“The story was whatever was the song, what it was.”
– “Skateaway” by the Dire Straits
“Do you know how to skate?” The girl, no older than nine, had just rolled up to the wall where I wobbled my way out onto the skating rink floor. I looked down and said, “No.” There would be no dancing around this truth as I clearly struggled to keep my legs under me. At my helpless honesty, the girl made a face – nose wrinkled, mouth agape – that made an audible “Oh my god!” unnecessary. She then rolled away as naturally and swiftly as she had arrived.
I worked my way very slowly along the carpeted wall that lined less than a quarter of the circumference of the floor. Children zipped past me like little James Caans warming up for a Rollerball tourney. Teenagers leaning against the wall considerately pushed back to allow me passage as I struggled to get back to the birthday gathering of friends on the other side of the room.
It had been at least twenty-five years since the last and only time I had tried to skate. That was back in high school when my girlfriend and a friend of hers talked me into joining them at Magic Wheels Skating Center in Paris, Tennessee. My moves that weekend afternoon were anything but magic as they propped me up and tried to roll me around the rink. I fell again and again. I had fun, but I never even started to get the hang of it and my roller disco dreams faded like a glitter ball at closing time.
While perhaps a little disappointing, my inability to personally know the gliding exhilaration and sense of freedom that comes from moving with wheels on one’s feet has kept the idea of skating steeped in romance and mystique for me. There is something almost otherworldly about a floor full of people moving without a pedestrian gait. Between Frankenstein-walking among children and leaning on anything around, I watched my friends at the skating party that afternoon. It was like they were floating a few inches off the floor. Their seemingly natural grace and motion were almost dreamlike.
Not too long before that first high school roller rink misadventure, the romantic aspect of skating manifested itself in song for me with the Dire Straits’ “Skateaway.” Mark Knopfler’s guitar and voice backed by a beat that matched the rhythm of a skater’s stride told the story of a lone, mysterious Rollergirl who took on city traffic daily, owning the streets like an “urban toreador.” It was clear from the lyrics that Rollergirl had some skating skills – she let a big truck graze her hip, after all – but the video for the song let us see those moves for ourselves. And it let us see Rollergirl – black dreads, mocha skin, blush and glossed lips. Wearing blue shorts, a pink and blue top and a yellow, fringed hip scarf, she navigated an assortment of vehicles and cranky drivers on a mostly off-white video set with cubist moments. At her waist hung a bulky portable radio tethered to blue and yellow headphones, gigantic by today’s standards. Rollergirl was oh, so eighties, but she was beautiful and free, gliding through the videoscape effortlessly and moving her hips to her own soundtrack.
Usually, every good crush has a song, but with “Skateaway” the song was my crush. With this mirror truth the fourth wall of my MTV world soon cracked a little.
I was still too young to have a driver’s license, so I was my mother’s passenger on nearly a daily basis. One day we were on our way home, probably from the Avalon – a local restaurant where we spent much of my youth. As we turned onto a street near the restaurant, a girl with blond, Farrah Fawcett hair skated up behind our green Chevy Nova. She grabbed the back bumper for a few seconds, just long enough to accelerate. I can’t help but think my mother wasn’t too happy about this, but I don’t remember her saying much. Maybe she sensed my immediate infatuation, which would soon align with my “Skateaway” Rollergirl crush. This was a regular route for us, mostly as we left the Avalon, so I would see my Rollergirl quite a bit after that. I always looked for her as we turned onto that street. If she wasn’t around, I tried to hide my disappointment from my mother. If she was there, I tried to play it cool when she hitched a ride on our bumper.
After some time, the Avalon closed and I stopped seeing the local Rollergirl on the way home. We went to the same high school, so I spotted her in the hallway sometimes. She was pretty and she still had the Farrah Fawcett hair, but she wasn’t floating.
Eventually I got my driver’s license, but in all the years I’ve driven a skater has never hitched a ride on my bumper. “Skateaway” comes around from time to time. I’ll hear it on a retro eighties radio show or in random places like grocery stores. But I hadn’t really thought about the video until the day I tried to skate a second time.
I found it on YouTube and, when I watched it, realized that I probably hadn’t seen it since the song was new. I was struck by how blatantly eighties it was, but I still found it to possess a certain artistic integrity that held up across the decades. Rollergirl was just as beautiful and free as she was in 1981. I was smitten again.
After the long fade-out, I glanced down at the comments under the video. “RIP Rollergirl.” I read more. Then I did some digging online. It turns out Rollergirl, whose real name is Jayzik Azikiwe, died in 2008. I also learned that her father was a former president of Nigeria. Sometime after the Dire Straits video, Jayzik moved to the Gambia where she lived the rest of her life as a successful performance poet, songwriter and artist.
As for my local Rollergirl, I haven’t seen or heard news of her since high school. I wonder if she still skates. If she has children, I’ll bet they do. And I have no doubt they would look up with shock at a forty-two year old man who clearly can’t skate but still somehow ended up out on the rink.
I finally made it to the other end of the wall and back up onto the carpet of the concessions area. Now I felt a little more confident there than I had when I first stood up on my skates that afternoon. I never did make it all the way around the rink. I never even pushed myself out onto the skating floor. But I think I’ll be back. And I think I’ll wear skates again. I may never glide like Rollergirl, but maybe, just maybe, one Saturday afternoon I’ll let go of the wall.