There are several situations in which it would be helpful to have a neck like an owl. In other words, a neck capable of turning 270 degrees. You might look kind of creepy but you could swivel it around while driving, while in Yoga class, while walking home late at night. And an owl neck (not to be confused with a “cowl neck” – I already have a few of those) would come in especially handy if you’re ever overcome by the strange urge to go skating for fun on a crowded public session.
I recently decided it was time to check out the newest skating venue in New York City: The Pond at Bryant Park. Bryant Park is located in Midtown next to the Public Library and near to both Grand Central Station and Times Square. It’s known for having WiFi service and for showing movies, mostly classics, on Mondays in the summer. It’s now a winter hotspot, so to speak, from November through mid-January, boasting a holiday fair, a Canadian cocktail lounge fittingly named Celsius, and “free” ice skating.
A lot of non-skaters in my life had partaken of this slippery fun and wondered what I thought of it. I found it was difficult to form an opinion without actually going there, so I dug out the old Reidells, tied them together then hung them over my shoulder in order to stroll on over. (Okay, I confess that there was actually a backpack and a cab involved, but that other image is better.)
Of course the word “free” is always suspect but in this case it really is true as long as you bring your own skates (no problem) and don’t bring any valuables or wear your favorite shoes (oops) because you’ll have to rent out some NYC storage real estate either in the Bag Check area for $7 or in a locker, the lock of which (if you didn’t know to bring one) will put you back $10. I chose the latter option, rationalizing that you can never have enough locks…you never know if you’ll suddenly be called for an emergency repeat of 7th grade and it’s good to be ready for that kind of thing.
Four friends joined me for the occasion, two of whom are skaters. Two of whom are not and therefore they had the pleasure of strapping on the stylish, royal blue rental skates (nope, not free). There was a lot of giggling while we got ready. We asked each other how long it had been since we last skated, the answers ranging from “three years ago” (giggle) to “two hours ago” (giggle, for the opposite reason – what are we, obsessed?)
Stepping on the ice was like trying to walk onto the Autobahn at rush hour. If I were a more thorough journalist, I would have asked them what the rink capacity is and what the numbers were that night. Suffice it to say, the small rectangle (170 feet by 100 feet) was densely packed with limbs, all of which were flailing and half of which were attached to blades. I had this overwhelming urge to keep looking behind me. What I saw was people spastically careening, yelling “woah!” and making efforts at stopping that were only putting them more out of control and only millimeters from hitting me. What I also discovered when I looked behind was that this meant I couldn’t see what was ahead, not that that view was any prettier.
The upshot is that it was downright scary. Therefore, I wasn’t really skating. I was instead doing some kind of paranoid shuffle. I noticed that one of my friends, also a coach, was being similarly cautious. “How’s it going?” I asked nonchalantly, as if I was in a state of complete calm. She proceeded to remind me how, on her first day of coaching, ever, she was knocked down from behind by a kid who couldn’t stop, a fall that resulted in a broken sacrum (the technical term for rear end). “Oh. That’s right,” I said soberly and wondered why it had seemed like such a good idea to put ourselves in harms way like this.
I have taught lessons on many a crowded public session in my day but not in a few years, and I’d forgotten that frenetic sensation of never knowing what or who was coming at you. As my mother used to say when I first started driving, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I just don’t trust all those other crazies on the road.” I’d also forgotten how hard and how awkwardly non-skaters tend to fall. All around us, crazies were crashing into each other and falling in ways that looked practically fatal. I’m no doctor, but while there, I’m pretty sure I witnessed several broken wrists, just as many torn ACLs and at least a few cracked skulls. The victims were surrounded then carried off by a fleet of diligent rink guards. I winced, shook my head, and also wondered why all these people were putting themselves up to this.
It was gradually brought to my attention by one of the eager non-skaters in our group that the way I was skating wasn’t what he expected. He asked me why I wasn’t going any faster and I told him I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Of course, the opposite was true. Over the course of several laps, his ribbing escalated until he devilishly said the words, “Frankly, it doesn’t seem like you’re all that good.” I looked straight ahead, chuckling, trying to not reveal my horror.
And then, in response, I peeled out. Like a cheetah, like a Nascar super-engine…like Marion Jones after an illegal dose. Except on skates. I must have been a blur, the way I was so quickly threading between people. I was a human sewing machine; all I could see were streaks. After all, I haven’t spent my life on ice skates to have my skills doubted.
At the end of that momentous and death-defying lap, I abruptly hockey-stopped by the barriers, spraying the biggest plume of ice I could muster. The rink does draw a crowd of onlookers (though less than at Rockefeller Center) and they were impressed. Well, I’m pretty certain they were oohing and ahhing…on the inside, silently. I looked over at my critic and smirked. Mission accomplished.
From there on, I skated at medium speed. I snuck in some pulls and a few modest crossrolls. Then we taught our non-skaters how to swizzle, slalom, dip and (against our better judgment), glide on one foot. They were unsteady, yet enthusiastic and appropriately appreciative of our work. As coaches, we spend so much time around young, strong, flexible athletes who can really skate (and therefore we may hesitate to demonstrate and skate full-out) that sometimes it takes being surrounded by beginners to remember that skating, the simple act of gliding, for us, is actually as easy (if not easier) than walking.
In fact, when we ventured into the middle to demonstrate some pivots and two foot spins, we suddenly became rockstars. People gathered and gawked. Myself and my coach friend were swarmed by off-balance strangers. “How do you do that?” And, “How do you stop?” And, “Do you think my skates look too tight?” “Are they supposed to hurt this much?” (Those skates? Yes.) We doled out a few freebies then returned to the Autobahn for some more laps.
By this point, I was more comfortable with the traffic and had stopped impersonating an anxious owl, so I was able to take in the unique setting. Namely, that we were skating outside. At night. In the middle of New York City. Buildings jutted up on all sides. Instead of stars, windows of apartments and offices twinkled at us from above, their occupants aware but inured to the fact that we were slipping and sliding way down below.
We found that the huge lighting fixtures set up on both ends of this temporary rink were overly-bright, almost blinding. We decided that, next time, we’d have to wear our sunglasses at night, an addition that would nicely contribute to my already um…very cool aura.
There is something about skating in the open air, without a ceiling overhead. Even if the surface is tiny, there is a sense of expansiveness, a sense of wintry goodness you can’t quite replicate inside. That night, the air was filled with the scent of hot chocolate, with laughter, the scraping and scratching of imperfect blades, and taxis honking in the not-so-distant background. I was doing something I do just about every day, but it was completely different.
Well, as of January 15, Bryant Park rink has been melted to make way for Fashion Week. But you can still take a spin on it next season, or visit Rockefeller Center (open until April 13th ish) or the picturesque (and triangular!) Wollman Rink (open until April 6th ish) in Central Park. But, please, be careful.