Urban Animals

I left my Midwestern Cincinnati suburb some weeks ago for Houston for a long over-due visit with my sister Susan and to attend a teachers’ conference. Big sis and I have a unique relationship. I’m 15 years her junior, an uncreative semi-regimented teacher. Susan is the urbane, night owl musician and aspiring roller derby queen. I was anxious for both the enlightening conference sessions and the night life that she had promised. She kept us moving all weekend, a nice dinner (she kept referring to herself as “The Cougar” as we shared oysters on the half-shell), her band The Hightailers played mean blues-rock originals at Dan Electro’s, but nothing was as eye-opening as the unfamiliar and somewhat radical subculture epitomized at The Joust.

Her landlord, John, runs a skate shop adjacent to her apartment. Reclined in leather Lazy Boy, John watches a History Channel exclusive on Medieval torture as his business day winds down. He is a veteran skater, affiliated with the Houston skate club, the Urban Animals. Photos of his meaner skating days grace the wall of his shop/living room. As I examine the images, Susan and John foreshadow the annual street joust scheduled for Saturday. She’s sidelined with an injury, but convinces me it’s an awesome spectacle. There were enough in attendance last year to trash John’s bathroom.

After attending some workshops on State Department history and pivotal historic elections, Susan picks me up from the convention center and we head for the joust. On Saturday’s gathering, John stands out at 6’ 3”, perhaps taller as he dons a hat like Michael Cane wore in Zulu. I see a lot of leather, bikes, and trucks. No mini-vans. A rack of weapons is stationed on the sidewalk. It included a colorful collection of makeshift clubs, maces, and mallets wrapped in bright duct tape. “Weapons must be made of one-inch, schedule-40 PVC, with an end larger than a boxing glove that won’t enter a facemask,” he declares. “It’s got to have some flex to it, because the idea is to knock people down, and then drink beer with them.”

A dozen skaters swarm around a 40-yard stretch of side street, while others choose weapons in preparing for the next face off.  John’s sidekick, Johnny, serves as the de facto master of ceremonies who enforces the rules and inspects weapons for code. Two skaters stare each other down through their facemasks, with hands tightly gripping a purple mace or neon green lance. “Jousters ready!” screams Johnny with a 16-ounce Lone Star in hand, then whistles the starting signal. Skaters sprint toward each other, each vying to knock his adversary on his can.

This ritual has a history that begins in 1979 when about a dozen dedicated skaters created the Urban Animals, a skate gang united to protect and assert skaters’ rights. They butted heads with local law enforcement, until they finally got Houston City Ordinance 4516 passed, which made it legal to skate on the street. “We just wanted to skate in a safe and prudent manner,” recalls John. That number is printed on the back of his business card. Even so-called rights enthusiasts like then-city council member Shiela Jackson-Lee’s opposed the group.

Jousts in their heyday resembled more contemporary Renaissance Festivals with bongo drummers, jugglers, musicians, and magicians entertaining hundreds of spectators. It has lost some of its pageantry, John laments, but recently the bruised-up and semi-retired skaters have revive the event after a hiatus.  Among the jousters were a lawyer, carpenters, mechanics, shop owners, musicians, and artists. Now, in its third year after being brought back, they’ve rented a port-a-potty.

In between rounds, skaters and onlookers recap earlier bouts. No major injuries, but most contenders have raspberries on their elbows. “There used to be a lot of blood, blown out knees, broken hands, fingers, but never a life-threatening injury,” John revels. Occasionally amateur skaters have come out under the influence and gotten scraped up pretty bad.  “That was good for them,” John asserts, “they needed to heed warnings of their skating elders.”

The antics between rounds seem to make up for the lost intensity of the early 80s. One provocative skater attaches an old oil can below his belt with flexible spout protruding through his open fly. The crowd zeroed in on this when a lady—perhaps 15 years senior to the Cougar—jumped from her lawn chair, grabbed the spout, and erected it toward the sky, to the thrill of the crowd. Valvoline meets Viagra.

“Car!” someone yells sending skaters to the curb. A car passes politely and the street competition resumes. This interruption occurred at a rate of about three street evacuations per joust.  Susan says it’s an encouraging element—it brings back positive memories of clearing the street during an intense kickball game, or a simulated cops-and-robbers chase.

The joust ended with a decisive champion, Cliff the Dancing Bear. “It’s not just skating skill,” tells official Johnny, “a lot of it is endurance. Cliff doesn’t drink or smoke either, and that helps.” John presents the trophy, which remains piled in his garage between jousts.

Of all the things I experienced in Houston—her band was awesome and the Latin Grammys served up much eye candy in the hotel lobby—this joust was most exhilarating. I hope to return and see it again, and maybe the joust will warrant a second port-a-let.


David Wolfford is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. He is a University of Kentucky graduate, a James Madison Fellow, a National Board certified teacher, and student of history and politics. He teaches Government and Politics at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati. David has written for Ohio Valley History, Social Education, Kentucky Monthly, The Weekly Standard, Cincinnati Enquirer, Lexington Herald-Leader, and National Review Online.