SOME of the most arresting and otherworldly photographs of New York are those turn-of-the-century black-and-white pictures of people skating on the lake in Central Park: the women in bustled skirts, the men in bowlers and the lonely outpost of the Dakota in the background. That was back when we had winter. Anyone trying to skate in New York these days, except on artificial ice, would surely drown, and lately it has been so unnaturally warm that unwary, overdressed skaters venturing out onto the city's several outdoor rinks have even risked heatstroke.
A great deal of the fun of skating in New York, however, consists of rubbernecking -- of studying your surroundings and your fellow skaters -- and in any weather, even a little drizzle, it's always worth the effort. Why not start with the rink at Rockefeller Center, which turned 70 on Christmas? You're going to want to skate there, probably the most celebrated rink in the world, at least once in your life, and with the tree up and lighted, and the place thronged with tourists, you can enjoy the maximal experience. Oddly, it proves in large part to be an experience of miniaturization. Except for the price -- until Jan. 4, a steepish $14.50, or $17 on weekends, for an hour-and-a-half session -- everything about the Rockefeller rink is tiny: the ice, which is 122 feet by 59 feet, or seven or eight brisk strides end to end; and the skatehouse, a windowless cubicle tucked under the stairs on the east side, which at the beginning and end of a session can resemble the lowest deck on a troopship. Even the Zamboni is pint-sized.
When you get out on the ice, you experience an immediate, antlike sensation of being peered at by all the spectators looking down from the walkways above. Then you glimpse an alarming image of yourself, not nearly as graceful as you imagined, reflected in the ice-view windows of the Sea Grill and the Rock Center Café. This rink fosters self-consciousness, which is surely why it is home to the city's most exhibitionistic skaters: those showoffs in full ice-show rig -- the short, flouncy skirts, the one-piece jumpsuits, the tights that pull down over the skate boot -- who cruise around in spread eagles and annoying arabesques.
Happily, the Rockefeller rink also attracts some of the worst skaters around, the out-of-towners who have seldom, if ever, been on the ice before. They cling to the boards like shipwreck survivors or haul themselves along, hand over hand, as if traversing a steep pitch on the Eiger or sneaking like burglars from one window ledge to another. Every now and then one of these fledglings lets go and, with arms outstretched, attempts a glide, often ending in a pleasing, if unintentional, half-turn. The resulting grin is usually spontaneous and contagious, a reminder that this whole business of frozen-water navigation never ceases to be a little miraculous.
Wollman Memorial Skating Rink
A few blocks to the north, the Wollman Rink at the southeastern end of Central Park, may lack some of Rockefeller's glitzy, touristic appeal -- no Christmas lights, no splashing Prometheus fountain -- but it's easily the prettiest place to skate in New York. The ice surface is huge and vaguely trapezoidal in shape, which helps dispel that claustrophobic feeling of rink-boundedness.
Wollman really does seem like a pond, or it would if they let you skate all over, in any direction, to your heart's content. But it's usually so crowded that the skate guards not only enforce the customary round-and-round traffic pattern, but also often reverse the flow, directing skaters to travel clockwise. For some reason right-handed skaters usually turn more easily to their left, which is why the traditional rink route is counter-clockwise. Forcing skaters to go the other way, a guard explained, is the equivalent of erecting speed bumps. More time, in other words, to savor the surroundings -- the weeping willows, green and burnished gold at this time of year, at the southern end; the rocky cliff to the east; and, all around, some of the most beautiful buildings in New York: the Plaza on the corner and, unscrolling to the right, the rest of Central Park South like the backdrop on a stage set, with the stately towers on Fifth, off to the left, glowing in the late-afternoon sun. At certain times of day, when the light falls just right, they should reprogram the music here, and instead of the rock and hip-hop so popular at rinks these days, let loose with a few bars of Gershwin or Cole Porter.
Lasker Rink, at the other end of Central Park, is proof, if proof were needed, of where the money is in New York. This rink, which doubles as a vast swimming pool in the summertime, is both scruffy and a little surreal. The ice is surrounded by a chain-link fence, and you enter through a cagelike maze. There are two sprockety-looking gizmos at the western end and, at the other, four enormous vaults that look like empty, blue-painted sarcophagi, or giant upturned bathtubs. The Zamboni rests above the ice and descends by means of a long ramp and then a little elevator. On a damp gray day, of which we had plenty this year, the whole place feels a little like a stockade on a far-off, slightly crumbling planet.
In the old days Lasker too aspired to a kind of free-form, pondlike shape, but now, thanks largely to the swelling of youth hockey in New York, the surface has been divided into two adjacent and not quite regulation-width rinks. This creates a lot of available ice, and until the school and pee-wee teams start arriving in late afternoon, one or the other of them is usually empty. For $4.50 you can skate any which way you want, far from the wobbly-ankled crowds downtown, and no one will notice either your pratfalls or your nifty double salchows.
Riverbank State Park
Still farther north, the rink at Riverbank State Park, on Riverside Drive, is another no-frills facility. This rink, which opened in 1993, is on top of a wastewater treatment plant 70 feet above the Hudson and has a roof but open sides. Were it not for a grandstand (which probably doubles as a windbreak) the western side would afford a terrific view of the river and the New Jersey Palisades, while the other, unobstructed side looks over the West Side Highway. But skating north you can see the green-lighted, connect-the-dot curves of the George Washington Bridge, and on the southbound return trip you might catch a glimpse of the Fairway sign. So much hockey goes on here, and so much serious figure skating, that, except over the holidays, the rink is open for general skating only on Friday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
If you grew up in New England, as I did, this is the New York rink that may remind you the most of your youth. On a recent Friday it was as if nothing had changed: the breeze carrying a whiff of Zamboni fume; the exasperated skate guards whistling vainly at the teenage boys in hockey skates who were bombing around, whipping and weaving through the crowd, and stopping short every now and then to spray some girls with ice shavings. The girls shrugged, pushed off with the toe-picks of their figure skates and pretended not to notice. The only things different from, say, the Cleveland Circle rink in Boston about 1960 were the temperature, which was close to 60 degrees, and the bouncy Latin music, a welcome change from "Lady of Spain" and the other organ standards that seemed so tired even when they were new.
Another place to see good skaters is the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers. The Sky Rink, which is really two rinks (named in honor of a place, now defunct but fondly remembered by late-night hockey players, that used to perch on the 16th floor of a building on West 33rd Street, reachable only by a ponderously slow elevator), is not outdoors, strictly speaking. But the westernmost of the two rinks, the one normally used for public skating, extends way out over the Hudson on Pier 61 with glass on both sides, and there is also a clerestory skylight in the roof. Big, bright and airy, the place feels as if it were floating in the air.
Chelsea Piers is a bit of a pain to get to, however, and like most of that enormous sports compound, the rinks tend to attract more or less serious athletes. Hockey is played practically around the clock, and the recreational skaters (who pay $11 a time) are less apt to be tourists on rental blades than people looking for some real exercise. For some reason the Sky Rink also features some of the weirdest outfits in New York. Late on a recent afternoon there was a guy dreaming the dream in full Rangers uniform -- helmet, gloves, jersey, pads -- and also a very tall, skinny fellow wearing tights, orange short-shorts and an undershirt from the Attager rowing team. He hurtled around, flailing a little on the corners, like someone possessed.
Kate Wollman Rink
The Kate Wollman Rink in Prospect Park, on the other hand, is arguably the most truly outdoorsy of New York's outdoor rinks, the only one from which you cannot see a building or hear a lot of traffic. This rink is starting to show its age a little and could use a windfall of Trumpian generosity like the one that The Donald bestowed on the Central Park Wollman back in the late '80s, but the setting is still bucolic, with the lake on one side, the Concert Grove on the other and a cattail marsh at the far end. And because the rink is unusually wide, it most nearly replicates the feeling of wide-open pond skating. Late on a recent Friday afternoon it was dotted with Orthodox Jewish skaters squeezing in a little ice time before sundown: little boys in velvet yarmulkes, their moms in snoods and ankle-length skirts. Gliding along, their feet barely seeming to move, these women looked a lot like those Central Park skaters of a hundred years ago.
The Pond at Bryant Park
And finally, best for last: the Pond at Bryant Park, a yearly miracle that materializes on the lawn behind the New York Public Library. The ice freezes up at the end of October, just as it would in a more cooperative climate, and then in mid-January, around the time of an early thaw, the compressor is turned off and the whole rink is trucked away. Hemmed in on three sides by glamorous tall buildings, including the Grace Tower on the 42nd Street side and the old American Standard Building (now the Bryant Park Hotel) on 41st, the place feels both magical and protected, a sort of wintry secret garden where leaves from the plane trees occasionally tumble down and get decoupaged into the ice.
The Pond, which is entirely free, by the way, plays by far the best skating music in New York -- jazz and Broadway show tunes -- and at nighttime especially you can feel like an extra (or even a principal) in a costumed ice show. Last year I got in the habit of arriving first thing in the morning, before work, and sometimes had the ice all to myself, or shared it on a few unlucky occasions with a guy who affected both racing skates and racing tights, into which he stuffed himself like a kielbasa. This year I've been going at lunchtime or late in the afternoon, when the ice is more crowded but still not mobbed. Part of the fun is spotting the many passers-by who on their way through or past the park are still astonished that such a thing could be taking place -- ice skating, right on 42nd Street.
I remember last winter when I was showing off one morning with some backward crossovers, a young Hispanic woman stopped and watched me for while, before saying, in a tone that was part doubtful and part exclamatory: "You a skater!?" A while later I was brought gently down to earth by a skate guard who was staring at my skates -- Bauer 1000s that, as some of the guys on my hockey team like to point out, were purchased before some of our younger teammates were even born. The guard shook his head and said, not unkindly, those skates "are old!"