Life on the Rails

When Anthony Rodriguez Jr. skated, he held his head up high. It wasn't an act of arrogance or a moment of showmanship; it was because the skinny, soft-spoken eighteen-year-old found happiness on his skateboard.

"He said skating was the only time he felt free. He didn't have to think about all the stuff going on in his life. He just felt the wind, the speed and the rush; it took all the other stuff away," says Regina Chavez y Sanchez, one of the owners of La Taza Cafe & Market, where Anthony worked.

March 7 was the first day of what started out as a good weekend for Anthony. He opened his first checking account. A menial task for most, for him it was another step in his goal of self-sufficiency. He spent Saturday with friends he'd met at the Denver Skatepark. On Sunday, Anthony's estranged father made his first trip to La Taza to talk with him about possibly moving home. "I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me, too," Rodriguez Sr. says.

Anthony had also purchased a new skateboard that weekend. And after work Sunday evening, he was riding from downtown to a skate shop on Platte Street to purchase a part for it. Anthony was in the left-hand lane of 15th Street between Platte and Little Raven when a 2002 Mitsubishi Eclipse struck and killed him. The driver was never ticketed, even though witnesses say the car's headlights were off more than an hour after sundown.

Reggie Rivera, a very independent fifteen-year-old who had met Anthony at the skatepark, heard the collision and found Anthony lying in the middle of the street. "I was talking to him five minutes before he died. All of a sudden the car hits him, and I'm never going to talk to him again," Reggie says tearfully.

Since then, skaters have been streaming into La Taza, grieving and giving their condolences to Regina and her sister, Katherine Chavez, who were helping Anthony rebuild his life. The neighborhood coffeehouse, which they co-own with their brother, Alejandro Chavez, and Regina's husband, Trinidad Sanchez Jr., is nestled on Platte Street among the collection of shops, bars and luxury apartments that now grace the area. It's a friendly place, with local artwork from one of the cafe's monthly openings hanging on the wall, open-mike nights on the weekends and a mix of coffee, food and convenience items for sale.

Despite the cafe's location in a high-rent area, "the sisters," as regulars affectionately call them, have always opened their doors to skateboarders. Anthony's skater image had previously hampered his job hunting, but Katherine welcomed his application. She says she had a gut feeling about him.

"He was great from the get-go," Katherine says. "He was just such a good kid, such a good personality. He had this big grin when he was joking around with you. He was real courteous and had good manners. He was good with the customers; he talked with them and made friends with them."

Shortly after he was hired, Anthony was given a key to the shop and the added responsibility of running the Sunday shift on his own. Sharon Garza, who runs a refreshment stand at the Denver Skatepark, says that's when she noticed a switch in Anthony's attitude. "You trust a kid, and it can change him," she says.

Regina and Trindad also took Anthony, who had been couch surfing, into their home at the beginning of the year so he would have some stability. "He kept his room clean, he did laundry, he took out the trash. He was very respectful," Regina says.

The Brighton High School dropout also started talking about using his artistic skills in a career or maybe even going to culinary school. "He was starting to get happy for the first time in is his life," says Joey, a friend who was working with Anthony to get his GED. "He was starting to make his way through life. He had that good job. He was so happy."

Anthony's sudden death amid this life-rebuilding has made many of his formerly bulletproof friends a little more cautious. If Reggie sees a car nearby now, he walks with his board. "I just want to send a message," he says. "Stay safe. Stay off the fucking street."

Area residents' frustrations over cars speeding by the parks have also been renewed. Although it is unclear whether the driver of the Mitsubishi was speeding, Sharon Garza says she watches it happen all the time. "They need to slow down," she says. "I hope that's the lesson people get from this."

What some of Anthony's friends say they learned is that they don't matter to society -- that Anthony is just another dead skateboarder. "The stereotype [people] have for skaters is way fucked up," Reggie says.

"These kids have never shown us any disrespect," Regina says. "The ones that do, the other kids correct them. If my daughter were out there, I wouldn't want anybody to be mean to her. They need to treat her with respect, no matter how she dresses."

Like Anthony, many skaters are just looking to find peace on their boards. "Kids like me, who grew up in a tough neighborhood, come here to get away," Joey explains. "You don't have these bullies messing with you. Everybody's cool."

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Kevin Juhasz