THE BACKSTORY WITH CHRIS MARLEAU

Date: April 27, 2018 Author: Jeff Thorburn Categories: features
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Last fall, Thanksgiving weekend to be exact, I met up with a small crew at Blue Tile Lounge to shoot some photos before sitting down to the gluttonous meal promised by the early October holiday. While we were on our way to the car, Drew Williams alerted us to a new spot he had seen earlier that day. “It’s a brand-new bump-to-bar, over by Hugh’s Room, but it doesn’t have a rail. Well, it kind of has a rail.” As he continued to describe the new spot, equal parts of curiosity and confusion piqued our interest, and it didn’t take more than his suggestion to “definitely go check it out,” to have me punching in the coordinates of the iconic Toronto music venue to see what the new spot had to offer.

At first glance, the freshly cemented bump-to-bar was reminiscent of so many of the wheelchair ramps that you probably would have seen in any East Coast video from the early 2000s. The red-and-orange brick facade of the adjacent building, the excessively steep bump (which appeared to be a temporary solution to transport construction materials into the building), and the old, rusting rail at its peak all combined to make one hell of an aesthetically pleasing spot. The gap over the rail was monstrous, however, and the thin, cracked runway between a pole and brick wall would not allow for the speed or control needed to make it over safely. While it had appeared to be a promising spot, we decided to move on.

Fast-forward a few weeks: the seasonal weather was changing for the worse, and I was trying to shoot whatever photos I could before the snow would inevitably draw the curtains on street skating until the next year. Itching to try and shoot something at the good-looking spot discovered a few weeks prior, I messaged Chris Marleau with a sketch of the spot I whipped up using an Instagram story, and suggested that he should try to pole-jam off of the vertical rail at the top of the bump. We decided to line up a session for the upcoming Friday.

We arrived at the spot around 5 p.m., and quickly realized that the main obstacle we hadn’t accounted for was foot traffic. Hugh’s Room sits at an interesting spot on Dundas Street West, where, for whatever reason, an odd mixture of young people with dogs, old people with walkers, and derelicts with questionable intentions fill the sidewalks at nearly all hours of the day. This particular Friday afternoon was proving to be busy, and Chris was having a hard time getting any tries. After a while, a concerned-looking bar manager started poking his head out of the front door to the venue. Hoping to diffuse any sort of confrontation before it began, I asked if he minded that we were skating on the sidewalk. “No,” he replies. “I don’t care what you do over there, but I’m going to have a few hundred people walking through my front door in about 15 minutes, and you’re probably going to want to be done by then.” We tried to wrap up our session, but it was too late. Cars began lining the curb, opening their doors to release countless occupants into the wild. It was like some sort of bizarre variation on an old zombie movie. Hordes of grey-haired baby boomers slowly lumbered down the sidewalk, stopping only to check their purses or the parking meter, ultimately entering the bar to watch whatever age-appropriate dinner show beckoned to them at 6 p.m. On top of that, it started raining. We decided we would come back the next morning, hoping that there would be significantly less pedestrians.

When we met up around 10 a.m. on Saturday, the previous night’s rain had just finished. We waited in a coffee shop until it looked dry enough, and then we gathered newspapers and anything else we could find to try and dry the remaining puddles around the spot. Finally, around noon, we got down to business. Early in the session, it seemed like things were going to go quite smoothly, but we ended up being there for about six hours trying to get the make. In that time, we had just about every type of interaction with the increasing number of people around the spot. Some people loved what we were doing, and some hated it. Some cheered, while others would walk back an hour later, commenting, “He’s still trying it?” Cars frequently tried parking in the perfectly wrong place right beside the spot where they would either get hit by a board or block my angle, and, as I tried to corral them into suitable locations, some would listen and others would totally blow me off. I even spotted a seemingly homeless man drag fresh roadkill into a dark alleyway. I also had to play the tough guy against a different vagrant who I caught rummaging through my bags. Nearing the end of the session, morale was low, and Chris had rolled away sketchily with his hands all over the ground. Exhausted, he was ready to call it quits. Having already invested so much time and effort into the spot, I tried convincing him to keep going. After all, who knew how long the temporary ramp would be there? Reluctantly, Chris continued to try for another hour, eventually getting a flawless land. Just like that, bolts. Game over. It was just in time for the dark clouds to open up and shed their rain for another 48 hours, too.

In the end, both of us were glad we stuck around to make it happen, and the resulting photo and clip are some of my favourite things that I shot in 2017. I love looking back at that session and thinking about how any of those hiccups we encountered along the way could have easily ended it, and we probably never would have thought about going back to the spot ever again. Through some stroke of luck, however, the stars aligned and everything came together. I drove by the spot a few weeks later, and, to my surprise, it was already gone, replaced by fresh cement and a tall, imposing rail that will impede skateboarding as long as it stands. So, remember what your high school English teacher taught you about ‘carpe diem’ next time you find yourself staring down a spot that has seemingly materialized out of thin air, and seize the day. You might not get another chance, you know.

words and photo by James Morley