ONLY A SHORT DISTANCE AWAY FROM THE SIDEWALKS OF HARVARD YARD, MAXIMUS SKATE PARK CATERS TO A DIFFERENT KIND OF CROWD.
A small sign lays out the rules at the Z.T. Maximus Skatepark in North Cambridge.
"No Loitering/Skateboarding, Hanging Out or About, No Assembling for No Reason Whatsoever, No Kickin' Back in Lot After Hours, Flotsamizing, Littering or Other Fun Activities," it reads.
"If we weren't sitting around doing an interview, we would be flot-samizing," skate-boarder Jared Klein offers by way of a definition. "Flotsamizing--it's kind of sitting around with no purpose."
Klein collapses his lanky, 19-year-old frame into a cushionless sofa bed just to the left of the sign. He's sporting a beard eerily similar to Abraham Lincoln's, with his ears covered by a black knit headband.
Klein has volunteered at the Z.T. Maximus, 324 Rindge Ave., for about one year. He lights a cigarette. Then, dangerously close to flotsamizing, he begins to talk.
"Maximus has been here, right here since '89. Before that, since the mid-80s, it was in Arlington on Mass. Ave.," he says of the skatepark.
"When we first got here, the city wasn't too stoked on the idea of having a skatepark. There was a whole lot of hassle with zoning laws and shit like that, and so we were shut down like a year or so."
"And then finally they granted us, you know, the licensing. It has been a problem. We've had to be very careful with what is going on here," he says.
Maximus occupies a squat one-story brick building that stands in the shadows of the Jefferson Towers apartment complex, a 15-minute walk from the Quad.
Secreted away behind an auto repair shop on a dirt lot, it's a windowless jungle of concrete, metal, wood, masonite and discarded furniture. The only ventilation comes from a garage-sized opening that forms the entrance.
A half pipe (a "vert ramp," for those in the know) stands against the far wall, comprising a semi-circular ramp with metal pipes on its upper edges.
Battered furniture sits on various platforms alongside large stereo speakers, with an assortment of different size ramps, secured to the floor by metal plates, lining the remainder of the skatepark. A chicken-wire fence separates the half pipe from the rest of the park.
A mix of New York Hardcore music pulses in the background, with the wheels of skates and skateboards grating over the granite.
"Maximus is just a place where, like, you know, all sorts of people will just come here," Klein says. "It's a place where people know that, like, nobody's out to get 'em. We're not out to, like, bust 'em for doing whatever their doing."
Maximus is a haven for at least one Harvard student. Dave Valdez '98 says, "Maximus is a lot more like home. You're just playing and having a good time and that's where I come from."
The visual and environmental studies concentrator finds film projects a convenient way to combine his life at Harvard with life at Maximus.
"I want to conspire to make a really well-produced skateboarding video of the Boston scene," he says.
While there were problems early on, many of the complaints from neighbors were leveled against the garages located next to the park.
"They did have problems in the beginning," says Larry Burke, chair of the North Cambridge Crime Task Force. "I don't think it was their fault, it was some of the other businesses there--loud noise late at night, neighbors were complaining."
In fact, Maximus offers a safer alternative to the areas that skaters used to frequent.
"It works out good for us," Burke says. "They used to skate in McLean Pool on Rindge Avenue. [Maximus] is much safer."
Riding the Half Pipe
While individual expression is part of the skateboarding and aggressive skating creed, baggy jeans and T-shirts with an attitude are de rigeur.
Tattoos and body piercings are the dominant style. One rider lampoons the Independent Truck Company with a shirt that reads, "Indecent Fuck Co."
"For people who come here, this is a big part of their lives. It's just something positive," Klein says.
Before skating at Maximus, athletes need to first sift your way through a nine-page waiver form that absolves Maximum and its owners, Ram Hannan and Doug Moore, from responsibility for "death, illness or disease, or damage to myself."
Nobody can remember a serious, life-threatening injury that occurred at Maximus, but some skaters suffer broken arms and wrists each year despite the warnings and protective gear.
Avoiding collisions is a test of skater-style Darwinism.
"If you're experienced, you know where the person is gonna be when you're gonna be there," Klein says, adding "the great thing" about skateboarding is "there ain't no rules or nothing."
Rene "The Viking" Hulgreen is one of many who pay $5 to $10 to ride the half pipe each day. He stands above the pipe, ready to drop in for a run.
The Viking is a 26-year-old professional aggressive in-line skater from Denmark. He's visiting Boston after winning the vert competition at this year's X-Games in Newport, R.I.
Halgreen enjoys an unusual pre-competition ritual: "[I] drink a couple of beers so I relax. Then I just skate."
With Halgreen's three-foot-long red pony tail flying behind him, he rides down the ramp and then pumps up the other side. Then he plants both skates on the near coping and executes a shifty royale, leaning his knees, ankles and hips in the opposite direction of his movement on the coping.
His lead foot grinds along its instep, with the trailing foot grinding on the outside of the frame and boot.
Halgreen returns to perform a 360-degree spin, twirling five feet above the half pipe, his head dangerously close to the metal rafters. He slides to the flat bottom of the ramp on his knee pads.
He grabs a hold of a bottle of Coca-Cola and takes a few sips. He sighs, as though something's missing.
"Where's the beer?" jokes The Viking.
On another day, Sean McCarthy of Sterling waits to launch down into the vert ramp. Sterling, an assistant manager at a Brooks Pharmacy store, visits Maximus as often as he can.
A long scar, caused by a skateboarding accident in 1992, runs vertically down McCarthy's left leg. He tore his medial colateral and anterior cruciate ligaments while attempting to execute an ollie down a bank and now wears a padded brace to stabilize his knee.
"It's been said many times that this is a fountain of youth. A lot of pain, but it keeps you young," says Craig Martin, a friend of McCarthy.
Drexel, a German shepherd owned by Ram Hannan, the co-owner of Maximum, bounds up the stairs to the half pipe platform to announce the arrival of his owner, who's clad in a white sleeveless T-shirt that accentuates the tattoo running down his entire left arm.
Hannan calls Drexel, who has bounded away from the ramp to sniff some daisies. Then Hannan gets ready to skate for 15 minutes before heading home to Somerville to relieve the babysitter.
He's impatient with bystanders asking about the relationship between the city of Cambridge and his skatepark.
"As long as there are enough people willing to come down here and make it happen--you know, devote their personal energy, time, love, care and endless hours of fabrication and destruction--it's gonna continue to be here," he says.
"It's hidden in the 'ghetto,' well, certainly the lowest income zone in all of Cambridge. Cambridge, is, like, the most flavorful, racial temperate zone in the world I've found...or certainly in America."
Klein agrees: "Pretty much it's a nice happy place. It's a place where people can pretty much do their thing within the shadows of a very rigid social structure."