It All Happened at the Playdium
There are a few places from my childhood for which I can remember so much vivid detail that I’m fairly certain I could work with an architect and set dresser to effectively recreate these locales when they inevitably turn my life into a major motion picture.
One of these sacred spaces is Glenview’s Playdium Roller Rink — a Catholic school’s gymnasium that served as the site of my gymnasium-less Catholic school’s monthly roller-skating parties throughout my primary, middle school and junior high years in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Skating Party was a big deal. Aside from raising some funds for the school, it was a monthly social gathering on par with the Academy Awards. Couples made their public debuts here, everyone cared about what they were going to wear and social politics played out in dramatic fashion with every lap around the gym.
Cliques rode together.
Losers skated alone.
Eighth graders owned the rink exclusively for the duration of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”
And you got to hold hands with a girl during the Couples Only Skate.
I attended my first skating party in third grade, at the behest of a girl I was madly in love with. I remember how madly in love I was because I used to sing along to songs in the car and mentally insert us into the lovelorn lyrics of songs like Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” and Stephen Bishop’s “It Might Be You.” Yeah, I was a unique third grader.
To make matters even more delicious, I wasn’t so sure my paramour (let’s call her Marie) even returned my affection, but her desire to drag me — an untested never-been-skating newbie — around the Playdium, when she herself was already (and I’m not making this up) an amateur competitive figure skater, seemed like a good sign. Somewhere, Billy Joel was smiling behind his 1980s sunglasses.
To help prepare me for the big night, my Mom pulled out her old pair of rollerskates for me to practice using around the house in the few non-carpeted areas we had. I practiced vigorously, but there’s only so much skating you can simulate in a small tiled kitchen.
Marie had already invited me to share a row with her (and one of her girlfriends) on the school bus en route to a recent field trip, so things were potentially getting more serious. If I had known of such wonders in advance, I surely would have dreamt of us having a chaperone-less rendezvous at the Skating Party’s climax, the moment when rollerskating boys became rollerskating men: the Couples Only Skate.
I honestly can’t remember if we enjoyed a Couples Only Skate at that first party, but we probably did, given the fact that she was holding my hand throughout most of the evening anyway to help me hobble along. You will be shocked to know that Marie and I did not end up getting married, or even “talking,” as the kids say today. But I am forever grateful to her for introducing me to the joy of the Skating Party, and I fell in and out of unrequited love for her at least two more times before 8th-grade graduation.
There were so many traditions and hallmarks of the Skating Party that are burned in my brain forever.
You entered the Playdium and walked past the entrance to a swimming pool, awash in the overpowering smell of chlorine. You sauntered down a long hallway and — if you were late, as I frequently was — you could already hear the thumping of the music and the swell of the crowd as you approached the desk where an eighth grader’s mom was collecting money or pre-paid tickets at the door.
Once you entered the scene, you encountered a lounge full of tables and booths littered with skaters’ parents enjoying the evening in their own right. By their conversations, cliques and knowing glances, it was easy to realize even at a young age that the social dynamics of junior high never really go away, they just get grayer and more wrinkled.
Walking past the snack counter, you approached the skate rental booth, where you told a bored teenager what size skate you wanted, and he would take your shoes in return for a pair of rollerskates worn down by the unforgiving gymnasium floor and the even more punishing pre-pubescent drama they had beheld through the years.
Once laced up, it was time to hit the floor and start looking for your crew. Assuming it was an All Skate, you could bide your time at the gym floor entrance and try to join your comrades as effortlessly as possible.
Falling was never an option. Skating fast was a prerequisite. Attempting to stay with your group was an art, as other packs of skaters whizzed past and through you.
There was also that one dad that everyone was mocking behind his back, as he expertly sashayed between pockets of kids, somehow hockey-stopping on rollerskates and riding into the middle of the floor to do a few spins or skate backward.
The music was always one of the highlights for me, as the DJ’s playlist was a pleasing mix of oldies and current hits, including a few that didn’t get regular play on my parents’ car radio. I wish a video existed of everyone skating around the rink while doing the hand gestures for 2 Legit 2 Quit. Kriss Kross made us jump. Mariah Carey would always be our baby.
Another monthly tradition was the Hokey Pokey, in which everyone — but mostly the youngest kids in attendance and definitely not any male student beyond a certain age — would gather in a circle at the center of the rink to shake it all about to an ancient recording of the song.
Which leads us to the Couples Only Skate.
The sacred ritual of the Couples Only Skate would soon become second nature to me. I would start thinking weeks in advance about the lucky girl I might ask to join me for three minutes of rollerskating with the lights turned down to the tune of the latest Boyz II Men ballad. Or, more preferably to a wallflower like me, I wondered which girl might approach me first. I don’t recall that ever actually happening, though I sometimes would receive mid-Skating Party intel when a girl wanted me to ask her, thus making the ask eminently and imminently more doable.
Mainly I remember my nervous, ebullient emotions when I did get to skate with the girl-of-my-dreams-of-the-moment and wondering “where this would go” and “what this would mean.” It almost always led right back to the classroom on Monday and mostly meant absolutely nothing — to her.
I also recall the feeling of jealous revulsion that would overtake me when said girls of dreams deigned to skate with a boy whom I knew to be morally or intellectually bankrupt or whose good looks, mushroom cut and overalls with one strap down (a look I dared not attempt) were nothing compared to my incisive wit and spot-on impressions of our school’s teachers and parish priests. My name never left the honor roll for God’s sake. Clear husband material.
It should have been me. If only I had “told her about it.” Or if only she could have seen past my crewcut, glasses and braces.
Well, there was one girl who did see past them. When I look back at photos of myself in fifth grade, I’m not sure how this actually came to pass, but an attractive, popular girl-of-my-dreams-of-the-moment had her friend slip me a love letter after school.
Let’s call her Tina.
I remember trying to play it cool and not opening it right away — dying to know what was inside but waiting until I had reached the privacy of my bedroom to find out.
It was in a half-sized, tan manila envelope with the little red string that ties shut around a circular clasp. When I removed the contents of this most important piece of mail I had yet received, there were two pieces of paper and a one-ply Kleenex tissue.
Psychology teaches us that heightened emotions can lead to greater recall of life experiences, especially if they are important or have relevance to our survival. This memory clearly qualifies under both, and I vividly remember my reception of the letter, the feeling of it burning a hole through my backpack and into my soul on the drive home from school and the moment of finally reading the letter — first once, and then a dozen more times.
Tina assured me — in the body of the letter and a postscript — that this was not a joke and that she really did like me. She thought I was hilarious and enjoyed my impressions as well as my penchant for mocking some of our classmates to her. Indeed, the tissue was included as a reminder of some of my greatest hits about another student who purportedly ate her own boogers. How could a relationship built on such a solid foundation ever falter?
Doubling down on her love for my humor, the second page in the envelope contained a poem that she wrote about me, including the immortal stanza that I hope will one day be inscribed upon my tombstone:
Matt, Matt, you’re so funny
Way better than Bugs Bunny
The word “way” was underlined.
This development was big, if true. To be “liked” by a girl I had liked on and off since three-year-old preschool, when parental legend has it that I was apparently more confident and once leaned in to plant a kiss on her. Things had cooled significantly between us since then, but I did enjoy talking to her and making her laugh — and now she was comparing me most favorably to one of my childhood comedy heroes.
The funniest part about this love letter was my response, which was to do nothing and tell no one of it for days. I kept it in one of my school folders, where I would often just stare at the manila envelope with an appropriate mix of disbelief, self-satisfaction and utter fear.
Finally, Tina’s friend who had delivered the letter cornered me at the end of the school day to ask what was going on. She reiterated that this was not a joke and that my suitress was growing lovelorn with no response from me. I finally decided to write her a note back — the contents of which I cannot remember, but we can safely assume it included a booger joke.
She wrote another note back to me, delivered in the usual fashion of a manila envelope. Where was she getting these? We only had regular envelopes at my house. I don’t recall the gist of this note, but I do remember that it included a drawing of a cartoon made completely out of hearts with my name written all over them.
This was getting intense, so I needed to call in reinforcements to help me up the ante. Completely terrified, I consulted the one woman I knew who could give me solid advice: my Mom. In my lovestruck lunacy, I told her about the notes and the poem (but not the Kleenex, obviously), insisted that this was not a cruel joke at my expense, and elaborated on my need to give Tina something as a token of my affection. My Mom had a perfect idea: a pack of shiny stickers that would hopefully blow her fifth-grade mind.
I’m not sure why I didn’t just stick with protocol and deliver the goods to my would-be lover’s designated envoy. Instead, I decided to sneak the stickers and the note into her desk between classes. She was not in my class, but I had math in her classroom and easy access to her desk. I can still feel the high that a CIA agent must regularly enjoy as I successfully completed my mission, as well as the fear that someone would reach into the desk and find the stickers, complete with a “To: Tina Love: Matt” clearly inscribed on the slick backside of the sheet. This was a serious, two-way affair, but no one needs the rest of the class to know about it when we were still just in the stickers and poetry phase.
Looking back on this “relationship,” the funniest part is that absolutely nothing changed. Since we weren’t in the same class, I rarely saw her during the school day, and we never hung out outside of school.
Except at the Playdium. And the Couples Only Skate.
A Skating Party happened to fall in the midst of our note-passing tryst. Tina had already mentioned in one of her notes, another postscript I believe, that she was looking forward to skating with me, so “asking” her wasn’t even required. The lights went down, the Couples Only sign lit up on the gym scoreboard and the DJ urged everyone to pair up or get off the floor. In the rush of all the singles skating toward the rink’s side barriers, we quickly found each other, joined hands and started our first official lap as a Couples Only honest-to-God Couple skating to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
As I checked another box on my Man Card by skating with a girl I was in like with, I spent the duration of the song both savoring the moment and hoping that all of our classmates were noticing this moment as well. At the time, those two factors were probably of near-equal importance.
I’m sure I was in a daze for the rest of that Skating Party and probably several days afterward, but it wasn’t long before the honeymoon was over. The envoy returned one day with devastating news — Tina had moved on. Another boy — from the grade below us! — had attracted her attention. It was the end of the affair, and I was more than a little crushed.
Was it something I had done? Probably not. Stickers and skating aside, I hadn’t done anything.
Thankfully, our friendship grew throughout junior high, and we even shared a few more Couples Only Skates in those years, when neither one of us had more pressing matters to attend to. The best part about Tina was the understanding we came to in one of our first trips around the rink together: when our hands got sweaty, we would complete a swift-but-delicate maneuver to switch places and reconnect with our dryer palms. It was a useful awkwardness hack when Whitney Houston belts her tune for four and a half nerve-wracking minutes.
Tina and I last attended a Skating Party together in 1997, when we would have finally owned the rink — and the school — as 8th graders celebrating-good-times-come-on during the 8th Grade Only Skate. The Playdium still stands today, but Yelp tells me that it’s no longer open for skating and is now simply the Catholic school’s gym.
I’m still hopeful that if I’m ever a ghost, I can come back and haunt the place as a lanky middle school nerd on Rollerblades in an oversized Chicago Bulls t-shirt — looking for the kind of love I had heard so much about on the radio and having no clue what to do if it ever actually found me.