1. MAKE FRIENDS WITH CHAZ ORTIZ
It might be hard, but try to imagine that the most recent Chaz Ortiz footage was the first Chaz Ortiz footage you saw. Imagine you’d never seen the child with too-big ears and that slick, camera-ready smile. Imagine instead that the grownup Chaz arrived fully-formed at age twenty-two, innocent the last decade, with “Metropolis”.
When I ask Chaz Ortiz if he thinks about this, his reply is like a lot of his replies during the day we spend together. It comes quickly and feels more honest than it should be. I’m sitting in his new and immaculate kitchen with a notepad, watching him while two round bulldogs slobber at my feet. He says, “Dude I think about that all the time.”
Alas, Chaz. It’s 2017 and everyone’s already decided who you are. Age twenty-two and your story is inspiring to many, grating to a few, and in any case: already long. At age nine he got on Zoo York and started hustling victoriously through contests. He wore his hat the way he did. In 2010 Zoo turned him pro, and today he shoulders the bulk of that iconic brand by way of big, visible logos and double-duty output. If you’re among the legion who follow and double-tap for Chaz Ortiz, it’s not necessarily the story you love. It’s the lazer flip, the composure, the being young and being fly.
Nor is it the story of Chaz Ortiz that bothers people like me. Rather, it’s the planetary sphere of his head, and the way he keeps this tiny head motionless and totally squared above his feet, always in complete and bone-chilling control. His kickflip, which is a quick, negligible add-on to whatever else he’s doing, like a side salad or pickle. It’s the photo shoot / charity event of him sweeping leaves with supermodel Kate Upton in Fort Greene Park. The way his board seems almost helpless beneath him. The life-size ads of him in boys’-wear department stores across the US. How, over ten years of coverage, his smug little face has been grinning at me through the screen, like together the two of us have just done something wrong and I’m the only one who got caught.
But if it wasn’t for that decade, it wouldn’t be 120-degrees of floor-to-ceiling windows and five conspicuous trophies lining the space above his kitchen cabinets. Chaz Ortiz is Chicago’s first and only celebrity skater, and when he invites me into his home, I tell him two things up front. First, no interview. I am not a journalist in any real sense, just an aging skateboarder who has come to talk shit and get a sense of what he’s about.
Second, that his “Metropolis” part represents the first time I’ve been compelled to watch a Chaz Ortiz part more than once. I do not hide my lingering distaste for his early career because, as I told him, it seems to me that something is different about “Metropolis” and I wonder what exactly that is.
After eight hours together, I can tell you some details to convey what Chaz Ortiz is currently about, now that he’s no longer a child. For one thing, you can’t always tell whether he’s paying attention. Like a lot of skaters, he speaks in a casual, non-diagnostic way about ADD. In the apartment, he keeps pacing and opening up a drawer to look for something he wants to show me. “I like to keep shit,” he says, pulling out the handwritten note that came with a bottle of Lil Wayne’s new rum, Bumbu. The rapper’s handwriting is legible and golden, “It’s the smoothest shit I’ve had in my life!”
Since the Gatorade skate program has been shuttered and the private park they helped pay for shut down, I can report that Chaz Ortiz hydrates his guests with glass bottles of Voss Artesian Water. His girlfriend is friendly and beautiful and their two bulbous little bulldogs are adoring. I learned but will not share the approximate number of dollars Chaz Ortiz is paid every month by Zoo York. I will tell you that the lighting effects over Chaz Ortiz’s kitchen island, the brightness and color of which he can control on his phone, are not standard for the building’s C2 rental units. I can confirm that Chaz Ortiz lives in a rental unit because late in the night I’ll see him lose $100 on a senseless bet to a guy who he’ll introduce as a friend, but who I’ll learn is actually some kind of property manager.
Ah, except here it gets difficult. I’ve written “late in the night” because for me it was. Not for Chaz, however, because time is relative, just as wealth and happiness and “skateboarding” are relative, and in none of these categories do Chaz Ortiz and I overlap.
Spend enough time with Chaz Ortiz, affluent professional skateboarder, and you’ll be reminded time and again that skateboarding is senseless. It is a labyrinth of arbitrary judgments and ridiculous values. We care, if we care at all, about the most inane shit imaginable. The bedrock qualities of our activity – revolution, reinterpretation, re-presentation – are surely worth considering and defending, or at least positing, but beyond these, skateboarding criticism reduces down to taste, taste, and taste.
So it was a strange and educational day I spent with Chaz Ortiz. Having recovered, I’d like to suggest that it is nothing short of a miracle that Chaz Ortiz cares about skateboarding at all. What’s interesting is just how obviously he does. I have looked repeatedly into brown eyes that grew increasingly squinty as the day went on, and this much I can report with absolute certainty. Chaz Ortiz cares a whole, awful lot.
2. Tell Us Who You Hang With and We’ll Tell You Who You Are
We leave the luxury apartment inside of a blacked-out, 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the sort of car I don’t imagine comes from a regular dealership. It’s the end of February and 65 degrees in Chicago. We’re going to say hello to a friend who’s in town, whose name Chaz says but I don’t hear, and then we’ll go skating. I’ve basically made him promise me that we will in fact skate. We move beneath the tracks on Lake Street, then to Wacker Drive along the river. Musically, it will be trap all day long. Chaz drives his luxury Jeep like he’s not quite convinced by the theory of consequence, the way I would drive if I hadn’t ever really fucked up along the way.
In the posh River North entertainment district, we stop at the curb to stare into a restaurant with a wall of open windows. The friend we’re looking for is the rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who this week happens to hold the current number one spot in the Billboard Pop Song charts.
“Do you see him in there?” asks Chaz. But I do not want to admit that I have no idea what Machine Gun Kelly looks like, so I pretend to be real busy with my notebook.
Actually, Machine Gun Kelly is at a different spot, which when we arrive is packed full of people dressed a good healthy leap beyond my profession. Chaz is in a hooded Zoo York windbreaker, what I believe are Zoo York twill “Brooklyn” pants, and Adidas Boost runners. The upstairs level, we’re told, is at capacity. At this point I realize we’re in a nightclub.
For ten minutes we wait in line, something I sense neither Chaz Ortiz nor I are used to, though for different reasons. In a moment the music goes silent and a voice comes over the speakers calling for a bottle of Patron to Machine Gun Kelly’s table, and the cheers rain down, and Chaz gets a little antsy. Soon, we’re ushered past the rope and up the stairs while the rest of the line discovers new ways to hate.
I have to keep my eye on Chaz, here, because I’m totally fucking baffled by this place. In person, Machine Gun Kelly looks a like a wizard or high-level mage, and his two Very Strong Friends in tight t-shirts are not the sort of fellas I normally hang with. We all shake hands and head into the crowd of packed bodies. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and I’m shouldering between men with perfect cuticles and very white teeth, women who generally do not see me, and a server holding aloft a flaming sparkler. On the way to MGK’s table, we have to keep stopping so he can be part of someone else’s selfie.
And the table is actually a couch up on a stage with the DJ booth. A guard wearing an earpiece eyes me as I climb up there, and at this point I’m going to skip a whole lot of material so that I can report the primary takeaway of my time on stage with Chaz Ortiz. Which is this: once you are up there on stage, it is almost impossible to be unhappy.
The world shrinks. There is no global warming, no advancement of a new American fascism. Beers arrive and have fruit in them. The people beneath you are dancing, and they are obviously beneath you. If you make eye contact, you’ll see a keen awareness in their eyes: you’re up here, they are not.
Machine Gun Kelly is dancing on top of the couch, a celebrity rapper wearing a $700 tank-top and some of the least likely jeans in the history of denim. Chaz is calmly next to me, seemingly accustomed to all this. I walk over to the bottle of Patron and pour a round of shots and everyone takes one, and we’re the luckiest people alive.
But soon MGK is bored. When Chaz tells him we’re going skating, which I had halfway forgotten, MGK decides actually we’re all going skating. So we pack into the Jeep and head to the Wilson park, where MGK can recede into the sidelines to watch his friend, the professional skater. As it happens, most people in the park keep their eyes on Chaz, especially the kids. I manage to push around a little before retreating to the sideline myself. Maybe it’s the drinks, but I’m having a hard time staying in the moment. I think, then, of a time that I came to Wilson a couple years back with Preston Harper, who’s also a professional skater, technically. We were having our standard, stupid fun when here came Chaz Ortiz with a personal filmer, doing every-try backside flips over the pyramid. The park was empty that day, and I remember Chaz trying to be friendly with us, but, for whatever reason, we didn’t engage.
Back in the Jeep on our way to dinner, I hear Chaz lobbying for the night’s activities. A club owner has put 10Gs on the table if MGK wants to show up. But MGK’s agent says he’s not supposed to do appearances for less than 15 (thousand dollars, to sit there at some high-visibility table in a club, holding a bottle).
“He gave Wayne 25,” says Chaz. “I bet he’ll go 15.” “Will he?” asks MGK. He is a tall, stringy white dude wearing circular sunglasses who’s been nothing but friendly to me, despite a clear distaste for writers and critics. “Shit, I get five,” says Chaz, and together we all laugh at the absurdity of the world and inevitability of death.
And by this point I’ve become more detached from the action around me. I think of all the pressing skate questions I haven’t asked. There’s been too much celebrity. Too many tiny sandwiches of sliced prime rib. The music is too much, relentless, beating at flat, total saturation, trap, that ambition rap, always telling you how to want. Hours have passed. Chaz gave away his windbreaker to a kid at the park who was cold, and I haven’t even asked about Nyjah yet. And frankly, I don’t understand why we ever got down from the stage.
3. “I’m Happy it All Came Together”
But then, just as the day seems to have gotten away, the friends clear out. Dinner ends and it’s just me and Chaz Ortiz on stools, a couple of fellas drinking beers, talking skate. Suddenly he has gone loose. He’s quick with praise for Zered Bassett, who is the best, no question. But press Chaz Ortiz on who else he likes and you’ll see hints of the smile that, in the past, I’ve found smug. But it reads differently now. It’s not pride behind it, but reticence, part standard-issue Midwestern and part deference to the complex system in which he’s found success.
But the rounds keep coming and we keep talking, enough that I’m not sure what I should and shouldn’t share. He can’t do switch 360-flips down stairs. He is unimpressed by a certain skate team. He has what sounds like legitimate beef with a newish shoe company. In fact, Chaz is fluent in all the shit talk and nerdery that define our little society.
“Why is he a person?” he says of a colleague, and we laugh until the restaurant’s manager arrives to introduce herself. She hands Chaz Ortiz her card and they begin talking. I’ll think of this moment later, when I’m plunging deep into a YouTube spiral of contest footage. Watching old Dew Tour, X-Games, and Street League clips, the victories aren’t nearly as interesting as the occasions when Chaz is not skating his best, which means any time he’s skating like other humans do, a way that includes falling. Like, if Chaz Ortiz falls at all the announcer will rush to explain how falling, for Chaz Ortiz, is uncharacteristic.
And how about that? Imagine someone deciding what is and isn’t characteristic of you. Imagine a public identity, a selfhood premised on constant, unsustainable success. The bar manager has comped us a round of premium tequila. In an interview, the TV person asks Chaz, what’s your strategy in the upcoming contest?, as if the strategy might somehow be different than last time, when he either won or came very close. “Hopefully stay on my board,” answers Chaz, which is not a funny joke by any measure. But then he’ll add how “it’s anyone’s game,” and if you watch very closely there’s a faint, sub-radar irony in his smile: I can’t believe you have me sitting here saying this shit.
You can see it even clearer in the pre-contest interview of the 2009 Wendy’s Invitational stop of the Mountain Dew Dew Tour: “This one’s gonna be a little different. I’m gonna skate hard and try to take it.” Which even just typing that clause was enough to make me stand up and go to the kitchen for beer: In the pre-contest interview of the Wendy’s Invitational. Imagine a life beholden to very large interests that overlap your own interests only by way of the prize purse they dangle carrot-like before your eyes. How many times can a kid look into a camera and describe what it was like to win, or uncharacteristically to fail? If indeed skateboard discourse has been defanged, it’s not a stretch to blame these and every other interview that traffics in toothlessness. And with them, I suppose, Chaz too.
I watch Chaz enter the manager’s number into his phone and then stay on it, socializing, and I know the day is ending. But then he looks at me suddenly and goes, “Dude how did I not win that?” We haven’t talked about Tampa 2014 for an hour at least, but I know what he means. I tell him “Steez” is going to haunt him until the bitter end and he goes, “Fucking Rob Dyrdek.”
Josh Kalis does not like the term “contest brat” applied to Chaz Ortiz. “He skates hard as fuck,” he says. I’d written to ask about Chaz’s back noseblunt nollie heel, which I knew Josh had been trying. Chaz told me it was Kalis who pressed him to try the trick back to regular. But Kalis’s defense of Chaz Ortiz seems more interesting than NBD wonkery. “Hate on it all you want, but then he comes through with some raw urban shit. Whoever calls him a contest brat, I invite them to go to Chicago and try to film a part. When they realize how hard it is, especially in the Loop, they might change their tune.”
When I get home that Saturday night, I fall onto the couch next to my wife. Oh boy, she says, you are drunk. She is not wrong. I am stunted and dazed. But more than drunk I am weary from my travels, and I would remain this way for days to come, never quite wherever or whenever I was supposed to be. I wasn’t all the way back, yet.
Spend a day with a celebrity and you learn that the only real distinction between them and us is permission. The world tells them to go right ahead, ignore the haters, do you. Permission is the stage, everything else disappears. But from whom, do you think, this permission comes? God? The universe? No, only from the people who stand to benefit from their celebrity. From the owners of those nightclubs. From, if not Zoo, then the Iconix machine behind Zoo, the world’s premier brand management company and owner of a diversified portfolio of strong global consumer brands across fashion, sports entertainment, and home. Permission is a savvy investment.
“Hate on it all you want,” wrote Josh Kalis, so long as you’re willing to change your tune. Here’s the reward that “Metropolis” has earned Chaz – the recognition of his peers and heroes. And too, the silencing of those voices singing tunes he can’t help but hear. Do I have to say: this is why we need voices? If it’s permission that makes him speak empty banalities in pre-contest interviews and outdo his last lazer flip in each new part, isn’t it up to us to provide the counter-voice?
At age twenty-two, Chaz Ortiz is no longer the future champion of skateboarding. Something, some combination of forces has stopped Chaz Ortiz from achieving the escape velocity of full celebrity and total permission. A big part of this is his family, whose support he speaks of with love and gratitude. He is a kind, composed, and generous young man who can do just about anything he wants on a skateboard. In two years, his contract with Zoo York will expire. At that point he’ll be granted a new type of permission.
Whatever Chaz Ortiz does next I imagine he’ll continue to hear voices, because Chaz Ortiz cares.
This part is going to sound naïve and probably soft, but at a pragmatic level, caring is precisely what we require in our cruel phase of history. Because what is skateboarding without failure? What is consistency if not the flattest, most boring surface? What is a nightclub in the daytime? What is Chicago winter when it’s 65 degrees in February? The world is growing madder and the stage grows higher, the stage gets smaller.
The reason for protest, for raising critical, public voices, the reason we hate on regular success, is to determine whom among us – on either side – actually cares. Most of the people up on stage aren’t going to hear you over the din of permission. Others will. That’s the moment when stories, maybe, get interesting.