Saturday, January 4, 2014

Don't try this at home

      The media loves the weather. And why not? It's a big story, affects everybody, has its own inherent drama, yet isn't depressing or hard to report -- no need to put crews on planes and send them hurrying to distant lands. You just step outside. 
     But while the medium revels, the individual reporters themselves tend to view weather stories as dreary obligations, the lowest kind of journalism, something to fob off on interns, on cub reporters, anybody who will accept being kicked into the cold — or heat, or rain — to get a few quotes and come shivering, sweating, dripping back.
     For that very reason, I used to love weather stories, exactly because the they were scorned, because they were, in my mind, a challenge, to accept the unpopular and convey the mundane. To describe the National Weather Service details while still giving it a bit of a flair. I remember once writing a story that was entirely made up of the same quote, "It's cold" or "it's very cold," delivered by a variety of Chicagoans, with the interest being the specific circumstances of the person saying it.
     Coverage of Monday's pending deep freeze -- the high in Chicago is supposed to be 10 degrees below zero -- invariably mention the previous city low: 27 degrees below zero, on Jan. 27, 1985.
     I remember it well. Not so much because of the weather -- cold is cold at that point, and whether it feels like 20 below or 27 below is merely a matter of statistics -- but because I did something really stupid on that day, as a result of the cold, and few things are sweeter than to remember an act of frozen idiocy from the warm safety of years in the future.
     Hanukkah had passed and I, considerate boyfriend that I was, had gotten my future wife, an aspiring lawyer, what I thought she needed most: a lawyerly suit. Charcoal grey pinstriped skirt and jacket, the sort of thing women wore with a blouse with a big ruffle at the neck in the 1980s. I remember it cost a week's take-home pay, which I think was $150. And I remember it was ready to be picked up at whatever store I had bought it at, perhaps after taking it back to be altered.
     Coldest day of the year. My car, a crappy blue Chevy Citation that had belonged to my late grandmother, would not start. Frozen engine block. A sane man would have shrugged and not tried to drive anywhere. Pick up the girlfriend's outfit another day. But few men are fully sane at 24, particularly when love is involved. Plus the idea of braving the cold, of my plans dominating nature, possessed me. So I hatched a plan — I must have been at Edie's apartment, because I remember her roommates, or guys next door, or somebody, helping me come up with this. I don't believe I was daft enough to come up with it on my own. Besides, I didn't have the necessary supplies.
    I took an aluminum pan and filled it with charcoal briquettes. Then I squirted the charcoal with lighter fluid and got it going. When it turned white, I carried the pan outside — oven mitts were no doubt helpful here — and slid the hot coals under the oil pan of the car, parked on the street, and waited 15 minutes, then got in and turned the key.
     The car should have caught fire. The coals should have ignited oil on the engine and burned up my crappy Chevy. Heck, it should have exploded. But God smiles on idiots and 24-year-olds, sometimes. The engine turned over nicely. I drove to whatever department store or woman's fashion shop had my wife-to-be's first business suit. I still remember walking into the arctic breeze, riffling the dry-cleaning bag over my shoulder, a feeling of accomplishment, of having defied the odds, wafting over me along with the icy air. A happy memory, now, love triumphing over the killing cold. But also a cautionary tale — don't stick hot coals under your engine Monday — let it wait a day. Be smart, unlike myself at age 24. Or, I suppose, it could be an inspirational tale. If you really, really have to get somewhere Monday, and your car is frozen up consider a pan of hot coals. Worked for me. 
     No, seriously, don't. Although, in 30 years, you'll want to have something stupid to look back upon, to reassure yourself that you weren't a cautious sack of timidity all your life. An event that Jack London called "a purple passage," an act of youthful stupidity — in his case getting drunk and swimming off his schooner in Yokohama, his shipmates assuming he'd drown and dragging the harbor for him while he slept it off, something he viewed "20 years afterward with a secret glow of pride." On that scale, warming up a frozen engine with coals isn't much, but it's what I've got. Anyway, stay warm.


  1. That cold spell I was living on Touhy, in an old woodframe two flat that was . . . leaky. Drafty wasn't quite the situation: wind howled through the place. We had inadequate steam radiator heat on a good day, and that day we tried to make the place livable by turning on the gas stove and all the stovetop burners and sitting in the kitchen and drinking whiskey. I was the one (among my five roommates) who noticed that the wind had blown out two of the burners on the stovetop. We were maybe five minutes away from being blown to kingdom come. We shut it all down and imposed on relatives of mine for shelter for the night.

  2. I love it. I remember that night well -- a couple pals and I went on a long march across the frozen tundra to see a midnight showing of "The Wall". I'm cold just thinking about it. Like lit charcoal under a car [which is genius, btw, I am definitely not telling my boys about that because if I do they will, at some point, try it out], it seemed like a good idea at the time.

  3. Have battery checked more often and replace it before it dies.

    1. You waited 2 years to tell Neil that! You know there's a statute of limitations on criticism of that sort. Besides, a Chevy Citation inherited from your grandmother doesn't need an excuse not to start and you can't really say you're lucky if it does, because at least it won't kill you sitting quietly at the curb.


  4. Why is Rahm out of your crosshairs lately? Plenty new stuff there.

  5. Neil, not that I'm trying to one-up you on the stupid scale, but here goes: I used to work in a gas station where we cleaned the garage floor with gasoline.

    And, not that it matters now, but if hot coals under the oil pan helped start that engine then the oil in the crankcase was too thick. That's rarely a problem with today's oil.


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