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Hot Wheels

Baltimore Dishwasher Rolls Around the World

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/23/1998

James "Cabbage" Bradfield stands in the stuffy kitchen of Federal Hill's SoBo Café. He stares down at a trio of stainless steel sinks, probably thinking, I've only got two more days of this.

Bradfield is a dishwasher. A night of toiling up to his elbows in soapy water and pot grease nets him $40. But in two days he'll be back on the road again, pursuing a career that sends him around him world, garnering him autograph-seeking fans and glossy photos in national magazines.

No, he's not a rock star or an actor. He's a skateboarder. A professional skateboarder.

Shaking soap suds from his hands, the strapping 26-year-old takes a seat in the café to explain how his childhood pastime has become his life calling, one that may earn him upwards of $20,000 this year (with the potential to make him much more as he rolls ever deeper into the burgeoning sport).

"Basically, I moved out to California to get some opportunities and good things came out of it," Bradfield says, pulling lightly on the blond goatee that sprouts a good three inches off his chin.

Bradfield's been skating since he was 10 (which is about the age when a neighborhood kid gave him his odd nickname, an obscure reference to a Saturday Night Live skit). Though he spent this summer visiting his folks in Irvington and working for a friend at SoBo Café, he moved away from his native Baltimore three years ago, hoping his prodigious board talents would catch someone's eye in San Diego, the epicenter of boarding. With a résumé and videos of his riding skills in hand, he crashed skateboarding trade shows, looking for sponsors. In the spring of 1996 Solana Beach—based Gravity Boarding Co. took him on as a salaried rider, paid to ride and promote its boards. Bradfield's life changed dramatically. Take this past April, when the company called and told him he had two hours to pack for a skateboard tour of Japan.

"I went to Japan with $40 in my pocket and lived like a king," Bradfield says. "The response was amazing. I was surrounded by groups of kids screaming my name. They all had my trading card, and I was signing autographs like a rock star."

Gravity specializes in long-board skateboards, which are, of course, longer (up to 47 inches) and a little wider than regular skateboards. They're popular with surfers and snowboarders, who often use them for cross-training because the boards require similar motions to turn and maneuver. Bradfield says he'll be featured in an upcoming Men's Journal article on the popularity of long boards with older skaters, who sometimes use them for transportation, even commuting.

On the wilder side, he also does off-road skateboarding, using special boards designed along the lines of a sport utility vehicle (complete with oversized wheels). He placed fifth in this extreme sport's first national championship, which was covered by ESPN. Each bit of exposure helps, since Bradfield also promotes Stylus clothes and NSS skateboard shoes. Through a "photo incentive contract," he gets paid every time he appears in the media wearing these clothes or displaying their brand name. "It's very much like NASCAR and all their stickers and logos," he says.

Today his T-shirt reads skateboarding with pride and is emblazoned with the Maryland flag. Bradfield wants to be the "hometown hero" of skateboarding, though he quickly names riders Derek Krasauskaus and Buckey Lasek as fellow locals who are moving up in the sport. He would like to see skateboarding grow into an Olympic event, but he has some reservations about the sport getting too big.

"A lot of skaters don't appreciate the big companies that are starting to come in," he says. "The big companies weren't there for us when we were a little sport 10 years ago, but now with ESPN covering it, Nike wants to put their swoosh on everything."

Bradfield admits that his parents were initially less than thrilled by his choice of skating as a career. But now that he's made good in the sport, he says they're proud to call him, "My son the skateboarder."

"They completely support me," he adds. "My dad wears skate shoes and Gravity shirts. They're hip to it now."

Bradfield, who studied music at Catonsville Community College and played drums in local groups Juice and Lumber, envisions returning to music in the future. He's also interested in writing and videography. But when his final dish day is done, he'll be back on the board--taking off on a tour of Midwest skate shops and parks before heading back to California. A trip to the World Cup of Skateboarding in Vancouver is in the works, as are visits to South America and Australia.

"Skateboarding has helped me meet great people and produced opportunities to travel around the world," he says. "It's more than given back to me the bumps and bruises I put into it."

So far, Bradfield's never broken a bone in a boarding spill, though some of the more extreme stunts he performs have brought hard knocks. He largely shrugs off the danger he faces while careening down dirt-sloped hills or hurling himself around cement tracks. Maybe that's why some of his café co-workers laugh at his being the only dishwasher to insist on wearing rubber gloves.

"Man, my hands were getting all wrinkled," Bradfield says with a sheepish grin. "It didn't look healthy."

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