Rolling along

Skating rinks and bowling alleys share a very similar smell. I notice it whenever I walk into one of the two: an aroma of sweaty, used shoes and waxy wooden floors skidded with years of abuse. Usually the scent of fried snacks, or popcorn, lingers in the background too. The only difference seems to be the unfortunate beer stench that permeates bowling alleys.

I seem to be making a habit of celebrating my birthdays in grimy places like these. I was at a small-town bowling alley when I turned 25; at a pool hall, among blue-collar workers and rowdy sports fans, when I turned 26; and this year, at an antique skating rink in Portland. I like to mix things up with a nice dinner, too, but it’s fun to center the evening around some kind of game. This year my friends were up for roller skating, even though they probably hadn’t done it since they were teenagers. I had done it only once since high school. Back then, I held a roller-skating party on my seventeenth birthday to try to recapture some of the fun from bygone days. My small group of high-school friends had a great time fumbling around the rink, drinking Icees, and taking goofy pictures inside the photo booth.

It was without irony that I returned to roller skating for my twenty-seventh birthday this January. After all, there’s little reason to give up the things we enjoyed doing as kids. I knew well in advance of my birthday that I wanted to spend it at the Oaks Park skating rink. My friends signed on with little hesitation, being the adventurous types who are game for childish fun once in a while. When we arrived at the rink we found people of all ages, although kids—including those in their early teens—made up the majority. A graceful gentleman, who looked about 60 years old, glided up beside me on the skating floor and said knowingly, “Once a year?” I realized he was guessing that I went roller skating on a yearly basis. When I replied that it had actually been a couple of years since my last time, he said “Welcome back,” and strode away. He was there alone, and must have enjoyed the opportunity to make small talk with somebody who was past middle-school age.

I didn’t think that anything about my form would expose me as an infrequent skater. My first entry into the rink was cautious, but I picked up speed within the first lap and started feeling pretty good. I looked around to make sure that my friends were faring well, but mostly I went at my own pace. It was a Saturday evening, and the place was so crowded that I wondered how there weren’t more collisions. Several times I could have easily turned my fellow skaters into dominoes if we hadn’t missed each other by a few inches. I thought about all the quick calculations our brains had to make in order to keep the flow from becoming chaotic: relative speed, distance, turning radius, and the other person’s sturdiness. (Small, fragile children require you to keep a greater distance.) One speedy guy, who had clearly miscalculated something, slammed into my backside and used his sweaty hands to keep himself upright. You can imagine how lucky this single woman felt to have gotten some attention.

There’s not much about skating rinks that can change over a decade or two, so it was fun to reminisce about the roller-skating field trips I’d taken in elementary school. Even some of the DJ’s musical choices took me back to the mid-nineties; evidently someone had failed to update his collection. Between songs he called out birthday announcements for 12- and 13-year-olds, or gave certain groups of skaters exclusive access to the floor for the next few minutes—just the boys who were under thirteen, then just the girls, and so on. I went out with the girls over age thirteen, although I didn’t quite fit in with them, age-wise.

I noticed that couples weren’t addressed as a group. Maybe it’s not considered appropriate anymore to highlight romance among kids, but when I was a child at the skating rink, there was always time set aside for “Couples’ Skate.” That was when they lit up the disco ball and played sappy songs as boys and girls circled the rink hand-in-hand. It used to make me sad that I didn’t have a boy to skate with. (I never did; I have no clue how “relationships” were formed at that age.) No matter how cheesy the scene, I might still have been sad to see that going on at age twenty-seven, so I was glad to get away without hearing a Boyz II Men ballad that night.

We were tired and ready for dinner after a couple of hours. With sore ankles and thighs we rolled across the flat, gummy carpet back to the locker where our things were stored. I had taken some “before” pictures of the group, and we got somebody to snap an “after” picture of the four of us looking pretty well put-together. It would have been more entertaining if we’d appeared exhausted and ragged and beaten-up from crashes on the rink, but we looked happy. Thank you for the birthday party, friends.

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