Monty's Skateland, downtown San Diego, Palisades Gardens in North Park

Holy rollers!

Slowly driving down Front Street, the car tips its nose up a little, like a ship sailing to the quiet dark places out of the harbor lights. A few blocks below Broadway at G, the halting flow of a neon marquee protrudes from the darkness. Monty’s Skateland: the entrance booth is a small jutting arc, where the glassed-in man sells you a ticket. Saturday night, big double session.

The inside is lighted indirectly from the edges, and from the ceiling over the rink there are pinkish lights. The interior of Skateland is a soft, brown, tinted like very old photographs. As you enter, there are three or four rows of old plush seats, transported from some theater, so that you can sit and watch the skaters. On the far end there is a snackbar, settled in the comer, itself making a definite clump of activity, with people sitting and revolving on the stools, the smoke from their cigarettes turning with them. Along the far wall, set back a little and next to the snackbar are the trophy cases and the club banners and the furnishings of skaters and clubs. The banners hang on the walls like medieval caparisons, each a symbol of the club’s spirit.

Skate rental

Skate rental

The floor of the rink is satiny. There are twenty-five skaters, skating backwards with a swift smooth cross of the legs, one behind the other. Their bodies shoot backwards in a bobbing glide, the knees flexed a little and heads and shoulders curving in and out of the space in the air that they make. Their bodies are like supple rods which vibrate gently and exactly to the rhythm of the boogie music. There are two divisions of movement: the long propelling glide, and the smaller more contained flexion of the inner part of the body.

The control booth is next to the trophy place. It is like a room in a radio station, with glass walls and a microphone for announcing the next move. The music runs off an old jukebox, set up with an amplifier. There are tapes too, and a whole catalogue of records, classified by blues, boogie and waltz. The floor guard, the man who watches the skaters and runs the music, can control the movements and speed of the skaters by the type of music he plays. A good floor guard can keep things paced well and keep things controlled even if the crowd is raucous.

The man in the ticket booth was Ray Blakesley. He is a tall wiry man in his late twenties, with a cordial mouth and crinkly attentive eyes. His roller skates are his feet; soft black cushiony looking shoes, and noiseless rollers. “What they’re doing here tonight is rexing. That's skating backwards in hourglass movement. It dates back to 1932, here in San Diego, at the old Troccadero on Broadway. They started doing this, crossing their legs behind them in an X, and I guess the name comes from that. You see that up there, that banner with A.R.C., over the door? Well, that’s the initials of the American Rexing Congress. That’s probably been organized for ten, eleven years. I’m chapter vice-president, and 111 be president next month. I’ve been skating at this place ever since I can remember. It used to be the old Pacific, until Monty (Lewis) took it over. Tonight is our club night, the Royal Rexers. There are seven clubs located in this rink; each has from ten to forty members. They’re mostly kids, junior high and so on, but there are older people, and parents too.”

There is a girl in the middle of the rink, describing figures in a small area, skating backwards in the rexing style. “See that girl in the middle there?” Ray points at the skater making small figures. “She’s doing the hardest thing in rexing. It’s called spot rexing and its all done off a figure eight, in a ten foot square. There are all kinds of figures you can do. She’s very good, a senior in that division. Not a lot of people can do spot rexing. I can only half-way do it.”

Roller skates

Roller skates

The floor guard, a young man with wavy and slicked back dark hair and a dancy sort of swinginess, turns and stops to talk to Ray. We’re discussing music, and beat, and the floor guard snaps his fingers and says, “The first thing the old timers do when they come here to teach is ask, ‘Can you count how many beats per minute?’ And they teach ‘em how to. That’s it you’ve got to feel that beat and know it and work from it when you’re skating, especially in competition.” “Yeah,” Ray smiles, “for rexing, it’s the boogies, which run from about one hundred to one hundred thirty beats per minute. Blues average around ninety; we use them for dance skating and figure skating.”

“Skating is really thrilling. You come in here and you see the people zooming around and you want to do it. It’s pride, pride in yourself when you can do it, when you get good. Some people are naturals. There’s Bruce, he’s a good rexer, and that little girl there, in white, Marty, she’s very good; used to be a rexer and now she’s a dance skater.”

The girl in white is small and elegant. She has white bell-bottoms and a white tunic shaped like a peplum, tucked in that way at the waist. She is buoyant and flippant and skates with a special kind of curvy stroke.

Bruce is around thirteen, and tall and slim. He dances a rex. A very jazzy, rhythmically exact step; you almost forget he’s going backwards; he stills himself with that sidewards motion. His mother, Mrs. Newman, is watching from the rail. “If I didn’t think this was a wholesome place, I’d never let him spend so much time here. But this is something he really sticks with. He loves it. Friday night his club meets, and he likes to come Saturdays. Tuesday is rexing night; there are about twice as many people as there are now, and he likes to come then. He’s been skating about two years now, and twenty-three trophies.”

Ray is out on the floor, spinning around and around with a kind of out-flung abandon, very looselimbed and the blue shirt of his club, the Royal Rexers’, shining out on his back. The shirt is appliqued with a Mercury-winged roller skate. The wing is gold, and Ray bears it off way down the floor, speeding in a suspended glide far out past the walls of Monty’s Skateland.

Up in North Park, on University Avenue, is Palisades Gardens. It’s been around since 1947, run by Johnny Wright. It sits in the middle of the block, and you can tell where the door is because there are people hanging out around it, leaning back on the walls, smoking, and holding water balloons. “Go on, now, you jerk, do it!” The kid is near the wall with a big melon-shaped yellow balloon, grinning a little and wanting to smash it but knowing his timing’s off and who’s he going to aim it at anyhow?

We walk to the ticket booth. There’s a staircase a little to the side of it with a velvet span hanging across it and a sign that says, “Balcony closed.” A young woman with burgundy plushy pants walks down and climbs over it. We go in past the skate rental window and into a little foyer that looks like the changing room for a gym class, with everyone doing stuff to their socks, and sticking arms in other peoples’ faces because of the crowding. The rink is full and noisy and chaotic.

There are skaters and skaters with big angular thrumming bodies and skates that you can feel rolling across the small bones of your feet. They are all skating forward. It is a hawklike kind of skating, very slit-eyed and predatory. All around the edges are young bruised-eyed girls with clinging purple and red and green jersey shirts and hip-hugger pants, lighting up cigarettes and thinning their mouths. The boys are lank-haired and craggy faced and they pose, and thrust their legs in snazzy stopping turns. In the middle of the ceiling there is a grinning jack o’lantern with black and orange streamers strung around him.

There are some weavers in this clanging throng; people who are skating skillfully and using themselves like serpents, coiling in and around, insinuating themselves through the aimless boundings of most of the crowd. One very tall black man with legs like filaments bends and twists through the skaters, his arms hang behind him, thumbs gripping his pockets. And a serene old man in a sweater vest and flannel shirt, with richly polished black roller skates, ambling around the rink with his blue eyes half-shut and his face folded in clamly.

His name is Mr. McElroy, and he’s due to retire in December. He’s skated this rink since it opened, and he’s been skating since he was five. Back in Providence, Rhode Island, where he comes from, he used to play Roller Polo, in 1917 or thereabouts. Five men, with shinny sticks, which are scoop-ended sticks like hockey sticks, and a fat rubber ball. And he played hockey in high-school. There was always, in the winter, ice eight inches thick and you could skate forever. “Skating’s great, it is. These skates I have, they’re real fine. They don’t make ’em any more. Chicago Velvet Treads. I have to be very careful with them. New, they’re about a hundred and ten. I got them barely used, for just seventy-five dollars, from a boy who’d been to Viet Nam and lost both legs.”

A young floor guard, a high-school boy who plays trumpet in the. band, and figure skates, is talking now. “Skating’s what you want to make it. It can be a whole life. I can see myself being a professional. It is an art if you want it to be. Mike, the head floor guard, spends more time here than he does at home, not counting sleeping, that is. And Midge Edwards, out figure-skating professional, it’s her life.”

The girl has a vinyl smile on her shirt, right above her abdomen. “I mostly come here to see people, and because it’s something to do besides riding a bicycle. I come here pretty often.”

The music starts again, a blaring saccharine blur, and the skaters rush forward precipitously, in great buzzing strokes. People falter and fall and the whistle blows. They recover themselves and skirt the rink round and round.

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