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City Skates
by Amy Kenneley


The melting snow dripped down the gutters making a hollow sound, then changed to a rushing gurgle as the snow on the roof collapsed into rain, overflowing the leaf-clogged downspouts and pouring down onto the sidewalk, washing the cinders left from the last snow-clearing. No more would I feel a gritty cinder-crunch underfoot. Spring! I could smell it.

Hanging on the wooden sides of the coal bin downstairs on a rusty nail were my skates; they, too, were dotted with rust after a winter's rest, but that would soon be fixed.

Street skates for street kids: The rounded metal heels that hugged the backs of shoes, the clamps that pinioned the shoe soles at the front, the center spine lengthening or shortening in an early one-size-fits-all manufacture.

Skate Prep

Grandpa produced a wire brush and I got to work, buffing the rust away, "scritch, scritch, scritch." Then he brought out a can of leather polish, and using an old sock for polish, I rubbed the leather ankle strap from stiffness into supple caress, "fffft, fffft."

The last part of spring skate-cleaning was oiling the wheels. The metal wheels spun on two axles, the center of each wheel enclosing ball bearings barely seen, but essential for smooth skating. The copper oil can was brought out, Grandpa inserting the can's long, narrow nose into a space between the ball bearings.

"Glunkit, glunkit" went the can as he pushed the can bottom, golden drops disappearing into the wheels. With one finger he spun each wheel, circulating the oil until all four on each skate went from "grrrrrrt" to "hmmmm"

Skate Key

But was I ready to skate? No, first the important skate key had to be found. Keeping the skate key with the skates would be too easy. I headed to the junk drawer in the kitchen.

"Ting, flump, sussle-russle" I pushed through the accumulation of nonessentials-till-needed items, finding at the far back the skate key that had settled to the bottom of the flotsam.

The skate key was an unusual thing, part key, part unevolved socket wrench. It was about 4 inches in length, with a narrow top loop, spreading out to two wide wings of about 3 inches across, tapering back into a short waist with a squared socket at the base. The squared socket fit onto the end of a rod running beneath the front set of skate wheels.

By turning the rod with the skate key, the two clamps on either side of the front of the skate shoe could be loosened to 1) set your shoe down into the skate, and 2) the clamps could be tightened until they encircled the edges of your shoe sole.

The wings of the skate key provided a purchase for your fingers to twist the key. The loop at the top of the key was so a string could be threaded through.

Bakery String

I rummaged through the bread box, where all the bakery string was tangled, and found a likely length. Doubling it, I threaded the ends through the skate key loop, tying a knot and creating a skate key necklace.

I wore my oldest dress and a sweater out at the elbows for skating-tumbles had to be taken in clothes already worn out. Dressed this way, I sat on the bottom porch steps to put on my skates.

Something had happened over the winter. My feet had grown...again! My shoe toes hung over the skate fronts like a cartoon cliffhanger. The skate clamps were by my instep, a distance too iffy for safe skating.

The skate key again came to the rescue. By inserting the key into the nut on the skate bottom, the metal tongue connecting the front skate to the back skate could be adjusted to fit my winter-grown foot.

Rusty Me

Now my shoe fit perfectly. The clamps tightened, I fastened the leather strap across my ankle and into the metal slot by the heel. Putting on the key necklace again, I dropped the end inside my sweater so it wouldn't get lost.

Up, now and--- "whoa, whoa!" Arms flailing, I reached for balance into empty air, coming down with a crash onto my dignity. Apparently the skates weren't the only rusty items around.

With more courage than technique, I again raised myself on wobbly legs and began some tentative spring-tender glides. By the end of the street, my skate legs had returned from their winter sojourn and I was once again a confident roller.

young girl on roller skates


Our neighborhood still had the old sandstone sidewalks running up and down the side streets. Modern cement sidewalks had not yet made an appearance. How lovely for us!

Each huge square laid end to end down a walkway was a butter-smooth trail for skates. "Hissssssssss, hisssssss, hissssss" was the sound as I picked up and put down first one skate then the next, gliding, floating along the street. Body English made my arms move, too, first one and then the other, elbowing my way around the neighborhood.

The only interruption would be the occasional cat running out from a bush, or the neighbor lady carrying her groceries home in a shopping bag. There were no brakes on skates, so a handy tree or fence provided grab handles for stopping. Then, the obstacle behind me, I skated on around the block, "hissssssss,hissssss."


On the main street the sandstone changed to cement. Even with eyes closed you could tell: "brrrrrrrrr,brrrrrrr." The ridges created by the troweling gave a shivering sensation from the toes upwards, and each crackline created to separate the cement was a canyon the wheels had to bridge: "thunkit, thunkit."

Falling down could be disaster. Sandstone abrasion was like scrubbing in beach sand. But the cement was full of wicked points. Landing on cement was a penance. A really bad fall, consisting of scraped knees, gashes and bloody hands, was reason for heading home for the mercurachrome and Band-Aids.

Spring Glide

But why worry about that, when the air was scented with city smells, the sandstone fresh-rained and dried, and the neighborhood passing by in a blur?

Around and around with wings on my feet, winter behind, and a whole summer ahead.

Wonderful city skates!

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