Cohen Thompson, a surgical first assistant from West Philly, was headed to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in New Jersey.
The details of his assignment were still being worked out, but wherever he ended up, and however long he was there, the one thing he wouldn’t leave behind were his skates.
“I take my skates wherever I go,” he said. “They were the first thing I threw in my car.”
Thompson, 32, has been skating since he was a kid, taught mainly by his mom and uncles — known in the skating world as “Uncle Craig” and “Uncle Skinny.”
Uncle Craig, a.k.a. Craig Turner, and Uncle Skinny, a.k.a. Rodney Harris, recalled how they’d sneak their talented nephew into “adult skate nights” at Philly-area rinks, some of which are long gone now.
Their nephew was a natural.
“It’s an amazing generational curse,” Thompson joked, adding that the skill has been passed down from his great-grandmother.
“That’s just how we stayed out of trouble, made friendships in the neighborhood, and across the city,” he said.
No matter what was going on in his life growing up in West Philly, or in the world around him, roller skates were his constant.
Part exercise, but a much bigger part athletic and artistic expression.
A no-frills stress reliever.
And who doesn’t need some — Oh, who are we kidding? — a lot of that these days.
It didn’t take long before Thompson needed a break from the intense 12-plus-hour shifts at coronavirus testing sites.
So, one night last week, he grabbed his skates and headed to MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands.
Still in his scrubs, he balanced his phone camera on his trunk and skated around the empty stadium parking lot. He later turned it into one of those fun social media dance challenges.
His moves hit a nerve. He was featured on Action News on 6ABC. Ellen Smith, Will Smith’s sister, who lives locally, contacted him about teaching her and her daughters.
“I just thought it was really cool,” she said.
Smith and Thompson talked about his nonprofit, Skate University, which Thompson mostly funds out-of-pocket to teach people how to skate.
Cohen was psyched for the attention, and not just because he hopes to one day have a Philly-based Skate University indoor rink.
In the uncertainty of the pandemic, he also sensed a strong, national, back-to-the-basics pull.
You’ve seen it. All over social media, people are baking bread from scratch — if they can find yeast. Or, forced to skip the gym, heading out for a run — preferably with a mask.
Roller skating, he concluded, would be a natural addition to this new world.
Though, this wouldn’t be so much a comeback as renewed attention to a classic art form. Anyone in the know knows that roller skating in African American communities in cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles has a devoted following.
Watch the HBO documentary United Skates, which beautifully and heartbreakingly chronicles the underground world of African American roller skating as some of its most beloved haunts go bust.
Just like in the movie, when some Philly-area rinks closed over the years, die-hard skaters traveled to get their skating fix. And when they couldn’t, they grabbed a boom box and headed to their local parks.
Now, in the time of corona, they have to get even more creative. While Thompson is skating at open-air stadium parking lots, Uncle Skinny confided that he’s skating on his new hardwood floors. Unapologetically.
“Every night,” he said when I called to talk about his nephew, “front room and dining room. You gotta do what you gotta do.”
For Thompson, that means skating around his crazy new schedule, and planning for when the world opens up again.
He’s been working toward having a full-time home for his skating nonprofit for years, but the pandemic has made him more determined than ever that there’s no time like the present.
“I want to make sure that if you’re a kid, you’ll never have to pay to have fun again,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to.”
Look, some good has got to come out of this mess of a world right now.