I grew up in Pittsburgh, where rollerblading never went out of style.
In most parts of the world, by the 2000s, in line skates had faded into cheesy, nostalgic obscurity. Relegated to yard sales and Play It Again Sports. Only actively used by hockey players, on beach boardwalks, and in midsize cities of Romania.
But Pittsburgh never got this memo, and rollerblading remains a commonplace and joyous form of recreation.
In high school, we would regularly strap on our ‘blades and do a few loops around the rich, well-paved neighborhood. Then we’d borrow a parent’s SUV to drive to a strip mall for some Italian Ice. Blasting 50 Cent and Michelle Branch with equal enthusiasm. It was an indisputably cool way to spend an afternoon.
When I did college tours, I brought my rollerblades, because what better way to see a campus than by zooming around it in my K2’s? I assumed people were staring because I looked so good. I didn’t realize that at elite institutions of New England, people do not skate around in sports bras, Soffe shorts, and blond high ponytails.
People not-from-Pittsburgh think it’s weird that Pittsburghers still rollerblade. People from Pittsburgh think it’s weird that people not-from-Pittsburgh don’t still rollerblade.
Of course I brought my rollerblades to Boston in 2009, when I moved there to start grad school (well I really moved to Cambridge, you know).
Boston has a trail that hugs the Charles River for miles on both sides. It has slick asphalt and scenic views of the city. It would be ideal for high intensity fitness rollerblading, except for all the humans. On the weekends the trail is jam-packed: casual joggers puttering along in sweat suits; flocks of overly serious amateur runners Training For Boston (marathon); kids learning to bike, swerving helter-skelter; new lovers ambling hand-in-hand, oblivious to everything but their haze of affection.
And none of these people move aside for rollerbladers!
“Hey slow down! You’re going to kill someone!” a dad yells at me as I pass his toddler on a Razor scooter.
Okay sir, I’m rollerblading swiftly, but that’s like 10 mph. Far from fatal speeds here.
I quickly learned to rollerblade-for-fitness at obscure times like 2 pm on a Tuesday or 7 am on a Sunday—when only single, childless graduate students can exercise.
The other challenge was getting to the river trail. I could skate on colonial-era brick sidewalks, and definitely fall a few times. Or I could skate on the streets and possibly die.
But I could not, would not, walk to the river, carrying my skates, and put my shoes in a backpack when I got there. The backpack would weigh me down and inhibit my ability to skate SO FAST. I chose certain spills on the sidewalk and possible death on the streets, over a mediocre workout.
My roommates were initially dubious of my rollerblades, but once they saw me zipping around the apartment—from my bedroom to the kitchen in 2 seconds, WHOOSH—and returning from rollerblade workouts, radiating joy and endorphins… they were jealous.
So jealous that one roommate, Emily, got her mom to dig up some rollerblades from their basement in Connecticut.
Emily: “Guess what. My mom brought the rollerblades last night! Can we go today?”
It was 9 am, Sunday.
Me: “Ehhhh, it’s going to be pretty crowded, but if we go right now it could be okay.”
Emily was not one for spontaneity.
Emily: “Well I just had breakfast and want to review three lectures this morning before having a light lunch to finish up my Greek yogurt before I buy a new container because there’s really not enough space in the refrigerator for two. I also have to go over to Eric’s parent’s house around 5 pm, which means I’ll want to shower around 3:40 pm to give my hair time to air dry before I blow dry it. So I was thinking, ideally, we could go sometime between, say, 2:10 and 2:15 pm?”
2:10 pm on a Sunday!? Did she want to skate like 2 mph, dodging renegade children and tourists taking selfies? Could she pick a worse time in the entire week to go rollerblading-for-fitness along the Charles? We might as well just ride an escalator for exercise.
Me: [sigh, grumble, grumble] “Okay, fine.”
At 2:10 we realized that the rollerblades her mom dug up were hockey skates, which meant they had no brakes. Emily-from-Connecticut, who had not rollerbladed since elementary school, was not skater-enough to stop without a rubber brake on the back of her wheels.
Emily: “It’s fine. Let’s just walk to the river and bring backpacks to put our shoes in. Once we get there it’s flat, so I can just gradually stop whenever I need to.”
And so we headed out at 2:15 pm on a Sunday with backpacks. I was resigned to the fact that this would not be a high-intensity ‘blade session.
Emily’s plan to stop by gracefully decelerating did not pan out. Yes, the trail is flat, but it crosses several roads, requiring instantaneous stops.
We approached our first intersection and Emily was speeding along (as fast as one can speed with a cumbersome backpack, that is). We’re 20 meters from the road and what is approaching, but the most formidable and preposterous vehicle you can imagine: a Duck Tour.
Duck Tours are amphibious vehicles that float on water and drive on land. As they tour Boston, the ConDUCKtors® theatrically narrate sightseeing facts and the passengers QUACK their approval with souvenir kazoos, included in the ticket price.
We’re 10 meters from the intersection. Emily and the Duck Tour are on a collision course. At the edge of the curb, Emily reaches for a lamppost, transferring her forward motion into a centripetal swivel and full body embrace of the pole.
This doesn’t go unnoticed by the Duck Tour.
“Look at that rollerblader hugging a pole! She almost ran right into us!” announces the ConDUCKtor®. “Let’s give her a quack!”
QUACK!!! QUACK!!! QUACK!!! It’s a cacophony of quacking kazoos.
We continue on. At every crossing, Emily clings to a lamppost or crashes into a wall. Not graceful, but better than zooming into traffic. Strangers try to help her, assuming the crashes are accidental rather than intentional.
Emily: “No, no, I’m fine. Thank you. I just don’t have breaks.”
Intersection after intersection, Emily causes a scene. Intersection after intersection, her patience and enthusiasm for rollerblading dwindles.
At one crossing, Emily slams into a wall.
A man jogging says, “Are you okay miss?”
Without looking up Emily snaps, “I’M FINE. I just don’t have breaks!”
He’s startled by her hostility and I toss him a look to communicate, “Sorry man. It’s not you. It’s not me. It’s her… and this Duck Tour incident about a mile back.”
He looks familiar in a how-do-I-know-that-guy way. He’s conventionally handsome, but notably short. Middle aged, with bouncy dark hair that could be in a Pert Plus commercial.
He’s running with a spry, feisty woman who must be a personal trainer. They’re trailed by a large man on a bike, who must be a bodyguard.
I think he’s Tom Cruise.
The light changes and we skate ahead. We quickly gain some distance because we’re skating and they’re jogging.
Me: “Um, Emily, I think that man you just yelled at is Tom Cruise.”
Me: “I don’t know. It really looked like him.”
We get to the next intersection. Emily bear hugs a tree. While we’re waiting for the light to change, the group catches up with us.
It’s definitely Tom Cruise. He looks at Emily hugging the tree. I give him a look that communicates, “Yeah she’s hugging a tree, but you’re a Scientologist.”
The light changes and we skate ahead.
Emily: “Okay that was definitely Tom Cruise.”
At the next intersection they catch up again.
I give a look that says, “I know who you are, but I don’t care. The only celebrity I would be excited to meet is Jon Stewart.”
We skate ahead. They catch up. And so it goes, the whole way home.