ROLLER SKATES COME TO VENICE
Nowadays, it seems like they've always been there, but there was a time when you didn't see any roller skates in Venice. In the early 70s, a friend of Ann's, Ted Holmgren, lived in Venice. She met him in the booby hatch, where he was doing time trying to get straightened out after his rich lawyer father kicked him out of the house after finding out that Ted was gay. Ted was a short guy, not very rugged. but he was funny and open to new things.
One day, he and his latest flame decided to roller skate down the Venice boardwalk. Two years later, Ted told me about that day.
"We just wanted to go roller skating, you know. I thought it would be cool, like when I was a kid. I still had a pair of those old metal skates; you know, the kind you open up with a key, a skate key. So I slipped them on over my tennis shoes, pushed them together on my toes and heels, and tightened them with the key. Bill didn't have any skates, so he had to trot along beside me." Ted had a wispy little mustache, and eyebrows to match. Sometimes I wondered why he didn't have eyes where his upper lip was. "Ann, you know I'm not very good at sports. So Bill, he just sort of pushed me along in front of him. I'd coast for a bit, then he'd catch up and push me again. We cruised all the way from Rose to Venice Boulevard. I tried turning there, to go down the biker path, see if I could skate along it. But I fell off the edge of the path, and hit the sand. I kinda stopped cold and hit my shin. One skate came right off, but the other one got jammed up somehow. I put the skate key in it, but it wouldn't turn. I don't know, either the key was bent or that little rod it goes in was stuck, or something.
"Bill said I should just take by shoes off, and walk back home to get a pair of pliers, take it off that way. But we were right near Gold's Gym, you know, the weightlifting place across Pacific. I told Bill, 'Those guys are strong, maybe one of them will be able to get this skate off.' I sort of pushed myself in there, gliding along on one skate, pushing with my other foot. I looked in and saw one of these really big guys sitting on a bench, all sweaty and naked, almost. So I took my shoe off and handed it to him. I said, 'Mister, my skate key won't work. Can you loosen up this skate for me?
"He took my shoe, and tried to turn that little knob the skate key goes on. He couldn't even get his fingers around it, they were so big. So he just took the shoe, and ripped it out of the skate. He like tore to rubber off the sole, in front, so it was dangling and floppy when I put it back on. 'There you go, kid. Now its fixed.' Then he glared at me, so I said, 'Thanks. Uh, can we stick around and watch you lift weights, or something?'."
Ann looked from Ted over to me. She let out a high-pitched giggle, and said, through her laughing, "God, I can just see you Ted, walking into that gym, and going up and talking to one of those body-builders."
"Yeah, I figured they could get my skate off, so I just went in. I'd never been in there before. It's nothing but weights and mirrors! Those guys like to look at themselves all the time, especially when they lift weights. They like to see their muscles bulge out when they pick up those big barbells and things. And they grunt. It sounds like a men's toilet, but without the smell."
Ted was clearly an innovator, but just a little bit ahead of his time. The next year, someone developed urethane wheels, and put them on skate boards.
Back in the sixties, people skateboarded on those little metal wheels. The sport never quite caught on, because the axles didn't swivel, and the rolling surface had no give, producing a harsh, unforgiving ride. Basically, just a roll - no tricks, no jumping, no wheelies, no banked flying turns. Then, urethane on axles which rotated around a central swivel point came along.
"It's Southern California's homage to the ultimate concretization of the world," Tony said as he handed me his spare board. I was a skier, not a concrete surfer. But when you're surrounded by 100 square miles of asphalt, and your month-long vacation might not come in winter, you take what you can get. I took the board.
We were in a mansion in Long Beach, owned by two sisters who ran a large chain of department stores - Bullock's or something like that. This house was old money. Wainscoting five feet high and one foot thick. A banister which curled twice around itself at the bottom of a grand staircase. Antiques to put Vermont to shame. All with a 300 foot private beach out back. Tony's Belgian wife Marie-Sylvie was their private accountant, and they'd asked her to house sit while they wintered in the south of France. I don't think they knew about Tony.
Ann's parents were close friends of his, and he came and went in her life while she was growing up. He was a polymath, working as a welder and a comic book artist. He'd learned to weld while serving time for a drug offense, and chronicled his life story in pictographs, mailed out to a widening circle of family and friends over the years. He'd turned their den into his workshop, where he drew and sculpted at the same time (naturally, he used his welding talents to produce salable artwork, advertised thru his comic book). Hopefully, the sisters wouldn't come back before he could hide the smudges and burns on the floor's oriental rug.
He took me out back, and threw his board down on the sidewalk next to the beach.
"You're a skier, right, Al?" His curly long blond hair was ragged and greasy as he surveyed my slight form, wobbling painfully on the floppy board. Despite his fire plug build, he rode gracefully, seeming to hover with no movement above his ankles, knees bent across his angle of travel, arms spread out like a Tai Chi practitioner on a surf board. "Well, its pretty much the same thing, except you don't get cold. Just try to let the board flow beneath you, and keep your hips directly above the center of travel."
He flicked his knees down and up, shifted his weight back than front, and tip jumped the board up the curb. I was having trouble just pushing the thing with one foot while keeping the other planted on the board. Tony smiled, and told me a long story about a guy in prison who kept birds in his cell all winter, but lost them when they flew north come spring. "Guy'd promised everybody Rock Cornish hen for Easter, with fresh eggs. He was the one got egg on him, and not on his face! Haw!" He snorted and laughed, bowed his head and u-turned back towards the house.
When we got back inside, I asked, "Can you do this downhill, like skiing?"
"Uh, its more like surfing - You've got one foot in front of the other, and you have to balance with your hips, your hands, and your knees." I had no idea what he was talking about. Skiing I understood. It was a warrior sport, I figured, because you kept both your eyes in front of you, like a hunting animal, an eagle or a tiger. Vegetative creatures, cows and canaries and such, have eyes looking out the side of their head, to give them a broader field of vision. I'm an inveterate hunter-biped, hooked on the grace and rhythm of sliding down snow on two boards, eyes front, upper body quiet, moving with just the feet. The idea of being unbalanced, and over a hard surface to boot, frightened me. But I was not yet 27, so still a child, and wanted to try something new.
"OK, but can you take it down hill, like skiing?"
"Well, I know some guys who go Sunday mornings over to the airport, and chute down the parking lot spirals. That's a rush, I hear."
"What about going up in the mountains, and riding down hill? Say, Mt. Pinos?"
"Hey, Frasier Park is a cool little town, there off the Grapevine. You thinking of taking this over there?"
"I like to get out into the mountains, or the beach, when I get a Sunday off, which only happens once a month. So, Ann and I were going up there tomorrow. Want to come? You can show me how to take this thing downhill."
"Hey, we'd love to, but we've got to get this place cleaned up. The sisters are coming back next week, and Marie would lose her job if it didn't look immaculate. Be careful. You can get bad road rash falling off one of these things at 20 miles an hour. But I guess it'd be kinda cool to drive up, board down, and have Ann come and pick you up ... heh heh, let's hope that doesn't literally happen, man! Here, you can take this board." He handed me his custom ride. "It's long and wide, real stable, like downhill skis maybe. It should do you ok as long as you don't get going too fast. Just remember to ride low if you get scared; you don't have so far to fall that way!"
Next morning, Ann and I took off up the San Diego Freeway, heading for the Grapevine. Near the top, we turned left off the eight lane, and wound around the still brown hills through Frasier Park to Mt. Pinos road. We climbed about a mile above the Tejon Pass. On the way up, the only people going slower than our VW van were a few cyclists, laboring up in their granny gears. Two young couples roared past us in an open air Jeep, complete with roll bar, winch, and wire cages for their headlights.
"Whoa, where are they going so fast?" Ann said.
"Looks like they're going to try out their new four-wheel drive on the jeep road up top," I said.
"You know - on top, there's a track that goes about a mile or two into the woods. It's mostly a hiking and horse trail from the parking lot up to the top. That's where we'll go first. I don't know if you can get a Jeep up there or not."
True to its name, the top third of the mountain is covered with ponderosa pines. On a hot day in LA, this desert island peak is one of the few refreshing places around. The blue sky and harsh radiant LA sun are filtered out by the ponderosa needles, shaking overhead from the thinly spaced pines. We sputtered into a parking spot, and walked along the carpet of dead brown needles to the viewpoint. On top, nearly nine thousand feet up, we looked down the Ojai valley, east into Bakersfield and west to the Pacific.
"You think this is better than the beach?" I asked.
"I like the beach. I'm a southern California girl. I like the sun and the surf."
"But this is southern California. That what makes it so great here. You can go up into the mountains, you can go skiing, you can go to the beach, you can go to the desert, and you can even go to Ojai."
"I know, but I think of the mountains more like the Sierra, where you go away in the winter and go skiing. My dad's partner has a cabin up in June Lake, and that's where we'd go, or to Mammoth. In LA, the beach is it. The mountains really aren't very good here."
She was right, of course. I missed the Colorado and Idaho wilderness, where you'd walk up a stream-side trail through aspen into pines, dodge afternoon thunderstorms, and shiver at night inside a down bag. And once you got up top, you'd look around and see, not metropolis and ocean, but just more mountains, stretching off to the horizon. Some would even be craggy rock covered and snow capped. In LA, the mountains, though high and cool, are isolated and lonely. No one visits Mt. Pinos, not compared to the beach, where there's always something happening. Maybe skateboarding was the way to open up the peaks, give a proper Angeleno action to the experience. Too much nature up here, anyway.
Mt. Pinos has a gentle slope. We strolled through the edge of the forest into the sunshine, where we sat down, and leaned against a fallen log. We dozed a bit, soaking up the radiance while we smelled the pine duff and resin. Rested, we went back to the parking area to pick up the skateboard. On the way, we passed the Jeep, resting upside down on its roll bar and rear seat. The young couples looked perplexed, as if they didn't know quite what had happened. Neither their winch nor their attitude would help them now.
Assured that someone had called a tow truck for them, we moved on to our own form of risk-taking. I hopped up on the board, and, without a helmet, elbow or knee pads, shoved off.
I was scared. I was used to skiing, or, more precisely, falling while skiing. Then, I knew the snow, no matter how firm or icy, was still soft enough underneath to give a bit, and wouldn't tear my skin off like asphalt would. On snow or ice, you slide, not bounce, and as long as you keep your hands and feet in the air, you'll do just fine. Falling off a skateboard at 20 mph might be a different sort of thrill, not necessarily one I'd like to experience. Nonetheless, I wanted to see what riding down hill on tiny wheels felt like.
Since I never could quite figure out how to turn up into the hill to stop properly, what it felt like was a series of very short rides punctuated by stepping off the board to the road as soon as I felt I was going as fast as I could run. Not much fun, but at least I could say I had done it.
Even if skateboarding didn't catch on with anyone over the age of 15 that year, someone in LA got the bright idea to screw the urethane wheels onto the bottom of a pair of ice skate boots. On a flat surface, with a rubber stopper at the toe, they not only looked like ice skates, but worked like them too. With a five mile long bike path, paralleling an asphalt boardwalk, and a huge concrete basin around Muscle Beach, it was only a matter of time before the skates invaded Venice.
First, some enterprising middle easterner showed up one day with a bunch of skates he rented out the back of his van. Give him your driver's license, he gave you a floppy pair of skates, with which you rolled around for an hour. Exhausted, with quadriceps cramping, you came back to the spot where the van had been, hoping it would still be there with you license. In about a month, this fly-by-night arrangement was trumped by a closet-sized storefront, a permanent rental shop. Soon, there was one on nearly every block.
Overnight, it seemed, Venice took on a new look. In the sixties, Venice north of the Boulevard had attracted misfit beachgoers - nudists and gays owned the sand, panhandlers and drunks ruled the boardwalk. By the early seventies, Marina Del Rey had started to creep in, with Manhattan Beach-like condos slowly working up from Ballona Creek to the Venice Boulevard lifeguard station. The new arrivals took on the coloration of the indigenous population. Scruffy beards, ragged shorts and sandals with greasy hair and sunburnt eyes marked one as a North Venice native, distinguished from the South Venice afflu-hip by the dirtiness of their clothes and their lack of late-model cars.
With roller skates, though, the two cultures splashed up against each other. The more exotic Venetians - blacks, lanky female weight lifters, and wayward surfers - seemed to hop into the skates first. They caught the local shopkeepers by surprise. On skates, you're taller, swifter, and quite foreign to the ambulatory. Store owners didn't quite know what to make of the swift moving giants who would roll in, finger the merchandise, and act like they didn't know how odd they appeared. Out on the Boardwalk, skaters began to pick up moves from the ice, turning backwards, rolling on one skate hunched over with a leg and arm outstretched. The more self-confident souls brought boom boxes along, providing a constant sound track to their gyrations. Those who were really good would set the box down in the parking lot by the restrooms, and put on impromptu skating programs for the more timid beach walkers to gawk at.
Most danced to urban beat music, with as much movement above the waist as below. Lycra, a recently developed synthetic fabric, was the perfect leg attire. For torsos, tank-tops or leotards seemed to work best; tight-fitting and sweat repelling seemed the order of the day. Bold colors predominated - red and blue, with some bright yellow, all worked to complete the "here I am, you've got to look at me" statement.
Soon, they spilled over onto the bike path, where their presence had not been anticipated. Through Venice, the Santa Monica Bay bike path makes a series of sharp turns which, combined with the increased density of bikers, keeps speeds way down near 10 mph. Skaters could accelerate faster and turn quicker than cyclists, and began to weave in and out among their two-wheeled neighbors. The beach patrol at first banned them from the bike path. But relegating skaters to the boardwalk was equally treacherous. The little old ladies going in and out the Jewish Center started fearing for their lives, or at least their hips. After the first actual collision, the bike path was opened up again to all self-propelled wheeled humans.
The victory was complete when Linda Ronstadt was featured on the cover of her album, geared up in skates and flowing scarf, rolling down the Venice Boardwalk at sunset.
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