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Welcome to Tony Hawk’s Celebrity Hell

The skateboarding legend, now in his 50s, is livetweeting his slow descent into invisibility — probing the mysteries of what it means to be a man

Fundamentally, I am not worried about Tony Hawk. One of the best and most influential pro skateboarders in the history of the sport, he’s worth tens of millions of dollars, he owns a brand, he inspired a franchise of licensed video games, he runs a nice charity, he has four cool kids and he’s on his fourth wife. (Some would see those divorces in a bad light, but I think it’s nice he hasn’t given up on love!) No, if there’s any indication that something is amiss in Hawk’s pleasant life, it is his habit of tweeting about awkward public encounters.

Hawk has tweeted more stuff in this vein the past few months, as his followers seem to get a kick out of it. In September, BuzzFeed lamented that people have trouble placing his face — he’s often recognized, but in erroneous or incomplete fashion, e.g., “You look like Tony Hawk.” In April, Kotaku editor Riley MacLeod admired Hawk’s self-deprecating humor and patience in these situations, which offer “another model for what my own masculinity could be.” I agree that Hawk is handling some (relatively minor) vicissitudes of age and fame with good cheer, yet I’m seized by the intuition that he has begun to chronicle something weirder and more specific: a journey into celebrity hell.

Allow me to illustrate with one of the very first tweets Tony wrote regarding this phenomenon.

The stunned silence that closes this scene is typical of maybe 30 percent of Hawk’s dialogue-with-a-stranger tweets. Mostly, being familiar with a certain range of banal comments, he’s ready to serve a dry punchline. (You can practically hear that Goldfinger song from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater when you read this: “Here I am, growing older all the time/ Looking older all the time/ Feeling younger in my mind.”)

But occasionally a person’s demeanor is so odd that it wrong-foots him into a crisis of individuality.

“Why am I me?” is a quandary that millennia of human philosophy haven’t settled. It’s also curiously suited to a skater, whose athletic skill is arguably more existential than competitive: Vertical skateboarding as we know it had a because-it’s-there genesis in the 1970s, when the swimming pools of drought-stricken Southern California lay empty and waiting for kids like the San Diego–born Hawk. He started winning bowl contests early the following decade. The interrogative Why are you Tony Hawk? therefore has a double meaning. It probes not only the mystery of being oneself but whether identity is anything other than consciousness shaped by a patch of the space-time continuum. Enjoy your meal, Tony!

Of course, in order for Hawk to have these bizarre conversations, he has to go out into society. He flies commercial, and he orders at drive-thrus — prompting all manner of confusion. From what I can tell, he has neither the wealth nor the will to hold himself separate himself from common experience, and this is an appealing trait: He’s down to earth! He’s just like us!

But because he is neither an “ordinary” person nor a current NBA superstar — and likewise occupies a weird middle realm of pop-cultural notoriety between “has-been” and “elder statesman” — he appears to us as a kind of glitch in reality. In other words, Tony is naturally at ease shopping for groceries; it is we who cannot reconcile this image with our knowledge of him.

Imagine, then, what it’s like to daily be approached by people, in the midst of your errands and travel, who refuse to understand your access to these dull contexts. Tony Hawk, pioneer of an extreme/punk action sport, the man who pulled off the 900, rents a car sometimes? Inconceivable.

The result is a puzzling negation. By showing up, Hawk disproves the fact of himself:

Is there anyone else alive in this absurdist bind? The nearest comparison I can come up with is an omnipresent character actor whose name we never learn, referring to them instead as “that guy who was in that thing.” But their very ambient quality explains why you’d see him pumping gas or shopping at the mall. Hawk, by contrast, is viewed as an violator of normality, perhaps as an extension of his gravity-defying tricks. If he’s gracious, polite and funny, that might be down to years of trying to account for his presence at moments when the reason for it ought to be self-evident.

I am impressed with how he handles this, and honestly, I don’t consider it true hell, only a kind of hell: the horror of continually repeating, “I’m me, I have the same needs and annoyances as anyone, I don’t know what else you expected,” until you almost begin to doubt these truths. A man could really go crazy this way. I guess, all told, it’s a good thing Tony’s comfortable in mid-air — because folks will always pull the rug out from underneath him.