The Parking Lot Of Life
I skateboard every day. It’s an exception when I don’t, rather than a rule that I do. Most of my skateboarding is flatland, transportation-style skateboarding. In fact, I skateboard around the campus of our school because it’s faster than walking. There’s nothing too contemporary about any of this, I just grab my board, throw it on the ground, hop on, and I’m off–across and through the parking lot that connects the two ends of our school.
Some big-time companies hire research and development coordinators, and they pay them big money to develop focus groups. They pay to have meetings; some target teens, while others target tweens. Market share, product identity, brand identification, and product loyalty continue to be part of today’s broad-based retail effort.
Our school is in the business of selling education–we retail information, both for the children in our school (ages three to fifteen) and their parents (wide spectrum of the socio-economic scale, but it’s a private school and costs as much as 6,000 dollars per year). In 25 years of business we’ve never hired an expert, and never brought in someone to run a focus group. We don’t really do meetings. Our source of information is pretty much our parking lot.
Parents arrive with their children in the morning and gather there again in the afternoon to collect them–the parking lot is where the information between families flows. It’s also where the local neighborhood skaters gather after they’ve returned home from their schools. Their families can’t afford to send them to a private school (although we do have six children from the local neighborhood in our school), and they’re always looking for somewhere to skateboard where they won’t get hassled.
If our school’s families represent one focus group, the neighborhood kids represent another–one that contrasts with the more affluent daytime users. There’s an understanding between myself and the neighborhood skaters–they can skate in the parking lot (there’s one set of stairs) after 5:30 when school is over. They’ve also agreed to avoid our small-sized picnic tables. I knew when I bought these tables they were the perfect dimension for a skate element. But I explained to these skaters, “I paid 180 dollars for each table. If you want one of your own, I’ll order it for you, but these six tables are mine, and I need them!”
We talk in the parking lot. Ours may be the world’s longest-running focus group. It seems like there’s always a new skater in the group that has to go through the routine of checking out the old guy who skates in the parking lot. Here’re some of my answers from last week’s 5:15 parking-lot meeting: “Yeah, I helped get the skatepark built … It’s going to open in August … Yes, I know Tony … Well, I’ve met Muska. I’ve talked to him a couple of times. I don’t really know him, I guess … They were sent to me by someone I know at the company … I can’t ollie, I’ve given up trying … The graphic’s a picture of me surfing when I was younger. I worked at Powell for a long time, and they made the board as a way of saying ‘thank you,’ I think … No, I don’t know if he’s high all the time. I don’t think he’d be able to skate as well as he does if he were high all the time.”
It can go on like this for an hour or more. Their information is amazingly accurate. Their equipment is all about three or four years old. The magazines they’re reading are about two years old. They’ve never been to Church of Skatan or A Skater’s Paradise, both local shops less than ten blocks from our school). Their information is gathered from the street, and old issues of magazines. None of them have any skate videos, although they’ve “seen a few” at a brother’s friend’s house. They don’t know who Mike McGill or Tommy Guerrero are, but they do know that Frankie Hill sued Powell. “Yes, I know Frankie. Yes, I know Kareem, I gave him his first pair of shoes. No, I’m kidding.”
The parking lot’s other focus group (those from our school) is better funded. Of the 100 children in our elementary and junior-high classes there are about eight active skaters (more than twenty have a skateboard), with four of these having actually taken treks to the public skateparks in Santa Barbara and nearby Carpinteria, and the private venue of Skate Street in Ventura. More sophisticated, but not necessarily better skaters, this group has it all–the whole modern experience is theirs: videos, clothes, fingerboards, magazines, and video games. Modern-day affluent skateboarding has as much to do with skating as it does with consuming–buying skateboarding stuff is a full-time activity.
Their questions, not surprisingly, are much the same–as are my answers: “Yes, I know Tony.” But they have an insider’s sort of experience because, for the past four years, the first days of school have also been the dates of the ASR Trade Expo, and their teacher hasn’t been at school: “Most of the companies have booths, and they display their products to people from skate and surf shops from around the world … The people from skate shops go to the show to see what to buy to sell to you … Well, it might seem like anything from Shorty’s … Yes, I know Kareem, I saw him last week at the TWS awards show in Los Angeles … Yes, Bob Burnquist was there, but he couldn’t get in. His wife and daughter were with him and the theater owners said they wouldn’t let him in with his baby.”
It’s the videos and the games that separate this group from the other. In fact, it may be the video-monitor-broadcast-games thing that separates all groups from each other. When do these kids have any time to actually go skateboarding?
I was in the parking lot outside Skate Street in Ventura when the Tony Hawk’s Gigantic Skatepark Tour RV rolled in. It took a moment for the kids and their parents in the parking lot to recognize what was happening. Maybe it’s because they’d been standing in the sun too long? Later I asked Tony if he missed the Hell Van, the cramped passenger van that carted the Bones Brigade between demos back in the late 80s. This Gigantic Skatepark Tour vehicle is like a rolling Las Vegas lounge. “Cush” is derived from cushion–many cushions. Everything about the RV is gigantic. Even the sticker on the outside of the motor home, it’s gigantic. That’s when the kids in the parking lot realized that what they had been waiting for was upon them. They began to cheer as the front men cautioned them to “Step back!” so the gigantic motor home could make its way through the gate topped with concertina wire.
I’m sure Tony would have preferred to just walk in the front door, but that would have denied Bruce the security guard his moment. Bruce was excited before the gigantic motor home arrived–he was “looking forward to meeting Tony Hawk.” Behind the closed fence and barbed wire, he didn’t have to really deal with the squealing crowd. So standing there with Bruce, I was amazed to learn that he scored more than 300,000 points on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game. “No, I have no idea what Tony’s highest score is … Well, the only time I’ve played it was actually with Tony at a trade show … No, I didn’t do very well, but Tony did really well … You’ve never skated?”
That was about the time the RV rolled in. Tony, Willy Santos, Kris Markovich, and Andrew Reynolds found their way into the park.
The reporter there from the L.A. Times didn’t believe me: “Yes, I know Tony … IASC is the industry’s trade association. We promote skateboarding … Skateparks, yes … Did you ever see Mr. Smith Goes To Washington with Jimmy Stewart? I took and sent more than 70,000 letters and postcards to Sacramento … We’re going to legalize skateboarding … Why would I bullshit you? Yeah, I made my first board in 1957. I was nine years old … The first time I was hassled by cops was in 1960 in
Malibu in front of the J. Paul Getty Museum. George Van Noy was towing us back up the new hill they had just paved for the Sunset Mesa tract development, and the sheriff tried to give George a ticket for endangerment … Why would I bullshit you? Check out our Web site at skateboardiasc.com … We’re responsible for more than 500 new skateparks being built around the country … Why would I … I’m going out to the parking lot.”
In 1988 I was with the Bones Brigade as we pulled up to a shop deep in the American South. We were bigger and more gigantic than anything anyone had ever accomplished in skateboarding. We were there for a demo, and brought the new 50,000-dollar portable Powell mini ramp. It was big, and it made an impression. Parents and grandparents couldn’t believe that something so sophisticated had anything to do with skateboarding. “We built it ourselves … Well, I didn’t actually build it, but the company–our company–did … It’s a fiberglass surface … Well, a yacht builder did the actual construction.”
The gigantic motor home pulling into the Gigantic Skatepark Tour stop had the same effect. “Damn, look at that!” I heard someone in the parking lot say. “That thing’s gigantic! I bet it cost more than a hundred-grand!”
Indeed. Skateboarding is gigantic. It’s bigger and more powerful than ever before, so I figured I would do some spontaneous market-research sampling–spontaneous focus-group work. The percentages are based on a field of ten, all under the age of fourteen, waiting in line to spectate the Gigantic Skatepark Tour event.
Using this parking-lot skew, I came up with the following statistics: 80 percent have Tony’s video game; 90 percent wore a skate shirt, of which 40 percent were Shorty’s; 100 percent wore skate shoes (of which 50 percent were Vans); 100 percent had at least one skateboard; 40 percent wore cargo shorts; 100 percent had fingerboards; 70 percent had skated at Skate Street; 100 percent want to go to the X-Games; 10 percent know who Mike McGill is; 40 percent said “Chad Muska” and twenty percent said “Jamie Thomas” when asked who their favorite skater is; 30 percent of the parents told their children what to say; and 40 percent of the adults told the kids to “Wave, you’ll be on television!” when I pointed my video camera at them.
As I left the parking lot, I couldn’t help but notice three skaters across the street. They had a small section of red curb to work with, and they were attempting some sort of nollie-flip-to-tail trick. When I asked if they were going to the Giant Skatepark Tour event, they said, “Nah, that’s cool.” They were waiting for it to finish so they could go in and skate. They didn’t ask me if I knew Tony.