The headlines, or the history books one, will soon read:
JAY PURDY, JONNY FRITZ, AND BRANDON JOYCE, DURING THE 27TH AND 28TH OF MAY, THIS TWO THOUSAND AND FIVE, ROLLERBLADED FROM SOUTHERNMOST PHILADELPHIA TO NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, TO A HERO’S WELCOME.
Three masters of disaster, crossing a hundred miles by rollerblade, in what was to be one of the true epics of modern times. We are all three still spinning, still nourished, from that round and hellish feat. Let me provide you with some of the details, along with some ideas that hang very nicely on top of them.
The Quest first occured to us after Jonny and I had taken a roller-excursion to FDR skatepark, here in South Philadelphia. It was a foray into that new extreme sport/field of experimental sociology we might call faggotry: braving the slings and arrows and “hey faggots” of common social pressures against things and activities— like spandex, like “fruitbooting”— that might not strike people as sufficiently rugged or punk-rock for their tastes. As any dragqueen or flamboyant homosexual can tell you: it takes a real man to be a faggot.
By the time I waddled out of the car at FDR, I had a helmet strapped to my head and a pillow strapped to my ass, striding the world as the archetypal gaylord. We made for the vert ramp, fucked around a little, but soon realized that we needed something larger in scope, something that put us in the middle of the things. We then bladed to West Philadelphia, for the evening, bragged a bit, and bladed all the way home again. This still left us wanting.
Jonny suggested rollerblading to New York. Five minutes later, the Quest was set.
Jay naturally joined the minute he caught word.
I returned from Virginia, from my grandmother’s funeral, the night of the 26th. We set sail the next morning, at dawn, after two hours sleep, from the South Philadelphia Athenaeum. Damn near the Southernmost tip of Philadelphia.
The first twenty miles— through the unending annexes of Northeast Philadelphia— were pleasant enough; except for the fact that, after twenty miles of any quest, you’d kind of like to be able to say that you’ve left town. We sailed through these freakish timecapsule neighborhoods with picket fences, Pennsyltuckians, and homestyle chickenshacks; neighborhoods that were otherwise incommensurable with anything else I’d seen in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until a pitstop at an inconvenience store named Erkies that our troubles began. Inside, Erkies hid little more than a cooler of drinks and a small rack of nibbles. Everything else, up and down the aisles, was covered in a quarter-inch layer of dust. The cash register was a hundred years old and made of wood— and I think so was the cashier.
Slamming Powerade on the steps outside, Jay and Jonny phoned Freddy, from Punk Rock Payroll, to mapquest our mileage so far. It was then that Jay let out a few squeaks of fatigue.
“I’m already a little busted. Maybe I’m just being a little bitch, but I’d like to trade somebody blades. Just to know. I swear that I’m pushing downhill.”
Jonny and I believed him, but were not dear enough friends to offer sympathy; returning with a bare “okay, Jay, whatever.” We were in Bensalem when Jay’s blades imploded.
Jonny had had the fortune of borrowing true rollerblades. Jay and I had purchased cheapshit toyblades from Wal-Mart and Target, and were only then beginning to understand the ugly consequences. Lucky for me, my pieces-of-shit were a little higher end than Jay’s. By the time we crossed into Bensalem, Jay’s bearings had crapped out for good. Jonny had fiddled a little with them before by a basketball park—where local youths kept a wary, homophobic distance—- but all the rigging and “backwards engineering” in the world could not save these skates. Jay was disheartened but undefeated. We made it to a McDonald’s and considered our options over fries and more Powerade.
“Here’s my plan,” Jay started, “I’m going to try to call Heather, see if she can drive here, pick me up, drive me to a Wal-Mart or where ever. I’ll buy new rollerblades, then meet back up with you guys later on….”
Only to add, as an afterthought, a mighty and aspirated “Fuck.”
The plan was hopeful; more hopeful than Jonny and I were. We figured it was a cruel fate gracefully embraced; not really believing that Jay could pull it off. So once all the water in our bodies had been replaced with Powerade, Jonny and I bid Jay farewell, and left him stranded with his prayers and a cellphone.
The going got a little tough thereafter. The sidewalks and bikelanes disappeared into highways; with only a rumplestrip between us and a bloody end under a macktruck. We made real progress, though, but only by ignoring all interest in self-preservation. If a rollerlane was missing, we up and made one. When drivers honked and screamed, we waved and gave spirited All-American thumbs-ups. We just acted as if everybody was cheering us on like a pair of decathaletes, even when they hurled obscenities and buzzed us with their Range Rovers. My personal favorite were the senior citizens who, even when we were on the shoulders, refused to pass us for fear of young people throwing themselves under the car.
Jay’s prayers, it turns out, were answered…. In the form of an angel named Tristan, who drove our Jay to and fro, and got him back on his blades again. Absolute triumph of the will. The powertrio was realigned again, on the curb of some far-thrown 7-11, where the young black girls would not even give us the time of day. Literally.
Jay was a new man. By this point, I was a very old man. Maybe I neglected to mention this, but before Our Quest, Jay and I had spent no more than ten minutes of our lives in rollerblades. I could barely stand in the things; much less stop on command. Believe it or not, this created some problems when barreling downhill, against the red, into busy intersections. The bridge into Trenton, for instance. Jonny— who had until recently, concealed his previous experience with rollerblades— bravely but barely managed the slope. With just enough time to signal back to Jay and I to “please stop. No.”
But the warning came too late.
Jay exploded about twenty feet from the bridge. I detoured, only seconds later, into a parking lot and pulled a faceplant on the asphault. We both came up laughing like maniacs. Jay regained balance but lost control, and found himself drifting helplessly like a flood victim, into the motorlanes of the bridge, as some operator yelled that he was “going the wrong way.” I crossed the street with all due care, and held onto a stopsign— again very much like a flood victim waiting for the Coast Guard. I guess the flood metaphor works so well because it was obvious that we were up against forces larger than ourselves: time, gravity, and human limitation. All three to be overcome.
What would compel three people to do this, to strive for this sort of self-infliction? “Why are you doing this,” Meghan asked me over the phone. The first half of the answer is that this was epic in every significant sense; just the kind of deed I envision when I speak of “epic action.” It is a suitably modern epic in its particulars and proper nouns, but in its form, arc, and motives, Our Quest was wholly classical. Like ancient Hellenic and Roman epics, the deed was self-inflicted and initiated, not from necessity, but rather to overcome or surpass petty necessities. To achieve the tall glory, greatness, and immortality of the unknown, the undone, and the impossible. We wanted to become, like Homeric Achilles, “a speaker of great words and a doer of great deeds.” So the Life-Narrative must be written accordingly— and when I talk about Life-Narrative, I’m not using it as a cute metaphor for the story of Life told in retrospect. The Life-Narrative is life lived out with the same care and uncompromised perfection that a good author pens a fiction; deliberate, fully formed, with events fitting into meanings. It is lived as realized fiction; myth made real. Not so that you have something to brag to the grandkids about, after the fact, but so that life will be Sublime and Interesting for the same reasons that we find our narratives Sublime or Interesting in the first place.
The Life-Narrative is at its best when it hijacks literary devices and literary thinking from its usual safety spaces— page, stage, and screen— and uses it to mold experience into epic form. Well, it doesn’t always have to be epic in its genre. In this case, it was. Our Quest was based, like most of my proudest moments, on strong heroics, on the kind of fiction that portrays the gritty details of what it’s like to be an exemplar. Epics like those of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Argonautica, or the Chanson de Roland. The epic poet does not go easy on his heroes. They suffer. They gather experience. Rarely do they encounter much downtime. To follow the logic of the epic in writing your Life-Narrative, then, is to be hard on yourself; to collapse the distinction between the third-personal narrator and the first-personal sufferer. Besides, the first rule of all storywriting is that conflict, or suffering even, is the motor of all narrative. Courting disaster and living outside the realm of wise ideas is the first step into any epic.
But Our Quest was not all and only epic. Our Quest, like 90 percent of my daily narratives, also assumed the form of the picaresque. This is the genre of Life-Narrative, alongside epics, that I feel best at writing. Picaresques are satirical stories that usually have two or three clever, roguish protagonists— or “picaroons”— who romp through the world, falling into little episodes and scheme-driven misadventures, and out of step with the common world of corruption and boredom. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Garagantua and Pantagruel, Ascyltos and Giton in the Satyricon, the Marx Brothers and most cartoons, and even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. These are all picaresques, and I borrow forms from them liberally. It is how I approach the field of possibility. So Our Quest was epic in outline; but equally picaresque in its minute-to-minute breakdown.
Nowhere did I realize this more— our tiny step from the ridiculous to the sublime— than when I had slowed to a crawl up the slate sidewalks outside of Princeton, New Jersey. Holy hell, was it ever not fun! Jonny and Jay were starting to break away from me, as Princeton girls chuckled at this beet-red rollerchampion panting his way along a well-populated golf course. I was living for waterbreaks by this point, and was a really sad spectacle next to Jonny and Jay’s relatively easy glide. But going through Princeton restored me. Seeing a sign for “New Brunswick 15″ restored me. And, as thunderclouds rolled in, and the roads smoothed out, I felt power return. I soared through the homestretch as if by the heelwings of Mercury. Burning real distances.
Just outside of New Brunswick though, the sky fell. We got trapped in a stripmall, unfortunately of the typically-Princetonian, overpriced variety. We were starving, but not seven-dollars-starving. We dropped hints with the wealthy and well-groomed Princetonians that we spoke with, but to no effect. One spazzy local kid came out of nowhere and started talking about his 700 dollar cellphone… “It can store videos. I can watch cable television. Everything. In fact, I have this extra set of headphones. When my mom grounds me from my cellphone, no problem right. I just stick these on and use voicedialing…” On and on. He went back in the check on his order, which by the length of his presentation, must have taken twenty minutes.
He rushed back outside “Hey, they just made me an extra burrito!!”
We all lit up.
“But,” the kid started, “I’m pretty hungry. So I might eat them both.”
Which, sure enough, he did.
The storm was not letting up. So putting aside daydreams of entering New Brunswick to a cheering crowd, we phoned Leslita to save us. It was a shame to be only miles from our midpoint, and be halted by something like the weather. Shortcuts were unbecoming.
What, then, did we do to celebrate our arrival in New Brunswick? —-We went to a rollerskating rink.
Jonny, Jay, Leslita, me, and a hundred 7th graders. A glorious hour of wide circles and electric slides to Christina Aguillera. The evening at its most lyrical solution; a chapter closed on that night’s Life-Narrative. When we drove by, we all immediately knew what had to be done.
We then collapsed in Leslita’s house in New Brunswick, after a bowl of pasta and a few juvenile jokes about raping each other in the night. “It’s not sexual,” Jonny said, “It’s just a power thing.”
The following morning— and the second leg of the trip— was less proud, but amply more comic. The bruises and blisters had humbled us a little, and my rollermuscles had given way and slowed me down to a sad little waddle. Fifteen hours on rollerblades and I was still, in effect, on training wheels. Jonny and Jay looked back in pity.
The stage was set for another highlight disaster. Near another misgauged traffic light. Jonny, again this time, barely got through the green. Jay crossed when the light was “orange” and made it safely up the hill. I was flying down the hill well into the red, in the grips of true panic. Rollerblades have brakes, but these do absolutely nothing past a certain velocity. I considered my options…Death. Death was one option; the option waiting for me in the intersection. Crashing— that was the other option, the best option. I ate shit at a zillion miles an hour, in full view of hundreds of eyes, and lost it again. Jonny and Jay were already in hysterics. I got up, tried to find firm ground again on the sidewalk, only to gain speed and collide with a giant wall. I spun in circles and slipped on my ass. The people in the nearby cars were laughing so hard that they felt compelled to honk their horns, as a form of applause.
I live for these moments. Moments beyond all shame, when the soul is released at last from the need to keep its composure. It was satisfying enough to last us the remaining twenty miles or so to Newark. Not even the deaththreats we received in Elizabeth could dampen our spirits. We just made it to the train; kind of washing ashore on the platform. We had to take the train. There is no pedestrian thoroughfare into the city, except for maybe the George Washington Bridge. That would have added another fifty miles, up and down. So if you want to get technical, our little rollerderby was only from Philadelphia to Newark, but you can hardly fault us for not swimming with the things on.
When we arrived in New York, we rollerbladed through Penn Station, taking in that charged and carbonic aroma that lingers in every station and airport worldwide. The smell is some part machine, some part anticipation, and never fails to get me going. Once the boots were pried off, we lounged on the sidewalk a bit; then walked for hours until Meghan Eckman— the third angel in Our Quest— picked us up outside Studio 54. It was over, complete. Two solid days of exaggerated Being, come to a close. We celebrated at an amusing but anticlimactic Spandex party somewhere in Brooklyn. I was happy enough to share the company with two other people— two inspiring figures, two aspiring gaylords— that would throw themselves so willingly and so completely into the Unknown, the Undone, and the Impossible.
Listen though: I will never, ever rollerblade again. As long as I live.