I love ice skating at Red Arrow Park here in Milwaukee. Its not a huge outdoor rink, let's call it cozy, but its our little slice of Rockefeller Center. Like that New York landmark, it's smack dab between the financial and entertainment district (in the shadow of three office buildings and the Performing Arts Center). Its only about 4500 square feet, with the cutest little Zamboni you ever saw to match -- I didn't know they made them as small as a Toyota pickup truck. The "park" itself looks more like a building's plaza in the summertime. It's named for an army infantry division that was comprised of a large percentage of Wisconsinites -- there's a giant symbol of that division standing there in lovely red granite. In the summer, it plays host to an arts and crafts festival, and is a generally good outdoor meeting place. Otherwise, it’s a space for the accompanying Starbucks to put out some tables. But in the winter, it comes truly alive, resembling a mise-en-scene out of a Woody Allen film. There's your standard rink hits music playing (with some dug-out-of-the-vault moldy gems like Shirley & Company's '75 hit "Shame Shame Shame") on overdriven woofers. There's the skate rental booth crammed into the back of the Starbucks, staffed by cute teenage boys and girls whose flirtation skills indicate they probably work the county pools as lifeguards during the summer. And of course, there's the Starbucks itself, with a fireplace to drink your hot chocolate by. I tell you, they probably don't sell this much hot chocolate at all its other metro locations combined. I didn't see one cup of Grande Latte or hear the espresso machine steaming like a locomotive the whole time I was there.
Its just such a wonderful cosmopolitan feel that you don't get at any of the indoor rinks. Outside of skate rental (and the price one pays for that requisite hot chocolate) it's free, and that might be a factor. The rink is so small that only on days where there are few skaters (and the school's-out week between Christmas and New Year's contain none of these) does anybody whizz by so fast you wipe out simply because you were caught off guard. Rather, on packed days like this, you glide along slowly, smiling at and laughing with the little (and big!) kids on one of their wipeouts, gasping at the guy who can effortlessly swoop by you backwards as though he were Elvis (Stoyko, that is!) and marvel at the diversity of people, skill level, coat colors, and hat and mitten styles. At night, the Performing Arts Center across the street glitters as its patrons empty out from yet another showing of The Nutcracker (and the view of the rink from inside the Performing Arts Center -- where Stella and I were indeed catching Michael Pink's annual run through of that Christmas ballet the other night -- gave me that "The New Yorker Is Practically My Bible" feeling, what with us in our "Going to the Ballet" finery, and Stella looking longingly at the seemingly silent skaters in the night lights.) I shouldn't have to even mention all the downtown city trees festooned with white Christmas lights, but Kilbourn Avenue, just south of the rink, had these really really blue lights on its boulevard trees, a blue so dark I had to remind myself they were really lights and not just exceptionally shiny blue tinsel. During the daytime, you see the city's business district workers walk and drive by, probably wishing they had taken an extra day off over the holidays, because since you (and the other 79% of the workforce) took the day off, absolutely nothing of consequence is getting accomplished in the office.
Stella and I have been here four times this season already, so today she was already broken into that 1st-day-of-the-ice-skating-season soreness in your calves and shins (and that tight around your ankles that ice skates require), and was able to resassure her girlfriends who joined us today that "oh, that hurting feeling will go away after about an hour…". And, since we'd already been used to hitting the ice as soon as the Zamboni driver shoveled off the grit from his work, we were puzzled that today, when the Zamboni-ist finished (and let me tell you, that ice was way overdue for a Zamboni-ing) nobody stepped onto the freshly cleaned ice. Normally, on a weekday, the ice is cleaned and you can't hold the kids back. Today, what? -- were we all awestruck admiring the sheen? I decided to be the obnoxious New Yorker and step out onto the ice. "What are we waiting for?" I asked the people behind the barriers throwing my arms up in frustration. A old guy said: "You have to wait for the ice to freeze up again" as I sashayed by. Ridiculous -- and by the time I'd made it around a full lap, the rink was already filling up. Kids told me later that the old guy was the Zamboni driver, who "likes to make us mad by making us wait." Great, a Zamboni driver who can't stand the fact that the bed he's made is just going to get instantly messed up again. What a perfect character! At first, Stella was humiliated at my performance, but then she realized I'd become a hero to the other kids for my personification of our collective impatience. Plus, for once in my life I was going to know what pseudo-virgin ice felt like, and honeys, it feels great!
Of course, it wouldn't be a near-NYC experience without an exchange of rudeness, now, would it? Actually it wasn't an exchange, I just held in what I wanted to say while returning Stella's rental skates, which was "Lady, when you decide to unlace and take off your skates in a less STOOPID place besides holding up the skate return line, in a less STOOPID way besides thinking you can do so standing up, while everybody else had the consideration of removing their skates on the aptly-provided benches, then I'll apologize more than gratuitously for my genuinely innocently bumping into you as I make my way to the front of the line in this cramped area so that the frustrated clerk there can take my rentals, give me my kid's shoes, send me on my way and keep the ever-growing line moving. These are figure skates I'm using, else next time my innocent bump would have more quickly morphed into a full-blown hockey-style check." But I didn't say it. That wouldn't have been very Milwaukee of me.