by Elliot Russel
I had been at Davis Street Park for only a minute when a man, about five-foot-eight with a lopsided Leo Tolstoy beard, seemed to be taking his chair for a stroll. It was a beautiful midcentury piece; a blue-grey aluminum construction, complete with a natural wooden seat and back, fastened on with silver screws. He walked in unannounced from Merrill Street, plopped his MoMA-worthy chair beside one shoulder of the skateboard half-pipe, perched atop it, and thoroughly examined with a point-blank stare a steel sign listing the rules of the park.
The sign and the man upon his chair stuck out like two towers from a sea of concrete, all laboriously decorated with spray-paint of every color; it would be a waste of my time and yours for me to recount entirely what these adornments looked like because of their sheer quantity. Quantity, and the fact that they merged with one another, each piece flowing in, out, and over another in breathtaking anarchy for the trained eye.
The chair, while beautiful, was a quaint sight among the chaos. If I were Henry, a friend of mine who arrived at this very moment, I would’ve stopped to admire the furniture before venturing into the skatepark, where all except a few of the park-goers congregated. A regular with one foot in the skatepark and another in the overwhelmingly elderly world of flea markets, he buys and sells vintage furniture to one day fulfill his dream of pulling up to Davis in a Dodge Charger. In the meantime, he’ll keep collecting Herman Miller chairs and impulse-buying $700 Omega watches on eBay.
He shook up a few of our friends at the picnic table then dropped in on the halfpipe with a firm step onto the front of his board. It was the first of many warm spells during this frigid Michigan winter, and it had been the first day back at high school after winter break: the high school I had graduated from the year prior. Tucker, fifteen, with a black hoodie tightly wrapped over his navy-blue locks, lit a cigarette and passed it to Stan, sixteen, who looked like an adolescent Jim Morrison clad in Carhartt. Time went by before either party made note of the other. The man, still atop his perch, had taken a graffiti wipe to the sign, which like most of the park’s surfaces had long been used as a canvas by the park’s artists. He seemed to me a good Samaritan, a Johnny Appleseed type.
Nobody hassled him. Nobody commended him either. At this point, he’d settled in, a stack of paper towels and plastic bags under a leg of his chair to keep a sudden loss of balance from sabotaging his mission.
The skaters at the picnic table went on taking drags off the cigarette and passing it around, all the while debating the location of Sicily (which, they agreed, is a region and not a city) and the listenability of Tom Waits (whose smoky drawl may be draining, depending on the ear).
“The pomelo is the biggest citrus in the world,” remarked Gus, another regular who was taking a rest from incessant kick-flipping. Gripping what he called “the smallest citrus you can get,” a tangerine, Stan dug his thumb into its core, and you could hear its flesh turn to pulp. “That’s how I’ve always done it. That’s how you know it’s a good one,” he said.
Perhaps my fascination rubbed off on them because Gus caught a glimpse of old Tolstoy, who’d turned the park’s hopeless set of rules into the spickest and spannest surface in all the Vine and had now placed his chair facing another sign near the entry to the park.
Sitting in on the skatepark-side discussion, I couldn’t help but focus on the valiant, crusaderly figure. What would move him to do such a thing, to take time out of his day to clean the disputed surfaces of the skatepark, where this public self-expression – tagging – reigns supreme as a sort of technicolor turf war?
“He’s the Batman of Davis,” Gus said. Everybody chuckled, and despite the fact that the purveyors of this very artwork were all around us, nobody griped. They didn’t share the sense of ownership that he had; a sense of teenage apathy permeated from their little concrete jungle, like the cigarette smoke that drifted from between Tucker’s fingers and had us all reeking of that tobacco smell of reckless youth, or stifled middle-age.
Henry left for work and the others hit the nearby bodega for a dinner of canned meat and tortillas (“They’re homeless cosplaying,” another regular chipped in). I waited, and now alone, situated myself beside this “Batman of Davis.” It was then that I realized I’d seen his face before, and that my assumptions of goodness hadn’t been unfounded. Countless times he had been downtown or perhaps at the farmer’s market, peddling an array of progressive petitions regarding abortion rights, voting rights, and such. Truly a citizen, one who keeps eyes and ears above ground: a freakish sight among the disgruntled youth of the skatepark, the remaining of which were engrossed in a tense game of SKATE.
“Aw, you almost brought that back down,” said one shaggy-faced guy in a white hoodie to another in a black hoodie.
“Ollie? Ollie over the rail?” the black hoodie said, then botched the landing.
“Game over,” declared the white hoodie, crooning like a videogame announcer.
I can’t say I passed judgment on any of them, though I sat and transcribed all they said like a court notary. And I can’t say that I have any personal stake in Davis Street Park, though I visit it frequently. While I’d never met or even seen them before, watching these two play SKATE felt indescribably familiar. It was like watching every skateboarder in every skatepark in America frolic in the pleasures of mundaneness. If I could derive so much joy from kicking around wood and wheels, I might be the happiest person alive.
It was dusk and the cold set in. Soon, Tucker, Stan, and Gus came skating down Minor Avenue with their goods. Tucker donned a new hot pink ski mask, while Gus had forgone his planned meal for an oatmeal pie and Pringles.
With his duty done, our Batman had grabbed his chair and gone on his merry way. He left nothing but an impression and took with him who-knows-how-many-year’s-worth of Sharpie ink.
Gus sat at the picnic table and munched on his oatmeal pie, now moon-shaped with a bite taken out of it. “I liked the graffiti on the sign,” he said.