Roll Bounce: My Life Inside an Atlanta Roller Skating Rink

When Skate Zone is your family business even T.I. birthday parties are an average night.
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When Skate Zone is your family business even T.I. birthday parties are an average night.

Since the last days of my childhood and early adolescence, family and roller rinks have been intertwined. My parents first saw the rink when I was in middle school, a building decaying in Morrow, sitting vacant and abandoned, but they had a vision. My parents are risk takers, gamblers, they saw an opportunity that most would see very little promise in. I vaguely recall the immense amount of cleaning that had to be done before opening the doors, months of painting, vacuuming, mopping, the definition of fixer upper. It was a relatively small rink, just one regular size skate floor, modest arcade and concession area, none of the extra bells and whistles. By the time the doors opened, I was in the 8th grade going into the 9th and nothing would be the same. 

Decatur was all fun, Skate Zone felt like a family business because my parents put their family to work. When we first opened our doors it was slow, people thought the building was still closed, no idea it was under new ownership. They only hired one other employee, Jayvious, for a long time it was just us and him. Countless after school days were spent starring at each other, it was a rough start. Gradually, business picked up, awareness rose, things got interesting. They had us working skate rental, the smell on a busy day was overwhelming. People hated when they brought skates back we would spray the inside with Lysol. Most people, especially the women, would yell “My feet don’t stink.” Sure…

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When business started to boom, it boomed big. By then we had a staff, girls cute enough to sell pizza to a Vegan worked the concession stand and guys with a little common sense and a bit of charisma worked with us in skate rental. They had a knack for hiring characters, from the DJs to security, the kind of people that never yawned, could never be defined as boring or ever said a commonplace thing, no day was predictable. The summer time was legendary, especially our Wednesday nights. It was our dollar night and that was enough to bring in mobs. Every week the building would be full to capacity. The AC would stop working, tempers would be high, skates would run out, to call it a mad house would be a light description. Literally, no skates would be left to be rented and people would still want to come in, just wanted to be there. It was a sight to see, the entire skate floor was a swirling mass of people, adults running over kids, teenagers running over adults, everyone dripping in a puddle of sweat. This was also during the height of skate movies, Roll Bounce and ATL, they really enticed people to lace up the dirty browns and get their roll on. I probably heard every corny line from both movies. People would approach us in the back and say in their best impression, “No ticket, no skates?” Just know that got tired quickly. In retrospect I grew up in one of Atlanta's most popular all-ages clubs, although it’s only recently that I've had the distance to recognize it.

We worked more than the mail men, rain, sleet, or snow had nothing on us. If school was out, we were at the rink. This is around the time I got into music heavy. At the rink oldies don’t age, the same songs from the '80s and early '90s will erupt a response. There’s no real generation gap amongst the skate purist, the old and young will have the smoothest routines to Afrika Bambaataa’s "Planet Rock," or Kool and The Gang’s "Hollywood Swinging," and be on the floor for YoungBloodZ “Damn” and Ray Cash “Bumpin my Music.” The DJ is in complete control, skating is about a groove, keeping a consistent tempo and feeling that they can glide to. Mixing and beats per minute truly mattered, you never wanted the floor empty. Balance was critical, the amount of diversity that would be there for family session made it so you couldn’t carter to one audience or age group. This is like '06 through '07, so the kids want Lil Jon, teenage boys want Lil Scrappy, teenage girls want Usher and adults want anything without profanity. You knew a song was truly popular if you could get the teenagers to break their cool, any song that could get them off the wall onto the skate floor was a hit. I remember Jeezy’s “Then What,” Ying Yang Twins “Salt Shaker” and of course D4L’s "Laffy Taffy."

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There is nothing to do on the Southside. In Clayton County our only options were getting fat at one of the many Waffle Houses, watching movies at the AMC 24, occasionally go bowling at Pin Strikes and window shopping at the terrible Southlake Mall. We are literally on the outskirts of Atlanta, there was no Marta to take us into downtown, and that’s why the rink was such a big deal to teenagers. Teen night was the place to be. Kids were meeting their best friend, worst enemy, and love of their life in those short four hours. My backpack was half books and half fliers, in-between periods you could find me filling hands and lockers. Promotion never stopped. The first half was for skating, from 7:30 to 10. We don’t have a private club area so they would let the kids dance on the skate floor. They would literally stand or walk along the side waiting for the skate period to end. It was rare to give out more than 10 pairs of skates on a teen night. Somehow, they convinced themselves that skating at a skating rink was uncool.

It was a party once 10 o'clock hit, the lights went dim and the DJ dropped that New Orleans bounce, “Drop And Gimmie 50” and “Bounce It Biggity” were holy anthems. If you thought Miley Cyrus started twerking, I’m here to tell you otherwise. It was revolutionary when we started having “lock-ins,” special nights where closing was extended by an hour, those were the nights to remember. Parents loved it, teen night was the baby sitter that kept their kids out the house. We would be at the rink so late the only options to eat were Waffle House and IHOP, occasionally Applebee’s if we cleaned up swift enough.

The height of my teen night experience was during the era of “Crank Dat," the DJ could do 30 minutes of any Super Hero dances, Batman, Wonderwomen, Aquaman, doesn’t matter the song, there was someone that could do it flawlessly. If Vine existed back then, I know a few people that would be famous for mastering all moves. I cringe reminiscing on our oversized t-shirts, see through Bathing Apes, black or white Air Force Ones, Girbauds and fake Evisu jeans, it was an age of big clothes and YouTube dances. DJ Unk gave us “Walk It Out” and “Two Step,” Lil Jon’s “Snap Ya Fingers,” BHI’s “Pool Palace,” and the embarrassing “Bunny Hop” by the Get Rich Clique. There was nothing quite like “Whoop Rico,” a song that was practically “Knuck If You Buck” meets “Crank Dat Superman” the perfect combination of violence and synchronized dancing. One unforgettable teen night moment is Down South President’s Skate Zone theme song. The song was created for a contest we ran, they won, and my aunt shot the music video. It’s the epitome of the era.

Teen night attracted everyone, including the knuckle heads. For every person that wanted to have a good time there were kids whose only intentions were to fight and cause trouble. Kids would walk around with a week's worth of animosity just waiting for a chance to unleash their rage. If you fought at the rink, you couldn’t be suspended from school. There was a point people were paying just to fight. We had Bloods and Crips in high school but the gangs I remember being most active were Southside Mafia, KOS, and Hit Squad. It got so bad we had to start banning kids due to their consistent nonsense. If you fought, a Polaroid picture of your face was taken for future reference. They were like miniature mugshots, we have an entire wall of faces with busted lips, black eyes, and the occasional smirk. My pops would get on the mic and give rants that could give Yeezus a run for his money. I rarely see him mad as he was in those days. His word cut deep then the lights would cut on, the party was practically over. The amount of drama we saw on the regular would make Love & Hip-Hop look like The Huxtables. We use to joke about a reality show, a script wouldn’t be needed. The trouble that the kids brought didn’t help the rink’s reputation, some people could never see beyond the small problems. I guess that’s life, a few rotten apples can keep people away from an entire tree.

Before I knew it, I was graduating. The years went far too quickly, it was the end of an era. It was a special time for the rink, the kids that grew up with us were going away, college was awaiting our customers and employees. It’s still standing, I walked in last Saturday, a casual visit, and Hurricane Chris was on stage performing. It reminded me of all the rappers and celebrities that have walked through the building. I’ve seen Crime Mob start riots, DC Young Fly host teen events, and a young Bobby Ray perform “Haters Every Where We Go.” So many talented, rising Atlanta stars had entered the rink right before blowing up or right at the end of their one hit appeal. When T.I. was in jail his youngest kids, King and Major, would come skating on Friday nights. A few years ago, after he got out, Major had his birthday at the rink. It was amazing, T.I. had the entire building mesmerized, wherever he went they followed. If T.I. was shooting pool, everyone was watching. If T.I. skated, everyone was on the floor. Like I said before, life was never dull.

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Last month I went to Vegas with my parents, it was for a skating convention. The first time they ever went, it was the first time I saw other rink owners and the majority happened to be white. It was the first time I saw how unusual it was to grow up with black parents that owned a skating rink. I was proud, extremely. For years they have defied the odds, staying afloat, and prospering through the good and bad times. I never looked at the rink as a business that I could potential inherent one day. My parents still go to work each day loving what they do like it’s 2005. I can’t imagine a world where they aren’t there, two people too alive to die, skate wheels turning into infinity.

Since I started high school I couldn’t go anywhere without everyone knowing my dad. He’s a people person, from the adults to the kids, he has the kind of charisma that makes anyone feel comfortable. I don’t know if I have it but a long time ago he made my brother’s and I promise two things, never put him and my mother in a home and never sell the rink. It’s our inheritance, our legacy, to be a place that can stand forever, to be a place for the good kids and knuckle heads, valiant skaters and ambitious beginners, a family business that put family first.

[By Yoh, aka Yoh Bounce, aka @Yoh31]