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Smooth Operator 

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By Rose Spinelli

Zamboni. Is it ice cream? An item in a sex-toys catalog? A noodle shape? "I don't care if you drive a Maserati," a woman says coolly to a Zamboni driver. "I'm not impressed by fancy cars."

A Zamboni is the machine that keeps the ice at a rink mirror-glass smooth. For anyone who's spent time at an ice rink training as a figure skater, playing hockey, or as a fan, the Zamboni is a wonderment. Between periods at a Blackhawks game, a middle-aged mom is urged by her group to join them for a hot dog and a beer. "You go ahead," she says dreamily, "I'm going to watch the Zamboni." Gazing at it as it makes those methodical curlicues over and around the ice is mesmerizing, gratifying. It's like watching your teacher glide her eraser over the scribbly chalkboard. With a single swipe over the surface, that stripe of chalkboard metamorphosed from cluttered to squeaky clean, soiled to immaculate, making you want to volunteer for eraser-cleanup duty. But it's better than that, because the surface of a chalkboard is lusterless and matte, while the Zamboni's passage over a sheet of ice gives the scratchy surface a shimmery rebirth.

If the Zamboni machine creates the bewitchment, the Zamboni driver is Merlin weaving the spell. Of course there's more to the job than cruising the ice at two and a half miles per hour (an estimate, since the vehicle's instruments measure rpms) and waving to kids with noses pressed hard against the glass. "That's just the glossy part," says one novice driver without a trace of irony. The full job title specified by the Chicago Park District is Stationary Engineer Class 2. If that sounds a bit like Ed Norton's self-exaltation to "subterranean sanitation engineer," think again. Those entrusted with the $60,000 machines shoulder highly specialized duties, including maintaining the Zamboni and the refrigeration system used to condition the ice. The good ones take the work seriously. Many talk of mentors who showed them the ropes and explained the subtleties of assessing the ice to determine proper water flow and speed to achieve the perfect "slab." But all the dogma can't take the place of climbing into the driver's seat and becoming one with your Zamboni. "It's a feel thing," muses Eliot Fishman. "The machine itself is easy to drive. I can train anyone in one night. But ice conditions are totally changing all the time. That's where the skill comes in."

Fishman says those who share the coveted job form a "brotherhood." "Oh, yeah, it's cool," he says. "This is my dream job. I've wanted to drive the Zamboni ever since I was a real little kid. I played hockey, and there was nothing like watching the Zamboni machine make the ice real nice." You'll hear that often from Zamboni drivers, who have usually paid their dues as amateur hockey players. Another common thread is a love of anything mechanical, especially if it moves. Fishman drives a motorcycle and is a licensed pilot and certified diver. At 36, he's been joyriding Zambonis for 15 years. Driving a Zamboni is his passion, an act of love played out over and over again. He's worked at McFetridge Sports Center, near Addison and California, for ten years and counting. He calculates his ice time over the years. "I usually make about six cuts a night, at 10 to 15 minutes per cut, and I do it five days a week." Seven and a half hours a week, 390 hours per year. If you add his previous years at other Park District rinks, it equals a whopping total of almost 6,000 hours of Zamboni time.

Fishman has also been a practicing attorney for the past six years. An ad he's placed in McFetridge's ice show program reflects an oddball melding of these two occupations. It's a pencil drawing of a Zamboni. Above his name, address, and occupation sit the scales of justice--tipped slightly off balance. He doesn't seem concerned that this might portray him as flip or unprofessional. Besides, most of his clients come to him through contacts made at the rink. Practicing law seems like the deal he's struck with himself so he can hang out at the ice rink guilt-free. In fact, the rink financed his law degree. He began working at one right out of high school and didn't start his undergraduate studies until he was 21, graduating with a degree in finance. He then attended law school by day and supported himself by driving the Zamboni at night.

Fishman's got a croaky voice from too many cigarettes and a potbelly from too much McDonald's. He says he decides how to introduce himself at parties and other first encounters on a case-by-case basis. "It depends," he laughs, "on who I'm talking to." The snippy Maserati lady was a rare miscalculation. If the person knows what a Zamboni is, Fishman says, the first question is almost always "What's it like?" This is generally followed by a request to ride shotgun. The men always want to know how it works.

Like the Mona Lisa, the Zamboni leaves much to the imagination. It's a galumphing, prudish-looking apparatus. Its body lacks curves, divulges little; all the provocative parts are mysteriously hidden under a squarish exterior. This leaves room for misconceptions--for instance, the idea that the auger, the vertical corkscrew mechanism that picks up the old ice, somehow magically resprinkles it into new shiny ice. Fishman explains that it's actually a simple three-part process. "Ideally, when you're resurfacing, you're replacing the same amount of ice that's been taken away. The first thing is that there's wash water that sprays cold water from a conditioner in the rear. Then there's a squeegee that vacuums up the wash water. That water also picks up particles and debris and filters it. Then, through a hydraulic system, the conditioner, which controls the blade, is lowered. The blade shaves the ice and then a fresh coat of hot water is laid. There's a towel in the back that smooths and evens the surface. If you use too much ice-making water, then it's too wet. Sometimes, if the ice is cut up real bad, you have no alternative but to replace with water what's been cut up."

Washing, shaving, replacing. Sounds simple, but controlling the sequence, speed, and flow of water can be as intricate as a ballet. If you put water down too quickly, you can't cut enough ice. Use too much water when the building is warmer, say from body heat during a hockey game, and it won't refreeze properly. And there are other factors to consider, such as the ice-skaters' preferences. Hockey players prefer a harder surface for speed, while figure skaters like it softer because it has a bit more bounce and holds the blade edges better.

All Zamboni drivers employ a path they travel as they make their way around the rink. "Guys have their own technique. We call it our 'pattern.' I usually start in the middle of the short wall and then make my first pass down the middle. I guess I do it that way because that's how I was taught. You shouldn't start at the same spot all the time, though, because you don't want your ice to be thicker in any one area." The biggest no-no in executing your pattern is undue overlapping. Because the speed of the auger is directly related to the engine rpm, it's best to keep the same engine speed during the straightaways as on the turns. Fishman's pattern proceeds in a right-hand turn against the sideboard, once around the rink, and then back to the middle, filling in the spaces with consecutive right turns. Any ripples or waves indicate a dull blade. A saucer-shaped "bowl effect" means the water flow is too heavy.

It's rehearsal night for McFetridge's annual ice show. Right on schedule for his next cut, Fishman steps out of his office and heads for the garage. It's time for the Zamboni's next twirl. On his way, he's greeted with heys and yos by coworkers, chummy parents, and teenage girls waiting for their shot on the ice. A dad sidles up and deposits a shopping bag filled with Fishman's order of Girl Scout cookies. Fishman makes his usual takeoff preparations, checking hoses and valves and oil levels. People begin milling about in a tightening circle. Others keep one expectant eye on the rink. By the time he backs up the Zamboni, a small gaggle of onlookers has formed. Parents point to the plodding machine, gesturing, tutoring, no doubt.

No wonder Zamboni drivers love their jobs. Center ice is a perfect vantage point for looking up at the admiring throngs. In his Zamboni, Fishman becomes a celebrity. He concentrates on his work, turning knobs, adjusting levers, but manages to smile and wave often. A friend razzes from the bleachers. Fishman toots his horn, reaches forward into the dump tank, scoops some snow into a ball, and tosses it. He beeps again and ducks as he drives off.

There'll be at least two more trips around the rink before Fishman's shift ends at 11. But where are all these miles of ice taking him? He seems to be heading exactly in the direction he means to. He says he's got no plans to quit, though he admits he could be making a lot more money if he decided to permanently park his Zamboni and focus on his practice. But the siren call of the Zamboni is just too strong.

The job's not constant adoration, however. Fishman has worked hard to win the approval of the skaters. "I get really offended by people bad-talking my ice. I won't call it art because it's not. But you always want to give people a good sheet of ice. I pride myself in this." He can even write his own name in cursive on the surface.

Fishman says he often hears that McFetridge has the best ice around. He pauses and then grins. "Unless they're just blowing sunshine up my Zamboni."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Eliot Fishman by Randy Tunnell.

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