Words and photography by Olly Todd. Printed in issue 39.
We were following the back roads from Ybor City to downtown Tampa. We kept having to pick up our boards and walk because the potholed old road was mostly unskateable and there were no pavements. We were hungover and out of water and the late-morning sun was wearying. No soul was around save the odd scrawny cat, lying in the shade of a parked car or house porch whose edges flaked with rot.
We were booked on the 12:15 train to Miami. We’d have to hurry. My companion Blake was no hurrier. Blake had this trick where he’d zoom his board towards a parked car tyre before jumping back onto it and tic-tacking away as it was bounced back to him by the taught rubber.
‘Check it out,’ he said, and rolled his board towards an old red sedan. Only this time it didn’t bounce back. It stayed lodged in the tear it had made. The sedan’s left rear end collapsed with a loud hiss.
‘You little punks, what the…’ A fat shirtless man had burst through the rattling screen door of his timber bungalow and was coming for us. Blake was wiggling his board loose from beneath the deflated wheel.
‘Shiiit!’ We were on our boards and pushing before he reached us, grateful of a rare smooth patch of road with a slight incline that lent a surge of speed to our flight. I didn’t look back but I swear I heard a shotgun cocking. Or allowed myself to believe I did because I was in America and that’s the kind of noise the movies tell you you should hear in these situations.
In Tampa we found the Amtrak Station and went to the ticket desk. Our team manager had booked our tickets online in the hotel last night but he was as drunk as we were so I harboured little hope they would actually materialise. The station’s main room was cool and enormous and adorned in original wood and brass fittings. The floor was an autumnal mosaic in glazed tile. How America retains the grace and integrity of its public spaces through the decades. This hasn’t been the interior design du jour since the fifties, yet here it was still, unchanged and unapologetic. Why does Britain feel compelled to remodel its civic spaces so often, replacing wood with plastic; taste with tat; legacy with lethargy?
‘Ok boys that’s all in order. Now if you’d just like to follow the signs there’s a Greyhound bus’ll take you on to Fort Pierce for y’all’s connecting Miami train.’
‘Bus but,’ I began.
‘Yeah ‘fraid we’re fixing up the tracks out here so.’
‘Sir does the bus go through Auburndale?’ Blake asked.
‘Sure does son. Why, you got some unfinished business?’
Blake was staring through the window as the Greyhound turned off the parkway and on through Ybor’s dusty backstreets, retracing our steps from earlier that morning. Following his gaze I saw the owner of the old sedan pumping furiously on a car jack, beer can disappearing over his shoulder.
‘I’m getting off in Auburndale,’ Blake said.
‘What about Miami? Cody said tonight’s the deadline.’
‘I’m getting off in Auburndale.’
The Greyhound exited the 4-freeway with the piston puff and sibilance of any large vehicle shifting down gears. The AC blew louder now the engine made less noise, and had cooled to a chill the film of sweat that covered me. I turtled my arms through my t-shirt sleeves and warmed their cold skin on my sides. Blake stood up and grabbed his rucksack and skateboard from the overhead rack as the bus reversed into a lakeside car park. He jokily offered one of those cupped-palm, jockish handshakes that I accepted once I’d wriggled a hand free.
He was across the cypress lawns and onto the lake path with a bowlegged canter, one hand holding up his sagging trousers, one digging around in his rucksack whose handle he held in his teeth. He re-shouldered his rucksack and adjusted the peak of his cap before opening the beer he had located and lighting a cigarette. Which little lake was this, Hamilton, Ruby, Mariam, Lulu? Dexter, Daisy, Fox?
The Greyhound passed dozens of such lakes before reaching the Kissimmee Chain, which appeared like an ocean. Beyond it the terrain grew greener and I saw a few gators on the edge of a nature reserve, their bandy limbs caked in sunbaked grey mud. The sun was high and gleaming white and the road ahead rippled in its heat.
Fort Pierce train station was a two-track with no platforms. My fellow passengers had alighted the Greyhound and were gathering around a tall uniformed woman who talked loudly and quickly about tickets. She led her little band of travellers to the waiting train whose arrival’s wake of raised dust had apparently refused to settle. We handed over our tickets and boarded by way of box steps.
‘Alright I’m looking for a Fort Lauderdale fourteen B, Fort Lauderdale, thank you sir.’ The inspector was marching through the train checking tickets, tearing and clipping them in place above seats.
She arrived at my seat. ‘Alright I’m looking for a West Palm Beach, West Palm Beach eighteen A.’
‘Miami,’ I said.
‘You’re in the wrong seat sir,’ she barked.
‘I just wanted to sit by the window, this seat was free.’
‘Not my problem pal, now find the correct seat.’
From the left side of the carriage a ponytailed guy about my age stood up and said, ‘Hey can he have my seat miss?’
‘You going to Miami? Well sure you two lovebirds have fun. Fort Lauderdale 22A, Fort Lauderdale? Jupiter, Jupiter…’
I nodded my appreciation to the ponytail guy and gathered my stuff. I got resettled and found my earphones. The window of my new seat faced east – so would soon reveal Atlantic views – and was already showcasing grid upon grid of orange groves as the train pulled out of the station and gathered speed. Songs for leaving stations… Running Up That Hill’s opening drums kicked in and I sank back into the armchair-like seat. It was a great seat. Much better than the one I’d tried to take, which evidently was now travelling backwards and facing west. A voice said, ‘It’s clear enough so as we’ll see Grand Bahama when we reach West Palm Beach.’
‘Sorry?’ I said, removing an earphone. It was the ponytail guy, poking his head into the aisle. His new seat – my allocated one – was four down from me facing backwards on the aisle.
‘The island. Couldn’t help noticing you staring out the window like you lost something.’
He wanted conversation. I wanted music and ocean views. Just then I felt the urge to make a gesture to repay his seat offer. Yesterday we’d demoed in Daytona for the local skateshop and the manager had given us all souvenir t-shirts. I rummaged in my bag.
‘Hey mate, do you want this as a thank you for my seat?’ I said, dangling the green shirt across the aisle. Its graphic was a gaudy cartoon hippo on a skateboard.
‘Wow, thanks so much man. It was just a seat dude; this is too awesome.’
He immediately removed his own t-shirt and donned the gift, smiling. The Atlantic Coast was coming into view. I suddenly felt profoundly hungry and got up to find the dining car. The lunch service was just about to close so, while I was able to order food, I’d have to eat it at my seat. I got a hamburger with Swiss and bacon, and a PBR. Back at my seat I unwrapped the food and placed the tray on the seat next to me. Ponytail guy reached across the aisle and snatched the wrapper.
‘413 calories,’ he said, squinting at the gold foil.
‘Look man I…’
‘You really oughta consider cutting this stuff outta your diet man.’
‘Okaay,’ I said.
‘Yeah in fact you should do the cleanse, first, to prepare yourself and then just go full airtarian, like me. The cleanse – the master cleanse – is two weeks of nothing but maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper. I’ll send you the recipes you should give me your email. What are you Australian? The raw cleanse is good too. Maybe that one would be better for you actually. It’s just raw vegetables and fruit for four weeks. Nothing cooked. Do you know what a freegan is? I used to be one; you hang around restaurant terraces for customers to leave and then you eat what they leave on their plate before the wait staff clear up. The idea is you never spend money on food. Airtarians sleep a lot to conserve energy but they never have to eat, ever. All we need is air!’ His rant ended triumphantly and his eyes were wide.
‘Sounds good mate. I’m just gonna…’
I said, gesturing towards my burger, now getting cold.
‘No, sure, go ahead.’ He sloped back into his seat and out of my eyeline. I got back to my lunch, opening the Coke-can-size can of beer, and turned back to the Atlantic horizon. The contemplative reverie I was expecting the view to inspire was absent. In its place were mental snapshots of the Miami skate spots I remembered from videos.
My hangover was entering its late afternoon peak. The last thing I wanted to do was skate tonight but I was already forming a spot list in my head.
The train arrived into Miami Central at nine. Night had fallen. Cody had messaged to say he would be late so there was little else for me to do but sit on my board on the curb and wait. After the air conditioned train the tropical night air was oppressively hot and still. The last of the passengers were emerging from the terminus, activating their vehicles’ remote locks and sending the train station’s street-lit car park into a frenzy of flashing and beeping.
It came as no surprise to Cody to see that Blake wasn’t with me, and although he explained his behaviour away with words like capricious and spontaneous, they only thinly veiled his disappointment. The original filming deadline for his new video had come and gone causing issues with funding, and this latest setback would only serve to further exasperate the project’s sponsors.
We pulled out of the station car park and stopped at a T-junction red light hung high on a wire above the road. The signs for downtown pointed left but Cody’s right indicator was ticking and we were soon driving slowly through a deserted warehouse district. The eerie quiet was punctuated by the rattle and dissipating horns of trains chugging along an old network of iron bridges. It was a locale that reeked of skate spots. Skate spots of the gritty-city aesthetic Cody and I held in such high regard and by which his videos were characterised.
‘Yeah it’s like this weird metal loading dock on hydraulics but I know where the button is.’ Cody was describing the spot to which he was currently driving us; I’d zoned out a bit. There was a stop sign at the corner of every block and the constant jolts in motion were making me carsick.
‘You can make it into a kicker, as steep as you want,’ he said. ‘You’ll love it.’
You’ll love it; filmers and photographers said this based on the things you’d skated in previous videos and I hated hearing it. I hated hearing it because there are few statements more freighted with the pressure to perform. I needed an excuse. Would the hangover wash? I could try it I thought. Cody pulled the car over behind a haulage place and we got out. The cracked blacktop gave way to a pad of smooth grey concrete into which were set two yellow non-slip metal platforms each about the size of a classroom desk. I didn’t see where Cody went but he must have located the control panel because with a whine one of the platforms began to tilt upwards. The angle was perfect. I got my board out of the boot and started skating around.