The Last Days of Roller Disco

by

02/17/2008

200 Empire Blvd, Brooklyn, NY 11225

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

Through the cinder-block walls of the roller rink, the beat leaks out onto Empire Boulevard.

Inside, it’s two steps from the door to the rail of the rink where the skaters sail towards you, past you, and away, rounding the curve and bouncing to the beat; as they cruise down the far straightaway there is a sign: Empire #1 Birthplace of Roller Disco but the skaters don’t see it because they’re on a quick zig-zag through the crowd or spinning backward for the turn below the DJ booth or closing their eyes for a moment to move the beat up their hips to their shoulders and out their fingertips–for this moment spent in sheer velocity they’re not thinking about history, only about the music. Besides, they know where they are.

“Ever since the news went out that this place is closing, it’s been packed,” an off-duty employee says, scanning the room. “Easter was crazy in here.” Adults are bringing their children on the weekend and coming back themselves for Tuesday’s weekly Grown Folks’ Skate Night.

A compact woman with her short afro pulled back in a band looks around at the crowd. “I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in years,” she says. “Everyone wants to get in one last skate at Empire.” She goes on: “I’ve got friends who are planning their kids’ birthday parties now. The kid’s birthday might not be until December, but that’s too bad–party’s in April this year, just to have it at Empire.”

The space is huge and low-ceilinged, like the basement of a warehouse. No daylight makes it inside. It’s always almost club-dark, even on weekend afternoons when the rink is crowded with kids. Without looking at the clock over the skate-rental counter, it’s impossible to guess the hour.

Without the new Jay-Z and Beyoncé hit “Déjà vu” blasting from the speakers or the boys’ baggy jeans or the girls texting friends on their Sidekicks as they roll along, it might also be hard to guess the era. Bright pastel bars of neon dangle from the ceiling. On the walls, more neon is twisted into rings, stars and a sign reading “Brooklyn.” In the center of the rink, an island blocked off by railings sprouts a grove of neon palm trees in blue and orange and red. These were gifts from Cher, everyone says, during Empire’s heyday when she and John Kennedy, Jr. were among the regulars.

Many of today’s underage regulars are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of earlier Empire patrons. Girls, their braids weighted with pink baubles, cruise arm-in-arm, singing at the top of their lungs. Boys in oversized t-shirts chase each other or are chased or scan the floor in anticipation of a chase. Cutting through the flow of younger kids, teenagers leap from skate to skate and execute spins at top speed and flash like lightning around the slow-moving, leaving them wobbly and openmouthed. When someone topples, it is the job of the skate guards on duty to block the flow and lift them safely to their feet. No matter how hard or humiliating the fall, there are almost never any tears.

The guards are easy to spot, not just because of their referee-striped uniforms, but because they are unquestionably the coolest people in the room. These are the older boys in do-rags and sunglasses making fast half-laps on two wheels, the other foot kicking time to the music. They push a slalom into a pirouette and keep the beat bouncing through their knees as they dash backward, scissor their feet in quick grapevines, drop, rise, bounce, spin. It’s Usher’s moves at Iverson’s speed, but fluid and flying and something all its own. Younger boys watch from the railing in open awe and practice their own rolls in a slow corner when they think no one’s looking.

Painted on the wall above the rental desk, fierce-looking skate guards chase down a be-muscled ninja. The mural continues around the room: a blue-winged fairy tugs sugar cubes from the talons of a bald eagle; in the back, near the snack bar, a mocha-skinned mermaid blows on a conch shell; farther along the wall, her ocean lifts into a huge tsunami behind a wall of lockers, sending up a spray of bubbles that turn into planets as they float away.

The rink itself, with its 50-yard straightaway, only takes up half the space. In the back is another, smaller skating area, set off by low, green-painted cinderblock walls and surrounded by picnic tables and lockers. Helium balloons designate it as birthday-party central. A mother points out the table where her 12-year old daughter has celebrated every birthday. “I’m gonna miss this place!” she says. “That’s the theme of the party this year: Last Skate.”

“You wanna know what this place is? It’s home.” Earl Johnson was a skate guard as a teenager and still helps out on weekends, moving loiterers off the rail and scooping up the fallen. He is in his forites with a solid frame, a shaved head and a pavé diamond loop in one ear. “This is my therapy. If I have problems at home, I come here and skate and it’s like I can’t remember them,” he says. His wife understands. They met at the rink as teenagers. It was only a few weeks before they were skating hand-in-hand, her initials shaved into the back of his fade. Their son is five and Earl just started teaching him to skate in September. “He’s good too,” he says. “I don’t know where he’s gonna skate now.”

 

When the rink was first opened inside an Ebbets Field outbuilding in 1934, no one would have suspected that it would outlast the ballpark by almost 50 years. In the 40s, Empire was the first rink in the city to replace their organ with a record player. In the 60s, the elderly, waltzing Eastern-Europeans started to make way for a new clientele from the Caribbean and West Indies. By the 70s, Empire was the city’s most famous roller rink and by the 90s, its most notorious.

In the first weeks of 2007, the Bronx rink The Skate Key locked its doors, followed a few weeks later by the Roxy in Chelsea. For the brief month before it too was scheduled to close forever, Empire became New York City’s last surviving roller rink.

At the second-to-last Grown Folks’ Skate, the rink is already packed by 10. The majority of the crowd looks like they might have been spotted here 20 years ago wearing Cross Colors and singing along to “Rhythm Nation.”

“Will you please make sure the dishes are done and the cat litter is changed before I get home from the roller rink?” a woman says into her cellphone. A few stiff-kneed white hipsters in pigtails and tight corduroys wobble near the railing, but the majority of the crowd is starting to get into the groove. A woman in a black “Big Bob Productions” t-shirt sails by, lifting her arms and closing her eyes as she sings along to the music in a full gospel voice. A couple nods in time, their elbows arcing and tucking as they slip past one another in close figure-eights. An older man with a grizzled goatee faces into the oncoming skaters, dragging his feet in moonwalk rolls so slow he looks like he’s not moving at all.

The bouncing, turning crowd wheels around the edges of the rink. In the center island, the size of a tennis court, skaters rest on benches or stand, rolling their shoulders to the music. Except for the whirls of virtuosity taking place within it, the island is an eddy among rapids.

At one end, a circle forms around some young men and women sliding into splits, low Russian-dancer kicks and shoulder spins. A tiny woman with her long hair wrapped in a bandanna swirls around one of the support poles on the front wheels of her skates, leaning back until the tips of her braids touch the floor. A slender man in a sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves rolls around all eight wheels in a motion as fluid as a slight-of hand artist’s rolling a ball around his fingers. He lifts his right foot into his left hand and in an instant, turns himself into a gyroscope. He falters and reappears sprawled on the floor. The second he’s up, he grasps his foot and spins again.

At the other end of the island, couples in every possible racial and gender configuration twirl each other in tight circles: a tall dark-skinned man in a blue t-shirt flings his blonde partner into a pirouette under his raised arm; two men, their shirts stained with sweat, grip each others’ hands as they muscle one another into tight turns, reversals, twists, their skates and shoulders working perfectly in time; next to them two women in dance position pivot their hips in a salsa-like trail of footwork, their skates barely touching the floor.

Despite the intimacy of the crowd and the dancers’ embraces, there is nothing romantic about the scene. Everyone has the same stare of intense concentration, relaxed but not quite smiling, as one might find on a tennis player mid-game. No one looks at their partner, but they don’t need to. They’re going by feel and by the music. The all-night rhythm, the speed of a heartbeat on a steady jog, keeps everyone moving as one body. The beat pushes up the energy and keeps the rink pulsing. It also prevents injury. When everyone is moving together, knees bend away from wayward skates, heads duck flying elbows, the speeding dodge the fallen without a touch. Every action, no matter how fast or slow, is guided by the beat.

In the last few years, a new tradition has developed. In the center island, a line of women starts dancing in synch. At first it almost looks like a step routine–tight quick stomps in rhythmic time. Their skate wheels slam the floor, more percussion than flow, until in one fluid motion the whole line slides a step as sudden as a bass-drum beat dropping to brushes dragged across a snare. More women watch from the back until they have picked up enough to join the swivel/stomp/glide staccato. The line becomes a circle. A woman in a green halter top, her back glistening with sweat, holds a hand in the air and the whole line steps and pivots and floats the other way as one. Men watch from the outside, spellbound. “Only at Empire! Only at Empire!” shouts a young man in a polo shirt, his long dreadlocks flopping over his shoulder. “You won’t see this anywhere else!” Five people go by in a soul train, hands at each other’s waists, legs pumping in time to the music. Two big men bounce along side-by-side, executing slow, synched turns, dipping their shoulders like Do-Wop singers. A 40-ish woman drops to one skate and grabs her outstretched toe. Young men carom between the other skaters, frontward, backwards, twice as fast. The DJ, Big Bob, puts on a slower record and announces a “Men Only” skate. The ladies clear the floor, escorted to the side by men who seem to be rescuing them from what’s coming next. Then, at full volume, it’s Michael Jackson: “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.”

Instantly, the rink bursts into motion–a jostling mass of shoulders, all bouncing to the beat. Bodies sluice into open space, digging in for speed on the straightaway. A train of nine roars around a corner. Men fly by backward, whirling, on one skate. They scissor through the crowd. They slalom by in pairs, one glancing over a shoulder before flinging his partner ahead and racing on. They spin, they stomp, they punch the air. A car moving this fast would have to slam on the brakes to stop at a light. The wind lifting off their bodies blows into the eyes of the women standing at the railing and makes them squint to see. The men zoom by, fast, faster.

“You ever been skiing?” asks a woman with a chic cropped haircut. “You know that rush you get? That’s the same rush they’re getting. And with the music?” She pauses to listen.

Keep on
With the force don’t stop
Don’t stop ‘till you get enough.
Keep on
With the force don’t stop
Don’t stop ‘till you get enough.

She turns back with a smile. “…You know?” There’s nothing exactly like it anywhere.

 

Kate Daloz lives in Brooklyn and teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Scholar, Ballyhoo Stories, The Brooklyn Eagle and BUST Magazine. She’s currently at work on a book of non-fiction stories about conflicts between tradition and modernity in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom where she was born and raised.

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