In the fifth grade, my neighbor and good buddy J.J. had a poem published in the literary magazine of our all-boys elementary school. The poem, titled “Wheels,” described people getting around the city on buses, bicycles, skateboards, and roller skates: “Big wheels, little wheels . . . ” Boys being boys, or brutes, we gave J.J. a fair amount of crap for it. “Wheels, wheels, wheels,” delivered in a mocking, mewling voice, became a regular taunt, until one day after school, out on East Eighty-sixth Street, near the Papaya King hot-dog counter, J.J. snapped. He took a swing at one of the guys giving him a hard time and then tossed him into a mountain of garbage bags on the curb. That put an end to the teasing, but the refrain lived on in our cockroach brains, and it still pops into my head, now and then, when I’m on the move, via one wheeled conveyance or another.

Fifth grade was 1980, the year of the city’s great roller-skating boom. When I say roller skates, I mean the old quads, each with two side-by-side pairs of polyurethane wheels and a rubber toe stopper. We all had these. Some kids had sneaker skates, the spawn of a track shoe and a monster truck; others had the figure-skating boot. Sometimes we skated to school, swerving in and out of traffic, without helmets or pads. Parents threw kids’ birthday parties at the Roxy roller disco, in the badlands near the west-Chelsea piers, or closer to home, in Yorkville, at a basement lair called Wednesday’s, on East Eighty-sixth Street. We spooled around counterclockwise and pulled moves—crack the whip, shoot the duck—to “Off the Wall” and “Funkytown.”

The whole city seemed to be on skates. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the polyurethane wheels, an innovation borrowed from skateboarding, which made for a smooth and pleasingly quiet glide around a manic and congested town. Or maybe it was a culmination of the seventies—a ripening, or overripening, of grooviness. Roller disco, like disco itself, and a lot of other stuff, started out as a gay and Black thing and then spread to the masses. The epicenter of the fad was a famous roller disco, in Brooklyn, called the Empire Rollerdrome, but that was a long way from Yorkville. My friends and I—wiry bowl-cut squares and wise-asses, in reversible athletic T-shirts and short gym shorts (this was 1980, Your Honor)—mostly had to settle for Central Park, where we usually wound up at the Skate Circle, a congregation of skaters of all ages, colors, and orientations getting down to someone’s giganto boom box on a span of good pavement near the Bandshell. We sought out steeper sections and set up slalom courses, using our old Playskool blocks, and timed our runs, on a Casio watch that one of us got for Christmas. Back home, we watched Roller Derby on cable and “The Warriors” on Betamax. We laughed at the Punks, the overall-clad gang that attacks the Warriors in the subway-station bathroom at Union Square. The leader of the Punks is on roller skates.

My parents got in on all of this, or some of it. During the transit strike that April, my father skated from the Upper East Side all the way down to his Wall Street office—a seven-mile trip. In a double-breasted, flared gray suit, he rolled onto the elevator at 20 Exchange Place and then straight to his desk. Later, he was informed that this performance delayed his promotion by a year. My mother skated to work, too; she had founded a dance school on the West Side, called Steps Studio. Ballet, modern, jazz. They had a few roller-disco costume parties there. On Sundays, we sometimes made our way, as a family of four, across town to the West Side, for lunch at an airy, quasi-Parisian bistro near Lincoln Center called the Saloon, where the waiters, mostly moonlighting actors and dancers, worked the tables on skates. There was a Space Invaders table by the bar.

A few times, our family skated the five miles down to SoHo, still in its prime as a district of industrial cast-iron loft buildings colonized by artists. The arrival, on quads, of uptown interlopers in some ways foreshadowed the gentrification to come. We were tourists in our own town. We were downwardly mobile. My chief impression of SoHo at the time was that the streets were mostly cobblestone, and therefore impossible to skate on. We stuck to the sidewalks. Their surface was pocked granite, or else metal frames inlaid with hundreds of clear glass knobs the size of silver dollars. These, we learned, allowed natural light into the buildings’ basements, onto what had once been factory floors without electric light. Skating forced you to pay attention to what was underfoot. The wheels had eyes.

Back uptown, in the afternoons, the neighborhood kids—J.J., Axe, Z, Mikey—played roller hockey, with garbage cans for goalposts and a roll of electrical tape for a puck. Our home lot was in Carl Schurz Park, along the East River, near Gracie Mansion. During the Wall Street boom of the Reagan era, the surrounding neighborhood would change, with an incursion of a new white-collar tribe christened “the yuppies.” But in those years it was dominated by a bunch of roughnecks called the Eighty-fourth Street Gang. They were our version of the Punks, though not quite as smooth on their skates. They used to hang out by a Carvel soft-serve shop and smoke weed laced with angel dust. Or so it was said. We often played against them in the Carl Schurz hockey pit. These games tended to get chippy—we’d get ahead and they’d start hacking us with their sticks—and end with them chasing us out of the park. The Warriors we were not. I learned to descend the park’s granite stairs quickly on my skates, taking each flight in the air.

Eventually, by, like, 1983, the eighties arrived. We stopped roller skating. It seemed everyone did. AIDS, crack, Crown Heights, Giuliani—the city degenerated and regenerated. As a white, privileged Manhattan kid, often away at school, I was insulated from most of this, but each era, whatever era it was, infused the air we breathed. I experienced the city’s transformation by osmosis. You might say I skated through.

I was in college by the time Rollerblades came along. I bought a pair at Paragon, the sports store near Union Square, and skated home in the rain. Unaccustomed to having a heel brake, I attempted a hockey stop and wiped out in a crosswalk on Eighty-fifth and First, near the Carvel shop where the Eighty-fourth Street Gang used to heckle passersby. I felt lucky that none of them were hanging around anymore.

For a while, in the nineties, everyone suddenly had skates again, inlines, but now the skaters wore helmets and knee pads and spandex. So blades got a bad rap. I had in-line hockey skates and considered myself to be grandfathered in, from the quad days. I shunned the knee pads, the helmet, the spandex, the heel stopper. Sometimes, I latched onto buses and panel trucks for a slingshot tow. You had to pay attention. For a while, I lived on Grand Street, in SoHo, and got to know the pavement downtown—the potholed ravines around Wall Street, the Sunday-morning beer-and-vomit slicks of the East Village, the pockets that turned to tar pits when the weather got hot. I also got a sense of the island’s inclines and, therefore, where and how the water ran toward the harbor. You could almost trace the old Mannahatta streams and swamps. The wheels, now four in a row, still had eyes.

From Grand, I discovered a constellation of roller-hockey venues and joined a roving pickup game that took over vacant lots on weekend mornings. Tompkins Square Park, Rivington Dome, Peter’s Field, StuyTown—they all had their peculiar dimensions and quirks. We cooled down amid the trash of someone else’s night before: empty pints, chicken bones, broken glass. The players, the ones who stuck around, kept at it for twenty-five years. It took a pandemic to put an end to these weekly games.

Some New Yorkers lament the closing of a bookstore or a bar. I mourn the loss of unimpeded asphalt. One of the unfortunate by-products of misaligned prosperity the past couple of decades has been misguided new construction, and the swallowing up of derelict lots. In some old paved parks, meanwhile, artificial turf has bloomed like pond algae, a suffocating, unskateable blight.

I recently laced up for a spin around the old neighborhood. It had been a while since I had been out on my skates, owing to injuries, entropy, and a sense, with encroaching age, that the streets were more lethal than I ever really realized. Skateboards, hoverboards, e-bikes, Citi Bikes, cargo bikes, Heelys, Onewheels, electric scooters, pedicabs—to say nothing of taxis, buses, garbage haulers, ambulances, and delivery trucks. Wheels, wheels, wheels. Turns out, J.J. had it right. Taking it slow, head on a swivel, I cut onto Eighty-fourth Street, the downhill gradient more familiar than the names on the storefronts, and carried some speed into the Carl Schurz Park entrance, past the playground and down into the hockey pit. It was empty but smooth, a few frozen puddles to avoid but otherwise prime for a game. You could smell the old-sweet-sewage tang of the East River. I did a few valedictory laps, counterclockwise, as always, then began chopping my way back uphill, the old cockroach brain summoning a hankering for a Papaya dog, or two.

The essay is excerpted from the Wildsam Field Guide to Manhattan.



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