But the boundaries of class dissolved as I noticed kids at the rink.
I’ve taken up driving through sections of my hometown of St. Louis that remind me of growing up there and studying the landmarks of my youth, during the pandemic. On one drive, I found myself returning to the cornerstone of ’90s fun that my old neighborhood dubbed The Strip. Located near the edge of one of our city’s most populated highways, the area helped give a middle-class suburb that was turning predominately Black a dose of zeal that other nearby sections lacked.
My favorite memories there consist of a car wash, numerous fast-food chains, a movie theater, and a Target retailer. The salty potato smell of White Castle’s cheese fries and the monotonous drone of vacuums from the car wash are forever ingrained in me. The Strip also had one of the best skating rinks in the Midwest—a place that largely shaped my early teens: the Palace Family Skating Center.
The rink was a regular Friday hangout spot for preteens. The sweet scent of Spritz and the tartness of burnt hair hammered by curling irons in preparation for a night out on the rink fill my memories. My friends and I primped and traded gigantic Add-a-Bead necklaces in front of the restroom’s water-stained mirrors. Sometimes, I still hear the catcalling of boys with voices that involuntarily cracked from puberty. I can taste the place’s greasy pepperoni pizza, washed down with an Icee slush—always cherry-flavored for the girls, to add color to our mouths, since most of our parents hadn’t yet permitted us to wear anything past clear lip gloss.
Then, there was the power of the actual rink. The Palace’s rink wasn’t your typical hardwood floor with scratches and dents, deep enough to trip up even the most advanced skaters. It was a smooth and pristine surface. A large, blinding-white floor that, under the right light, turned into a magical neon-blue seafoam under your feet. Other times, it felt like gliding along frozen milk.
The first time I went to the Palace to skate was in sixth grade, in the spring of ’95. Although two of my best friends came with me, I remember being nauseatingly nervous. I was dreading the thought of transitioning from elementary school to junior high; it seemed like a major adjustment not meant for the soft-spoken or fainthearted. Everyone was trying to impress everyone. Classmates inserted themselves into cliques that seemed less based on interest and more about how often a person wore name-brand clothes, if they had a pager yet, and what kind of car their parents or older siblings drove.
The sweet scent of Spritz and the tartness of burnt hair hammered by curling irons in preparation for a night out on the rink fill my memories.
Higher social status in the neighborhood often equated with the public lives of kids’ parents. Were their parents business owners or pastors? Did they hold a leadership role in the local civic organization or have a strong connection to one of the city’s politicians or universities?
But the indicator of status that was easiest to spot was their fashion. The luckiest (or wealthiest) kids at school typically portrayed a swag that came across in the name-brand clothes and shoes that they wore: a mix of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Nautica, Jordans, and Jodeci boots. Being well-dressed equated to being well-liked. And being well-liked meant you were on your way to making a name for yourself in the world. It was nearly impossible to be in danger of being bullied—or worse, completely ignored.
My anxiety told me I was a hopeless in-between: smart, but not intelligent enough; cute, but not pretty enough; friendly, but not outgoing enough. Being seen as “less than” was dangerous. If I wanted to stand out and be seen as a somebody in a room essentially full of nobodies, then I needed to look the part. The only option for kids like me—introverted, bookish, unassuming—was to make myself appear that I was in a position to get whatever I wanted, which meant I had to look rich-ish.
As a way to cope with our general lack of popularity at the time, my friends and I tried keeping up with the latest trends in celebrity culture. We traded hip-hop and R & B magazines—Right On!, Vibe, and The Source—at our lockers in between classes. We also studied and kept in rotation Omar Tyree’s coming-of-age novel, Flyy Girl. And on Saturdays, we routinely met up at the mall to buy new threads with our allowance money.
The baggier the clothing, the better. I tried to mimic the styles of my favorite musical acts at the time: TLC, Immature, and Aaliyah. It wasn’t long before I realized buying new clothes every week was an expensive habit that my allowance couldn’t afford, especially if I wanted all the well-known name brands.
My mother believed in bargain shopping rather than splurging.
“Just go to Target,” she told me when I asked her for money ahead of the first night at the rink. “No one’ll know. And if they do, who cares? You go there to skate, not catwalk.”
It was a response that I believed would lead to my tragic end as a kid who desperately needed to fit in. Like many kids, I was already overly self-conscious and felt out of place.
But the boundaries of class dissolved as I noticed kids at the rink. Some we knew, but most we didn’t. They didn’t give a second look at what we wore, who we appeared to be related to, or even which high school we were destined to attend. Everyone was all smiles and more interested in having a good time, enamored by the thrill of dancing, skating, socializing, and letting go of the everyday social pressures that surrounded us.
The rink was one of the most diverse areas in our neighborhood. Blacks, whites, and Latinx folks of varied economic brackets frequented the place. They all flooded in from several divisions of the city—North County, West County, South City, North St. Louis, East St. Louis, and on.
During our third or fourth time visiting the rink, I noticed something shift. One of my best friends had a crush on an older boy who rolled with a popular, privileged crowd; their parents all seemed to be big-time execs for one of the city’s prominent companies. Every time they arrived at the rink, it was an event. “Watch my stuff,” my friend told me with determination burning in her eyes and through her silly grin. She was always the bold one out of our bunch, but I never imagined she had it in her to approach the guy she doted on in that crew.
“You can’t,” I told her, grabbing her arm. I was sure we’d get laughed right out of the rink.
She ignored me and strutted to the boy’s table, where he sat with his friends. I turned my head, unable to watch her get humiliated, and pretended to tie up my skates. Before I could stand and stroll to the rink, I heard my friend calling my name and waving me over to join them. We wound up talking and joking with the group for most of that night. One of the girls in their crew was someone I’d always admired; she kept her hair in a curly untamed bob that stopped at her cheek when most of us were scared to wear our hair short and natural. She showed me how to skate backward.
I wasn’t the best skater, but I focused on putting one foot in front of the other without losing my balance. Eventually, I picked up basic tips from some of the rink’s standout employees. I learned the importance of rolling to the distinct beat of a song that the DJ was playing on the turntable, how to strengthen my spine so my legs wouldn’t have to do all the work, and when to lean into the floor—not away from it—when turning the corner.
I loved picking up speed until the breeze was like invisible silk on my damp skin and filled me with a drowsy satisfaction. I ignored the annoying tenderness on the bottom of my feet that would harden into blisters by the time I returned home that night. In the moment, nothing could dissipate the natural high skating gave me.
In the moment, nothing could dissipate the natural high skating gave me.
It was the first time I’d noticed that roller-skating culture was helping me work through my issues with self-acceptance throughout middle school. As an anxious, introverted teenager, it was one of the only times that I didn’t feel inclined to think, to worry, to overanalyze who I was or who I wasn’t. From my spot on the skating rink, I looked out onto the communal areas and saw the cliques that made up my school—sporty, posh, gothic, and everything in between—coming together and connecting with each other like there were no differences to be acknowledged.
The Palace was different from other places we gathered. Unlike school, church, or the mall, where careful observation of others’ social highlights and pitfalls shaped our interactions, the skating rink was a teen’s one-stop shop for skating, music, food, and conversation.
The Palace in my preteen years prepared and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and interact with those who think, work, move, and live differently. The go-with-the-flow vibes presented in this world of skating culture in the neighborhood rink shattered my idea of what I was supposed to look and act like. This was a place that showed me what genuine connection beyond individual differences looked like and, consequently, what self-acceptance looked like. I’m forever grateful for the Palace and its sweet scent of Spritz that I can still smell every time I pass what will always be known to me as The Strip.
Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis-born fiction writer and essayist who’s passionate about exploring intergenerational struggles and resiliency in the Midwest. Her debut novel, BONE BROTH (Hidden Timber Books), is out in May 2021.