Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just Skating By

The last time I rollerskated was in 1975. I fell a lot. A fat kid ran over my finger. Everyone seemed cooler than me, some spinning tricks in the center of the circle like Peggy Fleming with sledgehammer shoes.

So when a gang of friends invited me to join them at Skate Daze after we had stuffed ourselves with pizza and beer at a birthday party, I subconsciously rubbed my little finger as I said, "Yeah, sure." I added awkwardly, "I like to skate."

That's partly true. I rollerblade often, cruising solo down a long flat trail with my music on and my brain off, steering away from fat kids.

I arrived at Skate Daze and entered warily. It was a giant warehouse of old video games: Defender, Galaga, and various car-racing games with pixelly, jerky graphics that reminded me of Atari. I hesitated a minute trying to make sense out of a shooting game titled, "Cops vs. The Japs." I lingered over the Air Hockey table as one would admire a restored 1962 Cadillac. It wasn't retro. It was just old.

I worked my way to the skating rink. The skaters hadn't changed much either. Granted, it was Adult Only night, which sounds sexy but isn't. I gathered from a few conversations that this is where people hang out after their A.A. meetings.

Although the rental clerk was as old and crabby as I remember, the skates were updated. You could choose between figure skates and hockey style. You could even opt for in-line skates, something forbidden in the '70s.

"In-lines, please." I laced them up and stood, wobbly as Bambi.

"In-lines?" a passing friend said. "Do your parents know you're gay?"

"What?" I hadn't even skated yet and felt I had broken a rule. "Why? I got them from the rental place!" I suddenly felt I was wearing a rainbow bandana. "What's wrong with in-lines?"

"Nothinnngg . . ." She giggled and walked away.

I recalled a conversation from a few months ago, when I invited my friend Vern to go rollerblading with me. I skate fast. He's an athletic guy. I figured he could keep up. I was delighted when he mentioned he had skates.

"Really? You're going to go rollerblading together?" his girlfriend commented, eyebrows raised. "Are you going to wear tight little cut-offs and hold hands?"

"What? Why?"

It was time. To the thumping melody of Metallica, I worked my way into the swirling drain of skaters. Fit-fit-fit-fit! Four skaters zoomed by in perfect lock-step, doing a crouchy little shuffle dance. They were resplendent in tattoos and piercings, heads shaved, and as if to cement their rebelliousness, their skates were unlaced. Maybe not Hell's Angels, but at least really tough little scooter guys.

They followed tight behind their leader, matching his every slouchy move, flannel shirts trailing like bicycle streamers. Each followed as close behind the next as if they were racing in the Tour du France, crotch to butt. This, apparently, is not gay.

"Shadow skating," a friend watching them said. "Doesn't that look bad-ass?" So it's called "shadow skating." The DJ, dressed in a referee shirt, cued up Careless Whisper by George Michael, a singer famous for his tight little cut-offs.

"Yeah," I said uncertainly. "It's cool."

I began to realize that in Skate Land, roles reverse.

"That guy is flirting with me," my friend Sarah mused. "Whenever he passes me he does an extra little dance move."

"Like a mating dance?"

"Yeah," she said. "Skate & mate."

I looked up. All the women were skating limply in circles, minding their own business. The guys were dancing like temptresses. Skate-and-Mate skated backwards past her, doing a cross-over, smiling.

"They like you," I said. "You're skater bait."

I'm never gonna dance again
The way I danced with you-hoo-hoo . . .

The skater dudes were in a frenzy of flourishes, peacocks on wheels.

I noticed another guy from our group skating happily alone in his thoughts, unpretentious, just having a nice time. He actually is gay.

"Couples dance!" the referee announced. The lights dimmed, leaving the disco star ball strewing white squares across the floor. It made me dizzy. I said good-bye to Skater-Bait, jumped on the track and pushed hard until I caught up with my girl, who was practicing her Gloria Gaynor disco moves. In the past I always had to leave the floor during couples skate.

I tried to skate backwards and face her with my best Ricardo Montalban smile. Our skates tangled, banging like bumper cars, so I settled for facing forward, holding hands. An older couple floated by, poised in ballroom position. They rotated as a pair, precise as a music box.

"That," I said, "Is bad-ass."

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