From Homemade Chutes to Steep Streets, San Francisco's Thrashers Just Love Riding for a Fall

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's a warm afternoon in San Francisco, and under the Bay Bridge 30 thrashers are doggin' it on the asphalt inclines around the parking lot. Buckwheat, a ripper with team Medward, is totally stoked, snaking his stick, doing hairials and bizotic twists. And then Buckwheat tries a 360 and really dogs it: He pulls a wilson and ends with a full slam, but hey, at least he didn't take a face plant and get chewed.

Translation: Buckwheat, who's good on the skateboard, is having a swell time circling smoothly until he tries a sharp turn. His foot slips off the back of the board and he lands smack on his tail, but at least he doesn't smash up his kisser.

Welcome to the world of thrashing, in which hundreds of skateboard lovers from 12 to about 39 get together in clubs to take on the steep streets of San Francisco. Mostly these are punks—mohawked, skinheaded, tattooed types, proud of their bravado and oblivious to the dangers of hard surfaces. They go by such names as Susie Safeway (she's 19), Ebb Shred (25) and Sally Sweetthing (age unknown); their clubs have such titles as Team Lingerie, the Deadly Sparks and Nerdz.

Their three-foot-long, foot-wide boards boast sophisticated aerodynamic design, cost up to $150 and are usually covered with skulls and cross-bones or an A in a slashed circle, the anarchist symbol, though the connection is symbolic at best. The thrashers do snake through the city, rocketing down inclines—there are lots available—and by day narrowly missing pedestrians. "It's like a slalom course," says one skater, although citizens often don't see it that way. "In Los Angeles everything's flat and it takes forever to get anywhere," says AnnaLisa Stardust, 20, a member of the YAA (Young Alluring Alcoholic) Girlz team, who has a tattoo of a crescent moon encircling her left breast. "In this city you can get from one edge to another in an hour."

But late at night, when the cars and people have gone home, the hills belong mostly to the thrashers and the choicest face plants bloom. Bill Halen, 25, a member of the Jaks, the city's biggest club, is recalling his last experience at "bombing"—an all-out, screaming maniacal run. "I was bombing from the top of Twin Peaks," he says of one of the steepest hills, "all the way down to Market Street. It's a 40 mph hill and when I reached bottom I hit a manhole cover. I flew 10 feet in the air and landed on the back of my head. My friends wanted to take me to the hospital, but I just told them to let me go home and eat strawberry cheesecake." About 45 mph is as fast as most thrashers say they've gone, but there is the much-heralded legend of John Hutson, a Los Angeles skater who pushed the envelope to 57 mph last summer. At such moments thrashers have a basic rule: If you're skating faster than you can run, jumping off the board can only lead to getting chewed.

To many thrashers skating is a mode of expression as well as a thrill. Anna-Lisa Stardust, who dances in a strip joint when she's not working construction, explains, "When I was a kid, I wanted to be President. Then when I saw Nixon impeached, I decided I wanted to be God. Right now, all I want to do is skate."

Despite scary facades, there are signs that many thrashers are softies at heart. "People look at us, and because we look different they think we have no morals or ethics," Stardust protests. Her teammate Kriss Kross, 18, sports a button that reads "vicious, power-hungry bitch" and makes hardcore films ("I only do them with other women," she explains. "I wouldn't feel right doing them with a man"). But she is also an avid 49ers fan, scoops ice cream at a local parlor during the day and has serious, if startling, ideas about her postthrashing years: "I want to be a high school counselor in a rural community."

Then there is the YAA Girlz' drinking song, which would fit comfortably at the most down-home sorority:

"Party, food, friends and fun, In our life none other is No. 1!"

The street-thrashing boom in San Francisco represents a renaissance for skating, which since its high-water mark in the mid '70s has been relegated to commercial skate parks. According to Kevin Thatcher, 27, editor of the monthly Thrasher magazine, "All the skate parks took the skaters off the streets. Pretty soon skating lost its visibility and things began to dry up." The change began in 1979, when four members of a punk-rock group read about an old pro skating outfit called Jack's Team. They adapted the idea to their own vision and created Jaks.

Not everyone shares Thatcher's joy at skating's resurgence. Spike, 25, a member of the all-woman Deadly Sparks, was attacked on her skateboard despite her leather attack-dog neck collar and Nazi boots. "This guy punched me in the mouth for no reason," she recalls indignantly. "So I pummeled him. The cops arrested me. I couldn't believe it." Tim, 25, a railroad worker who has seen most of the country from the vantage point of a freight-train boxcar, was doing handstands on his skateboard through the Mission district when a shot fired from a passing car hit him in the back a few inches below his shoulder blade. The wound from a .38 left a hole that has taken more than a month to heal. "I think it was something to do with the fact that I was on a skateboard," Tim says calmly. Thrashers insist that, for self-defense only, they have learned to wield their sticks like blunt samurai swords.

Luckily for both sides, thrashers aren't in the street all the time. Often they're in deserted swimming pools. There they skate down one side and up the other, "gyrating" until they build up sufficient speed to "cop air" above the Lip of the pool. "There's something about an empty pool," observes Thatcher. "Most of the kids don't come from families who can afford a pool. Thrashing around in an empty one is like sticking it to the bourgeoisie."

For the most committed thrashers, experience means something more than "hanging" with other team members or perfecting new stunts. The supernaturally smooth ride during the early-morning hours, without hassles from police, becomes an almost mystical means of coping with the problems in their own lives. "Some people take Valium or watch TV," says one of the YAA Girlz. "We skate."

Three months ago Stardust's mother—after being in and out of institutions for most of her life—committed suicide. Six weeks ago her father was burned over 80 percent of his body in an accident. Stardust says skating has helped her to stay strong. "The other night I was dreaming of skating. I dream a lot about skating through the city. Sometimes I dream that I'm flying on my skateboard over the skyline. But this was different. I could feel my legs and arms moving, but I couldn't see the ground. Finally I saw it and noticed it was shimmering. Then I realized I was skating on water."

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