Rumble at the Riverside Skatepark



Riverside Dr & W 110th St, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

On a lazy hot August afternoon my parents and I emerged from the coolness of the Walter Reade theatre at Lincoln Center after seeing a movie from the sixties. It might have been Italian, maybe something by Visconti – my memory of it has been erased by subsequent events. We ran into my co-worker Jim who had also been in the audience and the four of us talked on the sidewalk for a while but I couldn’t really give the conversation my full attention because I was itching to go skateboarding. I said I needed to go and my father joked to Jim “If he doesn’t go skating he gets cranky.” He knows me well, I wanted my fix. They headed towards Brooklyn and I caught the 1 train uptown.

It’s a trip I’ve made countless times: Get off at 110th Street, skate across Broadway over to West End Avenue, past the birdwatchers looking for falcons that nest in the spires of Riverside Church and old Dominican men playing dominoes whose Chihuahuas bark frantically as I ride by. There’s something about a loud rolling object at their height that drives dogs crazy. Down the urine smelling stone stairs, ride the hill to the promenade where the old Ukrainian sells hot dogs to another flight of steps where at the bottom I could slake my thirst. Riverside skatepark is a collection of half pipes and assorted other wooden constructions built by the Parks Department next to the West Side Highway with a view of the Boat traffic on the Hudson and New Jersey in the distance. The Upper West Side has always struck me as a not New York-enough anomaly to be avoided but it does have the redeeming feature of the skatepark.

I usually felt like I was coming home when I went through the gate and put my helmet on but I got the slightest sense that there was a bad vibe in the air without quite knowing why. The sky was gray and there weren’t that many people. Dismissing my doubts I started skating around on the street course to warm up when out of the corner of my eye I saw a skateboarder trying to air from one ramp to another where two rollerblade kids were sitting with their legs dangling over the coping. Without delving too far into the history of the conflict it’s safe to say that skateboarders loathe rollerbladers with a resigned disgust. The main reason is that rollerbladers have co-opted the style, clothing and tricks of skateboarding and adapted them to a demonstrably inferior activity. They also have a penchant for acting laughably tough while trying to pass their eight-wheeled folly off as being comparable to skating. It isn’t. Because skateboarders and their boards are not attached there is a high degree of difficulty while rollerbladers’ wheels are connected to their feet making their “tricks” totally fake. The are parasites who are unfortunately allowed to share space with skateboarders.

The skater tried to ollie a couple more times from ramp to ramp but the two rollerblade kids siting where he intended to land didn’t make any attempt to give him room. Rollerbladers’ predilection for obnoxiously loitering in the wrong places is maddening. The idea that the top of a ramp is a free-fire zone where tricks are done and not a place to shoot the breeze doesn’t seem to enter into their heads. So it wasn’t surprising that they stayed in the way and I could sympathize with the skateboarder’s frustration as he tried it a third time and they still didn’t move. I was too far away to hear but I did see him gesturing before he tried it a fourth time and again they didn’t budge so he purposely kicked his board at them in mid- flight, an act that was completely justified in light of their intransigence.

Words were exchanged but I was having fun rolling around and took it to be just another routine clash in the ongoing hostilities. I went over to the mini-ramp and joined my friend Joey up on the rollout deck where we shook hands and I dropped in to take a run. As I finished I heard Joey talking to the obstinate kids and two very large women as they approached the ramp. Peripherally I also noticed that the skater who had kicked his board at them was going up the stairs away from the park. That left Joey and me the only skateboarders there.

Suddenly the atmosphere was charged with violence. The two offending pre-teens looked menacing but that was nothing next to the bluster and vehemence emanating from the overweight mullet haircut sporting, baggy shorts wearing hellion who I ascertained was their mother. The other similarly coifed and attired lady was her girlfriend. Joey’s agitation took me aback as he practically screamed “Tell your kids to stay off the ramp, they’re in the way” but that was nothing compared to the response. “You fucking cracker motherfucker, don’t tell me what to do with my kids.” I’m white, Joey’s a dark-skinned Italian-American, Brooklyn born, and these two kids are black and their mother and her consort appeared to be Puerto Rican so there was a racial twist along with the traditional skateboarder vs. rollerblader acrimony and I’m thinking, great, this is just what I needed.

As they climbed up to the platform the invective reached a fever pitch. Spit was flying between Joey and the mother while the two kids grinned and made faces behind their two obese guardians. Joey’s adamant stance was a little extreme and I wasn’t feeling up to a confrontation I had wandered into but at the same time I felt an obligation to back him up because he’s my friend and after all they were in the wrong. “Fuck you, you white fucking honkey motherfucker, leave my kids alone” was followed by Joey’s “Fuck you, you fat dyke bitch, get the fuck out of the skatepark with your fucking stupid kids who keep getting in the way.” Then, “You cheap ass white motherfucker with your dime store skateboard, my kids can do whatever they want.” One of the funnier aspects of the whole exchange was that she kept bellowing “Don’t you swear in front of my kids, you cracker asshole motherfucker” which was slightly disingenuous since she was easily matching Joey in the use of expletives. Her girlfriend leered and cheered her on and the two kids weren’t looking very childish anymore even if they were half my size.

It was definitely funny but shivers went down my spine when I saw one of the kids reach into his bag with that grabbing a firearm motion you’ve seen in a hundred movies. He kept doing it and though each time his hand came out empty the situation abruptly lost its comic appeal. The thought that kept going through my head was, wait, am I going to get shot because of this stupidity? An absurd notion but you never know. I looked around while the obscenities flew back and forth and didn’t feel like the park was my personal refuge anymore because it had been invaded by a malicious, disruptive element. And I was right in the middle looking back and forth between the screaming matriarch and the mischievous possible murderer who kept doing the fake-grab into his bag to Joey yelling “Why don’t you just fucking leave our park?” to her “You honky bastard, cheap-ass white boy, we’re going to fuck you up.” I knew she was talking to both of us even though I hadn’t said anything. It was really ruining my day because I wasn’t skating and I knew it was just going to get worse. Sure we might be able to take them on but what if he really did have a gun? There were four of them and two of us and the place was getting deserted and how were we going to end this without getting physical? Even if it was two middle-aged women and two barely pubescent boys they seemed highly motivated to hurt us and as the dispute went on they just got madder and madder.

These fucking ghetto kids with their rollerblading belligerence and their sociopathic mother too. I wasn’t having fun at all. The volume and tension continued to increase until the park caretaker (who through familiarity was more inclined to be on our side) came over and actually managed to persuade them to leave. As they reluctantly walked away they kept shouting about how we didn’t “Give them respect.” Joey and I went back to skating and laughing about the dust-up as they took up a position outside the fence where they proceeded to loudly proclaim “We’re waiting for you mothefuckers, we’re going to kick your asses.”

The last stragglers were leaving and as it got dark we knew we’d have to deal with the problem at some point. The four horsemen of the beat-down didn’t let up and kept reminding us how they were going to “Get us” when we left. Joey and I tried to ignore them but finally he said “Let’s just jump the fence and get out of here, it’s not worth it.” I heartily agreed so we took our last runs and then abruptly climbed the fence at the opposite side of the park from the cursing demons.

Going up the stairs towards the promenade I looked back to see the two women slowly lurching in our direction while the kids rapidly made progress and caught up to start in with “Come on motherfuckers, are you going to fight or what?” Joey and I looked at each other and by psychic agreement decided to walk at a normal speed unless attacked. What were we going to do? We could turn around and start beating the shit out of these two little fuckheads with our boards but the possibility of a gun in play made that option a last resort. And what if we did attack them and it turned into a scene and the cops showed up? I could just imagine. “Officer, I know we’re both thirty years old but these twelve-year olds were threatening us and we had to do something.” We would have come out the villains for sure. So we just kept ambling along while their frustration with our unwillingness to turn around and face them grew more palpable by the second.

Our fraught procession made its way up to West End Avenue. A constant stream of abuse emitted from their mouths as they edged closer and closer but still wouldn’t make a move. Accusing us of being pussies, of being afraid to fight. It was ridiculous. They were incensed because we didn’t break down and instead barely turned our heads to snigger “Why don’t you get your mother to come beat us up?” They were practically begging us at that point. “Come on you pussies, stop and we’ll fuck you up.”

Our refusal to act was robbing them of the tangible outcome and release they craved.

We got to 108th street and Joey muttered “When we get to Broadway let’s just start skating.” There was a pause at the corner as the shouting stopped and I noticed people with baby strollers looking worried and then we dropped our boards down on Broadway and started pushing. We rolled a little ways before I heard the expected patter of their running feet as they rushed us. The one with the bag whipped out the object I had thought might be a gun to thrust it towards Joey’s face and I saw a fine mist enveloping him followed by “Owwww.”

They took off with us right behind them but they were fleet and Joey was holding his face sputtering “Fuck man, fuck!” It was mace. The little miscreants were half way down the block and we were standing there in shock with me saying “What the fuck, are you OK?” A siren sounded nearby which seemed somehow connected so we jumped in a cab with tears streaming down Joey’s face and took it to our friend Andy’s place on 72nd street where Joey daubed milk in his eyes and was fine. A fine day at the park ruined for no good reason. The rage welling up. I knew if I had to do it all over again we would have beat the shit of those two little mothefuckers.

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