Casino can’t compete with youthful rink lessons

Driving on Michigan Avenue between Marshall and Battle Creek the other day, I couldn’t help staring at the now defunct business I grew up knowing as Midway Roller Rink. Time has not been kind to the facility in the four years since its closure. After 57 years of delighting, it’s now in the business of blighting the neighborhood.

The roof’s collapsed and the elements have taken their toll on the wooden structure. But they can’t diminish my memories of being in my element back in the day when it was THE place to play on a date. When going to the movies seemed too impersonal, bowling too competitive, dancing too socially awkward, dinner (with required direct eye contact with the other person) too intimate and mini-putt out of season, roller skating was the go-to when you needed somewhere to go on a date.

Roller skating was relatively inexpensive and a highly-public, large-group activity that gave you a built-in excuse to hold hands with someone under the guise of helping them to skate better, unless, as was often the case with me, your date was a far better skater, so no guise, just guidance, was required.

In the event your parents feared that your date might get fresh and the hand-holding likely to lead to possible horizontal action beyond the vertical activity of skating, they could always send along a younger sibling date-spoiler for you to “supervise,” when in reality, it was you who was being supervised.

I was allowed to drive to the skating rink at 16, provided I brought along my 12-year-old, eagle-eyed little sister, allegedly to get her socializing more. Yeah, right. I knew exactly why she was there: to curb MY socializing. But I was too polite to mention it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was alive and well even back then. I remained mum so my mum wouldn’t revoke my license to skate.

Regardless of your motives and who you were forced to drag along, skating dates were good exercise, improved your coordination and allowed you to spend time with both the person of your teenage dreams, as well as your friends who were there, intentionally or not. Skate dates allowed them the opportunity to size up your latest romantic find without it being too obvious.

I can remember one roller skate date who drew heavy criticism for the ever-present comb in his back pocket during the era when big combs were the latest thing for guys. “All he cares about are appearances,” sized up one of my friends, “There’s more comb than money in his pocket,” said another. I took their evaluations with a grain of salt and acted later, only after a third friend caught him flirting with the cute snack shop cashier.

Not only was such friendly observation helpful, but if/when things didn’t work out between you and your date, you could always ditch him/her to skate with friends. That was probably a good idea, as I needed skating practice much more than I needed a man. While I could launch with ease and steadily gained speed, skating remained like walking on eggshells for me: I was never fully at ease.

Eventually, I taught myself to skate backwards and could do so in a couples skate, but relied upon hitting things or other people to get stopped. Not a solid plan or a transferable skill to other areas of life, such as driving a car.

Nevertheless, my parents always felt safer knowing I was on a roller skating date, despite the guarantee I would end up on my back sometime during the evening. Usually at the bottom of some kind of mass-skating accident, the equivalent of a 25-car pile-up on the highway on an icy day. Caused by my carelessness. Did I mention my skating nickname was “Helen Wheels?”

Ironically, the iconic, caved-in building that once housed the innocence of Midway Roller Rink sits opposite the glitz of the FireKeepers casino, which modern era people visit in similar hope of getting lucky. I smile as I skate by, still confident with the life lessons money can’t buy, garnered during youthful skating rink experiences and stored in the Midway of my heart. We’ll never part.

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