Friday, January 25, 2013

Jimmy's Roller Skates

While editing for the umpteenth time a YA work of fiction of mine—and very possibly making it less readable than before—I momentarily contemplated adding a scene involving a roller-hockey game. Set in the Northwest Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge, 1978, I thought it might add further color to this youthful tale from what was—most definitely—a colorful snapshot in time.

Anyway, one thing led to another and I Googled “old roller skates,” or some such thing, and cast my eyes upon an image of an old pair of roller skates, the utilitarian metal kind that were, once upon a time, the rage. They sported leather straps that secured them to roller skaters’ feet. As I recall, the straps were sometimes spray-painted red, yellow, or black. The cheap paint jobs, though, invariably chipped away, revealing both the age of the roller skates and the amount of mileage on them. I would be remiss here if I didn't mention these vintage roller skates' keys—indispensable keys—that tightened adjustable clamps. Tightened them— flush at the soles of feet—to roller skaters’ footwear. They weren't one-size-fits-all, but more like one size fits several size shoes.

While these old-time roller skates were still around when I was a very young boy, more modern and stylish boot-like renditions were fast casting asunder these relics—keys and all—from the past. Nevertheless, when I spied a photo of these charming metallic dinosaurs with wheels, I remembered the only pair I ever owned. I didn’t do much roller skating in my youth. (While hockey on roller skates was popular on the area’s ample asphalt and concrete, it just wasn’t my thing.) Originally, my roller skates belonged to an older kid named Jimmy, who lived just around the block from me. When Jimmy outgrew them, his mother gave them to my mother to give to one of her boys, which turned out to be me. I was six or seven, and Jimmy might very well have been five, seven, or even ten years older than me, when the roller skates changed hands. Actually, I have no personal memories of Jimmy at all. I only recall that he was “mentally retarded,” which was the commonly used and accepted term back in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pejorative, although it sometimes became so depending on the circumstances. In fact, the term was then medically sanctioned, considered largely benign, and a vast improvement over prior callous monikers.

I remember I was hesitant to even put the roller skates on because they once belonged to Jimmy. I thought he had some sort of communicable disease, I guess. As I warily surveyed the raggedy, peeling yellow leather straps on this very old pair of roller skates, I figured I might enter the Twilight Zone, or some such thing, if I put them on—that I would become a “mentally retarded” person like Jimmy.

Funny, but while I recall Jimmy’s roller skates becoming my own for one brief shining moment in the late 1960s, I don’t—as I previously noted—ever remember encountering him, although I must have. I don't recall anybody saying anything negative about him to frighten me into avoiding his skates like the plague. That was just it—the long and short of it. Very few people back then spoke openly about people like Jimmy and what could be done to truly help the “mentally retarded.” We kids were thus left to fill in the blanks and imagine all sorts of things—like catching “mental retardation” from a pair of skates.

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