NEW YORK -- "hey, that's my foot!" my Chanel-clad friend cried out at the young woman zooming out of a crowded SoHo eatery on rollerblades that protruded massively from her Spandex-sheathed, rail-thin body. This Nike-cultured specimen stabilized herself with the help of a nearby fire hydrant and stared blankly at my friend -- neither apologetic nor defiant -- turning what could have been a modern day shootout at the OK Corral into just another urban impasse.
Similar cries of "That's my foot" can be heard throughout this city of schleppers as these stealth invaders of pedestrian space edge their way into turf already severely encroached upon by bicycle messengers and Chinese food delivery men, four-at-a-time professional dog walkers, joggers, permanent sidewalk cafes, newspaper dispensers, beggars and vendors of incense and polyester hats. Of all of these, rollerbladers are perhaps the most irksome. Lycra-covered, metal-helmeted and speeding along silently on high-tech plastic wheels, they are dehumanized Robo-Jay-Walkers, '90s versions of the leather-clad motorcyclist guardians of hell from Jean Cocteau's French film classic "Orpheus."
And now, in defiance of common sense, bladers are starting to get good press. The New York Times recently celebrated "Blade Night Manhattan," a weekly mass assault on the streets of the city, which it blithely characterized as "the exuberance of youth on a pretty summer night." You could say the same for the climactic romp in "Lord of the Flies." All we need now is New York's rollerblading equivalent of San Francisco's Critical Mass event, which features angry hordes of bicyclists -- complete with a baton-swinging riot squad from New York's finest, spittle-faced pedestrians and sliced up dachshunds -- to make the picture complete.
Blading -- improperly called "in-line skating" ("out of line" is more like it) -- is divided into several categories: "freestyle" (which, like ice skating, is done in enclosed, non-pedestrian areas and is therefore quite benign); "racing" (done on tracks and also not a problem) and "extreme." Extreme is divided into two subcategories: "vert," which entails performing feats on ramps that are, thankfully, hazardous only to the skater himself, and "street." The latter is the problem. To quote Inline Online, "Street skaters take to the streets to skate on whatever the heck they can find. Tricks involve grinding handrails, jumping off ledges, jumping on and off and over picnic tables ..." And I'd like to add another subcategory to that subcategory: "sidewalkers," those who use their skates as a technological leg up in the urban war for space and speed, as they go shopping, rush from place to place, hang out and generally annoy non-wheeled persons and animals.
Blading to sidewalkers is a kind of aerobic heroin, giving them a sense of invincibility, perhaps because they know that whatever disaster might incur -- short of breaking a limb -- they can speed away from merely ambulatory individuals. By putting on their hard plastic wheels, they feel a sense of floating above -- while being submerged in -- any crowd, no matter how dense. The fact that they are as incompatible with pedestrian traffic as a man walking a cat in a kennel seems not to register with them. They whoosh by, smiling with smug contentment, even as everything but the bloodhounds (and sometimes the bloodhounds, too) snaps at their rear ends.
Sidewalk blading is a distinctly New World phenomenon -- the most recent manifestation of this country's retarded sense of how to share communal space in a civilized fashion. People who grow up in suburbs have no concept of how to move in dense urban areas: Even when walking they move haphazardly, as if the world was their front lawn or one big Wal-Mart. There is something to be said for the old way of walking: in a straight line, on the right side, with a brisk and purposeful movement. While this requires a certain degree of conformity -- a willingness to be a cog in one great pattern of movement and purpose, merely a face in the crowd -- it really works.
But, probably, rollerbladers see themselves as some kind of free-spirited rebels. Remember that famous shot from "Midnight Cowboy" that showed Jon Voight lost in a sea of Fifth Avenue pedestrians? That's the anti-authoritarian view of walking, which looks at that kind of scene and concludes that mass society is dehumanizing. God forbid that an American, no matter how seedy or inconsequential, not stand out, take the spotlight, hog the space, be himself-- and the rest of you be damned!
Rollerblading, if you will, is one of those late-20th century trends (street mime was another) that makes Hegel's philosophies seem less dismissably Germanic. He had a point when he said that freedom was only to be found in obeisance to law and following a larger purpose. As a hippie college student at Bennington, I thought this was the nuttiest thing I'd ever heard, but rollerblading has changed my mind. Although Hegel's thinking might have posed some serious political problems over the course of history, it really isn't such a bad philosophy for those plunging into a crowded city street.
Bladers of course, get their own comeuppance for their hubris. I've seen one slam into a pay telephone while holding a bottled ice tea, cutting himself badly; another doing a somersaulting topple in front of a minivan he was trying to speed past, almost (but not quite) run over in the process. Recounting injuries of this sort has become, for many non-blading urbanites, its own form of recreation. From the bloodlust you see in their eyes, it's clear that seeing rollerbladers go down is the city walker's best revenge.