Down East 2013 ©
The winter before I graduated from Brunswick High School, I got job a working for the town as the monitor of the ice rink on the Maine Street green. For a uniform, I was issued an oversized red coat that read “Rink Monitor” across the back in yellow capital letters.
The job, on paper, was not a difficult one: during the week, my hours ran from 4 to 8 p.m.; on the weekends, 12 to 8 p.m. I was allowed to sit in my car for fifteen minutes each hour — which I always did, with the heat on, while listening to music or reading Joseph Conrad novels. I had been issued a first aid kit full of gauze and swabs and rubber gloves; the buckles on the kit, however, were nearly rusted shut from many years of non-use. On a normal sub-freezing and wind-chilled night in January or February, my rink was visited by no more than two or three skaters. Sometimes a father and daughter would stiffly march across the ice for about ten minutes, sit on a bench to drink hot chocolate, and then leave. Other times, a middle-aged man would come out after work, lace up a pair of hockey skates, and glide around with a stick and a puck before going home to dinner. Hockey, I was instructed by my superiors, was not permitted on the rink. But watching the man — he looked a bit nostalgic and lonely beneath the dim lights of Maine Street — I remember thinking that he deserved to stay.
The year was 1998 — the same year as the famous ice storm — and yet the exceptional cold of that winter seemed to mimic the sublime oddity of the great storm. Many nights, I brought a thermos full of tea, and sat on the metal bench reading a U.S. history textbook. Many years later, I would bump into my history teacher, Mr. Woodsum, and he would tell me: “One night, many years ago, I was driving home from school after a long and difficult day, and I saw you reading that book in the freezing cold, and it made me feel like my job was important again.”
Sometimes, I would sit on the benches and find myself in an odd state of meditation, quietly observing the features of a town where I had spent all of my young life. I suppose the darkness of the winter and the bright surface of the rink, and the fact that soon I would be leaving this life for a new one in college, had all made me feel a bit reflective about my past and Brunswick. Though at the time I was too young to understand how the people and places of one’s youth will fade and glimmer and then fade and glimmer again, I do remember thinking that here, huddled beneath this heavy red jacket, was a time when I should pay a little more attention to the world.
And like all good winters, there were days when Maine was blessed with sun, with temps in the high forties, even. For some reason, these days seemed to fall on the weekends, too. The rink, then, became alive with families of skaters. They sat in the snowbanks, sweating and laughing and wearing T-shirts, carrying their lunches onto the ice, the top layer of which, under the sun, had become slushy and easy and forgiving.
On these days, I hung my red coat on the bench and slid across the ice in my boots, chatting up local people I knew. We talked about pleasant and uncontroversial things: the good weather, the Celtics, and how I was feeling about going to college next year. Sometimes, my friends would stop off at the rink on their way downtown, and, pretending to be on their way to some more important place, they’d tease me about my job, gently, and I’d tell them it wasn’t a bad way to make seven bucks an hour — which, at the time, was a king’s wage.
That spring, as it did every year, the ice melted. What it left behind was a large, foot-deep clear puddle of water that ate at the receding snow banks until April. During a desperate cold snap, the puddle froze again, briefly, but then thawed. My position inert, I stayed on post for a few final days, under the orders of keeping town kids from swimming in what had by then become a small pond in the middle of the green. And when the pond turned to mud I found myself thinking back on those cold nights in January with a feeling that was very close to sadness.