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The Zabar’s Team Goes Hollywood: On Limosine’s Paymaster


   

The East River Amphitheater, located at Corlears Hook on the southeastern shore of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has had many curious ups and downs over the course of its history. The public theater has furnished East River Park since 1939, when infamous city planner Robert Moses built it in tribute to his patron, former New York State governor, Al Smith, who had once aspired to be an actor. What would become Shakespeare in the Park, New York’s annual summer tradition of bringing the Bard to the masses, got its start here in 1956, serving the area’s working class residents before it permanently relocated to Central Park. By the 1970s, the amphitheater would fall on hard times, though its graffiti covered walls still featured in the 1982 documentary Wild Style, which documents the origins of graffiti and hip hop in New York. Other illustrious figures have been in the audience there, such as former first lady, and patron saint of the Lower East Side, Eleanor Roosevelt. Parties happened often. Following 9/11, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saw it as a prime symbol of his downtown revitalization efforts. To the high profile project, he assigned the celebrity lawyer, Erin Brockovich. The project was staged as a reality TV show that aired on ABC.

Though Ms. Brockovich‘s efforts did not get very far with the amphitheater, its shabby, parabolic bandshell nonetheless attracted locals, allowing the site to play a crucial, if more informal role in the surrounding community, particularly in the last 2 years of the pandemic, when public space became ever more precious. Personally, I live nearby, and the amphitheater was a major haven for me and my friends. I witnessed comedy nights, theater productions, karaoke, and one woman shows (the latter not on purpose). One rainy afternoon, I was even treated to a performance from DJs who had once spun at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage. The place just always seemed a bit out of time, a sanctuary from the progress that otherwise turns the screw on city life. But sadly, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy revealed Lower Manhattan’s vulnerability to severe flooding, when tidal surges trapped residents on the higher floors of their apartment buildings, leaving them without electricity or water. With the threat of worse storms on the horizon, the city resolved to raze the park, and fortify the area with eight-foot tall berms atop which a new park would be built in the future. Though community members had been working with the city for close to a decade to develop the least disruptive way forward, and a protest group led by poet Eileen Myles later attempted to thwart the closure, funding deadlines forced the city’s hand. In December 2021, after surviving so many different generations of the city, the East River Amphitheater was finally demolished.  

Perhaps because I am a skater, the loss of a cherished public site comes as no surprise—all skate spots are temporary you learn pretty early on in your skate career. Not even the curb in front of your house is going to last. But a scene in Limosine skateboard’s debut video release, Paymaster, sharpened the point on precisely what the loss of the Amphitheater meant to me, when Cyrus Bennett skates the location as a ride-on ledge. To be honest, it was a little bit surprising at first. Having long been squeezed out of public space by rising rents, and the city’s ongoing privatization under the Bloomberg administration, Bennett and his teammates on Limosine have pursued a definitively unmonumental type of skateboarding that would have shied away from such typically historical structures. Instead, in the name of productivity, they prefered to launch themselves off a crusty pole jam, or insinuate themselves into the poor man’s skatepark comprised by a construction site—spots that are just a little less spectacular, and a little more precarious than a location where a former first lady had once been entertained. But perhaps there was something about the spot’s immanent demolition that revealed its potential for this crew, who would have appreciated the spot’s newfound sense of impermanence. As such, to watch Bennett skate the stage’s western flank serves as a fitting eulogy for the amphitheater, the hunched contrapposto of his back tail emphasizing the vulnerability of the crumbling concrete on a structure that was never meant to last. My heart skips a beat as he wraps himself off the end to fakie, drawing to a close one of the venue’s final performances. It’s masterful, suggesting a line from Shakespeare: So New York giveth—or, rather, so New York overlooketh, so New York taketh away.

While Bennett’s clip may tug at the heart strings, it is an unusually lyrical image for a crew that has otherwise pursued a scrappier, more pragmatic approach to skateboarding. Featuring Nolan Benfield, Cyrus Bennett, Hugo Boserup, Genesis Evans, Aaron Loreth, and Max Palmer, alongside newcomers like Karim Abdul Callender, Santino Gagliarducci, and Nelly Morville, Paymaster is the latest effort from a crew that largely came of age following the 2008 financial crisis, Occupy Wallstreet, and the last term of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration—at least the OGs did, like Cyrus, Max, and Genny. It was a time of political turmoil, economic austerity, and extreme instability, with the very notion of who the city belonged to being contested in the streets through mass protests, rampant police surveillance, and an ever increasing privatization of the public sphere. As with the East River Amphitheater, the managerial state was dismantling hallowed institutions and public safeguards, furthering a sense of precarity and societal atomization. For another example, we might turn to the Brooklyn Banks: once a site of public gatherings, the park is now occupied by the NYPD. 

For this crew of skaters, who graduated into a diminished sense of mobility, the only thing for them to do was band together, and make the best of what was left: protective devices, roll gates, handicap ramps, pole jams, fire hydrants, sink holes—things that either protected property, were required by federal law, or were simply a byproduct of neglect. Less-than-optimal conditions, indeed. And hardly the types of things you’d expect a person to flaunt their abilities upon. Now, while skating shitty non-spots is nothing new to New York skateboarding—one thinks of Quim Cardona bouncing through the city, effortlessly gliding up bricks walls as if the paint on graffiti—the stakes today are different. Rents are higher. There are 152,000 less rent controlled apartments than there were in the 90s. Full-time employment is scarcer. And not only that, but the division between life and work has been entirely erased—everything can be leveraged as capital, especially skating, making it harder than ever to find meaning, community, and security.

But here is the hand the Limosine crew was dealt, and it’s perhaps this lack of opportunity that makes Bennett’s style stand out in particular. There’s just a classiness to him that belongs to a different, more socially responsible era, as when he is seen wearing a Zabar’s hat, a style choice that elicits an image of him, board in hand, alongside all the stubborn Jewish bubbies, as they wait their turn to order a week’s worth of kugel and lox. Albeit zizmore core, the hat exudes a mix of knowingness and resourcefulness that has always felt unique to New York. This same attitude also plays out in his skating. His style is somehow both forceful and understated, intelligent and democratic. He doesn’t just tap the ledge, he slides the entire thing with the savvy of someone who knows the true value of untapped real estate. He wallrides rusty roll gates with the reverence of Lincoln Center, and lurks the steps of the the Brooklyn Academy of Music like its a back alley. His skating is brawny, idealized, and enduring, and yet, his pop remains as crisp, dry, and elevated as a Bemmelmans martini. He could walk into any room in New York and get respect.  

Obviously my own perspective is biased toward New York, having been a fan of Quartersnacks’ Most Productive Crew™ long before they became the former team riders for 917 (basically, ever since one of my friends came back to Buffalo from college with news of “Loose Trucks Max”), but there has always been a meaningful dialog with Los Angeles that has shaped this crew, and which has offered its own perspective on these larger, generational circumstances, albeit less of a group utterance, and a bit more individuated. With school yards seeming totally exhausted, the types of places you find Limosine’s LA branch skating are more like the busy traffic islands and grimy alleyways where Santino Gagliarducci records a few clips: lonely, isolated, and desperate; not only overlooked, but unwanted. A nowhere zone like the ass-hole like intersection of three highway overpasses where he scratches an inward heelflip over a massive concrete hemorrhoid. But while skating these types of shadowy nomanslands are nothing new to LA skating (just like NY has its precedents), the situation seems to require even more drastic measures. Gagliarducci skates actual houses. He almost gets hit by a car. And following a trend in recent years, which seems motivated by a desperation for spots mixed with a certain disillusionment about what even constitutes one, he bends in for bertlemann, and lays himself out on an arid patch dirt. 
While a dark humor underscores the vibe of a many of these clips, the Los Angeles sections of Paymaster is also responsible for an undercurrent of crooked optimism, as well. Newcomer Nelly Morville’s style is at once tenacious and free flowing, her pop punk influences coming to bare when she bashes a wallie off the thick trunk of a tree, early grabs a nine-stair, and cases the curb on half her landings with the same reckless joy, and controlled chaos of a mosh pit. Her more technical tricks, too, take us to the brink, as when she taps out a nollie back tail shuvit with as much restraint as Travis Barker’s drumming. The joy that she takes when she slams in particular calls to mind someone I might have met at Warped Tour ‘98: folksy, adventurous, and a little lost; my best friend for an afternoon. Similar things could be said for the flying Dane, Hugo Boserup, who, unlike some of his peers, seems super-charged by the LA sun. Wearing a caricature of bright-eyed delight, he barrels down a steep alley way as if the getaway driver for some bank heist, piles his way through polejams, shovels his way through nosegrinds, launches himself out of steep banks, and, perhaps most impressively, straps himself in for the centrifugal G-force of curved handrails—smiling even when he gets tossed.

The overriding appeal of this crew is their relatable sense of perspective on skateboarding: there’s love, but unlike the social media stars of today, or the bygone superpros of the past, there’s less ego. You can see it in the humble eloquence and improvisatory genius of Genesis Evans’ skating, and in the magic of Aaron Loreth’s, the deceptive simplicity of which will break your brain if you ever try to figure out how he does it. Yet, no matter how much humility they give off, and no matter how pure an image they offer, the loss of the East River Amphitheater reminds us of the present stakes to all of this, even for skaters. It’s for this reason that Max Palmer holds such cult allure, I think. I mean, it’s in his name: at the same time his loose trucks threaten to derail anything from a switch ollie off a loading dock, to Palmer pushing down the street, it is precisely this precarious instrument that permits his skating a certain absurdity and lyricism. Palmer simply isn’t over precious about his skating. In some clips, his pants are bloodstained. He’s clearly in the early stages of male pattern baldness (he’s not the only one on the team to be experiencing hair loss). And in general, he wears an expression of equanimity, demuring to the camera when it focuses to closely on him.

This same relatable urban realism also plays out in his skating, eschewing spectacle for idiosyncracy and nuance. He does Losi grinds, both regular and switch, a trick whose subtlety requires me to squint to fully appreciate what it is. His touch is so light on certain tricks, it sometimes seems more like a convincing pantomime than an actual, bonafide banger. And when he ollies out onto a granite boulder, his loose trucks rattling against the rock’s rough hewn surface, he seems to have performed an actual miracle, literally squeezing blood from a stone. The way I feel about Palmer’s skating, and indeed, how I think it relates to contemporary New York, has everything to do with an appreciation of his slightly off-brand style of skating that often seems oblivious to current trends and appetites. While it might seem illogical on its surface, and sometimes just weird, his skating nonetheless exists within a post-historical city, in which everything is fungible. As such, there is actually an emotional precision to his non-tricks, which offer a means to appreciate, and perhaps find meaning, in our otherwise nonsensical world. •••