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Rollerskaters devoted to midnight mass

Jolie Karno

Thursday, April 13, 1995

SHOUTING, SINGING and laughing out loud, hundreds of rollerskaters flood the streets of San Francisco each Friday night. The "Midnight Rollers" take up an entire lane of traffic, causing passers-by to question the nakedness of their own feet.

This event began in 1989 when a few friends decided to explore the city on skates, and has grown to 400 of us cruising through 121/2 miles of hills and tunnels from the Embarcadero to Pacific Heights. We are as young as 14 and as old as 60, and our chosen skating apparel ranges from the latest sportswear to semiformal attire to costumes like the one worn by the easy-to-spot "Golden Guy," whose Golden Viking Disco Suit lights up.

Most of us have found that in our daily life we're typecast. But at the skate you can create your own persona, becoming anything from a rock star to a mad scientist. It's all right to be different 'cause we're all weirdos here.

Drawing attention to ourselves is not the main objective, but it does feel great when pedestrians stop us and demand to know what we're doing. They look at us with a mix of fear and envy when we tell them it's not for charity, not a race, but just for fun. "They yell "roller blades!' as we go by, and I scream "shoes!' in return," says Terry, a newcomer to the skate.

The skate starts in a parking lot at the Ferry Building, where founder David "Dee" Miles cranks music from his van to get things started. Newcomers are made to feel welcome by the more seasoned skaters, who are more than willing to show 'em the ropes.

Alex, who has skated every week since she came to San Francisco a year ago, says that she likes the safety aspects of skating with a group this size: "Everybody looks out for each other," she says. Tracy, another member of this large rolling family, says the skate is the best possible way to meet people. "It's better than going out to a bar on the weekend and spending all your money just to get groped by drunk smelly men."

Both Alex and Tracy belong to what might be called the "social butterfly" branch of the skate. These people tend to skate at a moderate pace, sing songs, tell jokes and make friends with passers-by. At the front of the throng are the people who are more speed-oriented, always challenging each other to go faster.

Then there are the tricksters, who seize the numerous opportunities along the way to jump over park benches, tennis nets and stairs. If that's too much for you to handle, you can always form a human chain of a hundred or so people latching wrists and pulling into a tight spiral under the Palace of Fine Arts.

My favorite stop on the tour is Union Square, home to a collection of ramps, staircases and park benches just the right height for jumping, riding or flipping over.

Everyone has a chance to be onstage here. If you don't know how to ride stairs, there's always someone who's delighted to teach you. Or you can just sit back and witness "Jumpin' Bean" Haney leaping over three city-sized garbage cans, or Matt "Turbo" Arnoux bounding over endless sets of benches.

Adventure does sometimes carry a price. On a recent Friday night, for example, I encountered a skate-friendly driver who offered me a "skitch" -- a cross between skating and hitch-hiking where you grab onto the back of the car and get a tow up an Impossible Hill. It's one of the most dangerous things a skater can do, and it also happens to be illegal.

Unknown to my friends and me, there was an undercover police car directly in back of us. The siren went off as soon as we started our skitch. The policeman asked, "Don't you know that's dangerous? I mean, I skate when I'm not on duty but. . . ."

Most of The City finds it hard to resist the spirit of the skate. "People are attracted to the skate 'cause it's got this snowballing positivity effect," says Terrence, who's been a Friday night skate addict for about three years.

For the dancers among us, that spirit lasts into the night, when we gather our forces and take over some dance club en masse. Even there, pedestrians move over while we prevail upon the dance floor with the velocity often associated with children, and sometimes, twice the grace. Jolie Karno is on the staff of YO! (Youth Outlook), a newspaper by and about Bay Area teens produced by Pacific News Service. devoted to midnight mass YO!

04/13/95 11:43 PST

Thursday, April 13, 1995 San Francisco Examiner, All Rights Reserved, Unauthorized Duplication Prohibited.