The Delacorte Review, You Could Die!, Irene Chidinma NwoyeTo the casual passerby, the posse of five might appear to be pelting past on skateboards, but the group’s long, surfboard-like devices on fat wheels identified them as longboarders, and calling a longboard a skateboard would be like equating a cheetah with a tiger.

Stuart Anderson and four others rolled across the Third Avenue Bridge to the Bronx. It was a chilly Sunday evening in 2013, but it wasn’t just the October cold that weighed on their spirits. They were in mourning.

Finally, they arrived at the place where “it” had happened—Melrose Avenue in the Bronx. The spot where a school bus had crushed their friend, twenty-one-year-old Genielle Laboriel, while she was riding her longboard home.

Stuart was a longboarding instructor, a mentor to Genielle and young riders like her. She was the first student he had lost, and he came with a handful of white candles. Genielle’s family and friends had set up a small memorial on the sidewalk, a cardboard box holding flowers and candles. Stuart placed his candles alongside the others and lit them. A chain-link fence stood behind the memorial and the group rested their boards on it. Once again, they reminisced and tried to piece together the mishap.

“She was going at regular pushing speed. It was level ground, not a hill,” Anderson said. Regular pushing speed is eight to ten miles per hour. On such a flat road, there was no reason for Genielle to be speeding, they all agreed, let alone colliding with a school bus. “Except if she had earphones in.” But Genielle’s mother had recalled that her daughter’s pet rabbit, Storm, had chewed her earphones the day before the accident. “There’s no way she could’ve had earphones in.”

At the 42nd Precinct in the Bronx, just about a block away from Genielle’s collision, the Community Affairs Officer at the time, Matthew D. Rey, said the incident was nothing more than a “tragic accident.” As with most tragedies, though, we grasp for meaning, for something more.  

 

Free Write

Sleepy, bored, thinking of some people,

Judgment

Stuck, bored, wondering about the people

I talk to

What they’re telling me to do

How I joke around, thinking about

tomorrow how

the day is gonna go

Stuck, stuck, stuck, blank, blank, no

ideas

Daydreaming, wondering off, ending

Sleepy, thinking about the people I have to deal with at home

Bored, one person, consumed, tattoo  

—Genielle Laboriel

 

Before longboarding, there had been poetry and art. Genielle began scribbling stream-of-consciousness poems and drawing in her “art book” out of what seemed to be necessity. Art came first, in high school. Poetry followed, only three years before she died.

The catalyst had been a heartbreak, one of those harrowing breakups that forces you to find or forge a vent. What started out as a way of resolving a failed relationship evolved into a means of self-expression and overcoming her lassitude. “Stuck, shy, and subdued,” she likened her shyness to a lotus, with fragile petals growing in the mud. It “retreats into the mud at night,” but “comes out from the mud when the sun is out,” she wrote. Around new people, Genielle was reserved and quiet, she admitted to herself, but “once I know you I open up.”

Her art book—a blue notebook covered in stickers and penciled sketches of flowers, a koi fish, and a rose in full bloom thrusting up from a scarred heart—became a journal of sorts, where her thoughts, desires, fears, and experiences were documented in illustrations and free verse. She wrote “Free Write,” for instance, while contemplating getting a tattoo—of a Native-American headdress, a tribute to a deceased paternal relative who had been fascinated with the war bonnet.

When writing and drawing didn’t quite do the trick, she stumbled on longboarding. The first time she saw a longboard was while meeting a fellow Xbox Live player, Matthew, in real life. Her best friend, Nanishka Carlson, “Nana” for short, tagged along, and both girls oohed and aahed when Matthew whipped out the board. He let them take it for a spin. “That is so freaking cool!” Nanishka recalls them screaming. “It’s a skateboard for bigger girls!” The very next day, Genielle withdrew $200 from the new checking account her mother had opened for her, with $1,000 for college supplies, and bought a longboard seemingly crafted just for her: a wooden Arbor-brand board with a koi fish painted on its back.

In a short time, longboarding became Genielle’s escape, her way of finding adventure and facing chaos head-on. She’d meander down the center lanes of New York City’s streets, amid trucks, buses, bicycles, and cars—beasts of the highway—to undiscovered parts of the city and beyond. One night in 2012, she and Nana rode for hours, way past their usual practice spot along the piers in the Financial District, and ended up in New Jersey. The longboard was a welcome interruption to the humdrum of her life. It afforded a sense of flight too intoxicating to be daunted by.

 

It wasn’t too difficult to see some of what Genielle was fleeing from. Discontent dogged her every step.

The Laboriels lived in apartment 6E in the Webster Public Housing Development in the South Bronx. Everyone knew them for their humor, but Genielle was especially good at hiding her troubles behind a smile, an infectious laugh, and an affinity for jokes.

At five-foot-three and weighing more than 130 pounds, Genielle was a big short tomboy who knew from middle school—when the girls cooed over boys while she secretly crushed on the squeaking girls—that she was different. Her mother, Awilda, saw it coming: “That girl never liked to wear a dress.”

An administrative assistant at the Bronx County Board of Elections, Awilda juggled fending for three adult kids with tending to her medical problem—a complicated umbilical hernia that had developed after having her firstborn, Genielle’s older sister, Daniella, known as Lala. Awilda’s condition had only worsened over the years and she bounced from surgeon to surgeon, undergoing a total of ten surgeries over the past two decades in an attempt to remedy the condition. Two weeks before Genielle died, Awilda had just completed her seventh operation.

After each procedure, it was Genielle who changed Awilda’s dressings every morning, cleaning the orange-sized hole where her mother’s navel should have been with saline solution before stuffing and sealing it with gauze and gauze pads.

The youngest of Awilda’s three children, Genielle tended to her mother and never stopped fantasizing of busting Awilda out of Webster Houses.

“Ma! If I go somewhere far, far away, would you go with me?” Genielle asked her mother once. Her mother agreed to the tentative trip—as long as they could also bring Daniella along. Genielle replied: “You know you don’t want to leave with me. You got to be here for LaLa and Joseph.”

And that was partly true. Genielle had plans to get out. Her siblings did not. One reason she stuck with longboarding was to lose weight and then enlist in the U.S. Air Force. Or, if that scheme fell through, to become a paramedic. Her older siblings were then unemployed and unfazed about it. It infuriated Genielle, and she remained keen on escaping.

“She didn’t hang around out here. She didn’t get involved with this craziness in our neighborhood. She’d go downtown to her friends, hang out with them,” said Claire McBride, a neighbor in Genielle’s building. Claire was like the grandmother Genielle never had. Dark, with a slight shuffle to her gait, Claire had held Genielle when Awilda first brought her home after she was born. She called Genielle, “baby girl.”

She also noticed when Genielle took up longboarding. Claire was so outraged by the scars and bruises Genielle incurred from riding that she’d threaten, jokingly, to lock her longboard up.

“She’d hit that skateboard and she’d go through here,” said Claire as she pointed at the building’s parking lot. “Schhooo….she’d go down there and she was gone. All you’d see was the wind on her butt.”

Her mother agrees. “She carried the damn skateboard with her wherever she went,” Awilda said with a chuckle. Now sixty-three, she cuts a diminutive figure in her turquoise nightgown and rectangular spectacles. When we talked again, her eyes still glistened, like they had a little more than four years ago when, grief-stricken, she first spoke about her daughter’s death in hushed one-liners, barely able to keep from crying.

Today it’s often laughter that brings tears to her eyes. She still has a flicker of mischief that she admits Genielle most likely inherited. As a youngster, Awilda similarly discovered creative ways to stave off boredom, like jumping on roofs or throwing paper water balloons at passersby. “We came from a poor family,” she said, explaining that she and her siblings made do with what they had.

For Awilda, coming to terms with the loss of her daughter means believing that in death Genielle has become omnipresent. “She is always around,” Awilda said contentedly. “I talk to her pictures all the time. I tell her what’s happening in the house.”

“Believe it or not, everyday somebody mentions her,” she said. “Almost every day.”

 

Genielle Laboriel, center, with two friends.

Genielle was light-skinned and beady-eyed with jet-black hair always pulled into a ponytail. She took to longboarding about two years before her death, and little did she realize how much the sport would grow on her. It became her affordable and “cooler” way of commuting and exploring the city. Whenever friends told her she was getting too into the sport, Genielle would reply, “I am going for my gold and having fun.”

She was the thrill-seeker in her group of four close friends. They called themselves the “Fantastic Four” and were all Bronx residents. Genielle always came up with exhilarating things for them to do:

“Let’s go to Pier 2!”

“Let’s go skydiving? Don’t be a bitch!”

“Let’s go outside!”

“Have you tried longboarding?!”

Among the Fantastic Four she was known as “Tiny.” She was the only girl in the group, and one of two members who were attracted to girls. They saw themselves as an unlikely band of misfits—three homosexuals and one straight guy. In Genielle’s case, her parents had had no qualms about her sexual orientation, but the two gay men wrestled with conservative mothers.

Genielle relished the eccentric. It was one of the reasons she chose to longboard instead of skateboard. Once she told a member of the group, “If I see too many longboards on the street, I’mma get mad ‘cause then I can’t longboard. ‘Cause I don’t wanna be just like them.”

Occasionally the four would “nightride” for hours on side streets, from Bronx Park East along the Burke and Allerton train station routes to the Allerton Playground or the public school on Throop Ave. “We never rode with a destination in mind,” Juan Galarza, one of the Fantastic Four, remembers. “We just rode to see how far we can get before being tired.”

Along the way they’d trade dreams. A common one was moving in together into a nice apartment away from the projects. Genielle had “way” more stamina than the rest of the pack; she would press on for miles. For her, longboarding was never just about tricks and flips. It seemed there was some satisfaction in hearing her thoughts punctuated by the clicks of wheels on asphalt; the speed provided an accelerated sense of motion, of going somewhere. She was hooked.

 

In the early 1990s, longboarding found its way from California to the metropolitan bedlam that is New York City. It brought along with it traces of the Californian beach-boy persona that is intrinsic to all things skateboarding.

But this was no Dogtown. In the absence of waves and empty pools, the boarders settled for the city’s infinite supply of streets and parks to revel in what essentially came to be known as, “street surfing.” The longboarding community dubbed their counterculture within a counterculture, the “push culture.”  They push wood to recreate the feel of a good wave on the streets.

Eager to improve in her newfound sport, Genielle turned to Stuart Anderson, a tutor and co-founder of Ghostskate, the largest skating group on Meetup.com.

It wasn’t just speed that drew Stuart to longboarding. His blonde slightly-past-shoulder-length hair gives him a Californian vibe, like he is all about waves and the sun, but he’s a Fort Greene Brooklyn native, teaching all—young and old—the art of longboarding. From the first of his sessions with Genielle, he remembered that she had had trouble moving the board and expressing herself. Genielle was reticent around new company and Stuart noticed it in her restrained yet bubbly laugh. During her introduction, she had blushed and smiled in embarrassment, but she clearly wanted to learn. Stuart taught her foot braking, balance, and, most important, control.

“You could see she was determined when she came,” he said. “The hardest part is deciding to get on the board. She was a little bit nervous about new things but not enough to stop her from trying. It was healthy caution, maybe.”

Stuart had his own reasons for finding longboarding. In 2007, he lost his best friend to a heroin overdose and his first girlfriend to a brain aneurysm, only a few months apart. He got a grip on his depression through longboarding; he fell in love with its stability and speed, but, above all, it distracted him and gave him a personal sense of control. It is that sense of control that he tries to hammer into his mentees, most of whom—like Genielle—come to lessons psyched after watching YouTube videos featuring longboarding pros bombing hills and dancing on boards. Somewhat scary stuff. “You can’t stop people from getting injured in action, but you can at least take care of them as best as you can,” he said.

Stuart is no stranger to the hazards of longboarding. He went from typical boarder to fierce instructor after he broke his right leg in 2009 while longboarding; he left the hospital with the core of his right tibia infused with a titanium rod. Being unable to walk for three months roused a desire to contribute in a different way to the longboarding community. He quit his desk job at a tech company and began running Ghostskate. It was there that he met Genielle.

Longboarders, Stuart said, tend to have one thing in common with each other. “I think the closest thing to a unifier that we have is that we’re all awkward from a lot of mainstream circles. So when we end up in this community we’re like, ‘Oh, everybody is comfortable being uncomfortable’.”

It was in that community that Genielle found her tribe of outsiders. She accepted their rituals and made plans to attend the tribe’s annual celebration—the 2013 Broadway Bomb.

                        

Now in its sixteenth year, the Broadway Bomb is an unsanctioned eight-mile race luring riders from all over the world every October to charge down Broadway from West 116th, near Columbia University, to the Charging Bull statue in the Financial District. Snaking through traffic and past red lights, the skateboarders dodge countless obstacles as they stream down Broadway—pedestrians, motorists, cyclists, pets, even cops, who, over the past six years, have tried to nab them or seize their boards.

Founded by the longboarders Fred Mahe and Ian Nichols in the autumn of 2002, the Bomb began with only fourteen boarders but has since grown to more than 2,000. When it ballooned to a thousand riders in 2012, the New York Supreme Court quickly issued an injunction declaring the event unlawful—two days before the race that year. The longboarders defied the ruling and went ahead with the Bomb.

The following year, 2013, the year Genielle had planned to join the race, the cops came out in full force to enforce the injunction. It was clear—from the arsenal of scooters, paddy wagons, nets, mobile barricades, a helicopter, and from a notice declaring the event “dangerous” and that “individuals who violate the law may be arrested”—that the city had had enough. The boarders responded with defiant chants of “Broadway Bomb!” as they mapped out alternative routes to avoid the cops.

It was Fred who christened the event the “Broadway Bomb,” referring to the longboarding style of riding down an incline. The title and its now notorious slogan—“You Could Die!”—flaunted the event’s intrinsic danger, thus attracting more riders. Ian attributes its allure to a certain human instinct to gravitate towards danger, the combat part of the fight-or-flight response. “You have running with the bulls, Formula One racing, something about risking your life…it’s an adrenaline rush.”

Fred and Ian met in 1997 during the annual Central Park Race, a precursory competition to the Bomb, where longboarders ride laps around the park. One drunken night in a bar in 1996, Fred divined the Central Park Race while arguing with fellow street surfers over who was the fastest. To settle the score, they agreed to skate around Central Park once, and the race was born.

The Central Park race allowed for bursts of machismo; it satiated egos, but lacked sufficient challenge. Fred and Ian then proposed an alternative with the ideal obstacle course—racing down Broadway, the longest street in New York City, while skirting traffic. In the pre-Facebook era, Fred and Ian announced the event by word-of-mouth and handing out fliers in skate shops and parks to longboarders and skateboarders in the city. Now riders from around the world can simply sign up to attend through the Broadway Bomb events page on Facebook. Ian never expected the event to explode into the annual street event it is today. He started riding boards in 1977 at age seven. Later in life he discovered that the sport calmed him. “It’s almost like meditation,” he says. “When you’re skating you’re not thinking about any of the problems that you have; you’re just focused on not falling down.”

There was a clear divide between traditional skateboarders and longboarders, and the Broadway Bomb was meant in part to unite an otherwise fractured boarding community. Yet some riders aren’t sold on conflating the two groups. Rick Sulz, in particular, a veteran traditional skateboarder, insists on keeping the distinctions between the two subcultures. For one, the boards are different. The longboard, he said, “has bigger and softer wheels.” For Rick, traditional skateboarding is to longboarding as softball is to baseball.

Rick is the founder of the website nyskateboarding.com, which mainly documents NYC’s traditional skateboarding scene. Still, after Genielle was run over by a school bus in 2013, The New York Times contacted him for his expertise, and he named beginners’ inability to handle speed as the culprit in Genielle’s death: “It’s like learning how to drive a car in a Corvette.”

Five years later, he is still wary of longboarding’s appeal to beginners.

“It’s a bit dangerous for the fact that you’re learning to ride on something you’ve got optimized for speed. So you’re going to go faster if you’re going down a hill. That’s where the danger comes in.

“It’s just people jumping on there feeling too confident; and then you add traffic and you see kids being killed.”

Like Genielle Laboriel?

“She was going downhill,” Rick said. “Simply put, if she had been on a traditional board, with regular wheels, I don’t think she’d have been going at the speed she was going. On a traditional board to get up to that speed you’d have to work harder; you’d have to push harder.”

Stuart dismisses Rick’s position as “narrow.” To blame the type of sport she was doing at the time is to not look at the accident as a whole, he says.

“You’re not going to be safer because you’re on a different board. Safety comes from your ability to have situational awareness and for everybody to follow the same rules.

“To think that if she was on hard wheels, she would have gone a little slower doesn’t necessarily mean she wouldn’t have been in danger nor would it have changed the fact that the bus driver really ended up killing her by backing over her, after not clearly checking his blind spot and making a turn,” he said. He had learned this from Awilda’s lawyer.

 

After Genielle’s death in 2013, Awilda began a personal injury action against the bus driver, Willie J. White, and his employer, GVC LTD, a Bronx-based transportation company. The complaint charged Willie with failing to check for bicyclists, skateboarders, and pedestrians before cutting right at Melrose Avenue and East 160th Street. And crashing into Genielle.

It happened at 7:15 a.m. Genielle had been riding home on the northbound bicycle lane on Melrose Avenue from a friend’s going-away party. Suddenly, witnesses heard a shriek and saw her flailing her arms as the tires dragged and crushed her.

Awilda sought restitution for the “conscious pain and suffering” that Genielle suffered; she questioned the driver’s competence during the incident and accused GVC of negligence and recklessness for entrusting the vehicle to Willie. He had failed to yield the bicycle lane to Genielle, the complaint said, and he had taken the right turn without horning, using turn signals, or even personally looking.

But the defendants rebuffed Awilda’s allegations, insisting that the incident was so “spontaneous and unavoidable” that it left little or no time for Willie to react. Any injuries or damages sustained were the result of Genielle’s “culpable conduct.” Genielle didn’t have the proper safety equipment, they countered (she hadn’t taken her helmet with her). Willie’s lawyers also pointed out that Genielle had “full knowledge” of the inherent dangers of longboarding, so by going ahead and engaging in the sport she had “assumed and accepted” such risks. (Both the defendants’ and plaintiff’s lawyers, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP and Charles David Segal, refused to comment for this story).

The case dragged on sporadically for three more years. Willie lost his job at GVC and his license. A closed settlement was reached in April 2017. While she won’t disclose what she received, Awilda says she has made her peace with it. It won’t bring Genielle back, she pointed out. One thing that bothered her though was her inability to retrieve her daughter’s belongings from her last day alive. She says she tried unsuccessfully to recover Genielle’s clothes, shoes, and longboard from the NYPD. “I went to the police, they said I had to go the court,” she said. At the court she says she filled out paperwork, to no avail. Frustrated, Awilda gave up, and hasn’t seen her daughter’s most cherished item, the Arbor-brand longboard, since 2013.

 

It was half-past noon on a Saturday, about a month after Genielle’s death and the 2013 Broadway Bomb. The longboarders were having another contest, a relay race in Central Park between groups of longboarders, one of those rare events that brings everyone together—pros, advocates, middlings, and newbies. Some wore protective gear—elbow and knee pads—over their T-shirts and hoodies. Divvied up into relay teams, the longboarders hurtled round Central Park.

After the race, they gathered on Great Hill, just above the steps on West 106th Street and Central Park West. Stuart had shown up to help coordinate the event, and he watched as freebies were tossed out to the helmeted heads around him. The longboarders roared excitedly as they grabbed  “Keep Calm and Shred On” shirts and other spoils of the race.

Kiefer Dixon won again. Everyone knew his team would win. They had heard he was away in San Diego and had hoped he wouldn’t make it back. But when he did, they knew they didn’t stand a chance. Dark-skinned and of Caribbean descent, Kiefer is a self-proclaimed daredevil. He was given his first skateboard as a birthday gift when he turned ten and hasn’t gotten off boards since. His first-place streak began in 2011, and by twenty-four he had won more than ten races and was sponsored by popular longboard brands. After skating about twenty-six miles around Fiesta Island in San Diego the weekend before and finishing first place in a longboarding marathon, Kiefer returned to New York City at 5 a.m. the following Saturday, to obliterate the hopes of anyone who dared to dethrone him.

His Facebook community page profile picture once captured him in mid-air vaulting over a pole at 5.2 feet after finishing first-place at the 2011 Broadway Bomb. “It’s called the hippie jump,” he said. A comb stuck out of his full Afro. “You’re supposed to jump off your board, over a pole, and land back on your board.” He is the occasional star on YouTube longboarding videos, too, causing admirers and friends to dub him the “King of New York.” It was Kiefer’s kind that Genielle looked up to when she turned to Stuart for longboarding lessons.

Stuart, however, isn’t the competitive sort. Instead he takes it upon himself to spread the “stoke”—the fire and zest—that comes with longboarding. Everyone in the community invests their fire differently. In the past, he would finish Broadway Bombs in his own time, racing nobody but himself.

For longboarders the sport seems almost therapeutic, even freeing for some, and it is this freedom that boarders—both long and skate—claim to try to celebrate during the Broadway Bomb, a freedom that is increasingly stifled by the police. “They’re making it much harder to be casual about it,” Stuart said. “There are kids with their parents there. It’s not an aggressive thing, but because we come from skateboarding, which is considered to be a counterculture, they assume it to be aggressive.”

Ironically, the same police spectacle that’s meant to deter the boarders helps to raise awareness for the Bomb and, consequently, entices more people who can’t resist the treat of riding through the city of dreams—its grime and bustle, its busy intersections, yellow cabs, MTA buses, and world-renowned districts.

As Kiefer sees it, New York traffic “is actually like flowing water. Most of the time I skate with music and I’m just like dancing through traffic.”

But the scars on Kiefer and two of his companions, Roberto Delossantos, twenty-four, and Miles Evans, twenty-seven, tell more tales.

Miles had knees, elbows, and hips covered with injuries, mostly, he says, from his early days of longboarding. Roberto had a bad new scrape just above his eyebrow, after bumping his head against one of the underpasses around Grand Concourse. “I heal pretty fast,” he said.

All three of them, Roberto, Kiefer, and Miles lived in the Bronx, so I asked: Had they heard of Genielle Laboriel?

“Yeah, I heard. It was so sad what happened,” Kiefer said.

“It happened very close to my house,” Roberto said.

“Someone thought it was me.”

 

After her death, Genielle was vilified online by some, who called her everything from an “Obama-moron” to just a “future organ donor” on the popular New York news website DNAinfo (comments have since been taken down from the site, which has closed, but DNAinfo shared the comments via email).

One commenter wrote, “Her stupidity and the impact between her corpse and the bus killed her. Lets not twist things around.” Another quipped, “Those folks don’t have parents, only momma, living on welfare in the projects with a whole bunch of other fatherless kids. Read the story.”

Others defended Genielle, blaming the bus driver for failing to slow down and bidding for empathy. “This is someone’s child, best friend, godmother, sister, niece, grandchild. No negative remarks should b to a lost soul who cant speak on what happened.”

Genielle was indeed someone’s child, and through longboarding she was more than a “stuck, shy and subdued” girl from the projects in the Bronx. To push the board was to push herself, to take risks and find control in a chaotic world, even while being tempted to just speed or sleep through it.

And as her mother will wistfully remind you, Genielle “died doing something she loved.”

 

Irene Chidinma Nwoye is an independent journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Huffington Post, The Village Voice, Okayafrica, and Quartz Africa. She was recently a creative nonfiction resident at the Carey Institute for Global Good, and is working on a book-length nonfiction crime story and a documentary. She is represented by the Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.