Friday nights at the Roller Gardens in St. Louis Park are the physical equivalent of a poetry slam, as about 200 people, almost all of them black kids between the ages of 8 and 16, frolic around the rink like impetuous colts, egged on by 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and Mariah Carey, trying to discover what their bodies have to offer. A teen in a Troy Aikman jersey flubs a "Mohawk" (a front-to-back turn) and careens into the shoulder blades of a girl he has been trying to impress all night. Their eyes meet and carom away from each other like billiard balls, their facial expressions a mixture of terror and elation. How many times will those few seconds get replayed in the coming week?
The cordoned-off practice area at the far corner of the rink is a show-off spot par excellence, featuring a dogged procession of flips, cartwheels, splits, and spirals. Less intrepid souls cluster around a series of low-slung seating circles between the lockers and the main floor, where skates are donned and removed. There, spontaneous butt-wagging breaks out with freestyle vigor, a chorus line of bent-over gyrations by boys and girls alike. A pair of pre-pubescent girls collapse against each other, giggling at the scandalous display. Both are wearing battery-operated earrings, blinking red-white-and-blue, which seem to have replaced the green fluorescent necklace as roller-rink accessory du jour. One sashays her acorn-sized rear and loses balance, pulling her friend down with her in an ecstatic heap.
Over in the booths by the concession stand just inside the front door, Rosalie leans on her cane and smiles out at the scene with the warm contentment of a solarium on a sunny Sunday morning. "I been bringing my great-grandson, Travis, out here three weeks in a row now," she says. "I used to skate here back when I was younger, in the '70s. I chipped my elbow here one of the last times I come. Here's my boy!" she exclaims, as 12-year-old Travis, his round face beaming, skates up and drapes his arms over the side of the booth before pushing off and wobbling back into the fray.
"That you Rose? Been about twenty years, hasn't it," says a middle-aged man, extending his hand. "It's Chuck, from the U-Haul place."
"Who is that? Chuck? Well, I'll be dipped in buttermilk! You don't work at U-Haul no more? You were still there when my granddaughter came up missing, weren't you?"
"Yup," Chuck replies, suddenly uncomfortable. "Well, gotta get my daughter home."
"My son used to work for Chuck at U-Haul," Rosalie explains as he departs. "He rented a truck to my granddaughter--his mother," she says, nodding out at Travis. "She was going to leave this man she was living with, and then she came up missing. She was killed, but they never found the body. Travis don't like to talk about it. This was in 1992. He saw it happen. He didn't speak up until a year later, when he was three, and the trail was cold by then. But I believe him. He said, 'Pow pow pow, and my mom fell and bumped her head. Bang.' And he bumped his head on my floor to show me. Then he told me the man cut her up and put her in the trash. I've had him ever since." Her smile returns. "And he's been such a good boy."
Saturdays are Christian skate nights at the Roller Gardens, drawing a more sparse but diverse crowd in terms of age, race, and expertise. Although the flirting is as tepid as the religious rap and R&B, there is actually more physical contact, as couples skate hand in hand and hugs abound on the sidelines.
The main attraction is a lithe, pencil-thin, African-American man gliding effortlessly, backward and forward, with languid, crossover strides. His close-cropped gray hair perfectly complements his crisp white shirt, black pants, and skates that look like black dress shoes on wheels.
He's reading a bus schedule by the light of the video games when I approach, a half-hour before the 10:00 p.m. closing. "Bill Clayton," he says with a firm handshake that feels like fine leather.
Whether due to contacts or cataracts or some rare genetic hybrid, his eyes are bright baby blue. "I'm 81 years old," he says, anticipating my question. "When I was little, I skated on the sidewalk. I did a little rink skating before I went into the service back in '38 and '39, but not enough to learn. After I got out I skated three times in '47, then just twice in 30 years. My grandchildren started me back skating in 1992. I've been doing it two or three times a week ever since."
Bill is from Cleveland, in the Twin Cities for a while because his wife has family in this area. "She's got me studying the Bible, going to the Kingdom Hall. Jehovah's Witness, she is. I've only been married to her since '94. But she was my girlfriend back in the '30s--her cousin was my good buddy, is how we met--then broke up and went our own ways. I was married to my first wife, 45 happy years, until she died in '91. I met my second wife at an alumni gathering back in Cleveland. Her husband had passed and I had always had a soft spot in my heart for her, so I come to Minneapolis to see her and took her back to Cleveland. We married just before we left here. Isn't that something?"
He unlocks his locker and pulls out a plastic briefcase, just big enough for his elegant black skates. "You're a lucky man," I tell him, as he pulls on his coat. He just looks at me, blue eyes gleaming, and grins.