Just after the Civil War, the first American roller rink formed in the confines of a hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. Most American’s found skating in the 40s and 50s, but in the 80s it really rocked for teenagers.
One of America’s most famous skating rinks rose like a Sci-Fi structure in Levittown, New York; a suburban development made to provide affordable homes for postwar vets. The rink came to be a signature look for the suburban town’s busy Hempstead Turnpike with normal spots like Howard Johnson’s, Caruso’s Italian restaurant, and Jahn’s Family Ice Cream Parlor in reach. Other entertainment spots like Jolly Rogers in Bethpage and the mammoth Nassau Coliseum, a few miles down the pike, were popular, but the roller rink provided a different kind of socializing for residents living in the cookie-cutter Levitt homes off Hempstead Turnpike.
Come September it’ll be 30 years since the Levittown Arena roller rink closed and then soon after demolished. The leveling of the 200-foot-long venue helped make room for the last thing Hempstead Turnpike needed: more retail stores. Rink memories recall simpler times, but in retrospect it was our real life social arena for navigating relationships and rejection head on. It was the venue for first kisses, dances, and sadly heartache.
My story about the rink goes back to the early 80s.
It was my night because he was here: Little Mr. long legs, an expert roller skater with bushy brown hair and large, eyes the color of Pat Benatar’s blue eyeshadow. The American gigolo of the rink did the leg cross-over move with ease and could skate backwards in a flash. After watching him a couple weekends, I requested a skate. With a cocky nod and a crooked smile, he took my clammy hand and pulled me onto the skate floor. After a deep breath, I released the safety rail and rolled through adolescence to the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”
Back in the 80s the Levittown roller rink was the place to be on a Friday night, before whatever it is adolescents do now. It offered a chance for mixing it up and self-expression. “I loved Friday nights at the rink with my own green wheeled skates,” said a former Long Island student. “I liked the trio with the guy in the middle with a little Foreigner playing – “Feels Like the First Time” or “Hot Blooded.”
You didn’t need a cell phone or Twitter account to find fun,just a ride from a friend’s mom. We’d cram into a reliable, American-made car and ride down the pike anticipating our night. While waiting on the mega-long ticket line, we’d whisper about “making out” with guys (or sneaking a beer) on the side of the airplane hangar-sized arena.
But it wasn’t all fun and fries. For me and some teens it was ground zero for navigating relationships and coping with fear and rejection in real-time. The couple’s skate and ladies’ choice were buzz kills long before being unfriended on Facebook. You had to deal with people in the flesh under the harsh disco lights and the sweaty confines of the rink; just like life you’d go from gliding seamlessly on the rink floor to clucking along the carpeted areas surrounding the main floor – all in an effort for balance and harmony.
Back to roller stud pulling me around. My heart pounded, but I felt safe with his hand in mine. Suddenly he began aggressively weaving around other couples taking us toward the inside section of the floor. I started to feel out of control like driving too fast in the left lane of the Southern State. Fear TOOK me. We rounded a left turn and the wheel of my skate grazed his.I couldn’t recover, fell left and landed on my hip. During my plunge, I looked up into his blue eyes, but he didn’t miss a beat — he released my sweaty hand and in a flash, skated backwards, then forwards, and left me like yesterday’s roadkill. Other skaters were coming at me, fast and endless. I crawled along the faded, scratched floor in my new Jordache jeans and reached the inner sanctum of the rink. Momentarily escaping other skaters, I managed up and sheepishly rolled off an exit. Baby boy was long gone. I later spied him with a group of boys planning their next schemes. Thinking back, I’m sure it wasn’t as calculated as that – we were all young, oblivious and navigating this thing called adolescence.
Roller boy wasn’t from my junior high, but rather anywhere USA where boys will be boys. These roller rink interactions were little examples of dealing with dicey situations called relationships. For me it was rejection.What does rejection do to us? Does it get worse, better, then worse again? Whether you’re a writer, musician, or office worker, rejection is part of life. We roll through ups and downs just like our rink days and encounter all kinds people; some cutthroat some loving. To this day whenever I hear certain tunes I think “rollerrink song” from “Always and Forever” (Heatwave) to “We are Family” (SisterSledge). Some memories still sting, some don’t.
A high school friend remembers the rink with mixed feelings,“We weren’t very good skaters,” she said. “What gave me the most anxiety was the couple’s skate. Watching, always watching and hoping someone would ask me to skate, and praying that if someone did I wouldn’t fall down. But unfortunately I never did get to couple’s skate with someone; but we always went back the next week, to get our table and hope that we would get asked to skate!”
On the other hand, if you wanted to avoid rejecting someone else,you took refuge in the ladies’ room. With its long mirror, there’d be a row of designer jean-decked chicks from schools across Long Island eager for a chat.As one female Long Islander recalls “you could always hide out in the ladies’ room from the guy you didn’t want to skate with, but the guy you liked would never ask you to skate.”
Nicer moments come to mind short but sweet: a date with a boy name Al, eating at the snacks corner, wet smooches under dimmed lights; maybe a first French kiss. It was great until a better-skating, teen roller-vixen whizzed by and pulled him away to “Good Times” by Chic. That’s 80s code for “relationship status” update.
Lastly, the rink offered chance, but cherished memories with family: “My Dad drove everyone,” said another Levittown resident. “He would pick us up at the ice cream store across Hempstead Turnpike so he could beat the traffic. We would get him ice cream and he would say, ‘don’t tell Mom.’”
But today Mom would probably see it posted on Facebook anyway.
[Ref 1: From Ballrooms to Discos, Tracking 150 Years of Roller Rinks http://www.curbed.com/2014/10/23/10034408/history-of-the-roller-rink]
[Ref 2: A RINK ROLLSINTO HISTORY http://www.usarsarollerskaters.org/Levittown.html]
[Ref 3: Our Towns: SunSets on a Rink with a Heart http://www.nytimes.com/1986/09/23/nyregion/our-towns-sun-sets-on-a-rink-with-a-heart.html]