Fly Boys

If boys could fly, the world would look like Eisenbergs. Scores of boys on in-line skates, skateboards, and BMX bikes are perched atop enormous plywood ramps like crows on a cliff. The place reeks of young men, slick with sweat, ostentatiously stoical in their Teutonic skate helmets and gladiator pads.

They are wordless, motionless. Then suddenly, moved by an invisible tremor in the earth, they lift up one after another and roar through the air, flipping and spinning, landing in thunderous waves on a distant cliff.

A sound system blasts the bone-buzzing cadences of the Suicide Machines, Pete Droge, and Ska Wars. The skaters move in clouds from place to place, skating and never speaking, flying up off the lips of ramps like bats emerging from the bowels of the planet.

When they come down off the ramps and walk around on their skates, they're ridiculous, like ducks on dry land, waddly in their huge, flappy, fat-legged, skunk-striped Jnco Jeans hanging down off their butts and their huge cape-like T-shirts and little round bullet-headed helmets. But when they skate they are marvelous. The pants and the shirts become wings, and all of these young warriors fly through the air like winged Mercury.

Well, a lot of them do. Some of them fall on their faces, forearms, buttocks, shoulders, wrists, bouncing and thumping a few times before they come to rest in a hump on the floor.

Eisenbergs Skate Park is housed in a rambling old warehouse just down Main Street from Plano City Hall. The only identification on the front is a sign with the Eisenbergs logo--a flying letter E.

Just inside the glass doors, Eisenbergs looks as if it could be a clothing store, with racks of clothing and skate accessories, but beyond the merchandise is a 30,000-square-foot mountain range of plywood ramps, some of them steep and towering, some of them smooth and low. Eisenbergs is the first skate park in Plano, only the second in the Dallas area, and one of five of its size in the United States.

When it opened right in the middle of downtown Plano barely a year ago, the park was greeted at first with fear and loathing by the surrounding culture, but now local officials openly embrace it as a wonderful and welcome thing, as if it were a scientific breakthrough.

Plano is, after all, at the demographic epicenter of the suburban teen heroin problem. It has received national news coverage over a 20-year span for its chronic teen suicide problem. Plano is just across the line from Richardson, where a white middle-class gang fight recently resulted in one kid getting his eyes gouged out.

It is a place where people have a right to be antsy about teenagers, and when Eisenbergs opened its doors a year ago, it looked to the neighbors like a haven for everything they feared most.

"Anytime you have young people coming into an area, you have a certain cause for concern at first," says Martin Williams, who owns a barbershop in the shopping center next to Eisenbergs.

Plano Police Chief Bruce D. Glasscock says the initial crush of skaters who came to Plano to skate at the park was causing a visible amount of wear and tear on the city's carefully coiffed downtown area.

"They were using their skateboards on ornamental stuff in the arts center, things like that."

But Vicki Eisenberg says the main problem was that people in Plano, especially the downtown merchants, just hated the look and feel of the place and called right away to let her know.

"The second day we were open," she says, "I closed the place down for two hours and took all our employees outside and told them we were getting complaints from the Chamber of Commerce, the City Council, all of the businesses up and down the street. The phone lines were jammed with people complaining.

"Now the police come in all the time and thank us all for being here. They tell us this is the best thing to happen to Plano."

Eisenberg thinks the greatest value of the place is that it provides a kind of slip-zone for kids who can't find their own niche in the rigid social map of suburban high school life.

"If the kids don't fit into a clique in the schools here, they are nobodies," she says. "They're nowhere. The skate park gives them a home."

Donella Green, principal of Armstrong Middle School in Plano, has even set up a skate team at her school to take advantage of Eisenbergs' powerful adolescent force field.

"These are the kids who weren't participating in anything else in the building," Green says. "I told them it would be like any other sport, and they would have to have all passing grades before they could participate. They far exceeded our expectations. All of their grades came up."  

Aggressive skating, which tends to include both skateboarding and in-line skating, with a certain amount of bleed-over (sometimes literally) into BMX bikes--was born as an extreme expression of urban grunge. The first indoor park with ramps in the Dallas area was in an industrial warehouse district and attracted a crowd of energetic young parolees on wheels with bad tempers. It's out of business.

The Eisenbergs' idea was to take this very urban sport and transport it to the demographic heart of the middle-class suburbs, where there are likely to be many people with enough disposable income to afford this not-inexpensive sport.

The Eisenbergs are not dumb about marketing. Vicki Eisenberg has spent much of her career promoting movies, books, and other entertainments. Her ex-husband, Arthur Eisenberg, who is a co-owner of the skate park, is proprietor of one of the region's oldest and most respected advertising creative shops. Vicki's current husband, Essie Babaahmadi, the on-site manager of the skate park, has a long career under his belt in the ownership and operation of retail businesses.

But the heart of the deal is Arlo Eisenberg, Arthur and Vicki's 24-year-old son, who happens to be the biggest international star in the sport of aggressive skating. Arlo--called "The Arlo" by skaters worldwide--is almost never here, because he is almost always on tour, in Thailand, in New Zealand, in England, in Germany. Arlo is a founder of "aggro (for aggressive, not agricultural) skating." He was the in-line champion of the first X Games (for Extreme) broadcast on ESPN in 1995, but even by then there were already posters of his butt flying through the air on walls all over Europe and America.

The Arlo is huge. Global. The Arlo is also smart. At 24 he owns one of the world's hottest skate-accessory companies, Senate (named for something "powerful yet corrupt," as he explains).

Senate markets a line of backpacks, clothing, wheels, and other skate stuff. The company, like The Arlo himself, walks a fine and clever line between the realms of chic and anarchy. Two years ago Senate set off a minor public-relations bonfire when it shipped T-shirts with little laundry instruction labels inside that said, "Destroy All Girls," "Wife Beater," and "Kill."

A few major retail chains returned the merchandise, and there was a flurry of media speculation about whether the labels would actually cause adolescent boys to destroy girls, beat wives, and commit murder.

The company continues to reach for the outrageous. Its current full-page ad in an industry trade publication includes all kinds of titillatingly cryptic, neo-Masonic symbology and a big cartoon balloon over The Arlo's picture saying, "WE'RE BIGGER THAN GOD." A line in tiny print at the bottom of the page says, "Whahh ho. In your face."

Kids love it.
Standing in the middle of his ad agency recently, Arthur Eisenberg smiled the smile of a father lucky enough to admire his son without understanding him.

"Arlo scares me a little," he says. "When I talk to him, I wonder what he thinks of what I'm saying."

But the point is, Arthur says, that The Arlo knows what he's doing. On the golden harp of media manipulation, he has plucked exactly the right chord, allowing him to sneak past Nike and Bauer and all the other big-name giants and take command of the all-important edge. And the edge all leads back to Plano.

"When Arlo is in Asia," Arthur says, "these kids come up to him and say, 'Oh, Arlo, we can't wait to go to Plano and skate at your park. We're saving up our money.'"

One day recently at the skate park, Josie Eisenberg, Vicki's daughter, nods toward a group of boys, ages 13 to 18, standing around the clothing shop at the front. "Ask them where they're from."

Dustin Milham, 13, says, "We're from Wichita."
"Wichita Falls?"
Puzzled silence.

His buddy Will Carlton, also 13, comes to the rescue. "Wichita is in Kansas, sir," he offers.

They explain nicely that their schools are out for teacher in-service. A skatepark in Wichita, called BOARDorLINE, arranged to bring them here in a van, with chaperones. They are staying at the nearby La Quinta.

Eddie Parish, an owner of BOARDorLINE, says he thinks there is a dark side and risk in any business endeavor that caters to kids.

"It doesn't matter if you're a skate park or a mall, wherever there's an attraction for kids, there's gonna be drugs," Parish says.

Before he took responsibility for bringing a carload of other people's kids to Eisenbergs, Parish and a friend came down by themselves to check the place out. He says he gave it a careful going-over and finally decided the Eisenbergs knew what they were doing.  

Neither Vicki Eisenberg nor her husband, Essie, is likely to be fooled by much. They know that dope could ruin their business. They keep a sharp eye on their employees and an ear to the ground. They maintain a close relationship with the Plano cops.

"We're rumor central," she says. "Everybody tells us everything. We almost hired a guy once who was a heroin dealer, and the kids tipped us off."

The skaters are into adrenaline.
The most serious adrenaline in the place is at the far back. Called "the vert" by everyone, it's a place where two very steep ramps face each other across a flat space of about 20 feet in width. The boys standing at the very tops of the ramps waiting to "drop in" are almost two stories above the floor. The top five feet of each ramp is an almost sheer vertical drop.

Accomplished skaters fall down one side and shoot up the other so fast that they fly as much as 12 feet up into the air above the far ramp. They pirouette 180 degrees in the air, then fall back down and hit the lip of the ramp just right, so they can go screaming back down it and up the other side to do it again. Beginners tend to jump off the edge and collapse on their backs at the bottom like bags of dirty laundry. It's very important not to cry.

Dropping in on the vert the first time is so extremely counter-intuitive that kids often go to the edge, stare down, get the shakes, and withdraw many times before finally making their first descent. Other boys at the top give the beginners macho clenched-fist gestures of encouragement, but seem never to deride them for pulling back. Everyone remembers the first drop.

Of all the ramps, the vert exerts the most powerful spell. Ty Redding, 13, and Jacob Caplinger, 13, are so drawn to it that they try every weekend they can to persuade their parents to make the two-hour drive from their home in Tyler, 90 miles east of Dallas, to Eisenbergs. Their baggy jeans and huge T-shirts make them indistinguishable from skaters who come from Dallas or Wichita. In Kansas.

"In Tyler we don't have a skate park," Jacob says. "They build baseball parks and soccer, but they don't build anything for skaters."

Ty says he gets good grades. "A's, B's, and a few C's."
Jacob says, "I'm on the A-B honor roll."
Echoing a theme heard all over the park, they say they think skaters are basically good kids. But on a spectrum from the preps, at one end, to the thugs at the other, they're not sure exactly where to put themselves.

"I think skaters are average kids," Ty says.
Jacob says, "If you're a low-life and you smoke and everything, then you can't skate aggressive."

Skating is definitely cool. Ty and Jacob speak derisively of kids from the small town of Whitehorse, near Tyler.

"Whitehorse kids think they can skate," Jacob says.
"They don't know the meaning of skating in Whitehorse," Ty says.
Both of them have played lots of soccer and other team sports. Neither has to think for even a split-second to answer why this is better.

"No coaches," Ty says.
"Yeah," Jacob says. "No coaches."
At the other end of the skate park, taking a rest from the smaller ramps on the street course, half a dozen boys of about the same ages echo all the same feelings.

"You don't have to be on a team," says Kyle Dixon, 14, of Dallas.
"You can do what you want," says Scott Quinan, 15, of Lewisville.
Scott says he gets all A's in school. The others in the group all say they are A and B students. Released from this conversation with an adult, they all take deep gulps of relief and return to the street course--a series of moderate ramps arranged in a circuit toward the front of the building.

Sweat-soaked boys are gathered in mobs on the end-ramps here, waiting their turns. There is an apparently telepathic system of signaling when it is each skater's turn to go. No one says a word--talk is not cool--but everyone is expected to understand the rules. It's a serious gaffe to "snake" someone--skate when it's the other person's turn.

They move in a blur, roaring down one ramp, flying up over the next, turning 360 degrees in the air, and coming back down at full speed. One after the other, one after the other, pumping and flying, sharing their invisible cues about whose turn it is.  

On another ramp--sort of a half-sized version of the vert--two boys are skating together, sometimes passing each other, sometimes flying in tandem. When they are shoulder to shoulder, they both break out in huge grins.

Then they spin, skate toward each other, lose their bearings, and collide. They hit hard, head-on, falling and sprawling. They help each other to their feet, smile, and slap hands. It was a cool collision. Very important not to cry.

The risks of the sport are serious.
Vicki Eisenberg says, "Whenever a mother comes up to me at the park and says, 'Is this dangerous?' I always say yes. I would never want to give any parent the impression that it isn't dangerous."

The first day the park was open, the ambulance came three times to take kids to the hospital. The third day, the ambulance came five times. Now the ambulance runs are down to about eight a month.

"Those first days, it was because the kids were just so excited," Eisenberg says. "And also, frankly, I think it was like when young males first discover sex. They just wanted to do it as fast as they could so they could do it again."

Eisenbergs requires skaters to wear helmets. Most of them also wear serious kneepads and wrist guards. The bulk of the injuries is broken arms and wrists, usually from one-skater accidents as opposed to collisions. Numbers published by the International In-Line Skating Association (IISA) show injury rates for all in-line skaters lower than the rates for bicycling and higher than golf.

The numbers, which come originally from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, are not broken out specifically for ramp skating. Gil Clark of IISA says it may be a mistake to assume that injury rates are higher for aggressive skating than for recreational sidewalk skating.

"There is some indication that rates may be lower in skate parks, where skating is supervised and skaters are required to wear protective gear specifically designed for the activity."

He says injury rates in skate parks are low enough that the parks generally have little trouble acquiring liability insurance. "There has never been a death that we know of or the sort of crippling injury that would attract a plaintiff's lawyer. The vast majority of the injuries are scrapes and breaks that are very treatable, and insurance companies, for that reason, have become comfortable with skate parks as a risk."

Arthur Eisenberg thinks there is another reason that liability is not a huge problem for skate parks. "I think there is an obvious element of high risk in this activity, and it may be that people who are attracted to it and who are OK with it are not the kind of people who are inclined to turn around and sue when they get hurt.

"Arlo has always told me," he says, "that part of the sport is getting hurt, picking yourself up, and going back to it."

Indeed, injuries are spoken of in tones of hushed pride by the skaters. Ben Adrasha, 12, of Dallas, is speaking to a reporter, but, as soon as he starts talking, half a dozen more boys press in to listen to his tale. Ben's speech grows more Shakespearean with each syllable:

"Two weeks ago one of my best friends broke his left wrist," he says. "This guy also fractured his arm and chipped a bone in his right wrist."

"Wow," someone says reverently.
"Cool," another voice whispers.
He turns to address the group: "He was wearing wrist guards and knee pads, and he had a helmet on. He was on the beginner's course, doing 360s. He had been doing them all day long, and he never missed a one.

"Then right at the end of the day (Ben now has a stubby finger raised high in the air, preaching...his audience is rapt...pregnant pause)

"He landed one wrong! And bam! He seriously messed up."
How cool.
These are almost all middle-class kids. They're mainly white. The few black kids are from affluent neighborhoods. It costs $11.50 to skate for one six-and-a-half-hour session. Skaters who buy a $75 annual membership can skate for $5.50 a session.

But here in the 'burbs, cost is a relative thing. Jon Hux, 17, from Dallas, says, "I've played hockey, baseball, soccer. This is a much harder sport, more technical, and it doesn't cost as much as those other sports."

He points out that a season of select soccer can cost a family a few thousand dollars. For a grand's worth of equipment and admission fees, the same kid can skate for a year.  

Vicki Eisenberg says some girls skate at the park. They tend to skate very well.

"And I hate how the boys talk about them. These girls look so great out there, and the boys act like they're just in the way. But then again..."

A pause. A major truth is coming.
"Boys are idiots."

The question is whether it's a great idea to encourage them to be idiots. Aren't they big enough idiots at birth? Do they need help becoming even bigger idiots?

That question and others about boys are at the center of a relatively recent movement toward boy studies among child development experts. The tendency in the last 10 to 20 years has been to focus on girls, on the assumption that a bigoted male-dominated society was screwing them up. But some experts now are saying there is no real comfort to be taken from the fact that boys may be screwing themselves up.

Michael Gurian, a psychotherapist in Spokane, Washington, is author of The Wonder of Boys and an upcoming book, A Fine Young Man. He argues that adolescent and pre-adolescent males are going to find their way to some kind of high-risk competitive group activity no matter what anybody says about it.

"Fifty to 100 years ago," Gurian says, "this same age group of young males would have been starting getting trained for war. Even today, in pre-adolescence they are already discovering their warrior nature. It's instinctual. Testosterone is an aggression hormone."

Gurian doesn't really know anything about aggressive skating, but says nevertheless it doesn't sound like a bad venue for instinctual warriorism, especially given the less attractive alternatives (street gangs, law school, etc.).

"It isn't necessarily the case that this activity is going to make them brutal. They're probably using their wounds as badges of honor, which is very warrior-like, but in the process they may be developing empathy for each other, acting as each other's doctors and nurses out there."

Something on this order, for these boys, is not only natural, he says, it's inevitable.

"If you could check the boys medically who are doing this aggressive skating, I could almost guarantee you that you would find normal to elevated testosterone levels."

Gurian is an author, not a researcher. Among academics and researchers, there is some skepticism about his view of testosterone as the chemical key to all boy behavior (the thing that makes them idiots). Dan Kindlon, a Harvard Medical School professor who is co-author of a soon-to-be-published book, Raising Cain, thinks testosterone is not all it's cracked up to be.

"People view testosterone too simply," Kindlon says. "There's not as much known about it as people think. There's a very interesting study out of Canada, for example, that says when you look at boys who are high school bullies, they tend to have lower than normal levels of testosterone.

"But you find higher levels among valedictorians," he says. "It may mean that testosterone is related to dominance, not aggression."

Judy Chu, a doctoral candidate at Harvard who is also working on issues of boy behavior, thinks adolescent boys confront the same dilemma adolescent girls do--figuring out a life for themselves in spite of all the pressure and crapola they get from adults.

"Boys, like girls, have to accommodate themselves to externally defined images. For boys, it used to be a macho-man image. Now there's a sensitive-guy image. But neither one may be the right fit."

Chu interviewed adolescent boys to find out whether they were in touch with their own feelings or the feelings of others. "One of the most striking findings, in talking to boys 12 to 18 years old, is that they know exactly what's going on with themselves and others, but for them it's a different game than for girls.

"They tell us, 'If you tell people how you feel, they can knock you down.'"
Chu says that's true. Isn't it? So why do New Age-esque adults tell them it's not true?

Who knows? One thing, though: When they're at Eisenbergs, you can't tell them anything. You can't even talk to them. They strap on those helmets, put down their dewy chins, and plunge off the top of the vert ramp into the screaming techno-rave music and the smell of sweat, and from that moment on you can't get their attention by yelling.

Sitting on the sidelines watching are a few dads and moms, people who can't quite get their minds around actually leaving a kid here and then going home to wait for the emergency room to call.

Chuck McDaniel, a landscape architect from Oak Cliff, says, "I'm not prepared to drop my kids off at the front door and come pick them up four hours later. But I find that the Eisenbergs are fine people. They run the place well."  

Cathy Moult, who lives in Willow Bend, brought her son, Adam, 8, and a nephew, Justin Emmert, 13, visiting from Joplin, Missouri.

"It's a little walk on the wild side for them," she says.
Adam says the kids at Eisenbergs were nice to him. "If you, like, fall down, they'll help you up, and they cheer if you do a good trick."

Wide-eyed and flushed, Justin leans forward to say, "This is totally different from Joplin."

Perched on a steel bench against the wall, John Merriman, a 37-year-old father, says, "If I was 10 to 15 years younger, I'd be out there doing it myself. It's dangerous, I know. But I was raised on a farm. When I was my son's age, I had a motorcycle and a .22 rifle. At 13 I had an old pickup truck, and (he pauses, looking for the first time at the reporter's note-taking)...and that's about as far as I'm going with that story."

The place is pretty crowded now. There are helmeted boys flying off all the walls like atoms. Walking out into the midst of them seems like a plan for suicide. But new arrivals wait by the margins for their chances to get in, slump-shouldered hopeful little acolytes in their flowing vestments. One by one they move forward and are suddenly a part of it, all of them surging from place to place in a shared but inscrutable pattern --a flow.

Flow. Flow! That's what it is. That's what they have or do or make together. A flow. That is what one feels. A flow.

They skate together, and they all become part of this huge surging force that laps from one end of the building to the other like a giant lava lamp filled with sweat. Which is a disgusting idea. Which is part of the appeal. The flow fills nostrils and heart with a hard meaning and purpose.

Josie Eisenberg says the flow of the place is not accidental.
"Arlo came in when the building was still an antique mall, and sat in there by himself for hours and drew it out. He wanted to make sure it would work for skateboarders and bikers too, that it would have the right transitions and launch boxes, so that the whole place would have a flow."

An unexpected phone call: It is now possible to speak to The Arlo!
He's somewhere. Not quite here. He was here. But he's gone. He's not there yet. But it is possible to speak to him while he's in between. He's The Arlo.

But there is only time for one question.
The voice that comes across on this hissing cellular connection is young, thoughtful, well-spoken, mannerly. He listens to a long, crazy question about the flow.

"Right," The Arlo says when the question is done. "Well, on the one hand, I'm afraid it's more purposeful than esoteric. We have to put a lot of people in a small amount of space. Instead of having everything go into the middle, you want to have different courses or lines people can skate without running into each other.

"In this kind of skating, it's important for skaters to be able to get from one obstacle to the next seamlessly.

But on the other hand, he says, "It's true that skating at its best is rhythmic. You do get into a flow, especially when you're talking about a session, which is when a bunch of people get together to skate. It takes on a life of its own."

Arlo echoes a theme frequently offered by other members of the Eisenberg clan--a mantra of the business. He wants his skate park to be a "home for lost skaters."

In the center of Eisenbergs is a kind of rough-hewn lounge area with a Slurpee bar and a picture window looking out toward the vert in the far distance. Seated by himself at a table, finishing a drink, is Derek, 13. His real name is not Derek. It has been changed here because he's 13, and if he puts his real feelings out, other people could knock him down.

"I used to come probably four days a week," he says, "but now that I'm living with my dad, I just come on the weekends, mostly Saturday."

Derek's mother, when he lives with her, picks him up at school and drops him off here almost every school day until late evening. "I try to do all my homework at school the best I can and get it turned in so I can skate."  

There's a big difference between his home in far North Dallas, where he lives with his mom, and his situation in East Texas, where he lives with his dad.

"They got corporal punishment out there in East Texas, but I don't care because I don't get in trouble that much. I get mostly A's and B's, a few C's."

He's short for his age, dark-haired, with a Hollywood smile, huge glowing brown eyes, and a pleasant country lilt in his voice.

"I live in a real rich neighborhood here (with his mother). When I come here to Eisenbergs, I spend $20 a day. That's nothin' to me. Today I bought these shoes (holds up his feet). They cost me $100.

"A lot of girls do like skaters," he says. "My girlfriend likes a skater." He flashes a big grin. "She likes me." He waits the proper beat for the laugh.

"You'll see a few girls that skate, but, you know. Most girls are more into makeup."

He used to skate at the old raunchy skate park in the industrial district, now out of business. "I broke my elbow and my arm there," he says proudly.

He's a skater but not an in-liner. He's a skateboarder.
"Most all skateboarders get along with skateboarders, and Rollerbladers get along with Rollerbladers, but Rollerbladers and skateboarders don't always get along."

He is quiet for a while, finishing his drink, gazing around at his world with a small, confident, proprietary smile. "I just like it here," he says. "You're on your own. There's plenty of people if you do want to hang out with somebody.

"But there's nobody telling you what to do. You learn from your mistakes. Yourself."

He rises, signaling that the conversation is at an end. "What else do they want us to do?" he asks, about to turn away. "Walk up and down the streets?"

Good question.

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