is the author of 21 books and a cofounder of Juncture Workshops, http://junctureworkshops.com/
Walking the city river to river on a January Sunday, I stop midway, at City Hall, and watch the skaters at the Rothman Rink leave their marks on the oval of ice.
They cling to the boards, they move to the center, they adopt attitudes of grit and grace, and for a moment, my imagination tricks me back into time, when Philadelphia was a skating city. When the ice on the Delaware and the Schuylkill would freeze, and skaters would glide among refreshment booths and ox-roast spits.
Or the ponds at Eighth and Arch or Ninth and South would offer an afternoon's glide. Or the rinks that cropped up during the 1860s (the West Philadelphia Park at 32nd and Walnut, the Eastwick Park at Gray's Ferry, say) would offer wintry, less risky entertainments.
Philadelphians "are the best and most elegant skaters in the world," the Revolutionary Army Capt. Alexander Graydon is said to have claimed. I'm not sure how anyone would judge such a thing, but it is true that strapping blades to one's feet and heading off toward speed and lift is an elegant thing, or at least I found it to be, decades ago, when I was young.
I'd gotten my start on a frozen Boston pond. I'd had my first lessons at a rink in Wilmington. But it was at the Philadelphia Skating Club & Humane Society in Ardmore where I began to call myself a skater - an aspirational denomination if ever there was one.
At the club, I devoted myself to the discipline of figure eights and the sound of scribes cutting the ice. I lived private sessions and private lessons, drank the snack bar hot chocolate while the Zamboni huffed, and competed in regional competitions with the sometimes reckless speed of my footwork, spins, and jumps. My father would drive me to the rink in the early dark, before school, and my mother would drive me in the afternoons, and on weekends I lived there, in my homemade dresses and my putty-colored tights, among friends and at least one rival.
Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton would show up from time to time. Scott Hamilton! Dick Button had been there in the past. Susie Wynne was yet to come. And in a pair of glass display cases sat the iron skates of another century, denoting the history of this place that had, in 1861, merged the instructional ideals and rescue-mindedness of the Humane Society and the Skaters Club. Out on the Schuylkill, operating from the building now occupied by the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, the Humane Society would protect skaters from "roughs," teach them the art of the twirl, and employ a short wooden reel, a cord of some 60 feet in length, and ladders to save those who had fallen through a broken patch of ice.
By the late 1930s, the Society had moved to the building where, out there in my sharpened blades, my mother sometimes watching from the lounge above, a high school friend sometimes standing on the edge, I could believe in my own beauty, soar to my own heights, lose myself inside the songs that played, over and again, and again. I wanted loveliness. I wanted to be someone, and sometimes, when I hit the angles right, when the ice was clear, when the music was loud, I was. Or allowed myself to think I was.
A few days after watching the City Hall skaters, I returned to Ardmore, to the rink that, despite all the transmutations of my self, my definitions of beauty, my nicked and dented dreams, has not changed. That parabolic roof still arches high. Those glass-block windows still mute the sun. The bleachers are still sparse, and the ice still runs continuous to the unbarricaded edge, where the coaches still stand in their warm boots and coats, calling out for sharper diagonals on the footwork and more height on the double axel.
Fran Mycek, whose father ran this place before Fran did, is still there, too, 39 years into running, with his wife and with the help of his children, the membership and public sessions, the skate shop, the Zamboni, the refrigeration system. He remembers the skaters I ask him about. He still takes care of Scott Hamilton's blades. He regrets, as I regret, that competitive skating has become more about athletics than grace.
I stand on the edge as the handful of skaters in their black pants and simple tops lean into their songs, lift off of the ice, count the rotations on their spins. I wear a heavy coat and heavy shoes, a camera on my shoulder, a second lens in a strappy bag, a purse, for I am a writer now, encumbered by paper and pen. I am weighted, in other words, and they are speed, they are youth, they are hope, they are near, they are far, they are almost impossible to photograph, but I stand there, clicking and then not clicking, until I stop and simply watch, and very much want.
I look up, toward the lounge, in search of my mother. I look across, toward the door, for the boy who sometimes came. I take the whole smell and sound and light of it in, that crisp hard knock on my lungs, and time is elastic. Finally, leaving, I look for my father's car in the parking lot, wish for his question: "How did it go?"
I call him instead, on my way home. "Dad," I say. "I was there."