[the palaverist]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

[cold winters]

This winter is the coldest and snowiest I remember in a long time — maybe since my first winter in New York. I was a California boy then, new to the rigors of winter, so I've sometimes wondered whether my recollections were overblown — whether perhaps the winter of '94 had grown harsher in my imagination that it actually was.

Not so.

Here's a fun little sampling of articles on just how rough that season was:
I recall the Columbia campus covered in ice sheets an inch thick that made going to class a treacherous affair. My Lit Hum class was way over in the International Affairs Building, east of Amsterdam Avenue, and getting there required a late-afternoon traverse across the howling wind tunnel of West 120th Street, a canyon between the high walls of Teacher's College and the Columbia campus's forbidding backside. There were many afternoons when I simply didn't make the trip. I had a hard time meeting people and making friends because so few people went out and did anything. But when the snow banks had piled up above the height of the parked cars, someone carved an entire life-sized automobile from snow, with a grinning grille and an icicle for an antenna.

I remember that on that arctic January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the pipes in my dorm froze, leading to a basement fire. I heard my RA pounding on my door, shouting, "Get out! Get out! There's a real fire!" — we'd already spent much of the morning waiting out a false alarm in a slowly flooding lobby — and quickly pulling on boots and a coat over my T-shirt and sweat pants before running from the building. I didn't have my wallet or my student ID or socks. It was very, very cold, and there was nowhere for me to go. I begged my way into another dorm, where I sat in the lounge and watched pictures of the aftermath of the Los Angeles earthquake.

There were ice floes on the Hudson. I could see them from my dorm room's sliver of a river view.

I was totally unprepared for a winter like this. I didn't know to get long underwear. My boots were designed for jungle combat and had air vents down by the soles. When at last the snow began to melt, deep slush puddles formed at all the corners, and you could only cross at the corners, where cuts had been made in the towering snow banks. Going to the store directly across the street meant walking to the corner, crossing, and walking back.

I recall a long, wandering, intellectually confused discussion with my Logic and Rhetoric professor, an angry feminist grad student in the English department. I wanted to know what differentiated my B+ essays from my B- essays, and she came around to the position that her methods were holistic and could only be understood once the course was complete. Along the way, she suggested that maybe I needed to experience bad grades because I had already had so much white male privilege, "locker-room camaraderie" and the like. I countered that seeing as how I hadn't actually been on any sports teams, my friend Monica, who played rugby at Wesleyan, had undoubtedly experienced far more locker-room camaraderie than I ever had. This enlightened symposium took place outside in bitter cold. We were both too stubborn or too stupid to suggest going inside somewhere and continuing like civilized human beings.

My work-study job that year was at the reserve desk in the library, another institution dedicated to purging white male privilege. I was the only white person on the staff, and I'm fairly certain that was what my boss disliked about me, though I have no real proof. In any case, whenever I was on duty, it was invariably my job to go outside in the early morning and bring in the books from the drop-bin, which involved unlocking the Master Lock, which in turn required that I hold it in my bare hand until it thawed. Then I had to scrape the ice away from the bin door so that I could open it and retrieve the books. When I suggested that we perhaps wait a bit to open the bin on days when the temperature was in the single digits, it was pointed out to me that this would unfairly enable students to get away with returning their books late by several hours. I didn't think this was such a bad thing, but I wasn't in charge.

When at last the forecast was for 60 degrees, I went alone to Central Park — I was often alone in those days — and sat on a rock, thrilling that I was outside and it didn't hurt.

That was a very hard winter. The hardest I've known. This winter has seen a fair amount of cold and snow, but it's nothing like the winter of '94. 

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