They came like zombie spiders, a half dozen or so of them, arms waving and legs poised in mid-step, feeling their way over the massive old pipes and compressors and flywheels and piston housings that have all been painted into a cheery, rust-free stillness under the pump shed at Gasworks Park.
“The Parkours are coming,” said one of the musicians, a tall man with a recorder.
I didn’t know what that meant, the Parkours are coming, and at first I thought he’d said something about the Park Corps coming, like maybe we weren’t supposed to be making so much noise at a city park and some Stasi-like force was descending upon us. Angela and Mara were again practicing Morris dancing with their group, and again I and Baby Emilia-pants had accompanied them to observe. This week because of a light rain we had repaired to the shed once known as the pump house or exhauster house and now called the Play Barn, where the old machinery for making gas to light and heat Seattle’s houses now lies immobile, docile and accessible to the public.
I was sitting on the edge of one of the big machines with Millie in my arms, giving her a “tug on the jug” — her bottle of formula — when the recorder player said “they’re doing a blind traverse, they want us to move.”
Millie is fidgety these days, even on the bottle, and I had just got her settled and her face was happily glazed over as she sucked. I bit back a rather large mouthful of pique and said that I would move when my baby was finished eating. Who were these clowns, I thought?
That’s when I turned and saw this group of lean and wiry young men in jeans and sneakers clambering over the gasworks with their eyes closed. Another lean and wiry young man in jeans and sneakers appeared to be their leader or instructor or guru. His eyes were open and he offered encouragements and advice to the others as each member of the group encountered the particular metal outcroppings that characterized the unique line of traverse in front of him. I sorely regretted leaving the camera home.
Who are the Parkours? They are technically called traceurs, and they are adherents of a non-competitive discipline called Parkour or “l’art du déplacement”, sometimes also called freerunning. Apparently I am the last one to have heard about Parkour even though I saw the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale in the movie theater and therefore was introduced to the sport at the same time that many others were through the breath-stealing opening chase scene (warning: violence).* I just looked it up, which you can do too, and since all I know about it came from Wikipedia I’ll not launch into a Parkour history lesson here. You may already know lots about Parkour. Suffice to say that the basic object is to travel from point A to point B in a straight line as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Why would they do this in a shed full of big metal machines instead of in a place where they won’t bang their shins or fall off of curved and slippery surfaces or disturb other public facility Enjoyers? The answer is that moving efficiently in lines of travel that normal people wouldn’t consider taking or would sustain injuries if they did is the whole point of Parkour. A farmer’s meadow or a playfield or an airport runway would allow covering much territory quickly and efficiently but would make for pretty lackluster sport (although activity at the latter might alter the level of danger from a static challenge to one of Intermittent Extreme Danger, which might be fun for some and is probably already a sport unto itself for all I know), and muchness of territory is not what it’s about. Cityscapes are ideal because they require traceurs to leap over things, jump between things, hang from things, scale and leap from walls, balance on things, crawl under things, etc. The old equipment in the sheds at Gasworks is the perfect practice area.
Millie came up for air, so I moved. The compressor upon whose rim we had been sitting turned out to be the end of the line for the blind traverse, and once the initiates had all reached it, the master led the neophytes in a new exercise, which was jumping from a squat position across a wide expanse between two large pieces of equipment. The machine at the other end of the leap, however, had pipes sticking out of it that would knock you jibbering senseless if you made your landing outside a narrow zone. Also, if you fell short you’d be looking at the rapid approach of the concrete rim at the base of the machine, with which you would be forced to choose a limb for collision. Although I was trying to watch and support Mara and the other children who were practicing their dance, the sight of these men leaping like giant ticks just a few feet away was distracting.
The sport has been around in some form for a century, elements of it have come into the subconscious of folks like you and me through the movies and moves of Jackie Chan, and in the last decade or so it has taken on this name, Parkour, which is derived from the phrase “parcours du combattant“, which refers to a French military training discipline that had at its core the idea of altruism. You strove to be fit in order to serve others.
I think my puny feeling of resentment, besides being typical of me, is probably also a typical experience among users of public recreation areas in general. Your dog off-leash, my three-legged race; your kite, my radio-operated airplane; your Parkour traverse, my dance practice. So this is all just a thin layer of motor oil on a big lake. But while I think the idea of this discipline is pretty cool — like dancing it is a celebration of movement and vitality — I also think the leaping spider flea lads neglected the central foundation of their sport by choosing to disrupt a baby on her bottle and invade an area where these children, who need all the focus they can muster, were simply trying to learn some new and difficult steps.
It was sort of dark under the shed roof, but I didn’t see much altruism in their interactions with others around them. It looked like something else to me. As with many disciplines, the founding spirit of Parkour may be a difficult thing to maintain in a world full of other people.
*The Parkour scene in Casino Royale betrays the noncompetitive spirit underlying parcours du combattant, since the fleeing person of interest and the pursuing James Bond are using Parkour toward competing ends, the former to increase and the latter to decrease the distance between them. However, it might be admitted on behalf of 007 that his deployment of Parkour is in service to the altruistic mission of national and perhaps even international security.