There are many different parts and pieces to an ice rink. There’s the Zamboni, the ice itself, the receptionists, the skate guards, the janitorial staff, the administrative staff and, of course, the coaches. I’ve thought long and hard about (and written about) the pros and cons of my particular role but I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s one rink job far more difficult and underappreciated than the rest: the job of the Rental Skate.
I’ve been working alongside Rental Skates for years, and I’ll admit it, I’ve never taken much notice. Well, that’s not true. I have noticed them and I’ve laughed. I’ve ridiculed. Okay, the full truth: I have been downright disrespectful, maybe even discriminatory.
One day, a child in my beginner class tugged on my coat sleeve. “Teacher?” she said (I’ve long stopped hoping for them to try and pronounce my name). “Teacher, my skates are broken.” I looked down. Her Rental Skates weren’t actually broken but they were in sorry shape. The buckles were undone, the tongues were wagging, and they were foaming at the mouth. It looked as if they had been run over by a car. “Oh, my,” I said to the little girl, trying to disguise my horror. I am ashamed to write that I did not feel empathy for this feeble footwear…I felt disgust.
“Where is your mother?” I asked. I certainly wasn’t going to bend down and touch them. Besides, performing triage right now would take time away from the other students. “She’s over there.” The little girl pointed her mitten toward the lobby at the other end of the rink, which might as well have been 100 miles away. I told her to wave, which she did, vigorously, but no one made any motions to come over. I considered sending this skater back out to the rental desk alone, but I knew that wasn’t particularly responsible, so I yelled out to the rest of the class, “Okay, try some dips!”
I sighed. I took off my own mittens (the coach version of rolling up the sleeves) and got down on bended knee. I first tried to stuff the plastic tongue back into the left skate without knocking the child over, but it seemed to have lockjaw. So I had her sit down, and I took the skate off her foot in order to deal with it more directly. I didn’t mean to be rough with the skate, but I was in a hurry. Despite being rushed, I did notice that the blue plastic was covered in lacerations. Out of curiosity, I quickly turned the boot over and ran my finger along the blade. It was sharp, yet, not in right direction; the bumpy nicks almost made it seem as if the toe pick extended along the whole length.
I finally got the tongue properly reinserted and had her push her foot back inside. I fiddled with the ski boot-style buckles, explaining while I did so that the skate should really be hugging her ankle and should feel a bit tighter than her sneakers. Then I started to address her other foot, except, wait…something was amiss. This one looked exactly the same and I don’t just mean that it had many similar injuries (which it did), but it was “exactly the same” in that it was also a left skate. Now I stood up and waved my arms wildly toward the lobby as if I were stranded on a highway. Help! S.O.S! Come now! Eventually, a mother stood, gathered up her coat, her toddler, and another kid in a stroller, then started making the trek toward the rink door.
The situation was quickly rectified. We all said “woops!” chuckling, and moved on. But ever since then, I’ve been paying closer attention. What I’ve discovered has changed my perspective and I hope it will change yours, as well. What I’m asking, here, is to consider, really consider the plight of the Rental Skate.
Imagine that, basically, you are a knife for hire. You are worn by people who don’t really know how to correctly use you. Though you exist in the name of fun, you unintentionally harm beginner skaters on a regular basis, and get directly blamed for broken bones, sprains, and an unfathomable number of bruises. Every day, you participate in what are basically demolition derbies. You slam into the boards, you crash into other Rental Skates and every lap includes a number of near-misses that would make professional stunt men close their eyes. This has left you scarred.
But you really weren’t all that handsome to begin with. Maybe you are the tan-ish variety, the same color as paper bags, and striped red at the heel in the same manner as your cousin, the Rental Bowling Shoe. Or you are an elder figure skate, circa 1943, and you are graying and sagging with age. If you are the newest version, you are off-white with black trimmings. You are composed of extra-stiff plastic that is also somewhat shiny, so that you kind of look like a little white Darth Vader. But really, most of you are that weird color of blue plastic, not quite Smurf and not quite Blue Man Group, some indefinable shade in between. However you started out, you’re getting uglier by the session. Unfortunately, “plastic” surgery is not an option, or it’s never been offered, anyway.
Too often, you are forced to work in environments not included in your job description: the metal bleachers, the cement on the other side of the rink, even the parking lot. You are not provided with the protective gear, a.k.a. blade guards, that are always used in the private sector. You have no health insurance and the doctors assigned to your care have very little training. Mainly, you suffer from neglect, your ailments unnoticed or unreported. Instead of getting a bath, you get occasionally sprayed with noxious, aerosol “perfume”. At the end of the day, you are thrown into a heap and haphazardly sorted.
Though everything you do is a team effort, you sometimes get separated from your partner and re-matched with a Rental Skate of a different size or, as highlighted above, with your exact twin. You are basically abused, misunderstood and considered inferior to the other privately-owned skates in the rink. And you’ve seen how well those other white and black skates are treated. They are handled lovingly and gently wiped off. They are regularly taken for check-ups. They don’t hang upside-down on a hook all night, but are tucked into their own individual bags. Some of them even have fuzzy slippers and their own stuffed animals (Stink-eez!) designed to help them smell better.
Imagine that your life is very very long. And that you work for its entirety, with no hope for retirement. You’ve never experienced anything like respect, or appreciation, or even, (until now) sympathy. The worst part is that, thanks to all of the above challenges and hardships, you’re not even very good at what you do.
In fact, the only pride you can take in your job is that you are an effective middleman. After wearing you, many decide to procure their own skates, those other ones. And, wait a second, when you think of it in this light, you, oh, Rental Skate, are truly a hero…you may be regularly dismissed, degraded, and quite smelly, but you are like a bridge, the best kind of bridge, because you lead to something better. It is with you that many dreams begin.
While working on this installment, a few people shared some funny Rental Skate stories…
One rink manager told me that people don’t really steal the skates that much anymore but… “We had that problem when we first opened up. There were a few creative ways. The most common was to bring a ratty pair of shoes, give those in exchange for rentals and put on your real shoes from your bag. We had a few weird ones. In one instance, a woman claimed that the rentals were actually hers, stolen from her by one of our employees. Another time, one guy, an adult, asked to buy a specific pair of rentals, as they fit him so well. I explained that I couldn’t do that. Two weeks or so later the skates were gone. I saw them on the guy a month later at public session, painted an awful brown color. You can’t make this stuff up.”
A man whose family has run a skate shop and rental window at another local rink since 1960 told me that when the kids hand over the skates, sometimes he’ll, as a joke, hand back only one shoe in return then go about his business, pretending not to notice. One little kid, who seemed like he was probably only about three years old, looked a his one shoe for a moment and then, with perfect aim, threw it right at this man’s head!
Thanks for reading. I’m sure you have some good stories as well. Please contribute to this Rental Skate Riff by clicking on “comment” below.
To read my icenetwork interview with the Gilles Family, click:
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