Tara Jepsen and Bob Lake, photo by Taylor DeHart.
Tara Jepsen is a comedian, writer, and actor living in Los Angeles. She’s been performing with the queer cabaret, Sister Spit, alongside Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott since 1998. At the age of 36, Jepsen began skateboarding and in what follows, she discusses her experience, shitty meth motels, and a gentle giant longshoreman named Glenn.
I think a lot about what kind of person I want to be. At forty-one, I am haunted by the idea of turning eighty years old, remembering the people or events that led to pain and obsessive thinking, and wondering what the big deal was. I want that presence of mind now. Things go up and down and there I am, the string from the loose tooth of birth tied to the doorknob of death, perpetually wincing in anticipation of the invisible hand slamming the door. Best to give in and know some things will feel great, some like garbage, and that most of my feelings will (sadly) be captured by baby animals in the photo attachments of a sentimental email forwarded by my dad.
I don’t admire how some people age. I see a lot of fear and conservatism trickling into formerly risk-taking, open-minded friends. I want to see more resilient spirits who never lose interest in life outside their minds, homes and families. But most of all, I want to feel alive. I want experiences largely untouched by precedent, as well as some that are highly curated (snorkeling in Fiji whilst staying in a beach bungalow someday sounds good).
So at 36, I started skating with a group of women in San Francisco. We cruised along the Embarcadero, learning to balance on our boards and foot-push. Two months in, a friend brought me to the Novato skatepark, and I found that skating bowls was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Before, I would say I was happy thirty-five percent of the time. Now that I skate, I would say it’s a solid ninety percent. You don’t have to be a Shaklee vitamin sales supervisor to know that those are some solid numbers.
I hated being the least skilled skater at a park, so I pushed myself to keep learning and trying things I was scared of. I fell all the time and bruised my limbs to an astonishing degree. Oddly, this did not distress me. I felt overjoyed.
More time at skateparks meant a new set of friends, and the extraordinary connection a person can forge with other skaters. I don’t know how to make sense of it. Sure, being with a bunch of people and focusing on an activity is just healthy. Putting a finer point on the profundity of skateboarding incurs the risk of trivializing something I feel strongly about—a risk which, for some reason, is more difficult to deal with than the physical risks of skating. I trust my skater friends more and differently than casual acquaintances who I didn’t meet through skating. Skateboarding in its soul is an outsider lifestyle. No hierarchy. Value in forging a new path, a new way to interpret a surface, an unexplored use of the board and wheels. We are held together by knowing we all agree on a free and egalitarian microcosm that wholly lacks conservative values or constraints. The only real rules I’ve ever encountered are: pay attention to other people’s lines, don’t do something that would cause harm, throw away your trash, no non-skaters in the park. If you don’t know how to skate yet, learn on a sidewalk or in the street, not in a skatepark. Once you’re there, the point isn’t to be the best skater, it’s to love skateboarding and bring the stoke.
Generally speaking, I skate with dudes in their late 30s and 40s who are intelligent, feminist, racially mixed and always straight. Queer women are robustly present among the women who skate, and yet I would be hard-pressed to name one gay man in skateboarding. I have not encountered any homophobia with my peers, but the younger dudes at skateparks often derisively toss around the word “faggot”. I occasionally will say something, and sometimes I won’t. It is already glaringly apparent that I’m not like everyone else (boobs), and then being some kind of righteous wagging finger just isn’t thoughtful or effective when I haven’t been consistently present in a park or among a certain group of riders for a while. It is sad and stupid that skateboarders, historically so defined as outsiders and freaks, would take on such a shitty jock mentality of being better than anyone.
The crew of dudes that became important to me in my first few years of skateboarding lives in San Francisco, and contains one of my favorite bros, Bob Lake. Bob is from Virginia Beach, Virginia. As a teen and twenty-something in the 80s, he helped create the extraordinary scene that came out of VB, and was part of the Virginia Beach Pool Service (he defines the VBPS as: “Society of roundwall pioneers, growth retardant, office of roundwall development, officially unofficial Department of Alienation, roamers and seekers, first members around 1986… still killing pools, scattered around the country.”) Bob has always been adamant that regardless of my skill level, I belong in skateboarding next to everyone else, loading the stoke and pushing the session. Bob and his wife, Jen, gave me a place to stay in San Francisco when that city was spitting me out. I lived with them happily for a year, after just knowing Bob through skating.
Falling at the Mott Compound, photo by Bob Lake.
THE GREY GHOST
Bob has a 1986 VW Westfalia camping van called the Grey Ghost. He knows how to work on these vans. We load up the Ghost with friends, skateboards, sleeping bags and a few coolers, then hit the road with a confidence usually attributed to Congressmen.
I am wired to love a freak. Every town we arrive in holds a new crowd of maladjusted people and their skateboards. Without fail, there will be some of the most interesting, low-functioning people, as well as some real aces, at any skate spot. I take comfort in the lawlessness of people whose effort to conduct their business day to day render them socially awkward, living in a kingdom of one.
On one trip to Portland, Oregon, two years ago, a van load of us pulled off the freeway in Redding to look for pools. Depressed town in a hot area means a likely number of empty pools just waiting to be cleaned out and caressed by urethane wheels. You never know how long you’ll get to stay. You could be booted within ten minutes or left alone indefinitely. You take what you get.
We rolled up on a dumpy-looking two-story motel with a pool right in the middle, with a couple feet of swampy water in the bottom. The scene was intense. A pregnant woman with no teeth, a tall skinny dude with an enormous pit bull with giant balls swinging around, an introverted kid wrenching his BMX bike. We didn’t have any buckets on us to bail out the pool, so we drove off to troll the surrounding buildings and dumpsters for containers. A medical supply building had a bunch of large plastic bottles next to the dumpster. We grabbed a few and cut the tops off with a knife. We returned to the motel.
I stuffed a can of Pabst (bribe material) into each of my back pockets and walked over to the pool. A couple of my dudes used the stairs into the pool, like ladies with skirts sewn on their bathing suits arriving for a water aerobics class, except they walked through emptiness down to the dank green water, rippled with lint and candy wrappers, and started scooping. They passed the scum-filled plastic containers up and we dumped them into the parking lot.
I could hear residents, whose doors and windows faced inward, gossiping about our presence. A couple children wandered down to the gate of the pool and one said, “You guys aren’t supposed to do that.” I responded, “How do you know?” and she simply said, “You’re going to get in trouble.”
As the water got lower, Bob grabbed his board and took a couple runs. Clinton grabbed his camera and shot photos of Bob soaring over the light on the back wall of the pool. I have an image I captured with my phone of Bob skating, Clinton photographing, and the yellowish, two-floor motel behind them. On the second floor are two men who have emerged from their respective rooms, one dressed in all black and one in all white. I remember one swinging his arms and yelling, “NO NO NO” as Bob rode, and the man in the next room yelling, “YEAH YEAH YEAH.”
In that moment, everything felt in its place. We live, we resist, we embrace. We are irretrievably fucked up, we persist, we function. We are given recourse to expand or destroy ourselves without wounding others. I feel utterly complete when bonded with my crew and pursuing the stoke of skateboarding. The feeling of peace and integration, with a dose of physical wounds and anger, feels as honest and happy as I’m capable of being. Perhaps you don’t agree with my definition of Meaningful Experience when I couch it in a shitty meth motel. But come on, an experience is printed within us by the way you feel while it’s happening.
The total glory was interrupted when a woman walked up with what must have been a very powerful cordless telephone (not a cell phone). She looked like she had seen too much of the dark side and had hardened in collaboration. I felt like I couldn’t see the actual contours of her face owing to the angry clouds floating around it.
“Get out,” she said. “You have to get out.”
We tried to reason with her. We’re doing a good thing! We’re cleaning out a gross pool! Allow us to tidy up for you and bring some good vibes in the process. But our entreaties could not permeate her anger and she promised to call the police. We drove to an espresso shack whose calling card was young server ladies with low-cut tops and big boobs (very visually exciting for some people, like babies!)
“DO YOU LONGBOARD?”
Bob hatched the idea for a bunch of his skater friends from both coasts to meet in Denver, Colorado in late April 2013 to go on a skate trip. He invited several old friends from his hometown, Virginia Beach, and a few of us from California.
After landing in Denver, I took a shuttle to the fake boutique hotel (meaning it’s owned by a mega-corp but acting like it’s tiny and special) I found on a discount website. I entered a Missouri geriatric’s idea of What Young People Like. Zany, mismatched chairs fresh out of a high school stage production of Alice in Wonderland, festooned with pillows printed with Roy Lichtenstein-esque images (WHEN will those blonde ladies stop CRYING?) A circular front desk was staffed by a casually-dressed handsome young man who I guessed would speak with surprising familiarity, unlike those hospitality-trained drones over at the openly chain hotels. There was a snack area populated by non-traditionally-shaped clear glass containers (neither sphere nor cube was present—just a form that was like clown tears from a laser show). These were full of potato chips and whatever other snacks can fit first in a small bag that then in a large glass jar.
As I checked in, my skateboard was strapped to the top of my wheelie bag. It was wheelie cool! My trucks are loose, so they jiggle as I merrily roll along. A tall man in a fine wool duster stood behind me and asked, “Do you longboard?” and I said, “Absolutely not.” He said, “I used to longboard.” I said, “Okay.” Hotel stays make strange fish out of some men. Suddenly they want to indulge their creative side, becoming an alternate version of themselves in which they have sex with strangers and order room service. They want to take showers together and try some new moves. I had to show this guy I was not going to slap his dick around on an unstable table in front of an open window. I took the elevator. Splashes of color otherwise found on Mossimo bikinis helped my room feel JUST this side of German Incarceration Chic. I felt anxious about meeting everyone I would be skating with, and anxious to just skate. I finally fell asleep in the deep hotel darkness, an absence of light only matched by country cellars where canned tomatoes and children are kept.
The next morning I collected my druthers and went downstairs to wait for The Van. I sat in one of the dumb lobby chairs, a red high-backed number from which a person would ostensibly smoke opium with a talking cat. Every time I looked up I thought I would see pink spirals and turquoise triangles, spinning circles plowing into vibrating squares; basically everything that has been depicted in an earring from the 80s.
A white Dodge minivan rolled up, and I knew it was my people. Dave Caporelli, one of Bob’s old friends, got a deal on a rental through his job. It wouldn’t be as fun as traveling in the Westfalia. This no-profile Dodge was too new, too cramped, and had no psychic stain from adventures past. But we all know it takes relatively little effort to trash a new van when it’s filled with six adult skateboarders. The upside to the generic van: we would likely be read as innocuous as a Lutheran youth volleyball team to cops, rather than as a mobile speakeasy.
We were packed in: all dudes and me, a woman. We rolled up to our first park and spilled out into the parking lot next to a Subaru wagon whose silver exterior was covered in scratches. Blaine, one of the Virginia Beach guys, said, “I thought I was the only one with a car all scratched up by chicks.” Such a sincere observation. Affection poured out of my heart. .
Chet Childress—red hair, red beard and wide, wary blue shining eyes, ruddy face—skated with Bob. I rode the bowl. Small patches of snow melted on the ground, and some teens chatted and charged their cell phones under a small shelter. We finished the day at a backyard pool with Joe “Fro” Fernandez, and a boon of additional dudes over 40 and still shredding their faces off. There was a cooler full of beer and music blasting. As a large group of adult humans skating a pool with tight pockets, a wedding cake, a love seat and death box under a huge blue sky, we put away a staggering amount of beer and lived to talk about it over another beer, the next day. While skateboarding.
That night we stayed at Chet’s house. I saw a half-finished small bowl being built next to the garage. The concrete had not yet been poured. What is the magical recreation land that is Colorado, that so extensively supports the construction of skateparks and personal skate features? It is almost enough to overshadow my understanding of it as a haven for homophobic preachers and their meth-dealing hooker boyfriends. I was given a bedroom on the ground floor to sleep in. The occupant, a skateboarder in his early twenties, was out of town, so I got to lay my bruised body on his fancy silk sheets (not true re: sheets). All the other travelers were in sleeping bags on various floor locations, and I was glad to have a room, however full of skate paraphernalia, lawn furniture and scraps of paper it was. I remember getting this kind of gender-based preferential treatment as a kid. I don’t mind it. I stuffed a cheap pillow between my knees, to beg the night be gentle with my back. I slept.
Tara Jepsen and Chet Childress
THE BAD EGG
We drove to a narrow, oval backyard bowl called the Bad Egg the next day. It resides almost entirely within a one-stall garage, surrounded by pool coping. It is shallow, tight, and perfect for wounding yourself with the mildest of moves. A gentle giant longshoreman named Glenn took mushrooms with a few of the others and killed the Egg.
We skated a couple parks and a couple backyarders, as would be our habit for all non-snowy days in Colorado. Late in the day, as we drove, everyone in the van was smoking doob, dropping beer cans on the floor, eating chips, talking whatever kind of trash. Mason, the only guy in his 20s with us, started talking about a music festival he had attended, about how he saw a woman walking around wearing only electrical tape on her nipples. He said, “She was lookin’ for a rapin’.” My heart dropped. I waited for someone to say something.
Back at Chet’s I went down to the basement. I sat on a small, uncomfortable couch and ruminated. I texted Bob’s wife to see what she thought. She came back with a strong, “WHAT? NO WAY.” Mason awkwardly wandered around nearby, and I felt like he wanted to say something but didn’t know how. Chet was a few yards away, looking for something on his desk. I felt intensely, embarrassingly female, crying.
Twenty minutes later, Bob came downstairs and hugged me and warmly apologized. He told me he just thought Mason was being young and dumb, and let it roll off his back. I said I just couldn’t do that, that living with the reality of rape is different for me as a woman, and that I was also tired of the homophobic stuff. He understood, and one by one all the guys found me and apologized. They hugged me. It felt very powerful. Finally, Mason came down and the others left. He told me he was very sorry, and explained he was trying to make a big statement, impress people, get attention. He knew it was stupid. His honesty and willingness to face his actions meant a lot to me. He made no excuses whatsoever. He just apologized and listened and looked into my eyes. I wish this was something that happened regularly among the people who want it. If a lot of people are capable of this quality of apology, I have spent forty-one years on this earth not meeting them.
Maybe I’m making the cross-stitched pillow point that building an immediate relationship with pain, damage, joy and euphoria through skateboarding has finally made me a happy person. Maybe I am more specifically saying the point that the people I meet while incurring this pain, damage, etc. are exceptional. That’s all I can humbly ask for from this first world life.
The Bad Egg.
A Glossary of Skateboarding Terms:
Bowl: Skateable concrete feature at a skatepark that looks sort of like a swimming pool. They are sometimes made of wood. I prefer concrete.
Carve: Skate the bowl without kick-turning.
Drop in: With one foot, stabilize the tail of your skateboard at the lip of a bowl.With your other foot, step on the skateboard and ride into the bowl.
Death Box: The hole in the side of the pool which recycles water when the pool is full.
Grind coping: Put one or both trucks (pivoting hardware on the bottom of a skateboard that holds wheels) onto the pool coping blocks, metal bars, or whatever else is on the lip of the bowl.
Line: The path a skater takes in a single ride.
Love Seat: A sitting shelf often designed into pools so people can perch in the deep end without having to tread water. Skating over the love seat means committing to a high and perilous line through the pool.
Pool: Empty swimming pool designed for leisure swimming. When empty, some are fun to skate, some not so much.
Wedding Cake: Round stairs in the shallow of a pool that look like a wedding cake.
Skate Trip: A passel of skateboarders load up in a van to seek out skate spots, be they hidden, illegal and/or public, buoyed by beer and insufficient food. The evening’s accommodations are generally not known until late in the day when everyone is least capable of planning such a thing.
Uncredited photographs by Tara Jepsen.