by Charlie Theobald
The rink is a wide-open oval, and one loop around measures just under a tenth of a mile. On Friday night at Skate City on North Academy, the floor is flooded with dozens of skaters. They are mostly teenagers, local middle and high school students. Some hold hands as they skate while others skate backwards, turn and skate forwards, trade handshakes and flirt. They are suddenly dexterous, graceful and intuitive. The smallest children, guided by their parents, wear skates so square and plastic they resemble Fisher-Price toys. A portly middle-aged man skates backwards and sways his hips in tempo. The incestuous synth riffs of the Top 40 hits rise above the kids singing along. The shiny floor acts as a reflecting pool and smears the mirrored figures as they skate loop after loop.
Two brothers break from the crowd, illuminated on the rink by the yellow light from the snack bar. As they round the curve, they skate with their arms over each other’s shoulders, grinning and leaning in like birds do when landing. Their feet cross over, left over right, left over right. They slip back into the crowd just as quickly as they separated. Fleeting streaks of glow sticks punctuate the dark.
Their names are Nathan Work and Davon Hawkinson, two teenagers who are regulars at Skate City. The rink isn’t just a hangout for them, but the place where their lives changed completely. Both brothers were gang members when they began to frequent the rink, but they say the community of Skate City and their passion for skating helped them leave that dangerous lifestyle. They call the close network of Skate City regulars and employees their “rink family.” The most unexpected turn is how they found each other. Nate and Davon are half-brothers. Having grown up with different parents, they didn’t know they were related when they first became friends. Their connection only came to light after a serendipitous family reunion in the parking lot of Skate City.
The eldest brother, Nate, 17, has a wide smile. Small creases form at the corners of his eyes. Geometric designs have been shaved into his buzz-cut and he wears diamond-studded gauges. Davon, 14, has peach fuzz on his upper lip and chin. When his friends tease him about it, he picks up his lip by the hairs and makes it jump. He wears a black cap backwards with the letters TBE embroidered in gold on the front. According to a smaller set of gold letters on the side, this stands for “The Best Ever.”
Davon is the quieter of the two. He bends his head slightly while listening to his brother, often nodding in agreement. In turn, Nate is quiet when Davon speaks. He looks down occasionally to pick calluses on his hand or inspect the lines in his palm, only to reenter the story suddenly. Their story unfolds easily, often circling back, and together they build an elliptical narrative about being brothers, being young, being outsiders and then insiders. They often turn to each other before answering questions, and they never fight for the thread.
The brothers were members of Southside when the gang claimed Skate City as their territory. Davon motions to a row of red booths against the wall by the snack bar, “We would take over, like this whole side, and we’d just fill that, and we’d just stay.” In Southside’s former haunt, a group of middle schoolers text and down Pepsi. A white, aluminum Christmas tree stands nearby. The brothers say that for the most part, the violence was on the streets. “I’ve been caught in drive-bys,” Nate calmly recounts “I’ve had guns pulled on me. I mean, we’ve both been stabbed with knives.” Davon’s hand reaches to a space between his ribs in silent acknowledgement. Nate continues, “Nothing too serious, but it’s a scary thing when you have to watch your back all the time.” The gang showed solidarity at Skate City by wearing Southside’s gang colors. For the first time, Nate and Davon separated from the mass of blue and black and mixed with the other skaters.
On Friday night, the lights come up, and the rink is cleared for a brief session of speed skating. Nate bends low into a curve and graces the floor with two fingers. He is at this turn again in seconds. He moves remarkably fast and only wants to move faster. “This is where we get away from our problems,” says Nate. But with their desire for speed, there are certain dangers. They say they have left the floor of the rink stained with their blood. “I’m an epileptic,” Nate confesses, “and I was having serious issues last year. I was having ten seizures a day.” Too often, he’d have a seizure while skating, collide with a wall and end up in the back of an ambulance. The brothers continue their spirited tangent, eager to mention broken teeth, broken bones and concussions. Davon holds onto a slight smirk before recounting a hospital visit on Christmas Eve.
Even when collared by a neck brace, they approach the rink with confidence and impressive agility. Perhaps it is in this tension that Nate and Davon make skating something spectacular. They skate in smooth, practiced steps, both recklessly and gracefully, on the verge of a broken bone—a fine balancing act that seems to take no effort at all.
While still part of Southside, the brothers began to act as peacekeepers at the rink. “It’s hard as the manager to figure out when the fights are going to happen until they start pushing each other around,” says Nate, “Being a teenager and being on Facebook with all these kids, I used to go to the manager every week and let him know who was about to do something.” When the brothers notified managers of publicized fights, police were called ahead of time. Just as a fight erupted, it was broken up. Their insider knowledge helped protect the place they came to love.
They’ve fully integrated into the rink’s culture. They use skate jargon, throwing around terms like 212 (a nickname for quads based on the wheel alignment). They have built a vocabulary in skate moves and display a fluency in their ability to navigate. The brothers have an uncanny awareness of the rink’s goings-on. They connect with the rink’s new family members and keep in touch with those it has let go.
“We’re not the best kids in the world,” says Nate. “We’ve had our issues and get in trouble. And there will be times where we’ll kind of disappear off the map for a little while. But it’s a nice feeling when you leave and then you come back, and everyone’s like ‘oh hey, we missed you’.” He continues, “When we don’t show up, we do get text messages from people asking if we’re coming.”
The snack bar is at the base of the rink, separated by a series of Plexiglas panels. At the counter, Hebrew International hotdogs are sold in crinkly foil bags. Two Siberian Chill slushy machines turn their neon contents over, and over, and over. Kids line up, clutching dollars and change from their parents. Nate, Davon and friends lounge around a couple tables by the DJ booth. Nate is high-energy on a Friday night. He’ll roll in for a second and say a few words or make a joke before jumping to another pocket of friends. Davon talks to his girlfriend and sometimes sits in silence. He checks his phone and absently picks at the peeling white paint on the low cinderblock wall where he sits. He says management has had to paint it over six times because so many kids have picked at it. He says he needs to stop doing it too.
Bordering the snack bar and overlooking the rink is a DJ booth with high padded walls and a fog machine hidden inside. With a mechanic hiss, thick clouds of white smoke seep through a crack in the carpeted siding. Little kids run to press themselves up against the smoke, letting it stream around them. A woman leans into the smoke, takes a mouthful, and lets it out in a slow stream once she has moved away. The smoke lifts up carried by the hot air on the floor, thinning as it mixes with the rink’s fresh air.
There, the antics are similar. The brothers talk and race with the employees monitoring the floor. They move easily between pockets of friends and trade handshakes or play fight. Davon and his girlfriend skate and talk, as comfortable conversing on skates as anywhere else. Sometimes their conversations grow intimate, as if they are insulated from the crowd.
The brothers first met on the rink. “This guy was trying to start something with me,” Nate says. “He knocked over my girlfriend and I turned around and tried to say something. The guy stepped up like he was going to hit me.” That’s when Davon entered. “We had never really spoken a word to each other, but Davon told him to back off.” Davon shakes his head, apparently in his own memory, nodding to his version of the story that runs parallel to Nate’s telling. “When you see a familiar face, you have their back, you know,” Nate is emphatic, “It’s not like a stranger anymore, even if you’ve never talked.”
Nate invited Davon for a sleepover not long after their meeting. The following morning, Nate’s dad drove them back to Skate City where Davon’s mom waited. In the parking lot of Skate City, against the murmur of morning traffic on North Academy, an unexpected family reunion took place. Davon’s mom introduced him to his dad and then his brother. Animated, Nate says, “And it was crazy cause we already knew each other.” Now they say they are together 24/7. “That’s us, we’re as close as close can get when it comes to family.”
The rink is a neon kingdom, pulled and patched together through the decades. The carpet is unashamedly ‘80s despite having been replaced only two years ago. The brothers and their rink family have been preceded by generations of rink families and will be followed by more. It is undeniable that the brothers will each be their own branch on a rink family tree.
Reflecting on their long and often difficult path, from falling in with a gang to falling in with the rink family, Nate says, “Getting out of that lifestyle and into something like this was comforting. I mean, I would say it took a lot of steps to get where we are and not have to worry about that. I’d be out running the streets and all messed up and not knowing where I was at.” He follows, “To have a place to come back to…” but leaves it there. An incomplete statement, but it resonates. “This is my everything. This is our home,” Davon affirms.
The song ends and for a moment there is a pause. A static hum fills the space, the sound of hundreds of wheels moving across the floor. Then “0 to 100/The Catch Up” by Drake comes on. The song’s short, repetitive organ sample reverberates and the bass can be felt through the floor. Davon bends just a bit lower, pushing back on his skates. He eases forward through the crowd and finds Nate. The brothers lean in and weave around other skaters. A friend joins them as they pick up speed. Moments later, the three boys are sprinting through the crowd, navigating with graceful dips, turns and narrow misses. The trio becomes a group of five, then six, skating fast. At times they fall into line only to slip apart the next moment when the crowd builds. Some of them are smiling, but they remain mostly in shadow as everything blurs around them. The song ends and the skaters slow. Nate and Davon merge back into the spinning crowd, and once again, for a moment, the sound of so many wheels can be heard.