New York's street skaters grab a thrill behind speeding vehicles Why do 'skitchers' do it? It's death-defying, illegal, and fun.

August 29, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

NEW YORK -- "This is my cab," said Arthur E. Golden, as he glided on his roller skates behind a taxi stopped at a traffic light. "I will be taking it downtown this evening."

With that, Golden crouched behind the car and grabbed onto its bumper. When the light turned green, he and the cab accelerated as one, a blur of exhaust and fluorescent Lycra spandex.

"Wheeeeeee!" squealed Golden, whose shout alerted the driver to the stowaway on his tail. The cabbie, a native of the Indian subcontinent, frantically waved his hand by his ear as though trying to swat a gnat. But Golden remained latched to his bumper as they shot together down Broadway.

The cabbie, whether he liked it or not, had just been "skitched."

"Skitching" -- skating while hitched to a vehicle -- is an underground practice that is becoming ever more popular among the growing ranks of New York roller-skaters.

Even in New York, where taking a subway can be a death-defying stunt, tagging along on the bumper of a vehicle moving at 40 mph is regarded as illegal, unsafe and foolhardy.

That is precisely why skitchers do it.

"It's sort of like water-skiing on the back of a cab," said Golden, 24, who works during the day as a computer analyst.

"It's a radical, fun thing to do," said Priscilla Boehme, the executive director of the Big Apple Roadskaters Association, a 300-member club. She sometimes skitches during her morning commute to her job as a computer consultant.

New York City police, who have a high tolerance for zany behavior, generally ignore skitching.

"It doesn't need our attention because it's not a problem," said Ralph St. Juste, a Police Department spokesman. He said that no injuries had been attributed to skitching. Yet.

Manufacturers of in-line skates, whose rollers are aligned in a single row to emulate the blade of an ice skate, take a dim view of skitching.

"Right now, we're trying to promote a 'skate smart' program," said Mary Haugen, a spokeswoman for Rollerblade Inc. of Minneapolis, the leading manufacturer of in-line skates, whose sales this year doubled to 2 million pair. "Obviously, this practice is not something we would endorse."

Likewise, Eddie Campos, 19, a salesman at Blades East skate shop in Manhattan, expressed concern that novice skaters would learn the wrong lesson from older, accomplished skaters who skitch. In mid-town Manhattan, this skitching is far different than the games played by children elsewhere in America.

"You see somebody doing it, and it looks really cool and it's excellent and you get a lot of speed out of it," said Campos, who said that he stopped skitching because it was too dangerous. "But what they don't realize is that the skaters doing it are professional kids."

"Professional kids" aptly describes the 19 people who gathered at twilight earlier this month for the weekly night ride sponsored by the Big Apple Roadskaters Association.

Most of them were white-collar workers in their 20s, and the group included several aspiring actors and singers -- people with a flair for the dramatic. They are brash, fearless and, generally, unmarried and childless.

"It's only when I'm hanging off the cab that I start thinking about the risks," said Alison Sawyer, 26, who works in the photo department of People magazine.

"I, as the vice president of the Big Apple Roadskaters, cannot condone anyone ever trying to skitch, nor would I ever tell anyone to try it," said Michael Jensen, 29, the tall, confident leader of the night ride. "But for myself, personally, it's one of the best rushes I've ever had."

Jensen and some of the other skaters explained the rudiments of skitching on their unfettered night tour of Manhattan, which started at 72nd Street and followed Broadway down to the tip of lower Manhattan.

It was a night of non-violent middle-class wilding: The skaters whizzed by Lincoln Center, raised eyebrows in Times Square, jumped stairs in Union Square and performed acrobatics in Battery Park, where groggy homeless men lifted their heads from park benches to watch the spectacle.

They skitched on an 18-wheel truck, a Range Rover and dozens of taxis. Near Union Square, five of the skaters, hanging onto one another's waists, skitched in a chain on a limousine, whose passengers popped their heads through the sunroof to investigate the commotion.

Jensen said that most of the time he skitched for purely practical reasons.

"If you're on skates and you need to get somewhere and you can get a good skitch, that's great," he said.

Skitchers grab the car's bumper with one hand while placing the other hand on the trunk to act as a brace -- very important when the car slows down. While crouching, the skitcher peers around the corner of the car to watch for obstructions.

"Streets are not made of glass," Jensen said, "so there are lots of bumps and potholes and manhole covers and construction plates -- those big metal plates -- and stones and trash in the street. Everything is an obstacle, including other cars."

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