City Paper is not for tourists.
If you occasionally happy-hour around Dupont Circle, chances are you’ve seen an imposing swarm of skaters swoop down Connecticut or some other hilly avenue.
Clad in colorful spandex and padded all over, they buzz by like some wussy chapter of the Hell’s Angels, ignoring red lights, infuriating motorists and copsand smiling as if they know something we unwheeled soles don’t.
Who are these people? They’re WAR: Washington
What is WAR good for? More fun than you should be allowed to have on eight wheels, say members of the area’s most visible in-line skating troop.
“OK, loop over to Capitol Hill, on to Eastern Market and Union Station!” barks Andrew Baxley to his WAR comrades, reconnoitered as usual in front of the White House at the unofficial Tim McVeigh Park, a former slice of Pennsylvania Avenue that the Secret Service unwittingly converted into a skaters’ paradise after the Oklahoma City bombing. Upon giving his command, Baxley takes off in the direction of the aforementioned targets, and the company, as ordered, falls in. Three hours and about 30 miles later, they’ll
Baxley enlisted with WAR four years ago. He’s risen to the rank of events coordinator now, which isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. He leads Wednesday and Friday night skates. And Saturday and Sunday afternoon skates, some of which go on for three to five hours. Then there are the teaching clinics. And the charity and social functions. And the out-of-town junkets to skate in different surroundings with other wheeled swarms.
“In all the years I’ve been leading skates, I’ve never taken the same route,” Baxley says. “I’m like the Grateful Dead: different every time.”
Back in the days of side-by-side, two-by-two skates, some people surely enjoyed getting together to roll away the hours. But the attitude that WAR flaunts is intrinsic to in-liners only. When WAR takes to the city streets, it owns them.
The skating mania that spawned WAR dates back to 1980, when some ice hockey players happened upon a pair of old in-line skates and figured that the design would provide a more helpful summer workout than the standard two-by-two setup. The puckheads’ thinking led to the formation of Rollerblade Inc.a company that initially limited its target market to cross-training winter athletesin Minnetonka, Minn.
But after a few years of so-so sales, Rollerblade was sold to investors who saw in-line skating’s potential as a year-round endeavor for people who wouldn’t know a slapshot from a snapshot. The company’s new ownership actually gave away skates to people in highly visible, sunny settings like Venice Beach and South Beach, Calif., and thereby almost singlehandedly created what is now a billion-dollar industry. A couple of dozen other in-line skate manufacturers are now cranking out skates, but Rollerblade still dominates the field so thoroughly that its in-house lawyers clearly are fearful the trademark could go the way of Kleenex or Xerox. (“Trademarks are never verbs. There is no such term as Rollerblading,” says the company’s Web site.) And to those in the skating domain, Rollerblade plays up “aggressive skating” and reminds denizens that it doesn’t offer just a product, but “a lifestyle.”
WAR is for those, like Baxley, who crave the Rollerblade lifestyle, whatever that is. More than 200 dues-paying ($24 a year, semi-optional) soldiers are on WAR’s membership rolls now, and when the weather’s right a downright threatening number of them skate together.
Cathy Schneider is among WAR’s newest recruits. She’s a New York native who only moved to D.C. to become a professor at American University. Skating, she says, changed her mind about the town. And once she got good at it, Schneider hooked up with WAR, hoping to find other transplants who shared her passion. She found them.
“I didn’t like Washington until I started skating here,” Schneider says. “But this is the greatest skating town there is, with monuments and things. And it’s not a big city at all. Now, I don’t have a car and don’t need one. I can get everywhere I have to go on skates.”
But WAR isn’t for everybody, Baxley warns. Beginners or barely intermediate skaters aren’t wanted or welcomed on the group skates. Because of the length of their excursions (five-hour skates aren’t out of the question) and the aggressive way they carry themselves in the company of vehicles, the WAR battle cry is, “If you can’t stop, don’t start.” Skaters’ injuries, in line with that thinking, are blamed on the victim.
“We had a guy separate his shoulder last week. He fell. He shouldn’t have been with us,” Baxley says, without a shred of empathy. “Another guy fell down the steps at the Lincoln Memorial and broke both wrists. Steps are fun, if you can do them. He was stupid.”
Since WAR’s founding a decade ago, nobody’s become road pizza on a group skate, but close scrapes are as common as knee scrapes.
Motorists who get offended by WAR’s presence or occasional disregard for others’ right of way risk incurring the wrath of everybody on a group skate. There’s strength in numbersand WAR boasts big numbersso road-ragers only rarely show their colors.
“We had two guys get out of a car in Georgetown once after a skater kicked their car, like they were going to do something,” says Shane King, a Hyattsville musician and WAR veteran. “We surrounded them with, like, 80 guys right away. They didn’t do anything.”
The numbers don’t always help. The residents of a neighborhood near RFK Stadium were so put off at being included on Baxley’s travel plan one night that they bombarded the skaters with rocks. A WAR member was felled by a stone to the jaw, and the culprits got away. WAR hasn’t ventured near that unfriendly turf since.
And officers of the law have been a constant thorn in WAR’s side. The group has been unhappy with the police since it was officially banned from Freedom Plaza, its original meeting site, some years ago for the aggressive skating of its members.
Tensions between WAR and the Man escalated further last month when a cop, from his car, broke up a group skate by ordering members to stay off Georgia Avenue and stay on the sidewalks, under threat of a mass arrest. That’s one reason the skating routes are always changing. But even so, Baxley says, the relationship with police poses the biggest threat to WAR’s existence.
“We can’t do what we do on sidewalks,” he says. “The police in this town still think of skates as toys. That’s got to change. We don’t use toys.”Dave McKenna