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."
Nevertheless, as soon as the first trick has been documented, Tony is on the move again. It's at about this time that I notice how well Chris can also skate. Because he's filming, he's riding a cruiser with big soft wheels—the skating equivalent of a pink Cadillac—but Chris has huge pop and he's ollieing up and down the sketchier curb cuts I find myself veering around.
We come to a quiet residential block, and that's when Tony admits, having dragged us here, that we might not be able to film at this spot. It's another house. And this time, he wants to use the front stoop. It would be common skateboarding practice for us to trespass and give it one or two tries before someone angrily chased us away. Instead, Tony politely rings the doorbell and asks permission from the man in an undershirt who answers. He's only a renter, of course, but he's pretty sure his landlord wouldn't like what Tony is suggesting. So we're off again, and Tony leads us to 81st Street and 11th Avenue, in Dyker Heights. There, surrounding a church, St. Philip's Episcopal, stands a red brick wall taller than any of us.
Tony wants to do a nose manual—ride solely on his front two wheels—across the top of this wall and into the street. The wall is barely wider than his skateboard, and he will have to ollie three times in quick succession to set up for the manual—but that's not the problem. The problem is the traffic right now is ridiculous. Every single car that rolls up to the intersection gets in the way of the shot. (Also, we soon discover, people are very bad drivers in Dyker Heights.)
Tony goes for it 50, maybe 60 times. I lose count somewhere after 20, because the temperature is falling and the three of us are getting stupid cold standing below him, waiting for all these cars to pass between tries. Tony, understandably, is even more frustrated. Though most of his cries are directed at the heavens, occasionally he will holler at a driver who lingers at the corner to watch. These folks mean well. A real live professional skater, they're probably thinking.
Tony gets the make just before 6pm, and as the four of us huddle over Chris's camera to review the clip, the bells of St. Philip's Episcopal sound for mass. "Amazing Grace." I find out later that Tony has never skated this spot before, never even climbed up on that wall. Instead, he has been passing this corner for ages, imagining the possibilities.
As it happens, Tony is sponsored. He receives decks and parts from Homage, a popular snow- and skateboard shop in Cobble Hill, and apparel from Entree, a Brooklyn street wear manufacturer. "I'm always happy for what I get, I'm grateful," Tony says about riding for these companies.
To make a living, however, he works as a private instructor for Homage, handing down the secrets of the kickflip to another generation of groms. In addition to that, he works seasonally for the Parks Department at Owl's Head, the city's oldest West Coast-style concrete skatepark, and the place where he himself, as a teenager, learned to ride transition. There too he is a teacher.
"I love teaching. That is my number one thing," he says. "My goal with skateboarding is not to be pro. It's to be something like a Brooklyn legend. I wanna be the guy that people come up to for advice at a spot."
At Owl's Head, Tony is already that guy. When the park opened in 2001, it was one of only two places in all of the five boroughs where one could skate transition and vert (there are now many other options). Designed for skateboarders, the park's reputation for speed and big air made it instantly attractive to the city's BMX riders as well. Today, these two tribes share this turf, sometimes uneasily, and some partisans feel that the skaters don't always attack the bowls with the same aggressiveness as the bikers, and vice versa. For both groups, however, Tony stands out.
Jason "Shaggy" Schwab, the supervisor at Owl's Head and a BMXer himself, who has known Tony for eight years, puts it this way. "His cockiness, his arrogance—nothing against the skaters, but Tony is the only skater the bikers respect. He's the only one who rides like a biker."
Tony takes us next to a parking lot out back of a Chase branch on 19th Avenue. The sun is down now, and he admits he just wants to go home to his fiancee Raine, and their two-year old daughter, Cassidy.
He has in mind a fakie big spin to manual (a trick so technically complicated, I won't try to explain it) and, sighing, he asks us for some words of inspiration. Chris, impatient and clearly having some experience in these situations (the two recently shot a commercial together for Spitfire Wheels) is ready with a riposte for his prima donna: "Do it for the glory." It takes awhile—dozens of near misses—but Tony keeps at it until he has the make.
As the four of us pack up and say our goodbyes, a kid Tony knows from the neighborhood walks by with some friends. "Hey, when are you gonna hook me up?" the kid asks. He's referring to Tony's promise to pass along an Entree t-shirt, something he routinely does with his extras. "Right now," Tony says, removing the brand new shirt, which he had worn for this session, from his back. How many pros would do that?
The Best Amateur Skater in Brooklyn