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. Age twenty-two and your story is inspiring to many, grating to a few, and in any case: At age nine he got on Zoo York and started hustling victoriously through contests. He wore his hat the way he did. In Zoo turned him pro, and today he shoulders the bulk of that iconic brand by way of big, visible logos and double-duty output.
The way his board seems almost helpless beneath him. 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.
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. Ah, except here it gets difficult. 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. 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. We move beneath the tracks on Lake Street, then to Wacker Drive along the river. Musically, it will be trap all day long. In the posh River North entertainment district, we stop at the curb to stare into a restaurant with a wall of open windows. 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.
For ten minutes we wait in line, something I sense neither Chaz Ortiz nor I are used to, though for different reasons. 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. And the table is actually a couch up on a stage with the DJ booth. 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. Chaz is calmly next to me, seemingly accustomed to all this. But soon MGK is bored. 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. We were having our standard, stupid fun when here came Chaz Ortiz with a personal filmer, doing every-try backside flips over the pyramid. A club owner has put 10Gs on the table if MGK wants to show up. 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.
Suddenly he has gone loose. But it reads differently now. 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. She hands Chaz Ortiz her card and they begin talking. 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 a public identity, a selfhood premised on constant, unsustainable success. The bar manager has comped us a round of premium tequila. 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? And with them, I suppose, Chaz too.
Chaz told me it was Kalis who pressed him to try the trick back to regular. 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. 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.
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? No, only from the people who stand to benefit from their celebrity. From the owners of those nightclubs. Permission is a savvy investment. Do I have to say: 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.
Because what is skateboarding without failure? What is consistency if not the flattest, most boring surface? What is a nightclub in the daytime? 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.