Rollerbladers may be the most earnest folks on earth but are aware of your 90s jokes.
My favourite photograph of my Richmond, BC childhood doesn't actually have me in it. What it does have is my dad, my two older brothers, and three other neighbourhood boys, each dressed in weird shorts and a pair of rollerblades. The group—with my dad leading the charge—is posed in a line, each kid holding onto the hips of the person in front of him. I can easily imagine them rolling around the cul-de-sac in front of our house, smiling so hard their faces hurt. The ridiculousness of their positions was completely lost on the boys at the time, any uncertainty surrendered to childish glee; besides, it was the '90s, and rollerblading was the shit.
Today, though, it's an activity better known as a punchline, an easy jab at someone deemed unhip or just plain weird. It's an inherent uncool-ness perhaps best summed up in a sketch in the late-2000s MTV show Human Giant, which starred Aziz Ansari: "They say the hardest part of rollerblading is telling your parents you're gay," Ansari's character explains to the camera, dressed in a green sweatband, green short-shorts, and bright yellow tanktop with a hood. He just wants to "get out there on the beach" but is denied a rollerblade rental until he comes out to his parents.
It's a joke Leon Basin knows well. Basin wears his hair in a bun and owns Shop Task, a store dedicated almost entirely to rollerblades. Heading up the Vancouver location (there are also outposts in Toronto, Calgary, and Seattle), Basin is no stranger to the side-glances and curious looks from people who just don't get why he's still, of all things, rollerblading.
"I think the public is just really confused; all the public can see is what it was in the '90s with Nintendo and that whole era," explains Basin, who admits sales are slow in the winter but says he makes enough to stay in business. "When people see people skate by it's like, 'Ha ha! What is this?' In a way it's hard to get approval from your social group. You say, 'Oh, I'm going to go rollerblading.' No one is going to take you seriously."
Basin estimates most rollerbladers in Vancouver today are between the ages of 30 and 40, because blading is a good alternative to running for people who don't want that impact on their knees. The majority of Vancouver bladers do it recreationally; there are lots of couples rolling along the seawall and the odd person blading to work. Basin sees rollerbladers in 2015 as a "little tribe" of people who know you think they're odd—they just don't care.
"The people who skate are kind of over it, they don't really care [about perception]," he says. "They get whatever they get out of skating, and they really enjoy it."
Almost every week, a handful of these joyful bladers get together for a group skate in Vancouver. They usually meet at Sunset Beach and then blade along the water for a couple of hours, maybe stopping for ice cream or a drink. The group's Meetup page has nearly 350 members (and boasts "pure skating bliss!"), although usually somewhere between six and 20 show up on any given week, a mix of regulars and newbies.
"It's fun," says Jan Nekolny, one of the organizers. "Everyone's just socializing, whether it's finding out about themselves or learning and trying to pick up technique from others." Nekolny works in the public sector but in his spare time he gives rollerblading lessons to aspiring skaters. Most of his clients are adults who want to learn; he describes Vancouver bladers as a "pretty small, pretty niche community." That said, he insists his enthusiastic rollerblading hasn't been the brunt of any jokes and seems almost puzzled at the idea that people might think it's sort of lame: "I think if you know what you're doing it's totally cool."
Carley Montague agrees that if you don't know how to blade, you'll look ridiculous—"like a baby giraffe"—but that experienced skaters have serious skill. When friends ask the blonde, blue-eyed 27-year-old to go running or cycling, she agrees, with one caveat: "I say, 'I'll blade beside you,' and they burst into pure laughter." But haters be damned.
"It's just a cheap form of exercise," she says. "Living in Vancouver, everyone here promotes this active, healthy lifestyle, but yet they shun the blades. Why shun the blades?" It's a glorious, sunny day when we talk, and Montague, looking out her apartment window over at Stanley Park in the distance, feels inspired: "I'm gonna shine up those blades, get over there, and wave to all my fellow peeps." One of Montague's bladers-in-arms is Angela Dawson, better known around town as Roller Girl. The transgender woman is often spotted rollerblading around downtown in her token bright pink outfit, directing traffic or waving at passersby.
But arguably best known for putting his proverbial middle finger in the air at anyone who gives rollerblading a quizzical look is San Diego's John Kitchin. Better known as Slomo, Kitchin gave up a career in medicine in order to pursue the sense of nirvana he feels when rollerblading the boardwalk of the city's Pacific Beach. He's somewhat of a local celebrity, known for his impeccable balance, trademark bucket hat, and slow, steady speed. Kitchin preaches a do-what-makes-you-happy philosophy: "Everybody has the capacity to dream up and believe anything he wants to," he says in a 2014 New York Times documentary. "The shrinks or the psychoanalysts would call it a personal delusional system. And you believe it because you choose to." All rollerbladers, it seems, follow this creed to an extent—though perhaps leaning less on the philosophical and more on the physical, they certainly don't apologize for their chosen hobby. Why say sorry for something that brings you joy?
It's a theory echoed by Basin. "People look at us a certain way and we're like, 'whatever,'" he says. The rollerblading community in Vancouver is certainly small, but it's also determined to continue proving itself in a city full of people who are, in many respects, trying way too damn hard.
"[Rollerblading] really worked out for me," says Basin. "It can work for a lot of people if they don't care too much about being cool or not cool, or telling their parents they're gay." Really, all you have to do is grab hold of the hips of the person in front of you and roll away.
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