When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood

When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood

by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

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Overview

“The revolution is not only inevitable, it is imminent. It is not only imminent, it is quite imminent. And when the time comes, my father will lead it.”

With a profound gift for capturing the absurd in life, and a deadpan wisdom that comes from surviving a surreal childhood in the Socialist Workers Party, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh has crafted an unsentimental, funny, heartbreaking memoir.

Saïd’s Iranian-born father and American Jewish mother had one thing in common: their unshakable conviction that the workers’ revolution was coming. Separated since their son was nine months old, they each pursued a dream of the perfect socialist society. Pinballing with his mother between makeshift Pittsburgh apartments, falling asleep at party meetings, longing for the luxuries he’s taught to despise, Said waits for the revolution that never, ever arrives. “Soon,” his mother assures him, while his long-absent father quixotically runs as a socialist candidate for president in an Iran about to fall under the ayatollahs. Then comes the hostage crisis. The uproar that follows is the first time Saïd hears the word “Iran” in school. There he is suddenly forced to confront the combustible stew of his identity: as an American, an Iranian, a Jew, a socialist... and a middle-school kid who loves football and video games.

Poised perfectly between tragedy and farce, here is a story by a brilliant young writer struggling to break away from the powerful mythologies of his upbringing and create a life—and a voice—of his own. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir is unforgettable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385340694
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/30/2010
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,129,603
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.71(d)
Age Range: 15 - 18 Years

About the Author

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Paris Review, and Open City. He lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


My father believes that the United States is destined one day to be engulfed in a socialist revolution. All revolutions are bloody, he says, but this one will be the bloodiest of them all. The working class–which includes me–will at some point in the not-so-distant future decide to put down the tools of our trade, pour into the streets, beat the police into submission, take over the means of production, and usher in a new epoch–the final epoch–of peace and equality. This revolution is not only inevitable, it is imminent. It is not only imminent, it is quite imminent. And when the time comes, my father will lead it.

 Because of such urgency I do not see my father very often. This despite the fact we both live in New York City. Weeks pass. Months pass. Then a year. At times I will begin to wonder if I will ever hear from him again, but just as I do, a postcard will arrive from Istanbul, or Tehran, or Athens, or Minneapolis, where he has gone to attend this or that conference or to deliver this or that speech. “The weather is beautiful here,” he will write in enormous swirling optimistic cursive that fi lls the white space, leaving room to say nothing more. We’ve had our moments, though, over the years. My eighteenth birthday–the fi rst time we had been together for any of my birthdays–my father astounded me by giving me a Walkman, by far the most expensive present I’d ever received. Then for my nineteenth birthday I stayed an entire week with him and his wife–his second wife–taking photographs, watching movies on the VCR, and playing Scrabble late into the night, where, even though my father is Iranian and English is his third language, he beat me nearly every time. We also took a long walk one Sunday afternoon, just him and me, to the aquarium at Coney Island, sitting side by side in the winter air while we watched as a walrus swam back and forth in its cement pond. Later at the café I was so nervous about being on my best behavior that I knocked over an entire cup of coffee onto his lap. “Sorry, Pop. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” And every Sunday morning during my freshman year in college he would call to ask if he could help answer any questions I might be having with Algebra 101. He is a professor of mathematics, after all. 

But first and foremost my father is a member–a comrade–of the Socialist Workers Party. He is a leading comrade, in fact, and has been for almost all my life. The responsibilities he chooses to undertake include, but are not limited to, editing books, writing articles, giving speeches, teaching political classes, attending book sales, demonstrations, rallies, meetings, conferences, picket lines . . . By the time I was in my early twenties my father had again begun to disappear behind this massive workload of revolution, and his phone calls grew increasingly infrequent until they ceased altogether, and our joyful reunions became more like occasional punctuation marks in long paragraphs of silence. 

One summer night, when I was twenty- seven years old, I took my girlfriend to Film Forum in the West Village to watch a documentary on Che Guevara. When the movie was over, I came out of the theater to see my father standing on the sidewalk behind a table with an array of books published by Pathfi nder Press, the publishing house of the Socialist Workers Party. Che Guevara Speaks. Che Guevara Talks to Young People. The History of the Russian Revolution. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. A handwritten banner was draped over the front of the table with a quote by Castro that read “There will be a victorious revolution in the United States before there will be a victorious counterrevolution in Cuba.” In my father’s hand, displayed for all to see, was that week’s issue of The Militant. 

“Sidsky!” my father called out, using his invented Russified diminutive of my name, which has never failed to endear him to me. 

“Pop!” I said. 

“How was the movie, Sidsky?” 

“I liked it,” I said. 

And my girlfriend, who cared little for politics and had never even heard of Che Guevara before I had told her about him, said, “I liked it too.” 

“I see,” my father said, looking fi rst at my girlfriend and then at me. It was obvious by the expression on his face that we had given the wrong answer. I thought of backtracking and adding qualifi cations to my opinion, but before I could think what those qualifi cations could be, he said, “Let’s have dinner tonight. What do you say? There’s a nice restaurant right around the corner.” 

I agreed, of course, wholeheartedly. The only hitch was that my father had to wait for the next showing of the documentary to let out, ninety minutes from now, and then he had to put all the unsold books away and fold up the table, so my girlfriend and I walked fourteen blocks through the West Village to my studio apartment to sit patiently by the phone, growing hungrier by the minute. And when my father fi nally called it was to say, sorry, a last- minute meeting had suddenly been scheduled, he could not see us tonight, but we would defi nitely do it again sometime soon, he promised, the three of us, soon. 

“Oh, I can tell you’re disappointed!” my girlfriend said, throwing her arms around me, kissing me. 

“No, I’m not,” I said, but I was. 

And then the phone rang again, and it was my father again, but this time he was saying that the last- minute meeting had just been rescheduled, and, yes, he could have dinner now, right now, he was excited to see us, how soon could we be there? So my girlfriend and I hurried the fourteen blocks back through the Village to meet him at the nice restaurant around the corner from Film Forum, where we ate and drank our fi ll while he explained to us everything we had misunderstood about the movie. 

Not long after that, I began to have feelings of claustrophobia around my girlfriend. We had been together for just one year, but all the excitement had worn away. I cringed at her affection. When she would ask if I had missed her after a few days apart, I would cruelly delight in telling her I had not. I broke up with her fi nally in front of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art for what was supposed to be the beginning of a fun- fi lled weekend at her parents’ house in upstate New York. And my father, almost about the same time, divorced his second wife of ten years. But while I remained single, unable to summon the courage to ask anyone out, sitting alone in the front row of Film Forum every weekend with regret, he had begun to date with gusto, beginning with a twenty-eight-year-old comrade from the party. When I saw him next, it was in his new apartment in Brooklyn, shabby and unpainted, but I knew he didn’t care. The apartment had a hollow, empty, unlived- in feel, like he was just moving in or just moving out. The reality was that he had already been there six months. There was hardly anything in the place except for a large desk in the living room littered with memorandums from the Socialist Workers Party. And next to the desk was a plant about to die. Next to the plant were two bookcases. One fi lled with forty- five volumes of the collected works of Lenin, including letters to relatives. And the second with forty-nine volumes of the collected works of Marx and Engels, also with letters to relatives. These had been given to him by his second wife one Christmas when times were still good. I remembered that Christmas. I had been there for it. Standing in the dim light next to the dying plant, I wondered if he had had the chance yet to read every volume. I wondered if I should read every volume. 

My father abandoned me when I was nine months old, and with only a few exceptions I did not see or hear from him for eighteen years. “Mahmoud went off to fi ght for a world socialist revolution,” my mother would tell me with proud determination when I was a little boy. Mahmoud. The name always sounded so ornate, so exotic, coming from my mother’s mouth, and it emphasized the fact that my name was also exotic, while my mother was Martha Harris (née Finkelstein), a Jewish American, born and raised in the small town of Mount Vernon, New York. The divisons and allegiances, therefore, were various. 

In any event, the logic behind my mother’s explanation was that the separation with my father was only temporary and, once this socialist revolution had been achieved, he would return to us. It was only a matter of time. Neither of us ever dared state this belief aloud–it was unmarked and liquid–but we subscribed to it silently, like a well-kept secret among friends. And thus, since the night of my father’s departure, she began to save herself for him, denying herself a sexual or even a personal life, never bothering to find either another husband for herself or a surrogate father for me. Indeed, she even consented to stay married to my father so that he could continue to live and work legally in the United States. Moreover, she remained a committed member of the Socialist Workers Party, pursuing the revolution with a ruthlessness and zeal that crushed whatever stood in her way. If the answer was revolution, then she would do everything in her power to make it solid. 

And since there was something so immensely redemptive and exciting for me to imagine that my unknown father was not just a man who had abandoned me but a noble man of adventure who had no choice but to abandon me, I succumbed quite easily to my mother’s version of events. This is but one example from the hagiography of my father that persisted throughout my childhood, that has persisted, in fact, until this very day. 

But the story took great effort to sustain, and there were times when even my mother could not follow the narrative. “Mahmoud gave me twenty-four hours’ notice before he left,” she would confi de on candid, refl ective occasions. There would be an apologetic tone to her voice, one that implied regret at having to admit something so unsavory about such an important man. And while this was one of the only criticisms my mother ever levied against my father, it mirrored another theme that would define my childhood: my mother as a victim of the world, at the mercy of those more powerful than she, and by extension I was also at their mercy, as were each and every worker who was unfortunate enough to have been born under capitalism. 

“The roots of suffering are in the capitalist system,” she would explain. “We must do away with capitalism in order to do away with suffering.” This meant that energy expended on eliminating the wretchedness of only one, when standing behind them were millions more in equal wretched need, was energy greatly wasted. There was even a story of how Lenin, during a devastating famine in the Volga region in which he lived as a young man, refused on principle to offer any aid to the sick and starving, even to those peasants of his own estate, reasoning that to alleviate their suffering would delay the coming revolution–which at that point was twenty-five years away. 

My mother’s philosophy, as callous and resolute as it might appear, was nonetheless underscored by a deep compassion that would come upon her quickly and from many directions. I would frequently see her cry about things like the general oppression of Palestinians, the heroic struggle of Castro against U.S. imperialism, the death of a young black boy at the hands of the police. “Did you hear what the police did to that boy?” she would say to me, her hands wringing the air, her body full of accusation as if I might be to blame. And then she would become incensed at the seemingly carefree disinterest of the wealthy. When we walked through a well-to-do neighborhood, she would point to a large house with smoke in the chimney and a car in the driveway and say contemptuously, “Look at them. The rich asses.” And I would look at that house and I would despise the occupants for having, and I would despise myself for not having, and further down, much further down, I would despise myself for wanting what I saw. 

We were poor, my mother and I, living in a world of doom and gloom, pessimism and bitterness, where storms raged and wolves scratched at the door. Often she would inform me when we were late on the rent, or when she suspected she was about to be fi red, or when the price of bread had gone up again. All of it categorical evidence against capitalism and how deserving we would be when the revolution came. At times our deprivation entered the realm of the absurd. Like when she would stand at the entrance of the supermarket, asking shoppers if they would give her the classifieds from their newspapers. Or at the doctor’s office, filling her knapsack with towelettes. Or in front of the library, instructing me to go and place our overdue books on the counter and walk straight back outside. Later she would brag to comrades about what a good accomplice I had been. And if I ever questioned such dishonesty, she would reply, “Any crime against society is a good crime.” 

On one occasion I mustered the courage to ask my mother to buy me a skateboard (they were all the rage at the time), and after much inveigling she fi nally agreed to have a look. There in the middle of the sports department sat a giant metal bin fi lled with skateboards in bubblegum-bright colors and a sign that read $10.99. 

“I want the green one,” I said. 

“Once the revolution comes,” my mother said, “everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.” Then she took me by the hand and led me out of the store. I pictured in precise detail a world of long, rolling, grassy hills, where it was always summertime and boys skateboarded up and down the slopes. 

Reading Group Guide

1. How do Sayrafiezadeh’s feelings towards Socialism evolve from his childhood into adulthood?

2. Acting is a kind of escape for Sayrafiezadeh during his childhood years. Do you think its purpose changes when he becomes an adult? If so, how?

3. Sayrafiezadeh likes to keep his things as neat as possible. What do you think this provides for him?

4. Sayrafiezadeh’s interactions with his father often seem uncomfortable and awkward. Why do you think this is? Do you think that his father ever tries to make him feel at ease?

5. Sayrafiezadeh and his mother are constantly on the move during his childhood. How does this influence his feelings towards Socialism?

6. On pages 64 and 65, Sayrafiezadeh describes a broom that his mother brings to two unusual places–a bus and a restaurant. What is the significance of the appearance of this broom?

7. What are the implications of the book’s title, When Skateboards Will Be Free on Sayrafiezadeh’s story?

8. On page 143, Sayrafiezadeh says, “I realize I have now become the sixteenth subscription for New York City.” What do you think he means by this?

9. Describe Sayrafiezadeh’s relationship with his brother and sister. How does he compare himself to them?

10. How do Sayrafiezadeh’s feelings about his mother change over time?

11. What effects does his relationship with Karen have on Sayrafiezadeh, particularly on his political beliefs and his sense of himself?

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When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
reina10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"When Skateboards Will Be Free" is an intriguing memoir about being raised in an idealistic family, that is a little misguided in their priorities. The author describes his politically-charged and dysfunctional childhood in an honest and almost childlike manner. He is not afraid to share his funny and sometimes disturbing experiences, even when he writes about himself. This is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.
ForeignCircus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This memoir was painfully honest and suprisingly rather bleak despite the amusing title. The story of young Said's life as the child of two Socialists was leavened by humor but this reader for one wondered how any adults could so selfishly ignore the needs of their own progeny in favor of the abstract needs of the people. Neither of Said's parents appeared to be fit caretakers for this sensitive child, and his ability to survive and even thrive in that environment is a testimony to his strength of personality. This book is full of hard truths about prejudice, political agitation, and family dysfunction. Highly recommended!
DJLunchlady91404 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm not usually one for stories involving politics but I really enjoy memoirs so I read it anyway. It was actually really good and I had a hard time putting it down. It really did surprise me and I have actually recommended it to a few people already.
dudara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Said Sayrafiezadeh was the third child of two members of the Socialist Workers Party who grew up living alone with his mother following the departure of his Iranian father. But what kind of childhood do you have when your mother is a committed communist and you live in capitalist, imperialist USA? The answer - a childhood filled with protest marches, self-denial of consumer goods, a series of dilapated homes, no grapes or skateboards and a ingrained ability to trot out the party line.Once Said asked for a skateboard - a measly $11 skateboard. His mother did not buy him one because when the revolution came all skateboards would be free. That little story is the essence of this sad, miserable tale of a childhood dominated by the author's parents political manifestos. His mother's bookshelves were lined with the entire works of the Communist canon but they never had been read. Late in life, as he relates a conversation with his girlfriend, he realises that he cannot distinguish between Communism and Socialism, although political slogans are branded into his brain. Ironically he now works for the Marta Steward corporate empire, somewhat at odds with the political ideas of his childhood.A large portion of the book is devoted to the author's father, a mathematics professor who left the States to return to Iran where he attempted to spread the socialist work and who was a candidate for the Iranian presidency following the departure of the Shah. He comes across as an uncaring man who only infrequently communicates with his son.Ultimately though, you feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for Said and indeed for his mother. Late in her life, she makes the enornmous decision to leave the Socialist party, but it is clear to see that life has passed her by and she appears as a tragic, lonely figure. In fact the whole memoir (subtitled A Memoir of a Political Childhood) is incredibly poignant. There is a dark humour present, but overall it is quite grim.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a memoir by Said Sayrafiezadeh (pronounced say-RAH-fee-ZAH-day), son of a Jewish mother and an Iranian father, members of the Socialist Workers Party who had three children. Said was the youngest, and when he was only nine months old his father abandoned him. His older siblings soon went off with the father, and he was left to be raised by his ideologically-obsessed, ascetic mother who raised him in strict accordance with the denial preached by party principles. Said¿s mother was convinced that their struggles and sacrifices would lead to The Revolution. But it wasn¿t clear to Said what The Revolution would mean. When he worked up the nerve to ask his mother for an $11 skateboard, she told him ¿Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.¿ Did that suggest it was good to want materialist things after all?In the meantime, they lived in abject poverty, and his mother denigrated those with money as ¿rich asses.¿ This created more confusion for Said: his mother's brother was Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly, and a nice man whose offers of pecuniary help were refused. Was he a "rich ass"?Their lives were determined by "political correctness." There was an elementary school right by their house, but Said's mother had him take a very long round-trip bus ride everyday to a black school (where the white kids would be separated out anyway as "scholars" so that they never interacted with the blacks). His mother would not permit them to buy grapes, but Said could steal them. His mother would fill her knapsack with towelettes from the doctor¿s office. ¿Any crime against society is a good crime,¿ she would tell him. Her bookshelves were filled with party tomes that never had their spines cracked, and she could no more explain to Said the substance behind the slogans than he could explain it later in life. Nevertheless, the slogans came to his mind automatically; they had become a part of him, even without any understanding. They were a part of his ties to his family. Said¿s father Mahmoud, absent and uncaring, with his constant rejections of Said, nevertheless held a fascination for him. Said never even knew what to call him, and so he never called him anything. Since the publication of this book, Said's father does not speak to him at all, presumably because of the exposure of his abandonment and mistreatment of his family, as well as (probably) his failures as a would-be revolutionary. Other reviews point to the humor of Sayrafiezadeh¿s memoir, but I had trouble seeing anything but pain and abuse. I thought it was one of the saddest stories I ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was awesome you will not regret please buy! It is worth the money. I loved it!
Maria Ward More than 1 year ago
This memior captures the life of one man within the bindings of one book, but not just one life, rather the entire spectrum of the human expirence. Powerfully and poigantly places the human spirit, with all its faults and perfections, unending endurances and breaking points, onto the page. Tragically gripping and darkly funny, life breathes in the turning of these pages. You cry, laugh, and root for a man struggling to overcome the lies of politics and family fallibilities, ultimately discovering his sense of self, displayed beautifully in his prose. Masterfully written, When Skateboards Will Be Free, will live in the hearts if readers and the memory of Americans forever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NSALegal More than 1 year ago
A few interesting vignettes of the people in the author's family and life, but somewhat slight and empty. The memoir only flirts with being compelling.