Nostalgia on Rolling Wheels

A week or two before the shutdown, I found myself at the local skating rink.

In fact, it was literally days before society ended. Maybe the Friday before the Friday when the toilet paper ran out. I remember it clearly because the skating rink had hand sanitizer out and one of the local parents kept doing shots of that alcohol-based substance like we were experiencing a Friday night in our twenties, not our forties. How silly she’s going to feel, I remember thinking, when this whole thing blows over in a week or two.

And our kids still haven’t returned to school.

Sorry, I might’ve buried the lede on that story. Did I forget to mention that my town has a skating rink?

No, I don’t mean a skate park. I’m also not talking about some tennis court that’s been turned into a roller hockey court or a running track that’s been turned into a roller derby course. Nor is it ice skating.

I’m talking about an honest-to-goodness, slick wooden oval roller rink. Like with roller skates and shit. Straight out of 1978!

And let me tell ya, the decor is straight outta 1978, too. Check this out:

Can it be called retro if it’s the same it’s always been? You gotta give props to a company that keeps the same decor so long that it comes back into style again as a chic throwback. Imagine how much I’ll be crowing when those jean shorts in the back of my dresser come back around. Of course, it’ll all be moot if my 32-inch waist doesn’t come back at the same time.

My COVID hairstyle is looking suspiciously close to what all the hip dudes were sporting on MTV in the mid-1990s. Or how Keanu Reeves has looked his entire career. 

Keanu: the Jorts of Hollywood!

I actually went to the skating rink five times in the twelve months before lockdown. She became a kindergartner and all of a sudden we had to engage in spirit nights. And if skate nights worked to pass some cash the elementary school’s direction four decades ago, then they still serve that function now. The more things change, the more they stay the same. My daughter informs me on a regular basis that the floor is still hot lava! You’d think somebody would’ve done something about that since I was five years old. But nope. I’m sure the next politician running for office will promise to fix it during Infrastructure Week.

It’s not just for school, though. Only two of those five visits were supporting the school. One was for the girl scouts, the other two birthday parties. But I tie it all back to the elementary school, because without them leading the way with three or four fundraising nights a year there, I don’t think the girl scouts would’ve organically thought up a pastime from the early 1980s. Neither the six-year-old nor the seven-year-old could explain to me the finer points of trickle-down Reaganomics. 

The first time we went, Wife told me we were taking Daughter to her school’s skate night. 

“Ice skating?” 

“No, roller skating.”

Eyes narrowed, looking for TV cameras from a prank show. 

“At the school?” 

“No, this town has a roller rink.”

Blink. Blink.

“Do we have to buy…”


And before you ask, yep, they’re the same rentals you remember. Literally the same ones. Remember that one pair with the frayed shoelaces? I think I was wearing that exact pair in March.

Daughter had a great time and ended up asking Santa for a pair of skates for Christmas. Santa gave her what she wanted, which kept alive the streak of new wheels for every birthday and Christmas. I’m not kidding. Since she was two, every gift exchange has had some sort of wheeled travel item. It went from tricycle to balance bike to bike with training wheels to scooter to taking the training wheels of the bike. Last Christmas came the roller skates, which she promptly took out to skate on the street Christmas morning. She got a big-girl bike for her birthday this year, so I guess we’re up to car this Christmas? Is something else supposed to bridge the wheeled gap from six to sixteen?

I tweeted out a joke that it was also my fifth time at the skating rink in the past year, and also the fifth time at a skating rink since the Reagan administration. I was going for hyperbole, trying to be funny, but the more I thought about it, it might’ve been spot on. I remember roller blading a few times in college and beyond, but that was always done around the college campus, or on one of those aforementioned basketball-court-turned-hockey-rinks. Never did we go to a private entity designed exclusively for skating round and round in an oval.

So maybe in high school? But I don’t remember any skating rinks being open during high school. And my four years in high school matched the four years of the first Bush presidency. So yeah, snar-casm (snarky sarcasm) aside, I think it’s legitimately been since the Reagan administration since I’ve been to a skating rink. If I had to pinpoint a precise year for my last trip, I’d maybe say 1985. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” seems like a good final song to red-light/green-light to.

Sorry, not “final” song, since I’ve now red-light/green-lighted to “High Hopes,” or maybe it was “Old Town Road” or “The Middle.” Or maybe “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” The DJ has to still have it.

In addition to red-light/green-light, they still play four corners. The DJ also referred to something as “bitchin’,” a word I haven’t heard since the last time I was at a skating rink. Now I know where it’s been hidden all this time. Jesus, this place really is like Goonies and Ghostbusters trapped in amber. 

Speaking of retro, the roller rink had an advertisement (on one of their 12-inch box TVs) for an upcoming “Retro Night.” I didn’t check at the fine print, but I imagine the date was listed as January 1-December 31. I don’t know what they could do to make themselves more retro. Except maybe clean up some of the dust. And put out lines of cocaine.

Unfortunately, my skating skills aren’t what they were in 1985. Gotta admit it’s a little wobbly. Plus I’ve gotten used to ice skating, where you can more or less stop on a dime by turning your feet sideways. If you turn your feet sideways while the wheels are still moving forward, you’re in for a crash course in Newton’s Laws of Motion. I’ve also become more used to rollerblades, where they’re smart enough to put the brake in the back. Roller skates still have the rubber brake knob on the front. This makes no fucking sense. If you’re moving forward and you have to lean farther forward to slow yourself down, you’re just going ass over teakettle. Back brakes slow you down. Front brakes work like a pole vault. 

One thing that’s different is the tweens out on the rink. Not the concept of tweens, because skating rinks have always been the haven for “too young to drive, but old enough to be dropped off by parents for two hours.” But the big difference between tweens now and tweens then (aside from Day Glo) is that nowadays they have phones. And they’re on said phones while they’re skating, which is an action they don’t perform all that often. Do you see where I’m going with this? They crash because they’re looking at their phones. It’s fucking hilarious. Plus, I don’t have to feel guilty about laughing at them as I speed past. I can justify that they’re learning valuable lessons before they have a car around them.

The birthday party was scheduled to wrap up at 8:00. I figured that was just a suggestion, but around 7:40, they mentioned that we only had twenty minutes left. They were kicking us all out. Ah, I figured. The place closes down at 8:00. Kinda makes sense if you cater to kids and birthday parties. Then let the teenaged employees out before its too late. Maybe they need to head home to start up their weekend homework. I’m sure that’s what all my students do with their Friday night. 

Just kidding, they don’t start their homework Friday night. That’s what third period on Monday is for. 

My assumption about closing time at the roller rink was just as off-base. They told us we needed to get all the rentals and crutches (they’ve fashioned PVC pipe into triangular “walkers” for beginning skaters, of which there are quite a few at a sixth birthday party) back to the front to be ready for their next session. Next session? You mean the skate rink is open past 8:00 on a Friday?

And boy howdy, they are. When we left, we walked past the line waiting to get in. There had to be at least fifty people. Maybe closer to one hundred. Many were those very same teenagers who were supposed to be home working on school work. But there were also twenty-somethings and parents. Some people even looked to be my age. Just like 1978, if the skating rink is ROCKIN’, y’all better come knockin’!

Makes me wonder why there aren’t more roller rinks around. Sure, they can’t pull like they did in their heyday. I remember at one point my little town of 20,000 or so had its own roller rink and there was another one in the town of 30,000 a few miles away. That’s a level of glut that golf courses are now trying to draw back from. When Tiger was big, every municipality wanted five new golf courses. Now they need to figure out what to do with acres and acres of manicured land. One of the ones nearby turned into a soccer golf course.

But most towns have room and demand for one golf course. And they probably could stomach a skating rink, too. The problem, of course, was that most of them didn’t make it through the 80s and 90s to the point where they became retro chic. I imagine if you found yourself at a roller rink in, say, 1990, it was skeevy as hell. Cocaine in the bathrooms is groovy, but hypodermics are just a drag, man. I imagine the one in my town must own the land it’s built on. There’s no way it made it through the Clinton administration if it was paying monthly rent. 

But now the few remaining rinks have come full circle to wholesome family entertainment again. The type of place where they have elementary school nights and children’s birthday parties. In 1990, the only children having birthday parties at roller rinks were probably giving freebase spoons away in their goodie bags.

The range of “cool in the 1970s, later a joke” runs the gamut. On one end, you have bowling alleys. Somehow they’ve survived in spades. Not that bowlers are hip these days. Were they ever? But if I started this blog by saying I went bowling last weekend, you wouldn’t be all that surprised. Nobody’s ever looked at me with an odd expression, asking, “Did you just say there’s a bowling alley opened near you? Like, with pins and shit?”

On the other end of the spectrum is the old drive-in theater. Those used to be in abundance and now they’re only remembered as shrines to date rape. 

Actually, Sacramento still has a drive-in theater. Not sure how, cause I’ve gone a few times and, unlike the roller rink, I wasn’t pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t curious as to why they never made it to Y2K. 

The only reason drive-ins have value (aside from the fact that blow jobs in crowded movie theaters are frowned upon) is for families with kids. The kid can fall asleep in the back seat and the parents are finally able to see adult entertainment without taking out a second mortgage to get three hours of babysitting. 

But movies have gotten too good to be wasted on the shitty screen quality of drive-ins. Our TV screens are better. Our phones are better. And the only movies that we even bother to see in the theater anymore are the ones that are visually stunning enough to be wasted on our home screens. If my TV can’t do it justice, then the drive-in is straight-up insulting the director. Especially when some jackwagon drives up late to the movie, or leaves early, shining their headlights on the screen right when the boobs pop out CGI space-battle explosions reach their climax. 

I guess that sentence was going to end with a climax, either way.

Actually, the drive-ins managed to reopen long before the indoor theaters. It turns out the Sacramento drive-in is owned by a company that has seven or eight of them throughout the western U.S. I remember when they reopened in mid-May, making me ponder why a business where I stay in my car the entire time was closed to begin with. 

Of course, when they reopened, there were no new movies coming out. That’s been a problem for other movie theaters as they’ve reopened. Wasn’t “The Empire Strikes Back” the top grossing movie of April? I think when the drive-in reopened, it had a double-feature of two Spiderman movies – Tobey McGuire’s and Andrew Garfield’s. Or maybe it was “Goonies” and “Ghostbusters” trapped in amber.

But skating rinks should have gone the way of the bowling alley, not the drive-in theater. It’s a shame, because as I rediscovered over my daughter’s first year of public schooling, there’s still a place for zipping around in circles in this app-laden world. 

Maybe I should do something about that.

Right after I finish this petition to bring back lawn darts.

Best Decades of the Decade

Everyone seems to be coming out with “Best of the Decade” lists recently. Best books, best movies, best songs, best political scandals, best masturbatory practice. Turns out it’s masturbation. For the millionth decade running.

The decade isn’t over for another year, but whatever. I thought we had finally figured this shit out in 2000. I know we like the big round numbers in our base-ten system. But last time I checked, it’s base-ten because we count from one to nine.

The 2010s are coming to an end this week, not the decade. So all of these numbnuts should be making their “Bet Food Recipe of the Teens” instead of “of the Decade.” But then we wouldn’t click on it because we’d assume it’s a list of recipes the writer liked when they were a teen. And if they’re a Baby Boomer, we already know that the first two ingredients will be bacon fat and cocaine.

But I don’t have a “Best of the Decade” or a “Best of the Teens” list, primarily because my short-term memory is a sieve. Crap, I can’t even remember what my last post was about. When I was wrapping Christmas presents, I found a birthday present I was supposed to give Wife back in July. I thought about wrapping it for Christmas, but it really is more of a summer gift. Anyone want to take wagers on me finding it again next December?

So if I were to create a list of items from the past ten years, it would be a nightmare. Who the hell remembers what TV shows they watched nine years ago? Do they jot things down as they go? This blog technically could serve as notes on what I was interested in at any given moment, but it’s not like I’m going to go read all my old shit just to curate my decade. Heck, I keep threatening to put some of my best blog posts together to self-publish, but I can’t get my head around looking through my old posts for the sake of cutting-and-pasting, much less gleaning what year they canceled “Selfie.”

(My blog post about them canceling “Selfie,” btw, is one of my most viewed posts. I doubt it has anything to do with the tv show. Just that when you google “Wombat selfie,” there aren’t a lot of options.)

I’ve actually perused some of those lists, because dammit, they’re called click-bait for a reason. But every time I do, I see things to which I react, “That was 2011? I could’ve sworn that came out in 1985.” It’s one of the problems of growing older. When I wrote about “All I Want for Christmas is You” last week, I didn’t have to look up what year it came out, because I was in college. I can remember who my roommates were, which told me it came out my junior year, and I backfilled from there. But if a song came out in 2004 or 2014, it’s all the same to me now. Imagine my shock when my students had no idea who the Black Eyed Peas were. What do you mean, “Let’s Get it Started” didn’t come out two years ago?

So, let me see… Best TV Show of the 2010s: Quantum Leap. Best Song: Yesterday. Best Movie: Casablanca. Best blog post? Certainly not one of mine.

But hey, I’m an amateur historian and my long-term memory’s doing perfectly fine. So maybe I should use the last days of this decade (the Teens, dammit!) to list off the best decades.

2010s. Ha ha, just kidding. This decade has more or less sucked. Not necessarily from a stuff happening standpoint, but from a historical perspective, this decade will pale in comparison to its predecessor. The 2Ks had 9/11 and a “Great Recession” and the first black president. This one had Marvel movies. We might have topped off the decade with a newsworthy impeachment, but it’s the second one in the past twenty years. And the Republicans might be right when they say this will become the norm going forward. Thirty years from now, when we’re following the seventh impeachment in the past fifty years, we’ll probably trace it back to a blow job in the 1990s, not a snow job in the 2010s.

So yeah this decade might not be as shitty as, say the 1930s or the 1970s, but it ain’t gonna make any “Best of…” lists. Even if I do love me some Mumford and Sons.

Wait, Sigh No More came out in 2009? Wow, this decade really can’t get a fucking break.

3rd Place (Tie). 1980s/1950s.

These two decades are more or less interchangeable. Each started a half-decade after the end of a war that most of the population was trying to forget about. In the fifties, it was the World War II vets looking to hide their own experiences in a world of conformity. In the eighties, it was the draft-dodgers and other hippies realizing that peace, love, and understadning are great, but they pale in comparison to junk bonds. Each decade was marked by an alleged conservatism championed by a doddering old president parlaying his pre-politics career. And when we’re busy sweeping turmoil under the rug, the society really gets to thrive! Optimistic music, advancements in television (color in the 1950s, cable in the 1980s). And can you really rank leather jackets and day-glo sweatshirts against each other? If one of those is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Each decade has one huge year from a historical perspective.  In 1957, you had Sputnik and the Little Rock Nine and the Dodgers and Giants moving west. In 1989, you’ve got the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I’d probably take 1989 in that toss-up, but the rest of the decades were no slouch, either. Hungarian uprising, Suez crisis, and Kitchen debate in the 1950s, Challenger, Iran-Contra, and MTV in the 1980s. At least the signature moments of the 1980s weren’t fraught with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Unless you count a “WarGames” scenario. We’d traded “Duck and Cover” for “99 Luftballons.”

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.

And both decades helped in the whole freedom,  standard-of-living thing. The Civil Rights movement and the aforementioned fall of communism. Not that things were wonderful for African Americans in 1960 or Eastern Europeans by 1990, but I’d rather be in either of those situations than a decade before.

Beyond that, we’re splitting hairs. I’ll take “I Love Lucy” over “Family Ties,” but I’d listen to Billy Joel in a heartbeat over Elvis.

And if I had to choose between Marilyn Monroe and Christie Brinkley, could i just have both?

2nd place. 1920s

This seemed to be a pretty kick-ass decade. No war, and at least from an American perspective, the last war was relatively easy to get over. The flu was substantially worse, but if your best friend died of the flu, you’re probably not walking around with the 1,000-yard stare for the next ten years.

So when you’re not whining about the war and you have no clue that the worst economic calamity of modern times is knocking on your doorstep, what are you going to do with yourself? Well, there’s a whole bevy of things to choose from.

Everything was new and exciting and approachable by an emerging middle class. You could go watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play some baseball in the Bronx. Sports not your thing? How about checking out this emerging movie industry? Over the course of the Jazz Age, movies became longer and more intricate, with fully formed plots and rising stars., like Rudy Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. By 1927, you’ve even got talkies. It can’t get any better than that! Seriously, I show silent movies in my US History class, and you’d be surprised at how often they keep modern teenagers’ interests. The comedies are legitimately funny and the horrors – I mean, holy crap, have you seen Nosferatu? Off the screen, Hollywood also had its fair share of unsolved murders and scandalous producer/engenue affairs that would make Harvey Weinstein blush. Seriously, Mary Miles Mintner was like 16 when she started banging William Desmond Taylor, and she was all of 19 when she might or might not have murdered him. And I’ll let you Google the Fatty Arbuckle Trial.

What else was there to do? Well, I called it the Jazz Age, so you know, there’s jazz! The most genuinely American music might have existed before 1920, but this was the decade  it hit the masses. Under the guidance of Duke and Satchmo and Jelly Roll, it transitioned from quaint Dixieland to fully-orchestrated swing. Whatever music you listen to today, from rock to hip-hop to country, owes its lineage to 1920s jazz.

And you could listen to it on the radio, a technology that hit its saturation point in the 1920s. Same with electricity and telephones and refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. It’s not quite TV On Demand or the Internet, but I imagine it would’ve been a fun decade to live through.

Of course one glaring problem prevents this decade from reaching number one: Prohibition. The fact that, out of any decade in history, this is the only one you couldn’t get a goddamn drink when you wanted one is a definite black eye. It’s like picking the one George Lazenby movie as the best James Bond flick. Or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as the best Super Bowl champion. Seriously, how can you be the best football team if you didn’t even have a starting quarterback?

Although, to be honest, even the worst part of the decade is one of it’s cooler aspects, right? After all, none of us would be able to single out the 2000 Baltimore Ravens if it weren’t for Trent Dilfer.

Speakeasies and bootleggers and Al Capone. And bathtub gin! Who’s with me on the alcohol-induced blindness!

The magic and the mysticism of the Roaring Twenties all stemmed from the lengths people would go to get illegal booze. It’s like a decade-long high school party. As long as you live in a big city. For everyone else, you were shit out of luck. Have some bathtub gin and a smile and shut the fuck up.

And for that reason, on general principal, the 1920s cannot be the best decade.

First place. 1890s

Ah, you didn’t see me going here, did you? Thought I’d stick with the 20th century? Maybe pick some random obscure debate like the 1650s? Great time to be a Puritan. Not so much if you enjoyed sinful things like Christmas or theater.  Or if you were a witch.

But a turn of the century that didn’t include a Y2K scare that turned us all into hoarders who felt very foolish the next day? That totally sucked. It’s bad enough when you wake up next to someone whose name you don’t remember on New Year’s Day. It’s so much worse when you wake up in a sea of Vienna sausage tins.

The 1890s were generally an optimistic time. The gilded age, le belle epoque, the fin de siecle. How the hell were they supposed to know they were less than twenty years from the self-imposed hellscape of trench warfare?

The Nifty Nineties were the birth of the modern age. I often start my Industrial Revolution unit by asking students the most important invention in their lives. Most of them say their phone (invented in 1876). A few try to go highbrow by picking electricity (light bulb invented in 1879). Then I ask them how their day-to-day live might be different without, say, a toilet. Thomas Crapper perfected the S-bend and the ballcock by 1880. And sure, the toilet might not be as useful if I couldn’t play Bubble Witch on my phone while sitting there, but if I had to take one…

You’ll note that none of these inventions actually came about in the 1890s, but the saturation point of inventions used to take much longer. The key is that most cities underwent redesigns in the 1880s to make use of things like telephones and electricity and sewage. Street cars and subways could get you where you needed to be. The Eiffel Tower popped up in 1889, and the Ferris Wheel came a few years later. Parks and spectator sports and newspapers. And think about the impact of the bicycle, invented in 1885. All of a sudden you didn’t need to buy a horse in order to get somewhere faster than a run.

And keeping with the themes of cable tv and jazz radios, impressionist art really started the whole “indivualism in art” thing. It might be fun to catch an art show or artist’s party. Just go easy on the absinthe and leave as soon as Van Gogh gets there. Dude was whack-a-doodle.

Oh wait, he died in 1890. So much the better.

Whenever my students ask me the “if you had a time machine” question, I always set the clock at 1890. Not that I would necessarily go back to that precise point, but I wouldn’t go any earlier. I think, with a little bit of practice and concentration, one coming from the 21st century could fudge their way though the 1890s. There would still be a number of differences, but we’d at least be able to recognize certain things. It might be tough not being able to google everything, but again… flush toilets!

Most of these descriptions could fit the 1900s as well. Plus the first decade of the twentieth century sprinkled in a first flight and the best president in our history for good measure. And if I could cheat as much as those saying the decade ends this week, then sure, I guess I could just bullshit 1890-1910 as a decade. Or really, 1896-1908. But if I have to split hairs, I’m taking the first half of that era.

After all, there was just a tad bit more historical going on in the 1890s. It had one of the worst economic depressions up to that time, and maybe second only to the 1930s. Not saying depressions are fun or anything, but it was the first depression with skyscrapers that businessmen could throw themselves out of. Nothing like a thoroughly modern suicide.

And if you go to the end of the decade you have that “splendid little war” between the United States and Spain. Sure, there was a war in the 1900s, too, but it featured Japan and a Bloody Sunday. Plus I’m American, so huzzah! Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt, the one main draw of the next decade, got his rise to fame in that war. Heck, he had a much more dynamic nineties than aughts. Civil Service Commission to police chief to San Juan Hill to Governor. And if you extend the decade to 1900, as you should, all the way to Vice President-elect.

Oh, and Wizard of Oz wouldn’t exist without the election of 1896.

Pretty impressive for a decade to have both a depression and a war, but still be seen as an optimistic time. The Nifty Nineties, the first decade to earn a nickname. The first decade that was, well, a decade, at least as we think of them today. When the approach of a year with a magical zero at the end makes us all try to define the previous ten-year span and make stupid predictions for the next one.

Except I have one prediction that I know will come true, at least for me. Expect the next 24 hours, 365 days, and possibly even more, to listen to a hell of a lot of Barbara Walters impressions.

Tonight! On Twenty-Twenty!