I am from upstate New York, one of those places where a million little lakes freeze over and you pull to the side of a country road on a bleak afternoon and ice-skate. Doing this is like holding hands with the universe. To approximate the transcendence of this experience, I go to ice rinks every year, and every year I am absolutely satisfied, no matter how crowded or dinky the rink, because humans figure-eighting or stumbling and falling with their many-colored mittens as the music plays—punctuated by the clack! of the metal on ice and the fweet! of skaters stopping sideways and sending up sprays of shaved ice—is the most charming thing in the world. Ice-skating is churchless holiday heaven, pure of heart, and you really, really, really shouldn't have fucked with holiday heaven, 1st Annual Capitol Hill Ice Rink. I was going to skate every single day at you, 1st Annual Capitol Hill Ice Rink! DID SOMEONE STEAL YOUR HEART AND REPLACE IT WITH A SPECIAL PLASTIC POLYMER?
The name itself is a lie. Blatant lying at Christmas! Think of the children! Ice is a noun with a specific meaning. An ice rink is an ice rink: I can't even believe that sentence had to be written. But there is no ice at the 1st Annual Capitol Hill Ice Rink. No ice! Rather, you skate upon a giant white cutting board made of a "special plastic polymer" that gets sprayed periodically with a "lubricating solution."
I had to see it for myself. I set out immediately for the cutting board. Nobody else was there. But having all that cutting board to myself was of little use, because I could barely manage to get across it: My skates were in total revolt. They wanted the ice that they were built for. After each push-off, I could get maybe five inches of glide before I was brought to a dead stop. The cutting board was dirty and wet. I longed for the lacy layers of information embedded in the surface of repeatedly Zambonied ice.
"It's a good calf workout," the very nice man with the Boston accent who gave me my skates said. "The NHL trains on this." I was happy that this man had a job, but I did not want a calf workout. I wanted to go ice- skating. Making matters worse, a cup of coffee purportedly from Vita was so watered down I could swear it was tea. Tea-coffee for plastic ice. My holiday heart was broken.
Then another feeling rose up in me: FURY. It is irrational to care so much about an ice rink, yes, but the 1st Annual Capitol Hill Ice Rink, even though it has no ice, costs $12 for one hour of skating (skate rental included). Meanwhile, at Seattle Center, ice-skating on actual ice costs $7 (skate rental included) and you can stay for hours. Plus, Seattle Center's ice rink is bigger than Capitol Hill's (95 by 50 feet versus 80 by 50 feet). If you're willing to travel a little, you've got all kinds of options, including Highland Ice Arena in Shoreline, which costs $7 plus $3 for the skate rental to spend unlimited time on 187 by 85 feet of glideworthy frozen water.
The maker of the synthetic plastic polymer rink is a Bostonian named Michael N. Gallant, and his company is called Artificial Ice Events. This man answered his own 800 number when I phoned him to request the material safety data sheet for the mysterious lubricant. He said he would send it; he never did. Later, one of the organizers of the Capitol Hill ice rink told me it is "fruit-based." I still am not full of confidence that I want to face-plant into this solution.
Gallant asked me whether I liked the rink, and I told him straight-out no. He said I probably suffered from two problems: dull skates and unrealistic expectations. "The reality of it is, it's not refrigerated water," he said to me. "But we spend a lot of time studying the coefficient of friction on it, and there's only about 7 percent more resistance than on real ice." He told me a big part of the client's job is to manage expectations. "If somebody goes there thinking this is gonna be ice," he said, "they're gonna go, 'What a letdown.' If they go there thinking it's a remarkable advancement in plastic technologies, and if they appreciate it for being something that's green, something that's made from recycled materials..." his voice trailed off. "Have a little bit of holiday cheer in that article."
I told him it cost $12.
"Twelve?" he said.
"Twelve," I said.
"Per skater?" he said.
He declined to comment when I asked what the typical price is.
I called the offices of Hunters Capital, the private developer that owns, among other local buildings, the Broadway Building, where the private residential lobby is said to contain Dale Chihuly's largest known painting. The rink had been Hunters Capital's idea, said Michael Wells, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce.
Harpur Davidson is the person from Hunters Capital who returned my call, and he is the son-in-law of principal Michael Malone. When I got him on the phone, it was almost 6 p.m. on a weeknight and he was walking the streets trying to drum up skaters for the empty rink. Poor Harpur Davidson. "It's different, but once you get the hang of it, it's ice-skating," he said. But it is literally not ice-skating. Why didn't they call it just a skating rink, or play up the artifice and call it the Capitol Hill Green Skating Rink or something? And did they have any idea that Seattle Center charged so much less? The poor man was on the ropes.
"We're doing the best we can," he said. "All of our intentions were good."
The rink is set up as a nonprofit so that all the proceeds go back into paying for it. There are several sponsors, including The Stranger. I couldn't find anybody among the organizers who'd tried artificial ice before bringing it here.
Davidson asked me to come back, to try it again. Have a little bit of holiday cheer...
Fine. The next morning, he organized a four-hour skate that would be free of charge for everyone. I stopped by, and the Bostonian behind the counter sharpened my skates in a blaze of sparks (it seriously looked like welding) while I waited; this took about 10 minutes. Davidson explained that the man out on the cutting board blasting it with a leaf blower was trying a new technique to make the surface more slippery. A friend of Davidson's was out there skating, avoiding the leaf blower and trying to demonstrate speed. Davidson agreed to skate, too. "The blades need five minutes to warm up, so we can warm up our blades together," he said.
The skating was slightly better. I got the promised calf workout. I found one transcendent moment of glide. Davidson, also attempting to demonstrate speed, fell down several times. We parted ways amicably, but I told him: If I'd expected ice, spent 12 bucks, or fallen into fruit-based lubricant on his cutting board, I'd be sour. Change the name, change the price, then we'll talk.
As for Harpur Davidson, he's a good son-in-law. I asked him to consider waiting for the right moment at the holidays, maybe after the big dinner, to sidle up to Michael Malone and tell him he had one word for him, just one word: ice.