Essay | An editor’s rebirth at the House of Vans Philly skate festival
Updated: May 9
Phantogram lead singer Sarah Barthel rocked her performance at House of Vans Philly. (Photo by Katherine Veri.)
Once upon a time, I was a skaterboy, and I felt especially close to that era this fall, after attending the October House of Vans skate festival in North Philadelphia. I experimented with skating to align myself with a group of people—to belong to something. I got my first skateboard deck in 2006, when I was floating through a prosaic college experience. I’d always been a homebody, so that didn’t matter so much. Until it did, when a wild, unbidden ambition seized me on a fateful July afternoon.
Ollies and immortality
I was at Mt. Trashmore in Virginia Beach with my cousins, the skate park everyone went to there. Just a few days after learning how to kickflip, I grew eager to take on the halfpipes. With a helmet too small strapped tight to my head, I sailed down my first pipe, my heart hardly thumping. For just a moment, I was invincible. Immortal. Permanent.
I barreled over at the end of the halfpipe. But I sprung back up, snagged my rolling CCS deck, and scurried back to the top of the pipe. I repeated this cycle over and over with a reckless abandon that caught the attention of the whole park. People were cheering me on. They wanted me to nail that landing at the bottom of the halfpipe, smoothly gliding onto the straight concrete with fists pumping, cradling applause.
Then, at the height of the ovation, I sprained my ankle. Bad. I could hardly walk. I reluctantly went to a doctor, who told me to stay off the ankle for as long as I could. I didn’t, because I wanted to spend time with friends, because this way of life was never going to die.
A few days later, I found out my dad passed away. I hadn’t seen him in two years. But what unraveled from the end of a tenuous, sporadic relationship was a strong sense of compassion, forgiveness, and perhaps most important, urgency. With the death of my father came my own rebirth. I embraced impermanence with a resounding grasp.
Still, I had work to do before truly letting go.
Kick, push, coast
I kept skating once my ankle healed. I found other people to skate with in my own city. Even dated a skatergirl and it felt like I was living out Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push.” But I wasn’t in love with skating. Skating was masking a void that was silently devouring me. I couldn’t seal it shut.
Festival attendees kick it at the skatepark. (Photo by Grandstand Media.)
James Baldwin talks about love and death in his book, The Fire Next Time. In it, he says “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
I tucked the splintering CCS deck in my closet for several years. The void gradually was exposed, and I sought to patch it up through other means. I didn’t understand love the way that Baldwin did. And I certainly couldn’t articulate death as well as he did.
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”
Skating with my ghost
Skating was an attempt to discover my identity, to cultivate life, love, and to escape death as a means to grow. For me, my skater friends were my army. The Etnies and Lakai sneakers I wore were my flags and nations. I likely left blood at Mt. Trashmore, which caught fire a month after I sprained my ankle. I imprisoned myself in the shoes, the clothes, in my board. It haunted me from the closet: Don’t you want to come back to skating?
Skaters say “skate or die.” I had to die. No permanence, no invincibility. I had to let go, which was far more daunting than the halfpipes that could have very well killed me, a foolishly adamant novice.
Borrowing from Baldwin again, “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”
An invincible, immortal, permanent moment: House of Vans set up a skatepark inside the warehouse. (Photo by Grandstand Media.)
And so I found myself at the House of Vans festival. I got to hang out backstage, where Vans offered all the free swag with an authentic warmth from the reps there that reminded me why I loved skate culture in the first place. Around the bend, I could see one of my favorite bands, electro-pop duo Phantogram, hanging out in their room waiting to go on stage.
Phantogram’s music reminds me a lot of death, even before the release of the single “Someday,” which came about after lead singer Sarah Barthel’s sister died by suicide. In their music, they experiment with and blend disparate elements to weave electronic dreams that linger at the brink of metaphorical self-annihilation—otherwise known as growth or rebirth.
The House of Vans festival was a chance to rejoice in my death as a skaterboy. It still echoes as part of me, an element that defines who I used to be, informs who I’ve become, and opens new opportunities. I’ll experience many other deaths in my life, and I look forward to unmasking and deciphering the pain, and ollying onto rising platforms.
Skate or and die, and skate again.