Baltimore is hard at work on its outdoor ice rink. I’d run by it at least a dozen times, uncurious, but Wednesday morning I got a notion to stop. Becky (my sunrise-running friend) and I peeked over the elliptic wall surrounding the rink, the surface of which had the furry crystalline texture of a freezer that needs defrosting. Although the rink is clearly meant to attract well-heeled visitors to downtown, one of its earliest fans is, apparently, an undomiciled man among the many who make their homes on the waterfront promenade’s benches and grates. Almost as soon as our feet stopped moving, he offered us a voluble welcome and an update on the conditions. Gravely, without ever removing his cigarette from his mouth, he informed us that the progress had been slow.
Warm weather, and things had not been solidifying on schedule. But in the dark hours just before our arrival, that had started to change. The middle would be the last part to freeze, and that was beginning to happen. He had been up, he said, for 24 hours, no sleep at all, watching. And now he could see it; we nodded to confirm that we could see it too. He smiled a little (still smoking), and straightened, as if he had done it himself: chilled the air, kept the cooling generator running, selected and mixed whatever soup of chemicals comprised the liquid that would become the rink, arranged the molecules into the invisible structures that would support all those bodies.
As we began to move away, wishing him a good morning and some rest, he stayed put. The city left the process to happen largely unsupervised, leaving it to chemistry and machines, but maybe he thought it deserved a witness.
Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I presume that when the rink opens, he will not have the resources to pay for admission, or skate rental. And I don’t know whether he would have any interest in doing so. I don’t know, really, what his interest in the rink was at all – if he liked the thought of its future occupants, circling happily, or if it was just the novelty of the thing itself.
Whatever his motivation, I think there is a story here about civic spectatorship. I’m skeptical, generally, of arguments about the power of such a thing, and there is a lot to be untangled about power, privation, belonging, access, and justice. After all, the unrelenting cold that would preserve his vicarious masterpiece would almost certainly make his own existence much more precarious. Another insoluble dilemma of spectatorship, maybe. But there is something, still, about the way this man’s willingness to watch – patiently and generously – transformed him.