My son Joe and I bought sneaker roller skates from a typical Chicago hustler at the Dearborn Garden Walk street festival in early summer 1977. They were a novelty—yellow canvas shoes attached to shock-absorbent, sound-proof neoprene wheels. We lived in nearby Sandburg Village and skated home that day carrying our shoes.
The rest of the summer and into the fall, after school and work and on weekends, we’d skate around the Near North side and downtown Chicago, charting the smoothest sidewalks, the longest ride, uphill climbs and downhill coasts.
One October day we skated over to Lake Michigan’s Navy Pier. Built in 1916, Navy Pier has been used as a cargo hub, a military base, college campus, convention center, recreation center and wedding pavilion. Before its retrofit, the watery concrete jetty hosted Chicago Fest and the International Art Expo. That day in 1977 when Joe and I were skating around, the deserted mile-long slab of steely smelling cement shouldered two low-slung cargo sheds divided down the middle by a midway for tractor trailers. A few joggers who’d parked their cars in the lot in front of the pier were trotting out and back along the sun-drenched lake side, a perfect 2-mile run.
We chose the leeward route, the interior midway, because we noticed half-opened doors to the cargo sheds, though no workers were in sight.
“Let’s go look inside.” I said to Joe.
Gregarious ring-billed gulls hawked insects on the wing overhead. Otherwise, the place
was noiseless. We skated off to a half-opened articulated overhead door, bent under and slid through. Our squinty eyes adjusted to the shadowy warehouse. Row after row of two-story high floats showcased Dumbo, clowns popping out of train cars, horses hanging over barn doors, dragons, Charlie Brown and Lucy, castles and fairies, Santa’s sleigh and reindeers and Old Mother Hubbard’s shoe with her big-headed children clinging to the side.
“Whoa-ho!” said Joe, “this is where they store the parade floats!”
We skated under dragon’s fire and around angels’ wings farther and farther into the semi-dark. It was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, movies that put head-trip phantasms in our everyday journeys. The bang of an unseen door slamming shut whooshed life into the moribund creatures. The two of us tacked on our skates and sailed back through the outsized flatbeds into the light to shake off the spirits of our fright.
I once heard the old parade floats got dumped into the defunct Riverview Amusement Park, and I hope that’s true. It’d be a perfect graveyard for the ghouls on parade.
Joe took up skateboarding the next spring when he was 11 and rolled around his own
Chicago with his friends. I dumped my skates for a bicycle and I often pedal around the modernized Navy Pier. Every once in a while I get spooked by a mysterious whop. I shake myself real: those clowns popping out of that train car are not coming for me.