1979–97, Hartford, CT (“Insurance City”)

I

I sing for the Hartford Whalers:
I mourn for a hockey team
that never, like Ahab’s sailors,
dreamed the implausible dream,
or went down as hopeless flailers,
failing in the extreme.
They skated around their rink
and couldn’t exactly sink.

What a long strange trip it’s been for the inline skate.

It all started nearly 250 years ago, with a prodigious inventor, musician, and mechanic named John Joseph Merlin. Merlin relocated from Belgium to London in 1760, where he opened a museum and rubbed elbows with Samuel Johnson and Johann Sebastian Bach. Merlin invented the first pair of inline skates, and used them as a publicity tool, attracting curious Londoners to his museum of musical and mechanical wonders.

A news story of the time illustrates one unfortunate incident involving Merlin and his inline skates:

One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates contrived to run on small metallic wheels. Supplied with a pair of skates and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneily’s masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than 500 Pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself severely.

Jump forward to 1979, the year two brothers, Brennan and Scott Olson, gave the inline skate a facelift. They called it the Rollerblade. This updated version of the inline skate included a rubber heel brake, and was designed primarily for off-ice hockey and ski training. But the Olsons saw the market potential and sold the Rollerblade company in 1984. The rest is history. Rollerblades became so popular they became a brandnomer for any in-line skate—you didn’t inline skate, you went rollerblading.

But popularity of inline skating has declined steeply since the late-1990’s. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA) inline skate usage has dropped nearly 50% from 2000 to 2008.

So what exactly killed the Rollerblade?

The answer to this question seems patently obvious. Rollerblading was a heavily-marketed fad, iconic of the 1980’s. Images of neon-colored Spandex, clunky safety pads, and “extreme” Sunny Delight commercials come to mind. Of more recent vintage: Napoleon Dynamite pulling his Rollerblade-clad brother Kip into town with his ten-speed bicycle. Rollerblading has fallen so out of vogue it hurts.

Hockey may have something to do with inline skating’s common neurosis. Homophobia and racism has plagued hockey for most of its professional existence. NHL great Gordie Howe once famously remarked that hockey was “a man’s game.”

Inline skating is essentially the hybrid of ice skating and roller skating—two sports that have been ridiculed for their overt femininity.

In a recently published USA Today column, former minor-league hockey player Justin Bourne writes about the need for hockey culture to address its insecurities. Bourne, who played briefly in the New York Islanders system, regrets his silence in the presence of homophobia in the locker room.

“The lack of a homosexual presence in hockey must mean one of two things,” Bourne writes, “either homosexual men don’t play the game or they don’t feel comfortable admitting it.”

But homophobia thrives in inline skating too. Particularly, in the extreme sport of aggressive inline skating. (Notice the use of the adjective aggressive to further distance the sport from any homoerotic connotations.) Pro in-line skater and openly gay athlete Ryan Carillo experienced verbal and physical threats that eventually drove him out of professional competition. “I intimidate some them because I am not shy about my sexuality,” Carillo said in a 2003 interview with Genre magazine.

Did homophobia the kill the Rollerblade?

When I think about the death of inline skating the Hanson brothers come to mind. Not the three bespectacled bruisers from Slap Shot—but the pop band from Tulsa.

In the video for their massive hit “MMMBop” the three golden-haired Hansons are shown hamming it up in Los Angeles. Included, are several clips of Hanson rollerblading around an L.A. strip mall. Lest we forget: 1997 is the same year Limp Bizkit released their testosterone-soaked rap-metal debut Three Dollar Bill, Yall$. The late-90’s were no time for any self-respecting male teenager to be caught rollerblading or listening to Hanson.

The arrival of Hanson momentarily ruined my teenage life. I had long blond hair and played in a band. “MMMBop” appeared, and—as a matter of survival—I begrudgingly cut my hair. Three years after Pavement warned me not to. You can’t win them all.

Nevertheless, Hanson never bothered me too much, and neither did inline skating. In my younger teens, inline skating was an incredibly efficient travel option. The skates themselves required little maintenance. I played a lot of roller hockey, and preferred inline skating to bicycling because I didn’t have to worry about chains and gears and flat tires. I retired my inline skates sometime before I acquired a driver’s license. Little did I know how stressful dealing with car repair would someday be.

So it’s 2009. Homophobia is as revered as Fred Durst. Are Americans ready for the return on the inline skate?

Probably not. According to the SGMA the core group of inline skaters remains a low figure, at 1.9 million. Compare that to the 76.8 million Americans walking and the 29 million using treadmills. It would take some miracle of marketing for the inline skate to be considered anything but completely embarrassing.

Still, there seems to be no more opportune time for inline skating to rise from the ashes. In the next fifty years or so, America will not be able to sustain its automobile-centric communities. We’ll have to be on our feet more often. Why not strap on wheels and speed up the process?

Imagine that: Instead of apocalyptic images of smoldering rubble and leather-clad brutes battling each other for gasoline, picture millions of Americans strapping wheels to their feet and zipping around like it’s 1989. Either way you look at it, it’s kinda gay.

Sound silly? A little embarrassing? Maybe. But we’ve all got face our fears some time.


In my previous post, I revealed one of the most embarrassing things that has ever happened to me. Here is another embarrassment (the list is endless, as the only thing I am sure of in my life is the fact that I will repeatedly humiliate myself!):

My husband and I had moved from California to Toronto, one of my favorite cities in the world. After a few weeks in a basement apartment, we bought a creaky old row house in the Greek neighborhood not far from the center of city. Everything was new and exciting to me—I loved buying my cheese at the World of Cheese near the Pape subway stop; I gawked at the slayed lambs hanging from the butchers’ windows during Easter week; I had my cardboard passport stamped by almost every country during the multicultural Caravan festival; and I rode the subway and streetcar whenever I could. The Canadian mosaic was great by me; I had no problem waving goodbye to the American melting pot.

And even my mistakes were fun. It took me about seven months to realize that mail is not picked up from your house, only dropped off (I repeatedly told my husband that I thought our mailman hated us as he refused to pick up my out-going letters!), I frequently forgot that speed limits were posted in kilometers and once went careening around a winding onramp thinking, Damn, these Canadians take their turns fast!, and I did not understand how spectacular hockey is until someone gave us tickets to a Maple Leaf game where we were seated just behind the plexi-glass barrier. (If you haven’t been to a hockey game, you must go! The skaters are like beautiful, graceful seals in an aquarium as they speed-skim around the rink. When they fight, fisting each other against the flimsy walls, you are startled into feeling alive.)

Eventually, I figured out most stuff, although it seemed that little unfamiliar encounters would pop up every now and then, as one did shortly after the birth of my first daughter.

I had just returned home with my baby from Womens’ College Hospital after a week of recuperating from a c-section while my baby was in Intensive Care. I’d had infrequent sleep and was teetering on the razor of extreme emotion. Additionally, there was a banana-shaped oozing gash at my pubic bone, my breasts were bigger than Dolly Parton’s (in fact, when I hobbled to the bathroom from my hospital bed one day, a tiny Philippina nurse looked at me and said, “Dolly Parton look out!”) and I was wearing my husband’s giant blue jeans with one of his over-sized triathalon tee-shirts. I looked, and was, a complete wreck.

There was a knock at the door, so I carried the tiny baby on my shoulder (one hand on her bottom, one hand free) and went to answer. A uniformed man stood on my porch. He had a clipboard in his hand.

“I’m here to read the meter,” he said.

I looked at him a bit stunned. In California, the meter reader went to the backyard and read the meter; he never knocked on your door. I had no idea what this moment would entail—him going into the basement perhaps?

“Okay,” I said.

“Here’s my I.D.” He handed me a laminated, drivers’ license-sized I.D. card.

I took the I.D. from him and didn’t even look at it. And then, in almost hypnotic slow motion, I put the I.D. in my mouth.

Yes. I PUT IT IN MY MOUTH. And I held it there, as if I were a human ATM just waiting for the cash to come out of some orifice.

I have no idea why I did this. I was delirious. I had been sniffing the baby’s hands and feet while she nursed. I think I put them in my mouth at times, too.

I didn’t realize what I had done until the man reached out and gently removed the I.D. from my mouth.

“I’ll take that now,” he said, and it was like I had suddenly awoken. My heart started beating, which in turn ramped on the pumping machine in my breasts. Milk pulsated out into wet bulls-eyes on my tee-shirt. I wanted to cry but I knew that to have stuck his I.D. in my mouth and then to burst out crying would only make the matter worse.


“Can I come in and read your meter?” he asked.

I sucked back the tears, stepped aside and let him pass. I figured he’d know exactly where to go.

When he left, he didn’t say goodbye.