January 27, 2008

Sissy Town, USA


So there’s this car commercial on the radio now, see?

            Even the phrase, “car commercial on the radio” makes my skin all itchy. Car commercials are a disease, and this one’s even more annoying than most. The focus of the commercial is how tough New Yorkers are when it comes to dealing with the weather. “What, are you kidding me? Just because a little Nor’easter dumped three feet of snow?” the grating female announcer asks, “We’re New Yorkers!” The implication is that New Yorkers are willing to stoically trudge through anything in order to get to work—and that’s why they need to get themselves this particular brand of automobile.

            Clearly, none of the people behind this aural atrocity have ever lived in New York. Forget that mythical “three feet of snow”—if we get an inch of rain here, the whole city shuts down. The stores remain shuttered, the subways stop running, commuter rail service collapses, the mail doesn’t get delivered, and the collective whining rising from the streets can probably be heard in Baltimore.

            Christ, even that “Nor’easter” business is bullshit. Local weathermen (and other land-lubbers) began overusing the term in 1997, and now any puny bit of precipitation, regardless of the direction it comes from, is labeled a “Nor’easter” (Arrrhh!).

            A few days ago, the top story on all the New York newscasts was this “massive winter storm” that was supposed to deal a mighty blow to the city with a whopping three to five inches of snow. Weathermen were getting all bug-eyed and sweaty about it.

            Out came the plows and the salt trucks, contingency plans went into effect, alternate side of the street parking was suspended, and a number of schools were closed, all in anticipation of this Winter Hellblast.

            I may have done stupider things in my day, but I’m hard pressed at the moment to come up with anything stupider than stopping by both a supermarket and a hardware store on that very day.

            The grocery store—which should’ve been mostly empty at that time—was mobbed with jittery, terrified people, all of whom seemed to be buying six month supplies of canned goods and bottled water, apparently convinced that the threatened three inches of snow would trap them in their homes for weeks to come. As I stood there patiently in line with my beer and chips, I was tempted to just put everything back on the shelves and go home—but looking around me I realized that trying to get out of the store empty-handed would represent even more of a struggle than standing in line for the next forty-five minutes. Meanwhile, the hardware store—where Morgan and I were looking for a lamp—was in the middle of an insane run on shovels and rock salt.

            In the end, as usual, the “massive winter storm” turned out to mean “a little drizzle.” The really funny thing though, was that the salt trucks still went up and down the streets, and the schools remained closed. At least they still delivered the mail.

            I think if we had gotten that three inches of snow, they probably would’ve declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard.

            I tell my parents in Green Bay stories like that, and they laugh and laugh.

            When I was a kid—and this is still the case today, I’m told—only rarely did the weather stop anything. The schools didn’t close until you had a solid six inches on the ground (and drifting effects didn’t count). And the only reason they closed the schools at that point was because the buses couldn’t get through anything more than six inches. If it was five and three-quarter inches of snow, though, that algebra test was still gonna happen. There was no such thing as a “preemptive closing” either. In fact the announcements generally weren’t made until an hour before the first bell, which meant there was a lot of tense waiting around, ear glued to the radio, knowing I should probably just go ahead and get my damn boots on. If the snow stopped early enough to get most of the streets plowed, you were still going in.

            There was no panic, no frantic stocking up on supplies—just simple resignation while waiting to hit that magic “six inch” mark. And even if the schools were closed, there was no jubilation, because all it meant was that I’d have to spend most of the day shoveling.

            Okay, I’m sounding like a cranky, befuddled old man. But hell, my mom—who’s in her seventies now—still bundles up and goes out to Packer games when the wind chill is thirteen below. Point being that New Yorkers are a big bunch of damn sissies. Who needs terrorists when you have occasional showers?

            I do have to admit, though, that one of the two (sort of) big snowstorms we’ve had in New York in the past fifteen years did provide one of the Greatest Live Television Moments of All Time.

            This was back in 2002 or 2003, I think. For once, the predictions were right and the city got about six inches of snow. At one point during the requisite round-the-clock uninterrupted news coverage of the, well, snow, a local station (I forget which one) sent the venerable Penny Crone to a diner off the Jersey Turnpike where a number of the snow plow operators were taking their break.

            The diner was crowded with plow drivers, most of whom had been clearing the Turnpike for twelve straight hours. As Ms. Crone made her intro, you could clearly see behind her that all the tables were loaded with empty beer bottles. She then made the mistake of trying to interview a few of these guys. She asked one if plowing the Turnpike in the middle of a blizzard was difficult.

            “Ah,” he slurred. “It’s tough at first, but the hallucinations start kicking in after about forty-five minutes . . . so it’s easier after that.”

            Realizing she was in trouble if she kept talking to that guy, she ran to the other side of the diner to talk to someone else.

            “While you’re in here,” she asked him, “who’s out there plowing the roads?”

            Without missing a beat, the guy looked in the camera and said simply, “Mexicans.”

            They immediately cut back to the studio, nobody saying a word about what had been said. They never returned to that diner.

            So let me modify my conclusion a bit. With the exception of snowplow operators, New Yorkers are a bunch of sissies.

            I can’t believe I’m writing about the weather. Maybe this is part of the reason why I get up each morning already looking forward to going to bed that night.


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