Friday, December 23, 2016

Spinning Our Wheels

I was asked just this morning if Christmas 2016 feels off somehow. A friend mentioned how they were struggling to get through the holiday and not finding joy in the normal seasonal routines. This person isn't the only one I've heard express similar sentiments, and my response was that, yes, it does feel off for a myriad of reasons. The perpetually slate-gray skies of Pittsburgh and the lack of snowfall or any other natural yuletide distinctions haven't helped, and the ever-advancing crawl of Father Time changes our perspective. Christmas rotates back into play so fast these days it barely seems as if we've had a chance to recover from the last one before we have to stop and consider what to buy for who again.

But still, there's something more at work this year. You know a big part of it, and I know a big part of it: The looming specter of The Ghost of President Future waiting to make his anarchic appearance on January 20th. It's cast a huge pall over celebrations for many this year, and there's no denying it. Some of us managed to get through Thanksgiving with family and loved ones, biting our tongues as much as the food on our plates, without drawing blood. But the whole thing is so effing depressing, it's still been sapping the lifeblood out of our spirits. There's an emotional lethargy that's palpable. How can we sing carols about tidings of joy when we're all suspect of what's to come? The notions of peace on Earth and good will toward all ring hollow in this hallowed season when we know how many of our neighbors don't truly have good will toward all.

Last night, I may have discovered a way to get through the next four years. It involves relearning some dormant skills, staying flexible, and learning when to go with the flow and when to pick up speed and roll your own way.

Last night, for the first time in over thirty years, I went roller skating.

I'd recently been telling my lovely friend T. about how my Aunt Myrtle used to take my sisters, her youngest daughter, and me out skating when we were young. She knew from experience with her older kids this was a good way to keep us younger ones occupied, and I was eleven or twelve when we first started going. We were all totally green and had never even thought of doing it before, but she assured us how we'd pick it up quickly and faithfully took us out to a rink in Monroeville every Wednesday evening during the school year.

The first few times there were rough. I skidded and fell as much as you'd expect. We all did. But you know how it is when you're a tween, you're young and healthy and resilient and you know how to take a fall with the best of them. Matter of fact, I think the biggest part of avoiding falling back then was mostly wanting to avoid being embarrassed. As you get older though, you develop a different perspective on the matter of falling. You realize that it's nothing to really be embarrassed about because, regardless of how much natural skill you've got, everyone falls eventually.

In time though, I got to be pretty good. Not great, but solid. We went from skittering and holding the rails and hugging the walls to being able to push off using our front stoppers, then to pushing off more easily, figuring out how to weave back and forth and make the turns, then how to pick up speed. Aunt Myrtle eventually even bought us our own skates, and that made things even better. (I still remember mine, blue with white stripes down the center!) Now our skates felt more like our shoes, more natural, and we could control them better and practice at home. Aunt Myrtle's faith in us paid off, and soon we were confident skaters. When summer came around, she enrolled us in the Homewood Brushton YMCA's day camp, and they regularly took everyone out to Spinning Wheels Roller Rink, and a couple of others. By that time, we were good to go and could keep up with our friends just fine, and those days are some of the happier memories of my childhood.

I never got to be great. Dancing on skates never happened, and I don't think I even learned how to skate backwards. But I do remember the specific kinetic joy of finally being able to cross my feet over one another when I went around a turn. That was a major accomplishment, and I think it's what cemented in memory, years and years after my feet had outgrown those skates and long since I'd visited a rink, that I still had the capacity to roller skate. Somewhere in there, I knew that if I strapped on a pair of skates again, I'd be just fine. It would all come back quickly.

And so, here in the present, I absently mentioned to T. that time in my life when I was young and brimming with tweenage confidence, and how I loved those trips to the skating rinks, and wanted to try it again sometime. It would be like riding a bike. It would be fun. It would be easy. It would make the gray skies of Pittsburgh melt away for a little bit.

It happened last night.

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I was given the option of backing out while we were still pulling into the parking lot of the Neville Roller Drome out past the South Hills and, honestly, just the fact that I was given this chance was gift enough to make me laugh. But the chance was too rare to pass up. I'd heard a news story a few days ago that another local rink had closed, and this was one of very few anywhere now. It's a distinct possibility that before long we won't have any roller rinks in Pittsburgh to visit so, yeah, this had to happen.

When we walked in, it was apparent to the lady at the ticket booth that we were new. They knew all of the regulars there, and we weren't familiar. We were given the instructions, and went to get our rented skates. The sensory experience was akin to walking back in time. This place was old school, no doubt. Not throwback old school, but rather this is how it was decades ago and it's been maintained this way, so welcome to 1983 friends old school. I found something about this impressively charming. I'm not a big fan of living in the past, but boy, this was an odd sensation. As I laced up my skates, all I could think of was how much it all felt like it did back when I was a kid...and how much more susceptible to breakage my bones are now.

And after I'd laced up those skates? Let's just say that I'm cute, not bright. The coordination and muscle memory I'd been counting on? They kind of came back, but nowhere near as quickly as I thought they would. I tried to stand up and realized quickly that, yeah, my ego was full of it and I was now back to hugging the rails and wall again. T., meanwhile, got back into her groove quickly. Watching her coax me on - sometimes even skating backwards, that long-desired but yet-to-be manifested goal of mine - as the other attendees rolled past us was humbling, but good humbling. Sometimes, it's good to not be great at something. It's good for the soul to be straight-up terrible at your endeavors sometimes if you can admit to it. And at the beginning last night, I was terrible.

It was obvious to all that I was a beginner and one of the owners came over to help me. He was a friendly gentleman who, we would discover later, was 70 years old, but his agility belied that fact. He prompted me how to move my feet to get in motion, to stay loose, and how to drop and steady myself. It felt similar to when my friend Dave was trying to teach me how to drive a stick shift earlier this year: So much to be aware of, with the possibility for calamity if you got something wrong! The co-owner was very patient though, and much like my Aunt Myrtle years ago, he assured me that I'd pick it all up before long.

You know what happened? It did mostly come back. The surroundings helped. The music was an infectious mix of all of my jams from back in the day - The Gap Band, and The Dazz Band ("Let It Whip" was my ultimate skating jam!), and the Steve Miller Band, and all kinds of bands - interspersed with more contemporary fare. (Justin Timberlake was bringing sexy back while I was trying to bring my skills back. He does his thing better than I did mine.) And the decor was just what you might remember from back in the '80s, down to the food area where you could get nachos and hot dogs and Cokes. Step by step, this was all helping me to relax and lose my self consciousness, which in turn brought back my groove.

You know what else happened? I started watching the people who were there and the ones who arrived after us. At first I was possibly the only Black person in the building, which was fine and didn't matter to me. It's just something I noticed, as people of color do. We take a head count because it's obvious to us. But before long a lot of other Black people were in the house. Everyone was also older than 18, and a number of the other patrons were obviously in their 40s, 50s, and up. It was a really fun cross-section of people, and you could see who knew each other already, yet everyone seemed to get along really well. There was a community on the rink.

If you fell (and one older gentleman took a hard fall, leaving blood to be cleaned up in his wake), someone was there to check on you instantly. Skaters offered friendly advice and encouraged you to keep it up. Everyone wanted us to come back again. One robust skater, a gentleman who is 67, pulled out his smart phone to show us a meme of his motto: "I'd love to, but I can't -- that's my skate night!" Another lady named Darla, who didn't look a bit of her 55 years, showed off her skates customized with her nickname, "Miss Pittsburgh," and she likewise told us to keep coming back so we'd get better. When I mentioned how I hadn't been on a rink in over thirty years, she smiled and said, "I haven't stopped skating in thirty years!" They were all so sweet, they felt like family.

I met a lady there named Audrey who looked incredibly familiar. As it turned out, she used to be a customer of mine at a previous job. She remembered me, and was especially supportive of my efforts. "You improved quickly out there!" she said. "You're already getting around really smoothly. You're doing great!" Their kind words helped. Each time I came off the main floor, I felt my confidence rise. And then, when Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" came on...well, come on, how could I NOT respond to that? That hit my sweet spot for participating in the fun, and it was a lot of fun.

I took a few tumbles before it was all done, three in fact. The first happened well into the night, I think because I was growing tired. The second time because my rented skates did something weird and sort of locked up. A lady named Sophie was there right away to check on me, and I assured her I was fine. The last happened while T. and I talked to another co-owner, Jim. We were just standing there, discussing everything, and I fell on my bottom. It was laughable. This is how babies must feel, I thought, falling just because you forget for a moment how gravity works.

As we prepared to leave, I looked once more at the myriad souls darting around the rink and felt an unexpected sense of peace and warmth, Everyone out there was having fun and looking out for each other, and newcomers were welcomed into the fold with exuberance. If you were doing something extraordinary, you got loud praise; if you weren't doing so well, everyone took an interest in teaching and encouraging you. Everyone gave everyone else the space they needed to maneuver, but everyone also kept things moving and no one went against the flow of the masses. If someone fell, they were instantly attended to and repeatedly checked on. The space in the middle was reserved for people who wanted to do their own thing, maybe to practice, maybe to learn, maybe just to dance. It also occurred to me that this was the only place where those of us who aren't Michael Jackson can go backwards while still going forwards.

We weren't making roller skating great again; roller skating never stopped being great. Some of us just needed to rediscover our rhythm with encouragement from new friends. Folks who don't mind dragging others down when they fall - and remember, everyone falls eventually - shouldn't be allowed on the rink. If White folks and Black folks and all the colors in-between are going to spend the next four years going in circles with each other, we need to do it someplace where spinning our wheels will actually get us somewhere. Can you picture it? A country transformed from a nation on the brink to a community on the rink.

I hope you can roll with me on this. I'll see you out there...and Merry Christmas!

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*This was another of my jams back in the day!

PS: No broken bones, no blisters, no sprains, no major pains...I think I did okay considering that three-decade gap in attendance!

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