— Feathers and Wax

Warriors, come out and play

Houston is a city that runs on oil. We love our trucks, primarily, and our cars. It’s why the city is so massive and why the sprawl is never ending. It’s why people are still building brand new suburbs and freeways constantly go under construction. We see our city as a series of blurred strip malls and parking lots as we whiz by on four tires.

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But that’s not all Houston is, and I’m not sure I would know that as well as I do if it wasn’t for street skates. They’ve exposed me to pockets of this town I never knew existed, and would have remained undiscovered by me had I kept to the beaten path.

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Like how there’s a bike trail that runs under the freeways and along the bayou just outside of downtown. Or how there’s this hole-in-the-wall bar in the shadows of skyscrapers that feels almost like it was air-dropped in from a backwoods part of the state. Or how there’s this warehouse yard that is home to multiple bust statues of US presidents.

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I wouldn’t get to experience any of this if it wasn’t for these folks: The Urban Animals.

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The Urban Animals is a group of Houston street skaters that formed in the late 70s. If you want to watch the most bizarre and impressive roller skating antics ever, check out “Speed Street” by Patrick Waugh on youtube, part I and part II (I’m serious, just skip past the slow parts, it’s worth it). The group lived up to the latter half of their name, becoming notorious in Houston in those days primarily for their late night cross-town skates as well as roller jousts (which were basically exactly what that sounds like).

Photo by George Hixson

Our city’s rebellious street skating past is something to be proud of. In those days it was illegal to skate in downtown but the Animals fought against those laws and eventually got them overturned in 1991 (Sec. 45-16 of Houston Code of Ordinances), which means I get to do it whenever I want. Who needs a roller rink when you have this to play in?

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Houston’s downtown is more of a business district than a living district, so the streets are largely empty after about 7 p.m. It makes for prime street skating – beautiful, pothole-free streets and multiple places to stop for a pint, all filled with locals who will smile and ask how often you fall down on “those things.”

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Now that it’s warmer out, I went on my first skate of the year this past weekend and have fallen fully back in love with it all. It’s all speed and sweat and the wind in your face. Skating hard through empty streets until you have to stop, hands on your knees and sucking wind while the group’s whoops and hollers echo off the marble sides of skyscrapers. You take a minute to laugh at some crass graffiti on a sidewalk and then wave to the bar patrons who yell “roller derby” at you from across the street. You gingerly skip over the train tracks, lips tightening as you remember the stories about so-and-so skater who broke her leg that way once, long ago. It won’t ever be easy-going and it won’t ever be slow-paced but no one is ever left behind either. And the things that go down during the night will sometimes become legend.

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You shout out jokes and tease other skaters in between the warnings of “car up,” “car back” and “clear.” Inhibitions are lowered even while traffic rules are (mostly) respected, and everyone watches each other’s backs. Tabs are never opened at the bar and decision making about where to go next happens at lightning speed. A few words are spoken and then you’re off through the back alleys and on the bike paths, crossing over on the turns and owning the lane and bitching about the cracks in the pavement.

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Before the night’s through you’ll have a belly full of Frank’s pizza and tired legs, with a few scratches from that time you hit a patch of gravel and took a dive. But you’ll already be devising how to make the next skate into one hell of a night.

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Thanks for reading Feathers and Wax! x