MAY 2007 – NO. 15
The Last Days of Roller Disco
Next time I go to New York City, I'm not packing roller skates.
This may not sound odd or unusual to you; when you next travel to New York City, you probably won't take roller skates, or stilts, or even a unicycle, for that matter. Why would you take something as unwieldy and as heavy and as inherently ridiculous as roller skates to Manhattan, or even to Brooklyn?
Why you would, and why I often did, is that New York City used to be the acknowledged home of roller disco. If you wanted to dance wearing roller skates (or, as in my case, skate in admiring loops around those who were actually dancing while wearing roller skates), New York City was one of the best places in the world to do so.
Used to be, any random Wednesday night you could head over to 10th Avenue and 18th Street, to the Roxy, a nightclub right under the High Line. You could go about six-ish for a skating lesson, or wait for the "real" skating to begin at 8. As you got closer to the club, you could begin to pick your fellow skaters out from the others on the not-very-crowded westside streets, mostly by their big bags (roller skates are bulky and heavy, after all). When you got to the door you could show some ID, and decide to sign a statement absolving the Roxy of liability for anything and everything from breaking your wrist to being struck by a meteor on the rink floor.
After signing you could walk up the two flights to the rink; by the middle of the second flight, on a good night, you could feel the bass. You'd pay your $18 admission (you wouldn't have to pay the $5 for skate rental because you'd brought your own skates — bringing your own skates also signified that you're a serious skater, not someone just attending a semi-campy birthday party), then put one skate on (only one skate on while not in the immediate rink area). You could pay a genial tattooed man $2 to check your bag and coat. Hopping and gliding to the main part of the club, you could nab a seat to put on your other skate, and then — then you could glide onto the rink and merge into the flow.
That first hiccup of changing modes of locomotion, of going from the truly pedestrian plod-plod-plod of walking to the liquid sinuous feeling of skating; getting that feeling was worth schlepping umpteen pounds of leather and steel and polyurethane through two airports.
The first couple of revolutions, you could suss out the floor. Anyplace rough, or sticky, or wet from a leak in the Roxy's old roof? You could audit the crowd: mostly hardcore skaters, or a gaggle of twentysomethings dressed ironically in those two tubes, socks and tops, which are indelibly associated with roller skating? (The other tube, inner, didn't ever make an appearance on the Roxy floor, as far as I know, but stranger things have happened.)
After getting the lay of the rink, then you could turn your attention to what skating is all about: problems in recreational physics. How can you move yourself to the music, through the crowd, on your wheels, to maximize enjoyment and grace? The rink isn't a steady state: the DJ varies the intensity of the music; the crowd ebbs and flows in response to the music (and, for the birthday parties, in response to the presence or absence of cake and beer). People stumble, fall, and get back up again, singly and, like drowning men pulling their rescuers under, in groups. Couples circle, spin, waltz, pairing and unpairing; chains form and disperse. For something that is essentially going around in circles, there is a tremendous amount of variation.
Not only is there the ever-changing pleasure of propelling yourself about, there is also the thrill of seeing the really good skaters do their stuff. They're in the middle of the floor, spinning and dancing; in the tidal pools of the corners doing wheeled acrobatics out of the rush of the main stream; or folded in with the other skaters going round and round. Seeing them made your jaw drop, sometimes, and made me want to get better, always. (It was a day of jubilation when I managed to skate backwards at the Roxy.) My favorites were the folks who maintained a constant backwards motion all night, never even glancing behind them, relying on some skating sonar to avoid collision. Or the random couples who joined for a song, instant disco Fred and Gingers, the connection melting as one song faded into the next, the only communication a nod and a smile of thanks. Or the incredibly athletic men who skated close to the floor in erratic elliptical orbits, so fast you could imagine their skate bearings suddenly going up in a burst of flame, the Roxy security converging on them with extinguishers, like something out of NASCAR.
You used to be able to do all that, any Wednesday night (and on the occasional Friday, if the Roxy didn't have anything else booked). You can't anymore — March 9th was the last night. The Roxy's closed now, roller-skating just another space-intensive victim of rising property values. It's not cost-effective to dedicate so much space to a nightclub, much less one that doubles as a roller rink.
The hardcore Roxy skaters (many of whom also skate in Central Park in the warm months) haven't taken off their wheels. They have an active email list to share information about skate rinks out in New Jersey and Long Island, and to keep people informed about the threatened closing of the equally-legendary Empire rink in Brooklyn, scheduled for early summer. They've mobilized to move the Wednesday night skate to Webster Hall, a much smaller venue — not optimal for skating, but better than nothing. There's a Friday-night skate in a Park District building; pay a $35 one-time fee and you can then skate for $1.57, and on a wooden floor, too. There are mysterious mutterings about finding a permanent replacement for the Roxy.
I hope those mutterings turn into a plan, a rink, a Wednesday night walking across the city with my skates, hauled in from Chicago, in a bag slung over my shoulder.
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