“The best of the times for us. The worst of times for all these fucking poor people.”
Fresno, California gets hot in the summer. In the winter months a thick and unmovable blanket of water vapor known as the tule fog chills the length of the Great Central Valley from Red Bluff to Bakersfield, and a southeasterly wind imports cold air from the coastal north. A new season’s snowpack amasses in the Sierra, which on a clear day one can see to the west of the modest skyline. But in the summer Fresno gets hot.
In the middle nineties a corruption scandal called Operation Rezone descended upon (or emerged within) the city. Developers had been buying huge belts of farmland on the cheap, and then bribing local politicians to waive a host of environmental and planning laws and rezone it into residential tracts, thereby allowing the construction of low-cost homes that could be sold for rather extravagant profits. By the end, sixteen people on charges ranging from racketeering to witness tampering, were convicted. Charles Stevens, the US Attorney who oversaw the case, called it “the type of old-fashioned corruption you would think just doesn’t exist anymore.” Sometimes the cash payoffs were delivered in duffel bags.
The American Dream, that seductive phrase we give to our aspirations in the hope that they might be more than human, has become most realizable in the latter 20th and 21st by owning a home. This desire moved west with the cavalry of its country, insatiably and all too often inhumanly, until finally it ran into the Pacific Ocean and began to pile up on itself. The Dream was priced out of coastal areas, where the pile up was most severe, and so it retreated ever so slightly towards the hot interior. The blue-gray website of Fresno’s Chamber of Commerce claims that the “cost of living, easy pace and sense of community make it the perfect place for families to grow.”
In the wake of Operation Rezone, though a chunk of one generation’s crooks were behind bars, their sprawling concept of growth was not. From 2006 to 2007 Fresno gained more than 17,000 new residents. It was the ninth fastest growing county in the United States.
On September 15th, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed the largest bankruptcy case in US history. The week of October 6th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,874 points. By 2009, 14,974 properties in Fresno were in some stage of foreclosure. The subprime mortgage crisis, as it would later be known, had arrived.
Fresno gets hot in the summer. One realizes when flying into Fresno, or Phoenix or Houston, or any of the too-warm fulfillments of our Great Domestic Fantasy, that to dream of owning a home is to dream of owning a pool. The Fresno Chamber of Commerce boasts of “more than 300 days of sunshine each year.”
Heading south out of Fresno on Highway 99, merging onto Interstate-5 at the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley, and then working through North Hollywood, past Universal Studios and Dodger Stadium, through East LA, one arrives in the small and somewhat stagnant Orange County city of Fullerton. Next to the train tracks, amongst some poorly watered public fields, is the Fullerton skate park where, sporting ripped cut-offs and hectic strands of dyed hair, one might find a thin, oddly proportioned, and quite prodigious skateboarder named Skreech.
In 2011, when then 23-year-old Josh ‘Skreech’ Sandoval was portrayed in Tristian Patterson’s film Dragonslayer, he had a tendency of referring to his life in past tense. He had a girlfriend, Leslie, with braces and bright red lipstick. He went to punk rock shows and parties in the desert and drive-in-movies. And he was homeless, too, having quit all his sponsors in a bout of depression. He fought constantly with the mother of his child, ate shrimp flavored Cup Noodles for every meal, and couldn’t afford new shoes even when his soles were worn straight through from the skateboard’s grip tape. He took bong rips on a mattress with no sheets.
In the first shot of Dragonslayer, Skreech shows the camera his hip, which is swollen to the size of a fist. Masochism, perhaps more than anything else, is a defining element of skateboarding. A fall onto concrete, that stubbornly unforgiving creation, is hardly ever innocuous. Even those falls that seem innocent, that don’t hurt at all, are always accumulating into sly little injuries that reveal themselves later – the ankle that stops moving side to side; the wrist that can no longer shoot a basketball. The build up of these traumas means Skreech walks strangely – his ever-evolving limp catering to ever-evolving pain.
There is a deep gap between the glamour of the X-Games and the stoned kid who hangs out at the skatepark after school. There are some skaters – we might call them semi-pros or pro-ams, could-haves or would-haves – who bridge the gap. There are others, like Skreech, who fall into it.
Born in the 1950s and 60s, skateboarding was an activity originally relegated to the flat-ground, on which all-American boys and girls with good haircuts perfected such dinky tricks as the skateboard handstand. In the 1970s two things changed that. In 1972 the polyurethane wheel, immeasurably faster and more controllable, replaced the clay wheel, which had a murderous tendency to freeze up upon coming into contact with the smallest crack or pebble. And then, in the middle of the decade, California went into drought.
The drought’s legacy is everywhere. It gave us low-flow shower-heads and toilets, water-saving washing machines, and drip irrigation. It gave us water restrictions. Lawns withered, cars went unwashed, plumbing systems were altered so that shower drains led to the garden. And pools, thousands and thousands of pools, dried out. Their steep walls and sharp angles were exposed.
To skate a pool is gnarly. Beyond concept it has little in common with the meticulously crafted skate parks of today. Transitions are extremely tight. Lights and appropriately named death boxes stand out ominously, the prospect of skating up and over them just as tempting as it is hazardous. The walls come fast – a good skater might link only three or four hits before rolling back to the shallow end and trying to grind over the stairs, perhaps the most classic move of all. With their weight just a centimeter too far back, the board will fly forward and the skater will slam their hip and elbow into the wall. A centimeter too far forward, and they pound themselves into the floor. All of it is notoriously loud.
Modern skateboarding was born in the pool, and it grew up fast. The first generation of pool skaters, as catalogued in the popular 2001 documentary Dog Town and Z-Boys, (an incestuous orgy of pioneers who most assuredly earned the right to their self-congratulations), were surfers first. To them, skateboarding was, at least initially, the act of applying the aesthetics and style of surfing to LA’s terra firma. Most of them had long, blonde hair. Skating with apparent effortlessness was paramount. Fluidity was too.
At one point in Dragonslayer, a tattooed onlooker describes Skreech’s skating as “random chaos” and it’s not an exaggeration. He rides with immense aggression, always improvisational, always on the edge. The ocean, which even in a storm has pulse and rhythm, is not a presence in Skreech’s life. Surfing is not an influence. His is an inland world – a world of cheap fireworks and dry grass, open space and telephone wires.
Improvisational, perhaps, is too neat and generous a word. With the limp and the sunglasses and the wild hair, everything he does seems to be so wild, so hung-over, so wholly unmindful, that it’s often hard to understand it as anything more than an oddly impressive accident.
There is a man in Fresno with a shaved head and shirts that say things like “Blood, Guts & Pussy” who goes by the name Josh Peacock and for many years has scouted and maintained a remarkably thorough network of pools. He’s a bit of a legend in the small, cultish community that is pool skating. Skreech calls him the pool guru.
In the 70s, skaters had to drive suburban block after suburban block standing on the roofs of cars in order to find a skatable pool, but times have changed. On an Apple desktop, Peacock checks sites like realquest.com and realtor.com to pull up lists of foreclosed houses, and then uses Google Earth to see whether or not there’s a pool in the yard. When the answer is yes, he drives by looking for the telltale validations of a mortgage gone wrong – dead grass and lockboxes on the front doors. If everything checks out – that is, the house is deemed fully unoccupied – he gets to work. If an outlet can be found, an electric pump is the preferred way to drain the sitting water that breeds mosquitoes in an abandoned pool. A gas pump serves when an electric one won’t. A snow shovel is employed to scoop out the solid muck that accumulates at the bottom, and a push broom cleans whatever is left behind. The strong Central Valley sun dries the moisture that remains. It’s labor intensive, especially considering the fact that a pool session can be cut short at any time by nothing more than a cop driving by, an unreceptive neighbor, or a few drops of rain.
In Dragonslayer, when Skreech and his girlfriend stay with Peacock in Fresno, he rolls a joint and says, “We’re here because there’s a bunch of empty pools and a bunch of fucked up houses.” With its foreclosure rate, one of the very highest in the nation, Fresno has become an unlikely Mecca in the guerrilla world of pool skating, enticing skaters from around the world to scour its rundown neighborhoods for that perfect dry kidney bean in the backyard, that diamond in the rough: that ideal pool.
The natural disaster that was the 70s drought has been replicated, though this time by the unwise hands of man. For a lucky few misfits like Skreech, there is an ironic home to be found in the pool skating scene – a lifestyle if not a living. The right type of insect always beats the apocalypse, or so it would seem.
By 2013 the stock market had returned to and exceeded its pre-crisis high water mark. The housing market, however, still has a long way to go. It is expected to take years for the national foreclosure rate to get back to where it was in 2006. And with California in a new drought, one of the most severe in its history, there are literal clear skies ahead for Skreech and co. Roughly 17 percent of homeowners remain “upside down” on their mortgages. Or to phrase it differently, as fate would have it, they remain underwater.