Z for Zamboni
If money were no object I’d buy a Zamboni for our pond. For those unfamiliar with this important invention, Zambonis are those riding vehicles used at ice skating rinks and hockey arenas to resurface damaged ice, returning it to shimmering, unblemished perfection.
The problem with pond skating is that there are so few days a winter when the ice resembles that at Rockefeller Center or Central Park’s Wollman Rink. It’s either too bumpy or buried in snow. And there’s always the risk that it will crack, break and devour you. On a more optimistic note, there are few experiences more life-affirming than donning a pair of skates and gliding across frozen lakes, as the surrounding forest seems to applaud in appreciation at your daring, if not grace.
So it was with much interest that I learned this week of a novel commission won by an artist whose career I’ve followed since she was in utero, Z Behl. Z, as in Elizabeth, is the daughter of our old friends, Germantown, NY residents Susan Bodo and David Behl. And what was Z’s commission? To populate the Zamboni at Wollman Rink with her distinctive figures. They’re life-size, of real people she knows, at once instantly relatable and urbane but at the same time part of a constellation that’s uniquely the artist’s – a mom in sunglasses juggling a handbag and a crying baby, a pit bull in midair, a happy mermaid.
Z was one of five artists hired as part of the Wollman Rink Artist Project -- muralists, graffiti artists, and street artists representing all five boroughs of New York City. Their works will decorate the iconic Central Park rink’s clubhouse, ticket booth and beverage stand. It’s part of a reimaging of the venue after New York City canceled its contract with the previous concessionaire, Donald J. Trump and the Trump organization.
Frankly, I think Z got the best canvas to showcase her talents. Then again, I’m biased. A few years back I hitched a ride on Madison Square Garden’s Zamboni, though sadly on the morning before rather than between periods of a New York Rangers playoff game. If there’s any inclination towards perfectionism in your personality, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of watching a Zamboni traveling the ice at a glacial pace -- pun fully intended -- as it grooms the damaged ice, spraying and smoothing it.
Z tends to agree. “I would have requested the Zamboni,” Z told me of the process when a curator familiar with her work contacted her and requested a proposal for the Zamboni within hours. “I grew up ice-skating in Central Park. I like words that start with the letter Z. I like driving large vehicles.”
Z got to drive the Zamboni which makes her way cooler than me. Because I only got to ride along during my visit to Madison Square Garden. I assume I must have asked to drive. But there were probably liability or union issues. And the last thing I would want to do is crash the thing before game night, leaving the Garden with only one working Zamboni. They have two, which work in unison to speed the process. Also, in my biased opinion Wollman Rink’s Zamboni, now that Z has lent her artistry to it, is way cooler than MSG’s. That one was decorated with nothing but the Chase Bank name and logo.
“There’s no breaks,” Z informed me, referring to the vehicle’s breaking system or lack of one. “They made me keep it in first gear.”
I don’t want to go overboard, or more than I have already, but I can’t think of a more impressive place to showcase your art in New York City, the Museum of Modern Art included, than on the side of a Zamboni, the midtown skyline looming above the trees, as an audience of rapt skaters await their turn on the ice. Z told me she’s returned several times, including on opening day in November, during friends and family night, and a few days ago when she took some out-of-town cousins to skate there. They waited in the cold for ninety minutes to gain entry and rent skates.
“It’s expensive,” Z noted. “I don’t know it I can get the artist’s discount?” But she said the price admission came with a heaping helping of nostalgia. Not just for her youth but also for New York City before the pandemic.
Our conversation triggered memories of my own childhood Wollman Rink visits. Of circling the rink; frankly, it can get a bit monotonous after a while, no matter how stunning the backdrop. Of pausing to join a crowd of skaters formed around one of them who fell and broke his leg, only to discover it was my younger brother, Johnny. And, more festively, of seeking refuge in the clubhouse to enjoy a restorative cup of hot cocoa, hopefully with a few marshmallows bobbing on its surface.
Walking on ice skates, because it’s such a pain to remove them and then to have to lace them back up, feels hardly less precarious than skating on them. Z is a talented artist. But that doesn’t matter as soon as you hit the ice. There’s nothing quite as humbling as those hot dogs, not Nathan’s, that frequent ice rinks skating circles around you, doing leaps and spinning at blurring speeds. “I’m okay,” Z conceded. “People thought I was graceful. I can skate backwards.”
I wish I could.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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