The DJ was cool enough to play my Salt-N-Pepa CD, and I wasn’t used to anyone being cool to me about anything. On a slow weeknight or summer day, the employees, who dressed in striped referee shirts, let me roll alone in the center of the floor, right under the disco ball and multi-colored marquee lights. They typically wanted everyone to circle in the same direction, close to the red cinderblock wall of life or death.
In the rare times it was slow, no one forbade me from practicing on the carpeted areas near the lockers and party rooms. The music was always too loud to hear anyone’s taunts, and the pizza was so bad it was good.
The roller skating rink is a near dead industry. The rising costs of insurance, the astronomical building rent & maintenance, and the flourishing of the internet, video games, and other tech all contributed to the demise of this 70’s and 80’s past time. On Friday and Saturday nights, you were basically spam if you weren’t hitting the closest roller rink.
I had a bizarre relationship with my town’s roller rink because there was no place on Earth that was as anxiety-inducing as it was liberating.
The Eatontown Roller Rink opened its doors in June of 1973. America On Wheels, which was the largest chain of skating rinks in the country, settled in Eatontown, New Jersey and birthed its 10th location. Five out of the nine other rinks already in existence called New Jersey home.
Male and female, young and old, all embraced the idea of tying on a pair of rental skates, grabbing a couple of friends, and gliding in circles on a shiny hardwood floor while the year’s greatest hits blared from the speakers. It was the perfect escape from a rainy, freezing, and/or sweltering day, and for 33 years, the Eatontown rink served as a hot spot for birthday parties, school trips and events, and skating teams.
Let’s face it. The rink also served as the perfect Friday or Saturday night babysitter that parents didn’t have to spend a lot of money on. The guys and gals in the ref shirts became the responsible adults for the night even though most couldn’t have been any older than 17. Here’s an image of the rink either right before or right after its closure. Unfortunately, not many photos of the rink’s heyday could be found.
Now allow me to back peddle for a moment. Through most of my elementary school days, I was bused to school in a town named Shrewsbury, about a half an hour’s drive from my home in Eatontown. But I still managed to make and maintain some friendships with kids in my neighborhood who went to Meadowbrook School, one of Eatontown’s elementary schools that was a quarter of a mile from where I lived.
None of my neighborhood friends knew the reason why I went to school in a town they barely knew existed. I became very good at dodging the reality – I needed Special Education, and Eatontown wasn’t offering special services at that time. Those were the “ignorance is bliss” years of Special Education in the 80’s and early 90’s.
We were more work, a financial and logistical burden to many school districts. Therefore, the need for busing special ed kids long distances was the norm and often not a choice.
Today, kids in need of Special Education services get bused out of their districts frequently but for one or two reasons – the child is in need of small group, intensive support that can only be provided by a small private school, and/or the kid is an exceptional behavioral problem that stems from his or her disability. Nowadays, if a kid simply needs extra help and modified instruction due to a learning disability, school districts now provide the support needed without having to send kids to a different universe. When you are between the ages of 7 and 12, being sent to another town for school is about the same as being rocketed to a different planet every day.
And that’s exactly what I had growing up – two different worlds I couldn’t gel together even if I wanted to. Then everyone would know for sure I was a freak or a simpleton. Though they all kind of determined that on their own anyway.
Additionally, Shrewsbury was loaded with rich white kids and Eatontown was mostly a melting pot of lower to middle class army brats. And I was kind of in the middle – not rich by any means but certainly far from deprived, not an army kid but the majority of my local friends were. Overall, Eatontown’s garden apartment complexes, military housing, and low-cost stores such as K-Mart were a far cry from the massive homes and high-end businesses of Shrewsbury.
Regardless, kids from surrounding towns, including Shrewsbury, would frequent the Eatontown Roller Rink and you could always tell who was from where. There were times when I thought our own version of West Side Story would come to life – snapping and dancing included but on skates, gliding on hardwood flooring instead of concrete streets.
All too often I found myself in a sticky situation and it had nothing to do with the gum stuck under the tables. Whenever I’d see my peers from school and my neighborhood friends, who didn’t know the real reason why I went to school in a different town, I would pretend I didn’t know anyone, as if I were drifter stopping in for a few laps and a hard soft pretzel.
Nevertheless, skating was meant to be an escape, like an oval-shaped crater in the Earth where I could just be the awkward, unbalanced, unstable hot mess I was – completely unaware of what anyone else said or how they looked at me. The flashing lights and the speakers cranking Tiffany and New Kids On The Block tunes made it all go away.
Now, let me tell you without an ounce of self-deprecation, just straight up fact – I absolutely sucked at skating for all the time I spent at that rink. I’m not sure what it is, but I have not been blessed with the ability to maintain balance, in every sense of the word.
My mother, God bless her, fell and broke at least one bone 10+ times in her 63 years of life. I’ve only broken a finger and a knee cap, so I have some catching up to do. But I strongly believe I inherited my mother’s propensity for falling. Ice skating, roller skating, in-line skating, skiing, the balance beam, walking on a curb after a couple of Captain and Cokes – my balance simply eludes me. So I never became the fluent skater most of the rink rats became.
My irrefutable anxiety and fear played a major part in the problem. I was so afraid of screwing up, falling, and hurting myself that I did, in fact, screw up, fall, and batter my knees and elbows. Even though I couldn’t hear them over the music, I knew my “peers” from near and far laughed their asses off at me.
And that’s how the roller rink became a complex fusion of heaven and hell – it was an exciting escape, but at the same time, it was having my head stepped on while drowning.
Oddly enough, I can still say some of the best days of my youth were spent at that rink – when I wasn’t constantly falling on my ass. Despite the social division, I never gave up on skating until I grew too old, like everyone else, to partake in that kind of innocent fun. As a result, roller skating rinks became casualties of generational gaps and changes, much the same as high top sneakers and after school specials.
The Eatontown rink officially closed its doors for good in 2006. I had been long gone from Eatontown for years at that point but once social media kicked in, I started finding devastating photos of the building slowly crumbling to the ground. It was eventually bulldozed and some sort of medical building now stands in its place.
I regret not being there to see its final days and not having the opportunity to keep a few pieces of the building.
We all have that place. Once it crumbles, a part of us seems to fall along with it. All we can do is get back up quickly before we cause a pile up.
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