No matter how many vitamins I take, nor abdominal crunches I attempt, there’s just no escaping the fact that my wife Sheyene (pronounced like the town in Wyoming) is nearly three decades younger than I. During our first four years together, we lived in quiet, conservative Manhattan, Kansas (the Little Apple), where just going to McDonald’s could be disconcerting.
“Would your father like fries with that?”
“He’s not my father.”
“Excuse me, Ma’am. Would your grandfather like French fries?”
Now we live in L.A., where the difference in our ages is so unremarkable no one ever remarks on it. “You two make a cute couple” we might hear from a friend, a colleague, or a homeless person, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, one ghost that continues to haunt me out here is the specter of Sheyene’s lost youth. Although we have many friends her age, from time to time Sheyene tells me: “I almost never get to be young.” She’s right. She seldom gets to do the dumb, fun things people do when they’re young.
Unless, of course, I do them with her.
Perhaps that’s why we decided to move into an apartment on the Venice Boardwalk, where dumb, fun things are an established way of life. Biking, begging, juggling, hula-hooping, tattooing.
And, of course, rollerblading.
Despite our deliberate choice to live on a street where youth is regarded as a lifelong entitlement, Sheyene, who has skated since she was four, is stunned when she casually asks me one day if I’d like to learn how to rollerblade.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do. You’ll have to teach me, though.”
“Oh, it’s easy. It’s like riding a bicycle; you never forget.”
“I never rode that kind of bicycle.”
It’s true. Although my reply to her question was swift, the answer has been a long time coming. Even though I run and bike regularly, during my first fifty-three years neither wheels nor blades have ever adorned my definitely un-winged feet. No rollerblades, roller skates, nor ice skates. Nothing that could prepare me for what lies ahead on the Boardwalk: the specter of Steve crashing.
When Sheyene finally grasps this fact, she begins to worry. “You’ll have to wear a helmet at all timesâ€“and pads for your hands, elbows, and knees.”
“You don’t wear anything but the hands.”
Sheyene gives me a look I haven’t seen since my mother caught me drawing rocket ships on her bedroom mirror with her mauve lipstick.
“OK, where do we get them?” I reply, thinking: This can’t be as hard as dancing.
Sheyene already has rollerblades and hand pads. Instead of buying gear for me, we decide to rent a set first. “You know,” she says, “just in case …”
“I kill myself on the first run?”
“Exactly. You are going to be careful, aren’t you?”
Half an hour later, I’m dressed like a Three Stooges astronaut as I inch my way along a blue brick wall on the side of Venice Bike & Skates, on the corner of Washington and Speedway. We’ve already decided that both the Boardwalk and the one-way, alley-like roadbed of Speedway contain too many obstacles and potential victims. So Sheyene pushes me along the wall like a mannequin on a flatbed dolly until we come to the even narrower alley behind Venice Bike & Skates. No bikes, no automobiles, no foot traffic.
“Don’t forget to bend your knees and lean slightly forward,” Sheyene cautions. “Even though you’re wearing a helmet, you don’t want to fall backwards.”
“I’ll be right beside you. You wanna hold my hand?”
“This isn’t a damn Beatles song. Just gimme a little room.”
“It’s your funeral,” she replies, and removes her hand from the small of my back.
I crouch on my blades like a poodle taking a crap, then let go of the wall.
“Hey, this isn’t soâ€“”
“Oh, sweetie . . . are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m all right.” Above me, a startled pigeon flaps from one rooftop to the next. The sky is the color of blue peppermint Listerine. “I guess the helmet was a good idea … my legs just shot out from under me.”
“I told you to bend your knees.”
“If I bent my knees any more, I’d be sitting down.” I prop myself up on my elbows so that I actually am sitting on the asphalt. When I turn my head to the left, I find Sheyene standing over me in her white shorts and pink tank top, balanced perfectly on her own wheels like a veteran car hop.
“I’d like a Sonic Burger with cheese.”
“Stay right there,” she replies, and skates over to a nearby dumpster. “I’m going to take off my blades so I can walk beside you and help you keep your balance.”
“You don’t need to take off your skates,” I object, and push myself up on my palms, squatting on the pavement with my blades beneath me again. “We both know I’m going to have to fall in order to learn. So just keep your distance and watch meâ€“”
“Well, at least you didn’t have to fall as far that time.”
More the color of faded blue jeans, I decide, staring straight up again. When I roll my helmet to the left, I find Sheyene balancing herself on a single set of wheels. She’s holding onto the dumpster with one hand and unlocking the skate boot on her left foot with the other.
“Oh, all right,” I concede, climbing to my knees this time. I put my right hand on the wall and my left on the pavement, then slide one set of wheels beneath me, testing my balance before I try the other. “Look, damn it. I know I’m never going to be good at this, but I swear I can be mediocre.”
“I’m certain you can,” Sheyene says, stripping off the first boot.
Still bracing myself with both hands, I edge the second set of wheels beneath me.
“Sweetie, wait! Don’tâ€“”
Flump . . . BAM!
I raise my chin to see Sheyene hopping across the alley toward me on her bare foot. This time I’m on my belly.
“Well, that’s progress,” she says.
This goes on for perhaps another twenty minutes. Eventually, by taking baby steps, never letting my wheels move at all, with Sheyene’s help I manage to progress forward a total of about five feet. About six inches per fall, I estimate. “You’re doing great, sweetie,” Sheyene says several times.
When we finally return the rented gearâ€“now dented, gnarled, and scuffed like a dog’s chew toyâ€“Sheyene is shocked when I insist on purchasing a helmet, blades, and a complete set of pads right then.
“So, you’re committed,” the clerk says, grinning at me.
“Like Death,” I reply.
And so, to Sheyene’s terrified amusement, over the weeks that follow I keep at it. In the beginning, I merely edge along the brown wall of the Ellison on Speedway, keeping at least one hand on the brick. Sheyene walks patiently beside me as I BAM! pick my way along the wall CRACK! like a dizzy four-legged insect trying to climb out of a bathtub bumble-bumble-plop. When I finally gain enough confidence to remove my hand from the wall, the results BAM! are similar.
But I persist. One morning a week or so later, I get up at 5:30 a.m., but do not wake Sheyene. While she sleeps, I hurry down the Boardwalk, flapping along in my rubber sandals, to the small parking lot at the end of Navy, between the Safran Senior Living Community and the Jewish Social Center. I sit down on the pavement next to the Marc Chagall mural and kick off my sandals, then strap on my blades, helmet, and pads. I shiver to my feet like a baby bird, then freeze to gain my balance. For a few seconds, I just stand there motionless, a full-body sculpture mocking Chagall. Finally, with only a single yelp of fear, I push myself away from the wallâ€“and begin to skate.
When Sheyene finds me about half an hour later, I am still uprightâ€“and have been for a good fifteen minutes. Elated, I wave a fist in the air as I execute a shuddering turn and skate confidently back toward her. “Hey, whaddayah think?” I brag. “Not bad for an oldâ€“”
Sheyene smiles down at me. “You’re doing great, honey.”
“Well, I was, damn it.”
On the Boardwalk, a homeless guy pushing a grocery cart filled with wadded clothing and over-stuffed plastic garbage bags gives me a thumbs-up.
Like a dazed bronco rider bucked off his steed, I stagger to my wheels, slap my thighs, and shove off again.
To Sheyene’s surprise and my own, I manage to skate upright for perhaps two minutes, until she finally assures me she truly is impressed. “Really, Steve. You’re coming along.” I can tell she’s sincere, but I also know that what really gets her is the simple fact that after so many crashes I am still doing this. For her.
When at last I’m finished showing off, we discover someone has stolen my sandals.
Weeks go by. Each morning before work, I am out there, startling dog walkers and garbage collectors like Frankenstein’s monster tumbling out of a tree. After a while, we decide I’m ready for the Boardwalkâ€“in the early morning when fewer pedestrians are at risk. This strategy proves wise.
“No harm, no foul, sweetie. You can do it.”
A few days later, after I’ve reached a certain level of incompetence, Sheyene advances me to the bike path, even though it curves.
“Lean a little bit when you try to turn … That’s right.”
“Well, not exactly like that.”
Finally one weekend she decides to let me loose on the Boardwalk in the afternoon, amidst the crowds. Everything goes great, until a man in a Sex Pistols T-shirt decides to stop and get a hot dog.
“When you get up this time, sweetie, don’t try to go around the tourists; let them go around you.”
“Damn the casualties! Full speed ahead!” I cry, and go at it again.
The bike path is the greater challenge. In addition to a few novices like me, on any afternoon the bike path is filled with accomplished skaters of every age, leaping and spinning, slicing and dicing their way through the crowd like Speed Racers. I ignore them all and try to stay upright to avoid the domino effect:
But time is on my side. Each successive afternoon I fall a little less often and frighten fewer unwary civilians. The ones who recognize me move aside. No matter what, I keep going. Eventually, I am able to maintain the pace of an elderly stroke victim plodding along behind a walker. Toddlers hustle past me on the adjacent grass; I smile and wave at their nervous mothers. I skate on with no regard for my health or reputation. I am relentless. I am the skinny old soldier with the battle-scarred red helmet. I am Slow-Motion Crash Dummy. I am Old Fart on Wheels.
After two months of this, Sheyene still skates circles around me on the bike path, grinning and flourishing her arms like Tinkerbell sprinkling fairy dust on Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his wheelchair. Nevertheless, each day we increase my distance: to the edge of Santa Monica, to the second public restroom, then the third, and eventually all the way to the Santa Monica pier. And back.
“I’ve achieved mediocrity!” I declare to Sheyene one day on our way back from the pier.
When I don’t fall on my ass in the next five seconds, she replies: “Yes, sweetie, I believe you have.”
By the time we return, I’ve bladed about three miles without falling. I decide to skate the last two blocks down Speedway, simply because the surface there is rougher and more difficult to negotiate. Even so, I do not fall. The cross street in front of our apartment building slopes about five degrees, though, and I’m still not ready for that. So I grab hold of the blue dumpster behind Phoenix House and ease myself down on my butt right there. Success!
Before I can peel off my blades, Sheyene tells me to wait, then rushes upstairs to our apartment. A minute later, she returns with a camera and takes my picture. Eventually, the photo will wind up on the web site of Antioch University Los Angeles, where I teach. In the months and years ahead, students will occasionally startle me by declaring that one reason they chose Antioch over other schools was this picture. “Antioch seemed like it would be more fun,” they’ll say.
But I know none of that as I sit here on the asphalt next to the dumpster, basking in the hard-earned triumph of mediocrity. Instead, I think about what my father, a man who worked with his hands his entire life, would have said about me learning to rollerblade: It’s a totally useless skill, son.