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New York Times
It's a Wonderful Night
By JESS TIRADO as told to SUSAN BURTON
December 23, 2001
[PHOTO: Barbel Schmidt]
I was 17 when I moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1990. I never really knew much about Rockefeller Center. I knew about the tree lighting because we had cable, so you could see it when it was shown on NBC. But I thought Rockefeller Center was a private place where people had to pay lots of money to skate. One night, I decided to take a walk. I didn't know anyone in New York. I was just following people, friendly faces, and I got to Rockefeller Center. I was mesmerized, just watching people skating around. At home, there weren't indoor or outdoor rinks. The next thing you know, I was there for two hours. Then I started going every night, skating sometimes.
I began as an attendant in 1992, and now I manage the rink and drive the Zamboni. Actually, it's not a Zamboni; it's an Olympia. Zamboni is like Kleenex, just a name. Our rink is so small a lot of people don't realize that we actually have a Zamboni here. I have to stop saying that, because it's actually an Olympia. The Olympia's at rink level, inside a little room, on a turntable. You just open a door, and it just backs up right onto the ice. That's when you hear the clapping. Literally, children that could have been crying in line, when the machine comes out they'll quiet down and look filled with wonder. And there is always somebody who's going to shout something out. You'll hear ''Yeah, Zamboni!'' or ''Go, Zamboni Man!'' And this year I've heard ''Go, America.'' Before we opened this year, I wasn't expecting many people to come. Then slowly it started increasing. I talk to as many people from out of state as I can to thank them for not being afraid. I mean, it could have been anyone in these buildings. You can sense the fear sometimes in people, but once they get on skates, it's forgotten.
During the holidays, I close at midnight. I'm usually the last one here. That is probably one of the best feelings. You go from over a thousand people in one spot all day long to nobody. It's quiet. It's just me and the ice. I put some good tunes on and drive the Zamboni. Once in a blue moon, you'll get somebody who will just stand there and watch you -- whether it takes 40 minutes, whether it takes an hour. I know exactly how they feel. When I leave, I walk up toward the Channel Garden. There is the tree and Prometheus behind me. And I always look down at the ice on my way out. It's a huge piece of glass, a wonderful piece of glass. There aren't many moments when you can be in front of that tree by yourself. But that moment for me is at 2 o'clock in the morning. The whole magic thing, I see it every day.