At ten a.m. on a weekday, when the roller rink first opens and, for at least an hour and a half, I’m the only intrepid skater out on the floor, the maple boards beneath my wheels are just waking up. They creak and pop underfoot like the icy surface of a frozen lake. It’s winter in North Texas as I take up roller skating for the first time in my life, and the morning air inside the cavernous rink feels crisp and brittle too. As I’m new to skating, the boards’ protests distract and even worry me a bit. Will they give way as I roll unsteadily over? Will the floor crack open and swallow me whole in some frigid abyss?
At this hour, none of the skeletal staff are around to monitor. A lone attendant disinterestedly shuffles paperwork at the front desk beside the “skate shop” and snack bar counters, all of which rise above the sunken level of the main floor, separated from it by a retaining wall and the seating area where noshers will later pause over hotdogs and pizza, and birthday parties will raise their ruckus on busy weekends. No one will see me now if I fall victim to the treacherous maple. No one will mark the change in the quality of the noise above the subdued Thursday-morning volume of the sound system if I’m suddenly no longer rolling around and around in my aimless, awkward gyres.
During regular session on a packed Friday or Sunday night, though, everyone marks you when you hit the planks, limbs and skates perilously akimbo. Even over the din of hundreds—maybe thousands—of wheels rushing over the wood in groups of eight and bass throbbing through fourteen speakers and six sub-woofers at sixteen thousand watts, you hear the thud of bodies impacting the floor, like the unmistakable matte crunch of a fairly low speed car crash. You hear that sound and turn your head to note its source because you have to—that is, if staying upright and rolling along is at all important to your evening plan.
Even at one-hundred-and-eighty by eighty feet, the roller rink can become pretty close quarters during a busy session. Thronging that hot real estate are numbers of skaters reaching up toward the triple digits, ages and skill levels, like the errant feet of a novice skater, all over the place. Older, seasoned skaters slip and slide about the track like warm butter around the edge of a heating skillet. They easily squeeze sideways on bowlegs, skates parallel to one another with toes facing opposite, between the latter-day scylla and charybdis of a flailing amateur like me on the left and a flock of teenagers to the right, cell phones out, snapping selfies. The vanishingly thin few feet of hardwood where the maple rink abuts the carpeted step-down prove an especially fraught disputed territory of bodies entering, exiting, falling, and faltering, all while more expert skaters glide up fast like roller derby jammers trying to wriggle a winning path through the pack.
In this dense, multi-use space, everyone is, by necessity, on what American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacobs called in her 1961 rebuttal of High Modernist city planning “sidewalk terms.” “…[I]t is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people,” Jacobs wrote, “without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships. It is possible to be on excellent sidewalk terms with people who are very different from oneself, and even, as time passes, on familiar public terms with them (p. 62).”
When you come to the rink for a regular session, you expect all sorts, and all expect a sort of fun that can only be had together, in shared space and time, but with minimal commitment to one another. In fact, when you try to maximize commitment in this environment, as by skating while holding hands or in a tight line with multiple skaters abreast, you typically create an even bigger risk of falling and causing injury to both yourself and others. A downed skater bifurcates the flow in more ways than one. Flexible individual paths nimbly diverge and divert around the obstacle safely like a river about a jutting rock. The less skillful and the firmly attached, however, attempt to careen past, but usually just end up wiping out on top or alongside. In order to effectively negotiate the ever-evolving terrain, you must remain autonomous, able to react independently. Too much attachment out on the floor makes the whole rink more viscous, less able to freely flow.
At the same time, what makes it all so fun is precisely the sharing of the space, the electric charge (and challenge) of so many other bodies and energies out for a good time, trying to stay safe and even stylish atop eight wheels in near-constant motion. At ten in the morning all on my lonesome, I can practice my halting skating with complete concentration and, because of that, can really focus on improving technique and control. There’s a certain kind of fun and exhilaration in the practice, I suppose, but it pales beside the lively, anything-can-happen, bustling thrill of a busy session, where technique and control find application amid mass movement broken down into independent movers and independent motions.
On the busy roller rink, humans revert to possibly the oldest form of social organization known to humanity itself, one in which we lived for ninety-plus percent of our common evolution as a species: the spontaneity, self-regulation, distributed decision-making, and independent action of a highly egalitarian hunter-gatherer band, “living,” in the words of social psychologist Leonard L. Martin and his colleague Steven Shirk, “place-to-place, moment-to-moment, and person-to-person.” In this atavistic environment, popular ways of reckoning the stability, safety, and orderliness of the modern world can fall by the wayside: couples and friends often split up to skate separately; minutes—even hours—dilate and contract alternately, rendering the concept of time itself inherently less meaningful; and customary, limiting self-images are shattered with every frantic fall and triumphant glide alike. Despite the lack of formalized commitments among and between individuals out on the floor, though, there’s an immediate, casual camaraderie that inevitably prevails amid shared pleasurable experience.
One particularly busy Friday night, an older, six-foot-plus skater slipped up beside me with a handshake and an introduction. “Hey man,” he said, “as one tall skater to another, let me give you a piece of advice….” Thus commenced several orbits around the orrery of disco balls hanging from the ceiling in the center of the rink, with one stranger distilling years of skating wisdom to another still struggling with the roller equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Then, just like that, our temporary alliance dissolved. His red bandana dangling from the back pocket of faded jeans flapped off and disappeared into the crowd. I turned my shiny new skates in a sequence of jerking motions, narrowly avoiding several collisions in the process, and faltered toward rink’s edge, where a place on the carpeted bench awaited. There I would soothe my frazzled nerves and fraying knees, reflect on the impromptu lesson I had just been given, and otherwise simply take in the spectacle unfolding on the floor before me.
Artificial and privatized though it is, the roller rink really does seem a lot like Jacob’s mixed-use city sidewalk. And to skate there as an urbanite amid a sea of other anonymous urbanites is to experience some of the very best of the freedom and fun that being on sidewalk terms with others can bring: a truly Satanic experience of immediate returns on in-the-moment effort which, because it is undertaken individually for individual ends on individual bases—even though in shared space and time—cannot be coopted or exploited in service to hierarchicalization or stratification. Abilities and levels of experience may differ, but the floor is equally open to all, and all are equally free to pursue their recreation there, skating as, where, and how the space and their own abilities & experience will allow. As another Satanic blog account recently tweeted to me: Hail Skatin’!