Last Friday night, New York got hit by the first big blizzard of the season, and it dumped more of the white stuff in one go than I’ve ever experienced here — 12 inches was the going rate, although I heard that pockets of the Bronx were buried up to 23 inches. Mayor Bloomberg, always a man quick with numbers, gave estimated the cost of clearing all that snow as $12 million, figuring $1 million per inch as a rule of thumb. Apparently that’s half the city’s snow budget for the season. I’d never realized how wildly expensive it is to clear something that would, after all, go away of its own accord by the following Thursday. But I guess when you hire union sanitation workers to stick plows on their trucks and drive around all Saturday night, it adds up. (And that big fat bill may explain why thrifty Korea doesn’t bother with the niceties of salt on its roads, preferring to let its buses skid through red-lighted intersections all winter.)
Perhaps some of my pleasure at snow comes from the simple fact that I have never in my life had to shovel it or scrape it off my windshield. The snow comes, sometimes it gives me a day off, and then it becomes Somebody Else’s Problem. Which, as we all know, is the best kind of problem to sit back and enjoy. And the snow has a way of making the angular, constructed environment of the city into an elemental wilderness, at least while it’s still coming down. Going out for our customary Saturday brunch at Whim (which I will tell you about another time, because you should know), my wife and I half expected to see bears and wolves and sledges full of Russian wedding parties. (What we actually saw was a man methodically rolling his snowblower over the same patch of sidewalk, the machine launching its haul in an elegant arc that piled up neatly in the middle of the street. As soon as he disappeared, the owner of the restaurant went outside to knock snow off his awning — and onto the sidewalk.)
It’s not that I’ve never found anything to dislike about snow. Even as I enjoy the blizzardy hush, I know that in a couple of days it’ll all turn into a turgid gray-black mess of salted, shoe-destroying ice-muck. The first time I actually saw the stuff coming down was when I was 12 years old, during an episode our family still refers to as the Vacation From Hell. Our annual snow-saucering trip coincided with the worst blizzard Truckee had seen in years, and then we totaled our new car on the way back home, in the clear dry sunshine of Sacramento. And my first winter in New York happened to be the most severe the city had seen for 100 years, with 16 separate snowfalls that all stayed put until spring, melting only enough to spread ice sheets across every pedestrian surface in town. The snow banks on the sidewalks towered above my head, and crossing the street meant squeezing into the gaps that had been cut in them — and, more often than not, stepping into the ankle-deep slush puddle that had formed there, waiting murkily for access to the ice-blocked drains. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that January, having just returned from California, I was awakened at 6 in the morning by my dorm’s fire alarm, which continued to howl as they marched us into lobby, which was slowly flooding, and then sent us back up to our rooms. And when they’d finally turned off the godawful thing and I’d gotten back to sleep, I was awakened again, this time by my RA pounding on my door and shouting, “Get out! Get out! There’s a real fire!” I threw on my boots with no socks and my wool overcoat over just a T-shirt and ran down the stairs. When the firefighters threw us out of the building and into the 15-degree morning to fend for ourselves, I didn’t even have my wallet. (It was a small electrical fire in the basement.) With no student ID, I had to beg my way into another dorm where I sort of vaguely knew someone. I sat there all morning in my boots and no socks and watched pictures of Los Angeles falling down. It was the day of the Northridge Earthquake.
I suppose I’m not the only one who goes snow-crazy. A few years ago I was making my way back from Staten Island in a pretty serious snowstorm, and there were people on the deck with their video cameras out, filming the zero visibility, presumably so that they could go home to Florida or the Bronx or wherever and watch, well, snow. (Which is a disappearing artifact of pre-cable television transmission, by the way; like the sounds of rotary dials and screechy modems, televisual snow is becoming an anachronism, replaced by a less psychedelically inspiring silent blue screen.) And like all big citywide events — this summer’s big blackout, the Yankees in the World Series, September 11th — it pulls down the barriers between New Yorkers. For once, all these millions of perfect strangers have a reasonable excuse to start a conversation. It’s snowing, isn’t it? Whew! Cold out there. Careful on the ice! Can you believe it’s still coming down?
By Sunday afternoon, the snow had run its course, and on Monday there was nothing for it but to trudge into work. Having some experience of New York in the aftermath, I wore my hiking boots, which are lined with Goretex, and cheerfully stomped through whatever slush puddles were in my way. I even contributed to the upkeep of this fair city by kicking some ice out of the way, thereby draining a sizeable lake at the corner of Hoyt and Pacific. One of my wife’s coworkers came to work sporting a black eye from a falling icicle, and a house across the street from us had achieved a spectacular overhanging glacier whose gradual progress had turned a series of icicles into frightening rows of snaggleteeth. But instead of calving, as I had hoped it would, the glacier just melted away. As snow does.