This Sunday, patrons of the Happy Wheels roller rink in Portland will skate their last laps under the disco balls and dance music that has provided a steady beat for more than 40 years. It's a place where kids have strapped on their first skates, where teens have found refuge, where adults have fallen in love, even married — and where a new generation has learned to love skating.
This week, loyal patrons gathered at the last roller rink in southern Maine on its final adult skate night to celebrate the place that helped shape their lives.
There are three kinds of roller skaters at Happy Wheels: the recreational skaters, who come in occasionally; the “rink rats,” the teens who hang out every week; and then there are the die-hards. 38-year-old Derek Fitzgerald is a die-hard lifer. He says when he puts on skates, “I’m home.”
Fitzgerald pretty much grew up at Happy Wheels. He took his first skate at this rink when he was two. He spent so many hours here as a kid that by the time he turned 16, he wasn't asked if he wanted a job — the manager just threw him a floor guard shirt and said, 'You know what to do.' At age 38, Fitzgerald still works here every week, even during his vacations from his other, full-time job at Idexx.
"To me, personally, this is almost like an identity loss,” he says. “This is who I am. Even though I work at other places, and people know me from other places, but everybody knows me from Happy Wheels."
This kind of connection to Happy Wheels is more common than you might think.
Once the doors open for the night, the rink swarms with skaters, and it's hard to find someone who doesn't have a personal story about the place.
Eighteen-year-old Katura Wooden says she's descended from a long line of Happy Wheelers.
"My grandparents met here. My mom used to skate here when she was little, and these are her skates, so I kinda wanted to carry that on to the very last minute I could."
Wooden says she was a regular here every Friday night in eighth grade. Happy Wheels was a place she felt comfortable socializing as a shy middle school student. Many people have returned to the rink in its last days for the nostalgia or to reconnect with old friends.
Dave Langella says he has not skated in at least a decade, but he used to be a manager at the rink.
"I worked third shift at Bath Iron Works. So I used to work here, then go to work there,” he says. “A lot memories, a lot of good people here. Made hundreds and hundreds of friends here."
The loss of the place that launched and nurtured so many friendships is what makes Happy Wheels' closure so painful for some. It's the last of what used to be a family of seven rinks in Maine and New Hampshire.
"This is the 3rd one I’ve shut down," says 72-year-old Danny Dyer, the manager here. He's worked at different Happy Wheels rinks for nearly 50 years. This last location in Portland has been sold to a developer, but it's unclear what will take its place.
"It’s the end of an era in this area,” says Dyer. “It’s just the building and property become too valuable for the business being run here."
The closure is hitting 57-year-old Payson Wiers particularly hard, who says Happy Wheels has provided some of the most pivotal moments in his life. He skated here as a teen, where he met his first wife. He later remarried, but his second wife died suddenly from an aneurysm, and Wiers says he sank into a deep depression and needed something to pull him out. Even though he hadn't been to Happy Wheels in a decade, he decided to return.
"Because it was like family. You can go to therapy or counseling or whatever. But you come here, and - I was never one for the alcohol scene. I was never one for the bar scene or any of that stuff. So, here, it was safe. Nobody would judge you."
One night, a woman named Susan caught his eye. She had also come to Happy Wheels to find respite from life's challenges.
"I don't know, it just makes you feel happy,” she says. “All of your stress and your worries and everything just seems to go away. You don’t think about all the bad stuff going on. I had a really tough job for a long time. And I'd come here and be stressed out when I walked in the door, and when I went home at night, it was great."
Payson Wiers asked Susan to skate. They've now been married for more than 20 years. They're regulars at adult skate night, but after Happy Wheels closes on Sunday, the only other rinks nearby are in Auburn and Haverhill, Massachusetts. Which has Payson Wiers considering other future options.
" Kentucky has 30 rinks. So, I have friends in Kentucky, and I retire in three years,” he says. “So I could always move down to Kentucky and I could roller skate down there."
But, as Susan reminds him, it wouldn't be the same people, the same family, that they'd found here at Happy Wheels.
Originally published 5:18 p.m. Dec. 14, 2019