Longboarding Unites Young and Old in Towson

TOWSON, Md. -- The sun still has a few fingers in the sky when Scott Frias arrives at the Towson garage.

He claps hands with others, who share skating videos on laptops and phones, or adjust the wheels on their boards as more people start to skate up.

The text message, which beckons them every week, was simple: Session at Towson garages tonight at 8:30. If you like pushin' wood, you will be there.

By 9, nearly all the parked cars are gone, and most everyone who is coming, eight guys and one girl, is there. Most wear helmets; a few also have kneepads and gloves. That's especially true of the guys over 40. The girl, Haley Clough, is 19, and Ryan McGehee is 21. They're the only ones without helmets. Everyone else is late-20s and older. Some quite a bit.

Frias is 43, a systems administrator for a medical software development company in Bowie. For him, picking up the longboards has been a way to marry the rebel yell of the skateboard with the realities of career, family and aging knees.

Divorced, with a 20-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, Frias grew up doing tricky skateboard stuff in the '70s. He started again when his 45-year-old brother, Robert, "a wild-haired slalom madman," gave him a longboard. They usually hit the garages together.

"A lot of us started as kids in the '80s and got out of it as we got older," says Mike Buckley, 35, who owns an online company catering to outdoor sports. As a teen, he had a backyard "half-pipe," two facing concave ramps for doing extreme tricks, but that was before he sported a neatly trimmed beard and added a bit more substance to his frame. Tricks are for kids and "I wanted to get back into it in a way that wasn't as dangerous," he says.

The design difference between the longboards and "short boards," the familiar skateboards everyone knows, reflects a different philosophical bent, Frias says. Skateboards come in a 30-inch by 10-inch standard and conform to a strict shape and thickness to maximize board control for better stunts and tricks.

"That is not what we do, baby girl," Frias says. "In longboarding, there's a wider variety of shapes and styles and different performance capabilities." Some boards, typically longer with the wheels more exposed, are better going downhill. Others, with a slightly shorter wheelbase and an inset deck that drops down, are good for "carving" and turning. "It's all about being one with the ground."

But there's more to it. It's guys from different walks of life "meeting up in a garage on the common ground of hanging out on the roof to have a beer, talk about the world, but especially going down that hill and going up in the elevator again just to carve out those graceful arcs on concrete," Frias says.

Joe Shetz, 27, a service adviser at a Harford County Honda dealership, organized the Towson skates nearly 10 years ago. "When people think of skateboarding, very generically, what pops in their heads is kids," he says. "That's the beauty of longboarding. The essence is not doing these very technical tricks that are associated with shortboarding, and because of that, it allows people of a lot broader ability and age to participate, because it's not nearly as physically demanding on a very basic level."

As he got into longboarding, Shetz found himself driving the city, distracted by angles in the pavement, which drew him to the garages. "Here are these magnificent structures of concrete that all day are full of cars and people in the rat race, in the daily grind. As the sun goes down, and the streetlights come on, the cars empty out and these structures are lefty empty and you just get to thinking: This is perfect!"

You can make endless runs, and you're not interfering with the public or damaging property. "You're not a nuisance, which is definitely a word people not fond of skateboarding use," Shetz says.

It's a subtle difference, easily lost on the security guards who chase them from the garages. But Shetz thinks the message is getting through. Not all security guards automatically run them off now.

Especially when they see that some of the skaters are older than they are.

Mike Lippy, 44, owns Liquid Earth, a vegetarian restaurant in Baltimore, which he lives above with his wife and two sons. He scouts the Baltimore garages to report on the pavement conditions for the Wednesday skates, which he and a friend organized a couple of years ago. The Wednesday skates are confined to one or two garages. "It's only the young'uns who like to skate all over," Lippy says.

Lippy still has the first skateboard he got, when he was 8. "Most people take that first spill and never get back on that board again. You can find a thousand boards on eBay." He used to ride his skateboard around Manhattan, where he and his wife went to art school, but he moved to Baltimore in 1991, opened the restaurant, and skateboarding fell away. One day he used his skateboard to dolly a heavy box and it made him feel like he was being disrespectful toward something he loved.

His friend Max suggested he try a longboard. "We went to Rock Creek Park, I went down the steepest hill and carved it, and I was hooked."

He would drive to Washington for a sunrise skate, and Max would come to Baltimore to skate Wednesday nights. They skated giant parking lots before Max suggested the garages. Lippy started inviting people in 2008.

"Coming up on our 80th one," he says. "There's never been one time we've missed. ... I'm the one who sends the text out -- 'Always chase the rabbit down the hole.' Or, 'If you don't come, it's not fun.' I try to put something in there to remind them that it's easy to sit your ass at home, but the next day you're not going to feel good about that."