THE INCIDENT CAN BE TRACED TO MY television diet circa 1981. That’s when I used to watch Soul Train every Saturday, right after cartoons, and imagine myself popping and locking with that one longhaired Chinese girl. And Don Cornelius? Man, was he cool. I dug his freakishly deep voice and quaalude-slow delivery at the end of each show: “As always, in parting, we wish you peace, love, and sooooooul!” Ask anyone who attended the seventh-grade Valentine’s Day Dance at Alex W. Spence Middle School. I was white, but I tried.
I’m still white. And I’m still trying. So when I heard about a locally produced show described as “Soul Train on roller skates,” and when I learned that it was “truly off the chain,” well, I knew what had to be done. No matter that the height of my roller skating career came one night in the late ’70s, during a couples-only skate at my neighborhood rink, when I beat the high score on Defender. No matter that my repertoire of moves is today limited pretty much to skating forward and turning left. No matter that I didn’t even own roller skates. Soul Train always had at least one token white guy who couldn’t dance. I needed to be the white guy on American Roll.
I called the show’s producer and invited myself to participate in the taping of four pilot episodes. Then I went out and bought roller skates.
And so, as these things happen, I dragged a friend with me to a studio in an industrial area along Regal Row. As we pulled into the parking lot, a teenager glided past us, skating on the two front wheels of only one skate. My friend had tied an aquamarine Hermès silk scarf on her head like a pirate. It was a fabulous look. Unquestionably off the chain. Even so, this kid’s moves shook her confidence.
“What are we doing here?” Mary Read* asked. “I can’t do that.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “We’ll blend in with the crowd, like skating extras.”
Inside, though, the scene was even more intimidating. The American Roll set looked like it had been built on a tight budget with borrowed tools in someone’s backyard, but the skaters themselves were the bomb. We’re talking not only pop and lock, but back flips, too. And there were only about 20 of them, making it impossible to blend in.
Wearing our roller skates, Mary and I cowered behind the cameras. The producer invited Mary onto the dance floor for a ladies-only skate, but she declined. Even when a guy named Kevin encouraged her, Mary wouldn’t budge. Kevin said he did the opening music for the show and we should call him Kevian.
Then X-Ray plopped down in a chair beside us. Despite his abundant bling-bling, or perhaps because of it, the co-host of American Roll looked like a poor man’s P-Diddy. He certainly was no Don Cornelius. And Kevian was no O’Bryan.
Mary struck up a conversation with X-Ray as we watched a 40-year-old white guy solo skate to Nelly’s “Air Force One.” She said, “What do you hope the show will lead to?”
“This is like my hobby,” X-Ray said, slouching in his chair. “My real goal is to own luxury apartments in Dallas, Coppell, Grapevine, or Keller. You know what I’m saying?” The latter I took to be a rhetorical question.
The skating action abated for a costume change, and the producer dragged us onto the set to be interviewed by X-Ray and his co-host Tiffany. With cameras rolling, X-Ray asked how long we’d been skating together.
“Mary is like my skate vixen,” I said, the lie rolling off my tongue like Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. “My wife doesn’t like to skate, so I’ve been skating with Mary for about a year.”
“But I’ve been throwing down since ’87,” Mary said. “You know what I’m saying?”
Honestly, I didn’t. I did learn, however, that Mary Read is no longhaired Chinese girl. And me? I should probably abandon my search for soooul and just keep my feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.
* Explanation of pseudonym: Mary Read was a pirate who operated in the early 1700s, and, with all due respect to Anne Bonny, her pirate lover, Read was the best in the business.