Monday, November 26, 2018

Storm flashback, 1999: "A heart finds warmth in a frigid city"

     Admit it. You anticipated the arrival of the blizzard on Sunday with a certain thrill. Setting in supplies, making preparations, half anxious, half eager. I took in the flag and the umbrella, covered the grill and gassed up the snow blower, while Edie went to Sunset for milk and bread and grapefruit. I kept track of the weather situation as if I were in charge of it.
     Both boys' flights back East were cancelled, and while a trip to O'Hare is in the cards for Monday afternoon, that'll be it. I don't have a column in the paper today—since I was technically off for the Thanksgiving holiday Thursday, yet still wrote a column for Friday's paper, my boss told me not to write one for today. A break I gratefully accepted, though not without being a little nostalgic for the days when duty would send me downtown in such a storm, exploring the city, such as this column, from 1999, relates:

     Of all the memories I'll carry away from this week's storm—struggling across IBM Plaza in Saturday's arctic gale, one hand trying to pull my parka hood down over my face, the other clinging to one of those ropes, or walking in the middle of a deserted downtown street late that night, not a car around, just hunched figures loping off in the distance—the one I'll cherish most is an unexpected greeting from a guy shoveling on Oakdale Avenue.
     It was a struggle just to get there, to get home after work Monday. No cabs on Wabash. Nothing on Michigan. I reluctantly joined the throng at the bus stop across from the Wrigley Building, only to have three jam-packed buses blow by. I then wandered north on Michigan, looking for cabs, contemplating trekking over to the L station, several painful blocks west.
     Then the cavalry arrived. A bunch of empty CTA buses roared down the street, lumbering to the rescue. I joined the two dozen people shivering at the bus stop and struggled aboard.
     The bus illustrated how people shed their reserve in a crisis (well, semi-crisis). The windows were completely frosted over—you couldn't see. The driver wouldn't call out the stops, so nobody knew where we were. An enterprising young woman in almond-sized eyeglasses tapped the lady in front of her and told her to pass up the request to the driver that he announce the stops. I was positioned so I could watch the message move several people up the aisle, then stall out at a Julia Roberts-like lady who obviously couldn't bring herself to tap the hulking bald man in front of her and speak to him.
     A well-dressed executive-type next to me, sitting by the window, instituted Plan B, the careful creation, with his gloved thumb, of a small porthole in the frost to peer through, trying to determine where the bus might be. He called out the stops, when he could.
     The trip only took twice as long as usual, and was marked by bonhomie unusual for public transportation. People looked at each other, smiled, spoke. A woman in a full-length fur coat and matching headband remarked to me that this was turning into quite an adventure, and I responded that my wife had a coat exactly like hers, and thus can't understand what all this "cold" talk is about. (Maybe it's nerves, but I've noticed that if a strange woman speaks to me, on whatever subject, my answer invariably includes a reference to my wife. Some sort of self-preservation instinct, the way a possum will play dead if threatened).
     I left the bus, crossed Sheridan Road, and passed a guy digging his car out from the 3-foot-tall berm of snow kicked up by the city plow. He surprised me by greeting me. I stopped, squinting through my scarves, to see if I knew him. I didn't. I said hello and waited. Maybe he wanted me to help him shovel. 
     "Do you think you'll get your car out?" I said, as a prompt. He said he did. There was a pause. "Well, make sure you mark the place with a chair," I said. "People seem to be doing that. Maybe the space will be there when you get back." He went back to digging. I quickstepped up the street toward home, marveling at this bit of small-town small chat.
     What is it about extreme weather that brings out friendliness in people? You'd think it would be the other way around. That beautiful summer days, with soft zephyr winds puffing off the lake, would inspire people to suddenly start talking on the bus and greeting strangers.
     But they don't. Warm weather is when tempers flare and fistfights break out at the beach. And when the city is blanketed with record amounts of snow, suddenly we're leaping to join others pushing at the back of cars as their wheels spin.
     It's as if there is some human need for warmth, and if the weather doesn't provide it, we have to provide it ourselves. At least it's pretty to think so.

               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 7, 1999


  1. Pretty to think so, indeed!


  2. It's a "We're all in this together" mentality, I think. Crisis brings out the best in many, if not all, of us.

  3. Grateful for EGD today, as my carrier missed our building with all three dailies. Not shocked. I could write a novel about Chicago snow storms, if I had the talent. 1967, 1978, 1979 and other years I would have to research for accuracy. Stories of community, aggravation and incredible second hand tales, probably true. But safe and warm after clearing the cars, in light of current events I'm thinking about an epic drive home in December 2000. Managing the J&M at Northbrook Court the day of an unexpected snow storm, I left the shop to the night person and headed home to Hanover Park, normally a 45 minute trip. Two hours of stop and go traffic and several inches of snow later I neared Rand and Palatine Roads, planning a layover at the cinemas there, figuring traffic would be better in 3 hours. Unfortunately these theaters had closed, so instead of a restful break I had an additional delay trying to reenter the traffic stream. About four hours later, while in line on the end of the line exit ramp of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, a breaking news story about a political trek punctuated my journey as well. The surprise storm had caught shoppers and daily commuters who might have altered plans had they known, and like me they might remember that day also from Al Gore's concession to George W. Bush and the Florida mob that stole the presidency. I hope Herr Drumpf doesn't have any such unhappy surprises for us today.

  4. I think in a snow storm everyone has to pull together to get through it. I might have to clean my part but everyone has to do theirs and that's where people pull together. Then get together to help out the people that can't do it. Then we walk by one another the rest of the year with a casual "Hello". Until the next snow storm, then we pull together again. You captured the moment beautifully.

  5. My mother was stranded on a dark and unheated Greyhound bus during the '67 storm, until being rescued by the Michigan National Guard. My father and uncle left their Loop office and got a hotel room, and stayed downtown for three days. I imagine there was plenty of partying and hanky-panky going on in that hotel.

    It was semester break and I was marooned at home in the suburbs with my kid sister. We bickered and snarked at each other while I watched the snow slowly cover a stalled car until it was up to the wipers. And when the dog got loose, I chased him through chest-high drifts. Went out for smokes and a poor guy at the drug store was shoveling the entrance out, but it just kept getting reburied. The wind actually knocked me over on the way home.

    In '79, in South Evanston, I went outside to see if anyone needed help and found an abandoned car right in the middle of Main Street. Some shmuck had spun his rear tires until they MELTED. Then he just walked away. Nothing was moving in any direction. I became a traffic cop and detoured people through a plowed parking lot so they could bypass the mess. Even the buses had to follow my directions. I wanted badly to go home, because it was cold and dark, but I stayed there with my flashlight until I couldn't feel my legs and feet and couldn't raise my arms anymore. Finally, an officer showed up, followed by a tow truck. Getting around in the city itself was even worse for many weeks to come, and Mayor Bilandic was soon out on his ass.

    Northeast Ohio gets far more snow, because of Lake Erie, but we seldom get anything on the order of the two-foot blizzards that Chicago has seen several times during my lifetime. We got a lot of "little" snows...many days with an inch or two, and occasional bigger ones of maybe half-a-foot or more. But truly deep snows are more rare, and two feet hasn't happened for decades.

    The seemingly the endless snow, and all it causes, can drive you nuts every winter. Our most popular long-time Cleveland weather prognosticator accurately called it "being nibbled to death by ducks." And nobody gets all that chatty or friendly when it snows. We just bitch and moan and curse--and then start moving it. Most people here are not all that thrilled by snow. And if they are, they aren't for long.


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