Hell on Wheels
Over the weekend, I found an old picture of a roller skating party I’d had back in 1973, at our local favorite skating rink at Bushkill Park in Easton, Pa. (I didn’t find the actual photo … I found it on my mother’s Facebook page. Times have changed.) After a discussion of the picture when I reposted it, I thought I’d put up the story I wrote about the skating rink for my first book, Head in the Sand … and other unpopular positions. I have sane individuals who can vouch for the truthfulness of the facts in this story:
It’s a story I’ve told my kids a hundred times. “Tell us about the skating rink when you were a kid, Mom!” They’re all grown now, but they still love hearing about that skating rink. What makes the story so much fun is that you just can’t make up stuff like this. I swear it’s all true, but I’m not sure the kids believe me in their politically correct, lawsuit-happy world.
In the 1970s, everyone in my elementary school had a skating party at the local skating rink—often around our tenth birthdays, which is about when I had mine. We all took the rink’s many quirks in stride, not knowing any better and not having the perspective of age or wisdom. Especially wisdom. So, none of us thought anything of asking the front desk clerk and owner, ancient and tiny Ma Long, for our size skates for each two-hour party rental, only to be handed a pair of skates that looked like something Cro-Magnon Man would have used had he invented the wheel a little sooner. The leather was always worn, the wheels were misshapen and some funky, faded color we couldn’t identify, and the laces were frayed and missing the aglets necessary to lace them up properly. I spent hours at birthday parties sitting in the anteroom of the skating rink, with skates already on my feet, trying to get those frayed laces through those dozens and dozens of holes in the leather. I can see us all now, lined up on the benches, licking our fingers and trying to use the spit to twist and twirl the lace ends to get them through those stubborn holes. Thinking about the germs we must have ingested doing this makes me ill now, in a retroactive sort of way.
Once our skates were on, we’d get up and sway and wobble our way to the railing, watching the other kids already skating around the wooden floor of the oblong rink. Getting into the flow of traffic was like merging onto the turnpike at rush hour in a Chevette with a burned-out clutch, but somehow we all managed to get onto the rink in one piece. I usually ended up doing a butt-kiss with the floor within the first trip around the rink, but at least I always had company. If I was lucky, I’d start a chain-reaction and ten of us would end up sprawled on the floor together, with everyone forgetting just who started it. It soon became clear that the inexperienced skaters had to find a way to cut across traffic and head into the empty center of the rink. But cutting across traffic was taking your life into your hands.
Two features of this particular rink stand out in my mind: the music and the bathrooms. The music playing over the antique speaker system consisted of only four songs: “Paper Roses” by Marie Osmond, “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” “Soldier Boy,” and one other song I have mercifully forgotten. This panoply of musical goodness was piped into our eager ears from four scratchy 45s playing on a tiny record player set up halfway around the far side of the rink in a small room that also contained a life-sized plastic reindeer and a chair. Why we never questioned this arrangement of objects still baffles me.
Ma Long left her post at the front desk and shuffled onto the rink, around the outside edge (to avoid getting whacked by overly enthusiastic ten-year-olds), and over to the record player to put the four 45s back up onto the spindle after the last one was done playing. And, at her rate of speed—wearing her wrinkled apron, three layers of cotton skirts, stockings, leggings, an old button-down sweater, and a pair of slippers that must have been family heirlooms by now—well, she barely made it back to the front desk before she had to turn around and shuffle back to the record player to pull the four songs back up onto the spindle again. I think the chair was over there for her to rest and catch her breath before starting back. I still have no idea what the plastic reindeer was for.
This wasn’t the oddest part of the skating rink. The crowning achievement of this rink’s design was its bathrooms. Someone in his infinite wisdom designed this rink with the bathrooms accessible only from the skating floor itself. So, if you were sitting in the anteroom still lacing up your skates halfway into the party and found you had to relieve yourself, you still had to skate your way onto the rink (no street shoes allowed on the rink floor!), into traffic, and whirr about 345 degrees around the rink counterclockwise before hitting the bathroom door. And, I do mean “hitting” the bathroom door because, in another brilliant architectural move, the bathroom doors swung outward onto the rink floor. Any child who had attended more than one party knew not to skate anywhere near those doors, for fear of getting slammed in the face. Which, by the way, happened frequently.
Those fortunate enough to make it to the door without getting a concussion had to grab the handle with both hands to keep from sailing right past the bathroom. This usually meant you’d end up hanging onto that door handle for dear life, with your legs having given out under you, your butt just inches from the floor. Once you got yourself upright again, it was no easy feat to get the door open while on wheels. And, what awaited you once you got the door open was a treat beyond imagination: The bathroom floor went downhill at a twenty-degree angle.
Picture, if you can, uncoordinated ten-year-olds letting go of that door handle and careening downhill on skates—improperly laced—toward the far wall at the bottom. Smack! The trick then was to grab the handles of each toilet stall and pull yourself back uphill to the first available stall.
You’ve never truly lived until you’ve used a toilet on roller skates at a twenty-degree sideways incline. You always ended up leaning into the downward wall of the stall while trying to be as delicate as possible going about your business. They should have made it an Olympic sport.
Once you found a way to get straightened back up and out of the stall, you somehow had to skate across the downward grade to the sinks. Putting four porcelain sinks in a downhill bathroom used by young girls on wheels was a stroke of marketing genius. How this place got insurance is beyond me. You had to grab one faucet to hang on and wash your hands with the other without accidentally turning your feet anywhere near the downward angle of the floor. I don’t know how many lives must have been lost when girls tried to clutch at the metal faucets or porcelain sinks on their way back down the incline of the bathroom floor.
And, of course, once you were done washing your hands, the worst part of the escapade awaited you: the long, desperate climb up the floor and back out of the bathroom. Clutching the faucets of the four sinks carried you only so far, and then you were left with about five or six feet of bare uphill floor and no more handles before you made it back to the door. Some brave souls clung to the wainscoting with their outstretched palms, but I was too afraid to attempt something so futile and risky. I always dropped to my hands and knees and crawled up to the door, grabbing the inside door handle and pulling myself up. And I have a funny feeling those floors didn’t get mopped all that often, so there went the whole concept of washing your hands.
The last part of the adventure was trying to open the door without killing someone. (Remember: The door opened outward onto the rink.) Most of us opened the door slowly . . . carefully . . . sliding out sideways without opening the door very far and hoping we didn’t get bombarded by oncoming skaters. Did I mention we were on wheels?
After an hour of this fun and frivolity, it was time to have the mid-party birthday cake and soda! All thirty of us headed for the anteroom and sat on the rickety bench chairs lining the wall, waiting for Ma Long’s assistant to shuffle past us in her own deteriorating slippers, asking us each what kind of soda we wanted. This assistant was rumored to be a woman, although she had the gravelly voice of a chain-smoker and wore a skirt and pants at the same time, along with a moth-eaten sweater or two. Or three. I don’t know why she bothered to ask what flavor we wanted because we all eagerly yelled, “Chocolate!” There’s nothing less nutritious and tasty than an old, cheap, generic chocolate soda that hasn’t been properly refrigerated, but we didn’t care. We never got this stuff at home.
Once we were stuffed with birthday cake and chocolate soda that had separated like oil and water, we headed back out to the rink for the second hour of the party. We avoided the show-off who could skate backwards and brought her own skates (with actual laces and those rubber stoppers in the front). We avoided skating anywhere near the bathroom doors. We went by the record player and the plastic reindeer and waved, secretly hoping the thing would wink or move. We veered away from Ma Long as she shuffled past us to change the records. And, if she was feeling as frisky as an eighty-year-old again, she might turn on the disco ball that hung at center rink and shout into the scratchy microphone, “Turn around and skate the other way!” The combination of the flashing disco ball and the sudden change in orientation made us confused and a little nauseous. There’s nothing safer than thirty queasy schoolkids on roller skates in a dark room with blinking lights.
Ma Long passed away many years ago, and I don’t know if the rink is still standing. Perhaps safety violations have caught up with it over the years as humorless parents decided you shouldn’t have to climb out of a bathroom on wheels or risk getting hit with a flying door. But I’m betting there’s still a case of that chocolate soda in the back room somewhere. Dust it off and pass me one, would you, for old time’s sake?
“Hell on Wheels” is from Head in the Sand … and other unpopular positions, published in 2010.
Posted on January 6, 2014, in Random Thoughts, Stories - Essays, Writing and tagged Bushkill Park, childhood, danger, rink, roller rink, roller skating, skates, skating. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.