I feel foolish lugging my skates in my carry-on bag through the airport. It's especially embarrassing when I pass them through the security X-ray machine and a young woman working behind the contraption squints to take a closer look. I'm on my way to New York City, and I want to fulfill a little dream. I intend to skate on the Rockefeller Center ice rink under the enormous Christmas tree.
The reason I'm going to the Big Apple is to interview Alec Baldwin. He turns out to be a great interview, and I'm feeling energized after our chat. The next few hours are mine alone, so I hoist my skates over my shoulder and make my way across midtown Manhattan.
No matter how many times I visit this city at Christmastime, I still feel like I'm in the middle of a film set. Almost every shop, streetlight and tree is wrapped in its X-mas finery, and Rockefeller Center is the city's crowning achievement. You turn a corner and, between walls of skyscrapers, there it is -- a gigantic tree presiding over a small, below-street-level rink.
I make my way through the crowds surrounding the square. Tourists with video cameras, they're filming the skaters, and it occurs to me that in a home in Des Moines or Düsseldorf there'll be footage of me swirling around on the ice. It's a weird thought -- to be included in some stranger's special memories.
It's dusk, and there are about 70 skaters left. It costs $13 to skate, plus skate rental fees, but I've come prepared. Apart from the cost, rental skates are never sharp enough and don't keep their edge.
In the small change room, families squeeze past each other squabbling about how much time they have to skate. A mother and daughter in matching faux-fur coats giggle with excitement.
A family from Miami looks tanned and a little nervous about their excursion, and a pissed-off figure skater -- who pays $400 a season to rent a locker and skate whenever she likes -- gives us tourists a scathing look of disgust.
I take out a roll of tape and wrap it around my ankles. That great stretching, pulling noise that hockey tape makes alerts my neighbours, and they look up and stare at me confusedly. I know they're thinking, "Why does she have tape? Do I need tape? No one told us to bring tape."
Hitting the ice, I skate a circle around the perimeter and stop. The mammoth tree shimmers. Christmas music plays as people, most of whom can't skate very well, laugh and fall.
There's an awful lot of falling, and you can tell by their faces that these novices are stunned by how much it hurts.
A round-shaped mother has separated from her brood and tries to make a go of it. Letting go of the railing only to fall on her backside, she grimaces and lets out a quiet "Owww" that no one hears but me. That expression instantly transforms her from middle-aged mom to 10-year-old girl. I think she looks lovely.
I spend the next 40 minutes swerving among the other skaters. I can't go very fast -- it's cramped -- but every once in a while I'm able to get in 10 hard strides and build up a little head of steam.
I'm getting ready to leave when a black girl who looks about 13 comes up alongside me. She's been skating with choppy, short strides all by herself.
"Hi," she says. "You're good. Can you teach me to skate?"
"Sure," I say, a little surprised. And before I can say anything else, she takes my hand and pulls me beside her. I can't explain exactly why -- maybe it's her raw openness and enthusiasm -- but this gesture suddenly chokes me up. We skate hand in hand, something I haven't done with anyone in a long, long time. She says her name is Shavon, she lives in Astoria, Queens, and she came to Manhattan by herself to skate. This is her first time on blades.
Now I have to turn my head away so she won't see that I'm a total suck and am barely holding back the tears. "You're really good," I say, "just remember -- bend your knees a little and don't stand up straight. That's it."
She bends her knees and feels more secure -- and then comes the smile, a smile as bright as the Christmas tree towering above us.