“South Africa,” he murmured.

I pushed back from the railing and turned, surprised to see him still standing there.

It was late November. A black-and-white day, with a bracing breeze pressing 40 degrees hard against unprotected faces. They said it might snow for Thanksgiving. It felt like it.

I loved coming to Rockefeller Center on days like this. It invigorated the senses. One street vendor’s roasting chestnuts mingled with another’s hot dogs-and-sauerkraut, both accented by the pungent manure below horse-drawn tourist carriages. It was a seasonal bouquet unique to Manhattan. The soundtrack was an equally eclectic mix of Prometheus’ wall of water, the wailing brass of taxicab horns, the rhythmic flapping of a hundred nations’ flags overhead, and below, steel blades slicing ice amid the occasional thump of human behinds falling on it. There, in brilliant tranquility, lay the ice rink—a precious jewel surrounded by an Art Deco forest of gray concrete. Our conversation had begun here. Just one of those inane conversations that complete strangers sometimes have with one another.

I was watching the Ice Princess perform her daily routine. He stood alongside me. “She wears the tiara well, yes?” He spoke with a distinct German accent, this large man of perhaps 60. The look of raw power was apparent in his strong, weathered face, large hands, and barrel-chested body wrapped in a simple tan overcoat. My young mind was impressed.

“Yes, she does,” I said. “I find her fascinating.”

Indeed, the Ice Princess was the lure that brought me here often. It was not a sexual thing. But her appearance did fuel the imagination. I suspect she was well into her 60’s at the time. Yet every day, she would appear on the ice in a tight leotard of the palest pink, a brilliant tiara crowning a face so heavily caked with make-up that she might have been a geisha. The gaudiness of her look was, however, more than balanced by the gracefulness of her movements. She was magnificent on the ice; her pirouettes the picture of perfection.

Who are you? I wondered. Not an American by birth, I was certain. A displaced member of European nobility? A long-forgotten Olympic contender? A lonesome soul whose only escape from reality is taking center stage at the ice rink? I wanted to write her story, but too shy to approach her, I was left with only my imagination.

Perhaps he recognized that I was lost in such thoughts, a young man daydreaming his life away. Perhaps that’s why he took an interest in me. “Those are not real diamonds,” he announced, looking straight ahead.

“Does it matter?” I responded.

“Ahh, my young friend, it most definitely does. He who cannot distinguish between reality and illusion is doomed.”

“I suppose,” I said, already aware that this gentleman’s determination to philosophize threatened to spoil my lunch-hour escape into the Ice Princess’ unknown world.

As we stood by the mezzanine railing, staring down on the midday skaters, he calmly asked, “What do you do here, my friend?”

“Advertising,” I answered.

“Hmmm…but your mind is elsewhere, is it not?”

“I have dreams,” I said, “like everyone else.”

“No, my friend. Not like everyone else. Your dreams belong only to you. And only you stand in their way.” The authority in his voice was commanding. “The great fortunes have been made here, my friend…made many years ago by men like this Rockefeller. You are young. Leave this place. There are untapped riches in the world beyond.”

As he said this, I continued to stare at the ice stage below. Slowly, I nodded an acknowledgement and began to turn toward him, but he was gone. Part of me was relieved because I didn’t know how to respond. Another part was lost in thought…not about the Ice Princess, rather about where I was going with my life. My psyche had been penetrated.

Maybe he wasn’t real, I thought—an ethereal presence that had somehow invaded my subconscious. Or, as Scrooge said of the spirit of his dead partner, Marley, perhaps he was merely a bit of undigested beef. I was ready to chalk it up to as much when I heard him murmur, “South Africa.”

I turned to face him, again.

“There are fortunes to be made there, my friend. Diamonds, you know. Not like hers,” as he dismissed the Ice Princess with a wave of his large hand. I glanced toward her, then back at him. I felt suspended between their two worlds. Hers, beguiling with a sense of what might have been. His, seducing with the lure of what might yet be.

He told me that he was returning to Europe that very night, to a shop in Antwerp where he traded diamonds. He urged me, with a passion that unmasked his own sense of missed opportunity, to boldly launch myself into the great world beyond. “Make your own story, my young friend.”

I watched him walk away, quickly lost in the midday rush. I almost called after him, but realized that I had no words to say.

The encounter had lasted just moments…one of the many, many thousands that we all have in the course of our lives. But I never forgot him.

Twenty-five years passed before I finally went to South Africa. Early one January morning, I flew into Cape Town as the sun crested the horizon. The sky was a magnificent swirl of orange and red amid creamy wisps of cloud. Below, shadowy shapes of wildlife grazed at the foot of Table Mountain, beyond which lay the magnificent collision of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Mesmerized by the beauty unfolding before me, my thoughts suddenly revisited that long-ago encounter with the European diamond trader and the Ice Princess who had somehow brought us together.

I’m still working on my story, old man, I thought. It may not be epic, but it will be my own.




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