, a hearty day of urban golf provided at least some players with a forum for statements of a kind. Greg and Robert, for instance, thought of themselves as walking fashion manifestos.
“Golf is a sport that is distinctly tied to the past,” Greg said. He teed up a warm-up ball. “Players last a long time. Their careers span generations and tie together different eras. Unfortunately, the style doesn’t always come with them. The ’20s and ’30s, those were stylish times, and the style found its way on to the golf course.” He stopped to swing. His practice blast lanced down the center of a lane lined with old warehouses and hit a Ford Explorer about two blocks away.
“Nice,” Robert said.
Greg shook his head. “I’m obviously going to lose a lot of balls today. Anyway, I guess we’re trying to revive that spirit— you should play with a little bit of style. It seems like a shame to discard all that in favor of slapping on as many corporate logos as possible.”
Style would not be a problem that day. As the eleven o’clock tee time approached, urban golfers streamed out of the brick-paved side streets. Soon, the first “tee” looked like a Scottish Highland clan gathering held in a fever dream. I have never seen such argyle, such plaid: chocolate brown, cocoa powder, robin’s egg blue; hot pink, salmon, maroon; latte foam, commencement-braid gold, sunburn. In this crowd, eye-bleeding neon stripes looked hidebound and conventional.
The first hole traversed a corridor of ragged asphalt laced with obsolete iron streetcar rails, ending in a ninety-degree dogleg down the actual working freight tracks along the Willamette. A woman in sky blue pants and pink socks teed up on a square-foot section of carpet laid over the asphalt and took a big slash at the ball. It dribbled about ten yards. She stepped up and went after it again, with a grinding thud of five-iron on concrete. A stocky lad carefully placed a crumpled Pabst can on the carpet section, put his ball atop it, and fired, ricocheting a fine hundred-yard drive off a wall.
“See,” Robert said as we watched the next player clunk his driver against pavement to squib the ball fifteen yards to the right. “Urban golf has its own degree of difficulty. You gotta free up your swing and take it easy. If you try to murder the thing, you’re just going to hit concrete. That’s what makes alcohol so very important.”
Fashion and chemical abuse aside, the interesting thing about World Urban Golf Day was that it was World Urban Golf Day. In addition to the Portland mob, urban golfers played in about thirty cities around the world that day. In Newcastle, Australia, festivities began with tea at nine thirty a.m., followed by nine holes, beer and barbecue, nine holes, beer and awards, and beer. In Portugal, players whacked through the medieval center of Caldas da Rainha, one of the country’s premier cultural sites. The Parisian contingent golfed in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Depending on how you looked at it, this day of applied physics and wayward projectiles could be considered sport, a public menace, or a combination thereof. It was certainly an impressive example of Internet-enabled coordination. The whole thing came together in a matter of weeks—Scott Mazariegos, a Port¬land artist who started organizing regular urban golf excursions a couple years ago, got a MySpace message from Portugal. A few Xeroxed and stenciled flyers and many, many e-mails later, a true global event took shape.
In the days before the event, I learned that several impulses turned people into urban golfers. Ian Johnson, one of the organizers in Australia, cited exorbitant greens fees and a lack of accessible inner-city golf courses. (“I have no doubt some are in it for the lack of respect for authority,” he added.) The Portuguese group seemed to consist of hyperenthusiastic artists and students with energy to burn. Mazariegos mixed high concept and low. “I started doing these things because I thought it would be cool to design a whole event around bars,” he said. “I wanted to get people out into neighborhoods they didn’t usually go to. We did the first one, and had twenty-five people hitting balls into traffic—beautiful. We invaded these bars that usually just have a couple people sitting in them. We’ve done a few of them since, and it just seems like it strikes a chord with people. We get people who’ve never played organized sports and people who are hard-core golfers. Men. Women. Lawyers. Mechanics. We had a guy who just saw us when he was driving to a wedding, stopped the car, got out, and played a couple holes in his tux. For the players, it’s fun and it exposes them to different parts of the city. For everyone else, I like to think it shakes them up a little, but in a good way.”
This was exactly what I was looking for: a bunch of people, armed only with the Internet, their imaginations, some cast¬off golf gear, and an objectionable fashion sense, staging what could be seen, if one squinted just hard enough, as a large-scale global sporting event. Especially after the world’s conventional economy smashed head-on into what E. F. Schumacher, in his great 1970s book Small Is Beautiful, delicately called “absurdities,” World Urban Golf Day provided a bracing counter-example of international trade—a trade in wild ideas and cocktail recipes rather than complex financial derivatives or cheap shoes. Schumacher’s book, with all its talk of “Buddhist economics,” would seem like a relic of stoned hot-tub philosophy, except that he foresaw just about all of our current dilemmas, from global warming to the credit crunch. He believed small, decentralized institutions serve human aesthetic, social, and spiritual needs better than big, centralized ones. I don’t believe he actually had drunken street golf in mind, but as I watched tennis balls carom down the street, I thought Schumacher would approve.
Now I had to play golf, which promised humiliation even under these circumstances. I borrowed a shot of Maker’s Mark and a baby-blue-headed driver from a fellow player, and proceeded to shank a shot off a parked Jeep. In the next three strokes, I made it about a block and a half to a tough lie in a depression between a lip of asphalt and an old rail. I managed to dig out a daisy-cutter shot straight through a gaggle of prepubescent skateboarders. Greg, who stood next to me offering some advice and trying to force me to accept a martini, looked unimpressed.
“Failure to hit the kids,” he said. “One stroke penalty.”
*In a column for the May 2008 issue of Arthur magazine titled “Skateboarding as a Mind-Body Practice,” writer Greg Shewchuk offered this perspective: “Anyone who claims to know what skateboarding is ‘all about’ is full of shit. . . . Skateboarding is inherently meaningless. Its lack of meaning is what allows it to be such a progressive and influential experience.” Shewchuk compares skating to tai chi and yoga.
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