UAVLand in Bad Decline

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It’s the kind of place where you eat the beer and drink the glass. Weeds masquerade as stunted trees between the gently rusting aluminium walls that separate piles of empty vodka bottles and overfilled ashtrays into sweaty 18×90 units. Skateboards delaminate here and there, the colours of their oversized, rubbery wheels dimmed by dust and cobwebs.

A beer can arcs in the general direction of a passing drone, bearing a cardboard box to some presumably tonier neighborhood. The can poses little danger to the drone or the stray cats that loll across the gravel; it’s empty. They nearly always are so.

“Goddamned buzzards,” croaks the can hurler, sagging back into the fraying and one-armed lawn chair that’s supported him most of the afternoon. He reloads, cracking another beer.

Sal Bromer, like the gray-and-black handheld video recorder deteriorating inside his and many other trailers here, is a relic. For all his other bleak attributes, he is not alone. This motor park is the largest and most impoverished of more than a dozen that fester a region southwest of Los Angeles that has come to be known as the ‘VX Belt.’

Once high-flying — or at least not-so-lowly — cinematographers chronicling California’s vibrant and gritty skateboard subculture, the denizens of Mosswort Park have been relegated to history’s sidelines by that sleek, merciless and irresistible conqueror, technology. These men, and they all are men, do not share the atrophied brawn of the displaced steelworker or the dusty precision of the obviated auto assembly-line worker. But they share grievance.

Most don’t care to discuss skateboarding, which for a time covered rent in better places than this and, if it didn’t buy top-shelf liquor, ensured a reliable roll of good times and fraternal respect as skateboarding elevated its top talents from disused pools and parking lots to television shows, movie studios and Olympic podiums.

Skateboarding, or at least fans’ view of it, for years literally rested in these men’s hands, captured in bubble-eyed lenses and digital memory cards to be broadcast to screens around the world. The filmers here rode that wave, cultivating their own esoteric celebrity for techniques behind the cameras and occasionally on the board, securing signature model wheels and other accessories. Some of these baubles still darken particle-board shelving units here, but mostly they’re talked about, and mostly late at night.

“Seen Seth Grihgs skating downtown last week,” growls Gerald Hooder, shuffling down the drive. His hands stuff themselves into his pockets and he told this story yesterday.

“Mm.” Sal doesn’t look up.

“Buzzard. Set to film around mid-thigh five o’clock with the ledge backside. Footage’ll look like dogshit even if he landed it, I coulda told him that. Anybody coulda.”

Sal grunts again.

“So let it look like dogshit like he’s skating a six-inch curb, I say. The hell with it, hell with him.”

Another quadcopter passes overhead and both go quiet. Ger inquires about a cigarette but leaves with no reply from Sal. He shuffles across the gravel, seeking some other audience.

Drones once were servants to these men. Even before canned beer bloated their middles and age stiffened their legs, no filmer could sail overhead to capture tricks cascading down a busy street, or pivot in front of a speeding skateboarder without tripping him or her up. But drones could. At first the high-tech plaything of top-shelf filmers with big companies behind them, by the time the helicopters became cheap and versatile enough to fly their way into most filmers’ toolkits, newer models emerged that required no human control at all, able to track and follow skaters at first with pocket-sized receivers and later by movement and machine learning alone. By the time filmers began joking over beers about their looming obsolescence, it had already happened.

Sal blinks when his name’s called but doesn’t look around. His gaze remains fixed on the horizon just beyond the burned-out trailer opposite his, or perhaps the blackened hulk itself. The call comes again. He sips and faintly grimaces.

Teddy Gundasen’s rangy frame juts halfway out of a trailer three spaces down, probably the park’s best-kept. A bushy brown beard looks like it’s playing catch-up with the feral curls on his head and there’s no shirt under his denim overalls. “Sal. Sal! Let me look at your camera.” Teddy gestures with a Phillips head screwdriver. When Sal doesn’t respond he raps the tool against his windowframe, which reveals itself to be loose, drawing Teddy’s attention and some muttered swears.

“Seemah Clarke hit me up this morning.” Teddy throws wide his screen door and practically heaves a visitor into his trailer’s front room. Video cameras, in various states of repair, occupy nearly any open space and tools the rest. “Her buzzards’re busted and sounds like something she needs to film so I’m gearing up.” His hands rest on his hips in what, for Teddy, is a rare moment of stillness, but his fingertips drum and his eyes dart here and there. “That one, I should take. Just because it’s got some fresh batteries. And that one, in case she needs to stitch the footage, don’t know what she’s got in mind. Need the fisheyes. Want coffee? Sal should let me look at his camera.”

Teddy jitters away to find a backpack. Many of the cameras taking refuge here aren’t his: They are persuaded, cajoled from cardboard boxes and musty canvas bags that mark time in his neighbors’ trailers, relinquished to Teddy’s manic energy and his demanding promises to repair them. “Everything moves in cycles, especially in skating,” he announces, rummaging somewhere unseen, and loudly. “The buzzards’ve had a good run. Not like they’re gonna go away, right, but they’ve been around, people know what they can do, what it looks like. People, some people want to see that bottom-of-the-steps fisheye angle, maybe a little shake in the shot for the roll-away.” He reappears, screwdriver probing the air in some vain effort to punctuate this monologue. “That lets you know, somebody was there for it, got stoked on the trick, mark the footage with your palm, at least I do, I never stopped, but that’s the type of thing people don’t see anymore when they see clips and you can tell they miss it, something’s missing, it’s subtle but people can tell.” He’s gone again, constructing a skateboard from components scattered across a half-dozen completes littering the cramped hallway.

“Headed out then Teddy.” Ger leans in the doorframe, picking through discarded butts cradled in one yellowed palm. “Seemah again? Gonna film?”

Teddy frowns but doesn’t look over and doesn’t stop twirling the elephant wrench.

“Ain’t you and her film last month? And before that too?” Ger’s half-lidded eyes follow Teddy down the hall. “Ain’t ever seen the footage though, right. Huh.”

Teddy’s back with a handful of bushings. “I tried to tell you. It goes in cycles. She wants to do a part that’s all manual filmed, or most of it. She’s been working on it. Remember when people went back to filming VHS? And VX? Or even Hi-8 before that? Same thing. Tried to tell you that, thought you’d remember, guess you don’t, probably had your nose in the gravel looking for change and beers that weren’t all drank up.”

If Ger processes any of this, his half-lidded eyes don’t let on. “When you gonna fix my camera, Ted.”

“Get the fuck out of here, I’m bouncing in a minute. Go.”

Ger chuckles, or starts to, but settles for a lengthy string of wet coughs. He won’t swing past this section of the park again until tomorrow when there’s another fire. Teddy doesn’t emerge for the remainder of the day and never heads out to film Seemah Clarke, dead nearly two years following a car wreck. Midnight passes before Sal staggers off his amputee lawn chair. Overhead, the drones hum their endless rounds.

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4 Responses to “UAVLand in Bad Decline”

  1. sliverofhealth Says:

    This is a beautiful story, boil.

  2. Boooooooote Says:

    Wow. Best thing you’ve put on here in awhile, thanks.

  3. Chew Says:

    Yesssss. Glad to have some of the dystopian skate fiction back!

  4. art hellman Says:

    ” it’s subtle but people can tell”

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