Heaven on Wheels

The denizens of the Gold Coast roller rink may be getting on in years. But they still let the good times roll.

Amy King shuffles into the Gold Coast roller rink garbed as an elf. Her back curves gently like a lowercase r, and she uses a rubber-tipped cane to maneuver her steady path from the entranceway's turnstile to the rows of booths that rest rinkside.

She knows where she's going. Amy's skated at this rink since she moved here from Ohio in 1958. Tonight, though, she seems a tad overwhelmed by the dozens of buoyant, Christmas-clad seniors swirling about the rink.

Her arrival's a surprise to regular rinkgoers. Last October, Amy moved from Hollywood to Vero Beach to be closer to her daughter. Both women, along with Amy's granddaughter, have trekked to Fort Lauderdale so Amy can visit with the numerous friends she's made while roller-skating at the rink's Tuesday-morning Housewives Skate and Thursday-evening Organ Music sessions.

Mary Burghardt (left) shows Emily Gomez and Jim Gillespie how to stand tall during competition
Melissa Jones
Mary Burghardt (left) shows Emily Gomez and Jim Gillespie how to stand tall during competition

The biweekly skates are the only ones in town that offer old-time skaters a haven from heart-pounding tunes, seizure-inducing strobe lights, and kids whizzing by on in-lines. During these gatherings Gold Coast hosts a faithful flock whose ages span from 50 to 80-plus. There are rarely bumbling spills or arms pinwheeling for balance, because many of these folks have skated all their lives, and the same jubilant faces return to the rink week in, week out, year after year.

For a moment Amy halts her entrance and double-blinks at the reindeer antlers, the Santa suspenders, the evergreen shirts, and the ice-white pants. She hasn't been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but in the last few years, the 76-year-old has endured some of its symptoms: forgetting names, difficulty with directions, the occasional confusion when there's too much going on around her.

A voice with a quick Midwestern clip shoots out from the rink's speaker system. "Welcome to our Christmas party, everyone!" and pretaped melodies fill the rink with the familiar notes of a fox trot, then a cha-cha. They're the kinds of songs that bring to mind bubbles, Lawrence Welk, chiffon skirts, and bow ties. The bulk of the party hits the floor, and "Tea For Two" swells over the steady thrumming of rolling wheels.

Near a carpet-covered side wall, a camera-toting woman dressed as a snow fairy urges another skater to pose by the carnival lights slatted across the rink's sloping roof. Couples and stags chat and laugh by the skate-rental counter, where a host of Tupperware containers houses the evening's munchies. Covered cakes and foil-wrapped meatballs accumulate. While there's plenty of tongue-wagging in the lounge area, most skaters cruising the rink's oval floor favor a smiling and mostly silent reverie.

Songs melt together. Skaters float about like swans, their arms stretched winglike on either side, their feet swinging up in coy little front and back kicks. Some skaters shadow one another in traditional skate dances like the Denver Shuffle or the Bounce Boogie; others clasp hands and mirror one another's strides.

More guests arrive. Hugging. Santa caps. Everyone gets snapped by the snow fairy, and now someone's even brought deviled eggs. The party's hopping.

No matter. Amy's made her way to an empty bench. She sets her cane aside and pulls a pair of Riedell white-booted skates from her bag. She's had them for years and isn't interested in upgrading because, as she likes to say, these fit her just right. After she tugs her laces tight, she stands up and glides onto the rink's original 53-year-old maple-wood floor, a small putty knife in her right hand.

She's hunting for candy. Or gum. Sometimes Gold Coast's Saturday Teen Night skaters grind both into the floor. It drives Amy nuts, yet her quest is self-imposed: No one's enlisted her for clean-up duty. She does it because she wants to keep the floor clean. She does it because she loves the rink. Each time she spots a wad, she sails over, swoops down, and scrapes a plastered piece off the maple wood's gleam. Then she glides back to the lounge and shares her catch with whomever's taking a break.

"The last time I got a piece of candy this long," she says, spreading her creased thumb and forefinger to show the appalling length. "It was sticky; it was a mess!"

Her gray eyes flutter with excitement. She heads out for another recon mission, and the faux-fur trim of her red-velvet minidress flounces about her thighs. Amy might stoop while she skates, but her long legs are toned and vein-free, more like the legs of a buff beach model than a retiree.

The music stops. It's chow time, and the line stretches past the rental counter toward the lockers. People pile into booths and tuck their skate bags beneath the seats to make more room for others. A few die-hards remain on the floor, as does Amy. An announcement over the loud speaker welcomes her back. Everyone puts down the plastic forks and knives and claps long and hard. Amy looks up, not getting it at first. When she realizes the cheering's for her, she smiles, and her fair face flushes the color of a tea rose.

Gospel Night. Gay Skate Night. Tiny Tots Skate. The Gold Coast offers niches for all breeds of skate aficionados. But it's the Tuesday and Thursday sessions that help preserve the rink's history and its sense of permanence, both rare traits in this transient town. The regulars at these skates come back for the soothing stream of big-band tunes, the fresh-brewed coffee and donut holes piled on the snack counter, and the friendships they've forged over the years -- a camaraderie based in common pasts and a sheer love of skating.

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