Sunday, January 30, 2011

Riding the Storm Out

Man, what a winter. Right now, New York has around a 56-inch total for snow, with the record being 72 inches from that awful winter of 1995/96. At that time, I was living in the Bronx and recall the first blow, that huge, three-foot blizzard we had that January. It sticks in my mind mostly because I watched Elvis Presley movies all day on AMC while the city ground to a halt. When I got to work the next day, the powers-that-be asked where I’d been the previous day, as one of my lunatic coworkers actually made it into work from Brooklyn, a four-hour trip that normally took 30 minutes.

“I stayed at home because the mayor was on the TV telling all non-essential workers to not go to work. There was a blizzard? My train wasn’t running until 4:00 in the afternoon, and then only sporadically? Did I miss something? Were you here?”

“Well, Eugene made it in from Brooklyn yesterday.”

“Anybody else?”

“Well, no.”

“So, why are you asking me why I wasn’t here, which was obvious, when only one person came in, and I’m guessing he spent all day doing nothing?”

I didn’t last much longer at that place. I’ve always wondered what goes through an employer’s mind with a little head game like that, asking a very dumb question, the sole purpose of which seems to be to humiliate what in this case was a very good worker. I didn’t make it into work because I was sane and realized I’d be taking my life in my hands to try to get to an empty office. The real question should have been mine: “Why did no one in a position of authority contact each of us and let us know not to risk our lives trying to get to work?” (I’ve since seen that “just play dead” management technique used many times on questionable snow days. Each time by managers who never showed up for work themselves.)

I didn’t have to worry about snow cleanup at that time as my landlord, Eddie, had it under control, and only had a small swath of sidewalk in front of the house to worry about. Unlike the 60 or so feet of sidewalk I clear out now for my landlord in Queens, which took three hours with this last winter blast, 18 inches of wet, heavy snow that I had to pile on drifts of over a foot frozen over from previous storms. It’s getting to the point where I think six inches of snow is a blow-off.

The worst came two Fridays ago when I badly twisted my knee on the ice … on my landlord’s sidewalk, adding insult to injury. Friday night, just after dark, walking home after picking up some Thai food. Sometimes the mounds I shovel, on a sunny day followed by a freezing night, will melt and leave ice patches that are hard to see on the black macadam leading up the sidewalk.

Well, it got me this
time. My left knee slid straight out from under me, bent outwards at an awkward angle, and I sensed I should lean back into the snow bank to avoid an even worse bend, not going down hard, but knowing my knee had just twisted at a horribly bad angle. I sat there in the snow, feeling like a dick. Some people across the street had seen what happened and asked if I was OK. “Yeah, I’m fine. Only embarrassed.” They laughed. I felt like an old man, like I should have had one of those fur hats with a feather in it, a pipe full of Borkum Riff, big Woolrich coat, pair of horn rims, a schooner of Cutty Sark waiting for me by the fire, a Mitch Miller album on the hi-fi.

I told myself I was OK, but I wasn’t. The knee felt a little stiff that night, but not debilitating. The next morning, I could barely move it, as with all serious injuries that never feel that bad before a long rest period. Lo, two weeks later, I finally feel back to normal, but have lost my boxing chops in the mean time and feel even more pudgy than usual. A bad feeling for January, but by the same token, if you’re going to miss time in a gym, there is no better time than now, with all its temporary “resolution” members who won’t be there come late February.

And I keep seeing this mental patient walking the streets. I’m not going to snap his picture, lest I draw his attention to me, and he turns out to be a serial killer. I’ve seen this guy at least half a dozen time the past month, each time I was shoveling out from a storm, and once on the coldest day of the year, with the temperature around 15 degrees that morning. He must live in the newer apartment complex at the end of the block. This cheap block of apartments sprung up on the other side of the playground a few years back, and I get the distinct vibe it’s a bit of a post-college playground, drawing in those “first apartment” kind of people who seem hopeful and stupid in ways that can be either endearing or revolting. A few times I’ve walked by Saturday morning to find the sidewalk littered with cigarette butts and empty drug baggies, meaning a late-night party, just the kind of thing you should do when you have neighbors above, below and on each side of you. The people I see walking up the block from those apartments skew hard to either party bozo or earth mother in training.

But that morning, it was 15 degrees, agonizingly cold and as warm as it would get all day, and up the block comes this white guy, appears to be mid-20s, good-sized guy, clean cut, wire-frame glasses, short hair, could have been a linebacker in high school. Did I mention all he’s wearing is a white t-shirt, blue gym shorts and a pair of sandals? No socks – socks would be uncool. The first time I saw him dressed like this, after shoveling out from that 12/26/10 blizzard, he was carrying a hard drive. At first I thought, oh, this guy’s just walking a hard drive over to his friend’s apartment. I saw him minutes later on the train with the hard drive … in his shorts and t-shirt after he had walked the same 8-9 blocks like I did in knee-high snow.

But the coldest day of the year, this guy comes up the block in the same outfit. Only this time, it’s during the school load-in next door, dozens of kids being dropped off by their parents to get into the local PS, appears to be grades 6 to 8, or so, kids around 10-13 years old. I figure, this guy’s going to hook around the block to avoid walking through the milling bunch of kids just up the block. Most people do as the kids are giddy and full of themselves first thing in the morning, goofing on each other and looking to be brats before they walk into school. No … this guy heads straight through the kids. And they all start pointing at him and laughing. It was like an episode of The Little Rascals, the type of braying laughter that would accompany Alfalfa running down the aisle with firecrackers going off in his pants pockets.

And this guy was totally oblivious. Just let a path clear for him, which it surely did, while all these little brats laughed their asses off. I couldn’t help laughing myself. This guy was nuts. And I’ve seen him during every storm since, which has been a weekly occurrence, walking nonchalantly through the dead of a brutal winter in only shorts, t-shirt and sandals. He appears to be going to work. I’ve seen him on the train. Where he works that requires that sort of outfit, I don’t know. I fully expect to see him walking around in the summer with a parka and a pair of snowshoes. I must admit, he’s constructed a wonderful urban defense mechanism – everyone he meets must surely think he’s crazy and not to be messed with – but at what cost?

I’ll treat his presence as a good, albeit insane, omen. You need to get a little crazy to deal with a winter like this, because to deal with it head-on is to encounter a floating sense of depression that will spread out for weeks, each passing storm serving as a reminder that it aint over yet, and we still have a ways to go. I have to believe February isn’t going to be as bad a month … but who knows? We could conceivably stick with this “storm a week” pattern through the rest of winter and have mounds of snow with us well into March. Shit, I hope not. But at some point you have to entertain the possibility and ask yourself how you’re going to cope with that reality. And while I wouldn’t say walking around in a pair of shorts and t-shirt is the answer, it at least points in the right direction, of making yourself oblivious to your physical environment and walking your own path, however warped it may be.

Forecast is for more snow/rain/sleet weirdness this Tuesday and Wednesday. At this point, a depressingly familiar weekly occurrence. Gone through six bags of calcium chloride from the local hardware store – went through three all of last winter. Here’s hoping the gods smile on us, and we don’t beat that shitty 72-inch record. This winter has been a matter of degrees, seeing just how far you can go before you snap, and realizing you most likely will not snap, but spend a lot of time, shaking your head and muttering, what the fuck over this Book of Job type weather. Got the long winter vibe way ahead of schedule this year.

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