April 21, 2013

Response to skateboarding column shocking


---- — I suppose the lesson should be “Don’t mess with skateboarders.”

In my last column, headlined “Skateboarders are taking over the streets,” I complained, in a somewhat bombastic and exaggerated manner, about skateboarders rolling down the middle of Plattsburgh’s streets.

To be clear, no, I never really tried to run over a skateboarder, and no, I don’t really think skateboarders should be imprisoned.

I do, though, believe that skateboarders don’t belong in the middle of the street, and I sincerely don’t want to kill one with my car — which I avoided (in a squeal of brakes) by 12 inches recently, when a skateboarder cruised through a stop sign and directly into my path.

The response to the column was shocking and immediate. Actually, sooner than immediate.

The Sunday column was accidentally posted briefly online four days before it was published in the paper. It was quickly packed away again, but by then it was too late. One skateboarder had seen it, and he told two friends, and they told two friends, who posted it on two message boards, and …

In my time at this newspaper, I’ve insulted mothers, New York Yankee fans, conservatives, cat lovers, Canadians, children, God. Sorry again mom. Never once did I get more than a handful of angry letters and emails. Heck, we’re a small newspaper.

That Thursday morning, however, angry, profane emails began to fill my mailbox.

Some of them were polite, informative and well-reasoned — instructing me, for instance, in the difference between skateboarding and longboarding. A couple actually apologized for rude skateboarders who didn’t follow the rules of the road.

Then there were the rest. One emailer promised to defecate (not his word) on my lawn. Another said he would come to my house and kill me. Note to police: please check my email if I turn up dead this week.

Some called me a racist (skateboarders are their own race?) and compared me unfavorably to Hitler. Yes, Hitler. More than one person said I was a sociopath, and I was accused of being both a conservative republican and an unhinged liberal.

I was called words that I’ve never seen before, and saw expletives in an array of creative combinations very rarely utilized in the public domain.

I started out trying to read all the messages, but, well, after you’ve been called a “bleeping bleep who bleeps bleep” 60 or 70 times, you start to get the bleeping idea.

Emails, spirited comments on the newspaper’s Web page and at least one long phone call to my editor weren’t quite enough, though. Some skateboarder(s) started to sign me up for various things online. I got membership in a dating service for African-American singles. Daily Bible verses. A free newsletter from a gay fetish website (in English and German!).

Interestingly, the vast majority of messages came before the story ever reached the newspaper, and came from far outside our area. Most were written by people who couldn’t locate the Adirondacks on a map of New York, let alone judge the relative merits of riding a longboard into traffic down the middle of Cornelia Street. They messaged from as far away as Utah, California, Alberta — and yes, the Canadian was easily the most polite of all the responders.

In all, I’ve gotten nearly 150 emails of complaint, with occasional ones still trickling in. That’s more than a decade’s worth of angry correspondence crammed into little more than a week. Guess I should have realized that skateboarders have Internet access.

As I said, the lesson should probably be not to mess with skateboarders. All this anger, though, has really increased our web traffic. Advertisers love that. And the newspaper industry in general has been searching desperately for ways to bring in younger readers. I may have just discovered the secret: insult them.

I honestly didn’t think “stop riding your skateboard down the center line” would cause such controversy, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. What stance can I possibly take that will get up the collective dander of Americans under the age of 25?

Texting kills brain cells? Kids eat too much pizza? The legal driving age should be moved to 26? One Direction isn’t as good as the Beatles? I think your prom dress is ugly?

Is any of this making you angry?

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