It's rush hour in Bay Ridge and three men on skateboards are pushing quickly but cautiously through traffic. They are led by a fourth, more flamboyant skater whose greater speed suggests that he is unconcerned by the glut of cars and the pocks in the road. Tony Soto, 23, one of Brooklyn's finest underground rippers, is taking the three of us—his regular videographer, myself, and a photographer for The L Magazine—to a spot near 86th Street.
The place turns out to be a house overlooking the northbound lanes of the Gowanus Expressway. Skirting the base of this house is a bank of stone tiles that were probably flush once, but which have since been warped by age and tectonic shifts. Above the bank, about five feet high, sits a narrow ledge that's maybe three inches wide, if that. Tony intends to taildrop from ledge to bank—to free fall into this steep, uneven mess of rock and ride away from it.
He needs our help just getting up there. Several times, after we already have boosted him onto the ledge, he loses his footing while turning around and trying to situate himself, and he has to jump back down in order not to fall. Whenever he actually does get into position, one of us has to climb the bank halfway and place the board for him underneath his rear foot.
The first five attempts are unsuccessful and sort of unpleasant to watch. Tony is driving himself straight into the sidewalk. Though his filmer, Chris Miller, captures this series of slams with the calm and dispassion of a seasoned cameraman during wartime, I wince each time our subject hits the pavement. The sixth attempt is a make, at last, but Tony isn't happy with the roll away, it was too sloppy. He insists on doing the trick one more time in order to get better footage, or "footy."
Good footy isn't just a record of an accomplishment. It's a calling card and a currency, proof of one's value as a marketable commodity. Footy is how an amateur like Tony Soto becomes a pro.
Say that you are in your twenties. You are young and healthy and at your athletic peak. And say that you can hit a baseball as well as any professional baseball player. If that is the case, then chances are that you are a professional baseball player. That's because even if your skills are slightly less than that—almost as good as a professional, but not quite—Major League Baseball has a place for you in its vast minor league system. What you are not likely to be, if you can really hit the ball that well, is undiscovered.
Skateboarding is different. For one thing, it is an art and an alchemy as much as a sport, and although there are big money contests like the X Games and the Maloof Cup, proficiency is as difficult to judge as style. More importantly, while the skateboarding industry continues to prosper even during the recession, its revenues are sufficient for supporting only a few hundred professional skaters at a time. There are thousands more around the world who can skate as well as, if not better than, these chosen few. Tony Soto is one of those people.
Tony, who grew up in Park Slope and now lives in Bensonhurst, insists that he does not care whether he ever goes pro. "Pro, it's just a label," he says. "It's hard to get sponsored these days. A lot of these kids are good and they're never going to be able to be seen because who the fuck has the money to buy a camera like that?" Indeed, to the kids who would dream of such a thing, he has this advice. "Stop trying to be sponsored. Stop trying to be seen. Do it for the main reason you started, and it's to have fun, man."