January 2, 2011

As If It Had Never Snowed Before


There’s a trick I taught myself when I was a kid. One December morning on my way to school, I discovered that if I raised my center of gravity and distributed my weight properly, it was possible to walk across the top of the snow without sinking up to my knees. Certain conditions had to be in place and it wasn’t a foolproof system, but it worked often enough that after seeing Being There, my mom took to calling me “Chance.”

            I can’t walk across the top of the snow anymore, but at the time it was just one more way of coming to terms with winter in Wisconsin.

            As most of you likely recall, on the day after Christmas New York City was hit by a snowstorm that even I, if grudgingly, had to admit was respectable. I awoke on the morning of the twenty-seventh to find the tiny street-level windows of the Bunker completely buried. On the radio they were saying the snow was still falling hard, and that the drifting would continue throughout the day. I decided if the windows were buried, it probably wouldn’t be wise to open the front door.

            I don’t complain about snow. Where I grew up, blizzards that could bury a one-story house were not unheard of. The people who lived in Wisconsin at the time expected and respected the snow, and as a result knew how to deal with it. They dressed for it, they cleared their cars off the roads, they kept extra provisions handy and refrained from whining (except maybe those of us who had to do the shoveling). Snow was something that happened every year, and when it did, you worked with it.

            So these days no, I don’t complain about the snow. It happens, then it goes away.

            What I do complain about, however, is other people’s reaction to snow. Especially New Yorkers. I’ve said it before—they tout this tough reputation, but drop the tiniest meteorological inconvenience in their path, and instead of stepping around it New Yorkers will stand and bitch until someone pays attention. New York City is Sissytown U.S.A.

The night before the snow began falling, I heard a television reporter quip, “We’re New Yorkers—we’ve seen snow before.” Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t amount to a goddamn thing if you haven’t made certain adjustments after seeing snow in the past. You’d think after, what, several thousand years of snow this time of year that people might start getting used to the idea, perhaps learn a thing or two. But it seems the closest New Yorkers get to “learning” involves pointing at the last major snowstorm and complaining about that one, too.

            In the midst of the storm, what did thousands of people do? First they realized they needed a shovel. Who are these people who’ve never owned a shovel? It happens every fucking time!

            Then what did they do? Well, then they got in their cars and started driving around, apparently expecting that the roads would be cleared already. When it turned out the roads weren’t cleared and they got stuck, they bitched and moaned and abandoned their cars where they were. This, in turn, made it impossible for the plows to get through to clear the roads, and their cars only became more thoroughly stuck.

            Granted, the Mayor told people to stay off the roads and use mass transit. But what happened there? The buses got stuck the same way the cars did, and the trains stopped running. We are working with a century old infrastructure in the subways that seems to stop running every time it rains or snows too hard. Then when the snow starts melting and all the water and salt runs down into the system, it not only shorts out the electrical system, stopping the trains again—it corrodes things—tracks, signals, switches— even further, making worse weather-related mass transit nightmares more likely in the future.

            There are three very simple solutions to the mass transit problem. First, if you run trains more often instead of less often, the tracks will stay clear. Second, if you stop dumping salt on everything at even the tiniest hint of snow, electrical systems won’t short out and manhole covers will stop shooting into the sky every spring. And third, if a train does get stuck, for some reason the people in charge of the MTA never seem to remember that the engines of those small but powerful work trains are diesel-operated, and could easily be used to pull stalled trains out of the way.

            Jesus. If I could point out those things, what could a smart person suggest?

            Then you have the rest of the idiots. Okay, now, if there’s only a very narrow foot path cleared along the sidewalk—room enough at best to let one person walk in one direction at any given time—why oh why would you find it necessary to stop in the middle of that narrow path and pace in circles while making a cell phone call (probably to complain about the snow)?

            As for the people—bless them—who are actually out there shoveling the sidewalks, I have one question. This has always bugged the hell out of me. Why, when you reach the end of the block, do you simply pile all the snow there, making it impossible to cross the street? Are you trying to trap people on the block? Is it really that nice a block? Two days after the snow stopped I finally stepped outside thinking I would go to the deli to replenish the beer reserves (I had plenty on-hand, but always feel safer with a little backup). The deli is across the street. The total round trip is about thirty yards. But when I reached the corner I found myself confronted with two eight-foot mountains between me and the deli. There was no obvious route around either one. I would need to ascend both each way, and would likely spill the beer in the process. Instead I turned around and crawled back into the Bunker.

            Here’s another one. I watched the news for three nights after the blizzard, and what did it consist of? Reports about the blizzard! Endless shots of people shoveling, and interview after interview with one whiny son of a bitch or another, all complaining about the fucking snow! You know what? We all know it snowed! Weren’t there any murders or robberies in that time, or were all the killers and thieves stuck in snowdrifts and bitching about it instead of killing or stealing?

            One channel ran a story about a man who’d lost two fingers while trying to clean out a snowblower that was apparently still running. The story ended with the reporter’s solemn proclamation, “This makes him the first victim of this terrible storm.”

            “No,” I said aloud. “That makes him a victim of his own incomprehensible stupidity.”

            I could go on here, really, but by the time this runs all the snow will have likely melted away and everyone in the whole fucking city will have completely forgotten it ever happened—at least until it happens again, at which point they’ll start flapping their little chicken arms all over because, you know, it’s snowing.



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