A year ago, I nearly died. Melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s how it felt moving 0.5 mph down the Hutchinson River Parkway as a nor’easter blew snow sideways across an endless line of taillights and twilight descended ominously. My Nissan was moving so slowly that a ridge of snow piled up on the hood, several inches thick, a cumberbund of ice that eluded the furious swipes of the windshield wipers and defied the reach of the front defroster.
Foolish, I thought. I had foolishly chalked up the excitable panic of my coworkers and radio announcers to New York cyncism and a desire to use any excuse to shirk work. I’m from the Midwest—at the University of Wisconsin there had been only 1 snow day in the last 10 years when a freakish 2.5 feet of snow were dumped on Madison in one night.
Midwesterners pack a shovel and salt bags in their trunk and go about their business without the customary kvetching and clucking of a New York winter. I didn’t understand it. Winters here in New York were reliably obnoxious—there would be several snowfalls, and they may or may not melt before March, but nothing like the bitter cold and prairie whiteouts of Wisconsin. Midwesterners all carry a grudging respect for winter and The Elements. Like Ned Stark, they live their lives according to the undeniable precept that Winter is coming. Always. Those whose hubris leads them (literally) onto thin ice too early in the season become cautionary examples of the perils of treating Winter too casually. Wisconsinites know that Winter must not be treated like a meek friend. Winter is a righteous enemy, a quiet challenger who dons the boxing gloves religiously each year, not out of pride or petulance, but to balance the scales of cosmic justice.
In New York, though, Winter is treated like an annoying ex-boyfriend who manages to reappear–suddenly yet reliably–at the most socially inconvenient moments. You can hear New York City collectively hyperventilate before every storm: “Ugh. It’s you again. Can you believe the balls on this asshole? I swear to god, if he does this to me one more time, I’m filing a restraining order!” Winter, meanwhile, just smirks in a corner booth saying: “What? I told ya I wasn’t gonna stop coming here. This is my joint. I’m a regular.”
And this is the most perplexing aspect of a New York winter storm: despite its regularity, despite data collected over 100 years and relayed daily on WNYC from the tower in Central Park, New Yorkers always seem shocked and outraged by winter storms. The way the bread, milk, and toilet paper flee the shelves, you’d think we were in Georgia– which is to say, you’d think this were Manitoba (or, this year, Boston) where a 10-foot drift is guaranteed to blockade our front doors and leave us stranded from civilization for weeks on end. Perhaps fear-induced shopping makes sense in Westchester County where a car is a necessity and roadways are poorly plowed. But in New York City, you’re a walk away from a bodega, deli, market, bagel shop or restaurant. You will not starve in New York, and you will not run out of batteries or toilet paper.
Given the typcial histrionics surrounding even a mild snowfall, I dismissed the weather reports and went to work anyway on that day in early February 2014. The snow was feather-soft and sparse at the beginning of the day, and the streets were relatively clean. Not Wisconsin clean, but we can’t hold a city of 11 million people to Wisconsin’s German Housewife standards of spotless byways. At around 3pm, I realized that perhaps I’d taken Winter too lightly. This was not the grungy, lovably-irresponsible ex-boyfriend. This was the full fury of the Old Gods breaching the Northern Wall. This was some supernatural winds-from-Canada polar vortex shit.
I got on the road at 3pm and immediately realized I should’ve left earlier. Not for the snow per se but because every other working adult in Westchester County was on the road at the same time. The snow was just beginning, lightly, as I got into my car. Any other day, I could’ve been home in 30 minutes. But the traffic and the sudden onslaught of sideways ice-daggers that Winter was about to expectorate all over the Hutchinson River Parkway meant that I was a long, long way from home.
It bears explaining that a parkway is not the same as a freeway, highway, beltway, or thru-way. It is four lanes, two going each way, divided by a thin concrete barrier with barely any shoulder, very short on-ramps, and hardly any streetlights to speak of. Parkways were meant to be Sunday drives from the city to the suburbs. You might picture Cary Grant driving along one (rear-projection of course) in a 1939 Rolls Royce at 40 miles per hour while Katherine Hepburn or Irene Dunne engages him in witty screwball shenanigans. But in 2014, a parkway is a death trap– a narrow country road without the “country,” driven at 70-80 miles an hour (although the speed limit is 55) by executives and soccer moms in SUVs auditioning for parts in The Fast and the Furious. Unlike a country road, there is always traffic on a parkway; unlike a highway, there is never enough room for it.
I could tell as soon as I came to the Problem Exit where three lanes spontaneously reduce to two, that I was in for a long drive. This is a poorly designed stretch that, on any average Friday afternoon, is always jammed with cars unprepared for the lanes to narrow and philosophically incapable of zippering. Except on this day, it continued like that, bumper to bumper, for 2.5 hours. I listened to three podcasts: This American Life, Radio Lab, and some third marker of twee liberal intellectualism whose name now escapes memory. Let’s assume it was Freakonomics. Traveling 2 miles per hour means that it takes an hour to go 2 miles, a fact which should have been self-evident from math class and common sense, but which became more palpably clear in practice than I care to relive.
My car has a “slippery” sensor that engaged many times in the stop-and-go traffic as I struggled to keep the car from swerving on the ice while avoiding cars that had broken down in the middle of the road. The worse part were the red brake-lights in front of me, demanding constant attention to their unpredictable movements. It felt like some kind of NASA endurance test. The road that I’d driven countless times in the past year suddenly felt foreign. The skies, though nearly undetectable amid the falling snow, nevertheless grew steadily darker. Soon the only lights were those of the cars around me. The layer of snow mounted higher on my hood and obscured the tail-lights of the car in front of me. If I’d been able to drive just a little faster, the snow might have blown off due to aerodynamics. There was no escape. All other routes were just as bad, even if you could find an exit to take.
I found myself remembering my Driver’s Ed. course in high school. My instructor was an old Wisconsin Tech. Ed. teacher with a thin beard the same grizzled color as his face. Unlike Santa’s or my father’s, this beard was in no way endearing. He was missing part of his thumb (presumably from a Wood Shop accident) and let me know right away that my driving was not up to par with the farm boys who had learned to drive at 12 years old on their family tractors. “Bridges are the first to freeze and the last to thaw,” he always said gravely, whenever we crossed an overpass. But those months of easing off the break on my parents’ 1991 Crown Victoria—antilock breaks? please! – returned to me like muscle memory as I coaxed the wheel into submission. I even made use of the overdrive feature on my automatic, the mysterious D1 and D2 grooves that are apparently used to improve traction.
As greedy SUVs barreled down the slender shoulder, already filling with snow drifts, I thought about how Wisconsinites drove in winter compared to New Yorkers. On the one hand, most drivers in New York, in my nonscientific sample, do slow down in rain or snow. Wisconsinites tend to plow ahead, imperviously. But the aggressive weaving in-and-out of traffic that New Yorkers are famous for is not a feature of Midwest driving outside of Chicago. My moment of moral victory occurred when a huge Escalade pulled around the cars behind me–like a rogue bull leaving the pack– to enter the service lane on the left shoulder. I knew from experience that this lane would narrow in a few hundred feet. Where did he think he was going? Was this assclown really sitting there thinking he was smarter than the rest of us law-abiding fools? Normally in a blizzard, I would let a car pass me just to preserve everyone’s safety. But not at 1 mile per hour. When he ran out of room and tried to weasel back into the Lane of the Sane, I didn’t let him in. This was an hour into my white-knuckle commute, and I wasn’t even halfway home. Nobody else let him in either, like true New Yorkers. The Escalade had to cower back into his original spot in line. I saw at least three cars on the side of the road, having spun out when they attempted the same stunt.
The worst accident I’ve ever witnessed was in 2008 when friends and I were returning to central Wisconsin from a trip to Chicago to see the opera Doctor Atomic. Unseasonably warm for January, the 40-degree weather began to melt the standing snow alongside highway I-90, creating a white-out snow-fog. There was a 30 care pile-up with semi-trucks (or “tractor trailors” in New York parlance) jack-knifed on both sides of the road. One hundred cars were part of the ensuing traffic jam. We were stuck in our car for 9 hours. Two hours in, my friends and I realized the absurdity of the situation and started making our Zombie Apocalypse inventory of supplies. We had a lighter, sleeping bags, extra clothes, tinder, a cellphone charger, an ice-scraper that could be easily weaponized, ¾ tank of gas, a car radio—though at the moment the radio was full of information advising drivers to avoid the accident but no instructions for those of us caught up in it. We were pretty much set, although we lacked food. We were less than 20 miles from Madison. One of my friends had a panic attack in the back seat and didn’t find the humor in our game. She was upset about missing an online gaming appointment, and she talked two cellphones dead. Eventually the other three of us got out to stretch and walk, where we inspected the extent of the pile-up several yards ahead of our car. We peed in a clump of trees on the roadside, feeling quite adventurous and independent. We exchanged information and jokes with others who had left their cars to stretch: “Global warming’s a bitch, huh?” “Tell me about it! I live right off the next exit!” I taught my friends how to Charleston on the side of the road. My friend Ashley claimed recently that this was captured by a news helicopter and made the local news, though I didn’t know it at the time. At hour 7, the Salvation Army came by with Cheez-its, water bottles, and bologna sandwiches. I’ve never been so happy in my life that I don’t keep kosher. Ashley donated to the Salvation Army that year, but I couldn’t bring myself to give to those homophobic, proselytizing Santas my money (you can blame the twee liberal intellectual NPR podcasts for that, if you like). Eventually one lane of the highway was cleared enough for cars to pass through, single-file, and the fog dissipated as evening brought a reassuring chill—the kind of cold that Winter is supposed to be. We drove to our friend’s house on the East Side of Madison to spend the night before continuing North.
Despite that day-long ordeal, I’d never felt mortality behind-the-wheel as strongly as on the Hutchinson River Parkway during the polar vortex of 2014. When I finally got home, my eyes were as exhausted as my ass, and I had a permanent knot in my left shoulder. I was sweaty, but my feet were cold from an endless battle to defrost the windows while not overheating. I never found the sweet-spot; my car’s side windows frosted over like snow-globes every few minutes unless I maintained the heat at sauna-like temperatures. When I got home, of course, there were very few places to park. I had to drive around the block before I finally maneuvered my car into a flat patch amongst the snow-plow moraines. It was only 5:30pm but it felt like 9:00pm. I was thankful to be alive, on some level, beneath the scolding I was giving myself for being too brave, for taking winter too lightly.
My first thought when I got home was to call my father and say “I nearly died today.” Although I’d stayed calm in the car, the gravity of the situation became apparent only later. In fact, I was a little proud of my winter driving chops and that I didn’t spin out like those other poor marooned bastards. In the end, I didn’t call. I didn’t want to worry my parents. Although my dad never begrudged Winter for doing its duty, he would readily stay home from work if it was snowing during his commute. His commute, which he’d been doing for 16 years, was about as long as mine—20 to 30 minutes on a good day—although for me that was only 14 miles of suburban cut-throat driving on the anachronistically-named parkways, while for him commuting was on flat, open state highways in Wisconsin for about 20 miles. I didn’t call that night. I stayed home from work the next day as the snow continued to fall and the plows continued to wall-in my car behind a rampart of dirty ice.
My dad died unexpectedly about two weeks later. His heart ruptured. I went home as soon as I could. It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters Wisconsin had seen in decades. The day I got home, the day I saw his body, the skies were clear, crystalline blue with sun blinding off the snow banks. His death didn’t make sense to me, but the Wisconsin Winter did. My dad always liked Winter. “Like” is too strong a word—he was reconciled to Winter, whereas he was always skeptical of Summer with its fair-weather fans and false promises. My dad appreciated Winter. Not for its evergreen magic or pristine beauty, but for its brutal honesty. Some would call it bitterness, but that’s not quite apt. Winter, like my father, was always honest. If it catches you by surprise, that’s only because you weren’t paying close enough attention.