By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Those days are almost certainly gone now, as are the Peter Max-style murals, a victim of the corporate baby blue-and-yellow paint scheme. Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs are out; in are 550 75-cent lockers, video games, and vending machines where patrons can buy bottled water for $1.50. These concessions alone could bring in a quarter-million dollars a year. "This ain't no mom-and-pop operation anymore," says Big Bob, as employees in matching blue polo shirts and Old Navy-style headsets walk by.
Clearly Big Bob is not thrilled with some of the aesthetic decisions made by the Ohio-based conglomerate that purchased Empire. "I tried to tell them, 'This is Brooklyn, this ain't no Cleveland suburb.' " But after trying to buy the establishment himselfand being turned down by 40 lendershe's philosophical about the takeover by outsiders. It was Big Bob himself who turned to United Skates of America when it appeared a developer might buy the building and put co-ops on the site.
And he points out that his 20,000-watt sound system is still intact. He can still do what he refers to as "catching the Holy Ghost"that is, he can build the music up as a session progresses, read the crowd, and then drop Nas or James Brown at chest-pounding levels, whipping the skaters into a frenzy of screaming, shouting, flying bodies.
And the skaters will adjust to the family atmosphere. Shannon Selby, a Crown Heights resident and sometime "back dancer" with Mariah Carey, has been skating and dancing here for half his life. Selby and his brother came on opening night to work on a dance move where they roll forward into a somersault, then slide backward across the floor on their heads. But the guards quickly informed Selby of yet another new rule: Dancing without skates is now prohibited at Empire. Undeterred, Selby and his brother laced up their skates, somersaulted across the floor, and slid backward on their heads, skates high in the air.