God's Frozen People
Buffalo, New York, probably turns out more ministers, priests, and nuns than any other city, except perhaps Rome. Not just because there's a large Catholic population to begin with, but because big blizzards can make you a believer. They can also make you a serious doubter—of weathermen.
I can't recall the weatherpersons predicting many of the really spectacular storms that swept in off Lake Erie; the kind that fill a person with an odd combination of terror and exhilaration that's better described as a spiritual awakening, or perhaps psychosis. Growing up in the Frost Belt, you learn to regard meteorologists as frustrated novelists—folks who wanted to study creative writing, but their parents wouldn't pay for something so frivolous, and so they had to study meteorology. Weather forecasters were consulted for fashion more than anything else: Will the toupee blow off without a hat today? Are platform shoes really a sensible choice in an ice storm?
Our climatic soothsayers usually played it safe by predicting a "wintry mix," which covered everything from rain to hail to sleet to a full fledged blizzard. Over the years I noticed there wasn't any springy mix, or autumny mix, or even a summery mix of sunshine, birdsong, and gentle zephyrs.
However, it was difficult to determine whether or not it was snowing simply by looking out the window. That's because nine months of the year our windows were shrouded in plastic to keep the wind from blowing the plates off the table, and snowdrifts from accumulating behind the couch. Seen through these heavy-gauge tarps, the neighborhood appeared to be a gigantic blur that may as well have been McMurdo Station in Antarctica. You were on the other side of the looking glass, and summer was just a rumor from there.
Buffalo usually receives the second largest annual snowfall of any city in the state, with flakes beginning in October, and finally tapering off sometime around April like a bad chest cold. The city itself gets around eighty-five inches, the suburbs 120 inches, and the towns slightly to the south, about 160 inches per year. And that's the last you'll hear about inches, because a true Buffalonian measures snow in feet. Syracuse, 150 miles to the east, is considered slightly snowier, depending on the winter and whom you choose to believe. However, Buffalo retains the distinction of being on the receiving end of the truly dramatic storms that make national news. Said snow is accompanied by a face-numbing wind howling off of Lake Erie, shivering thermometers with mercury registering three clapboards below the bulb, and icicles that, if they were to break off the eaves and hurtle to Earth, could easily harpoon a child or split a grown man's head in two.
Lake Effect Snow occurs when cold air passes over the relatively warm water of a large lake, picks up moisture and heat, and upon reaching the downwind shore, is forced to drop the moisture in the form of snowflakes that can chip your teeth. The accompanying winds will not just turn your umbrella inside out, but carry it directly to Neptune, right along with anyone dumb enough to hang on.
And this is how Buffalo can have worse weather than neighboring Toronto, Canada. On the bright side, in summertime the lake acts as a massive air-conditioner.
Early on I became used to hearing my mother describe me as the "blonde-haired, blue-eared child." My first full sentence was most likely, "Turn the wheel into a skid." Ask anyone raised in Buffalo during the 1970s energy crisis to complete the following sentences: If you're cold, … (put on a sweater). Close the front door, … (are we heating the entire neighborhood?). Shut the refrigerator door, … (is there a movie playing in there?). Ninety percent of your body heat is lost if, … (you don't wear a hat). Don't complain about the rain because, … (it could be snow). There's no such thing as bad weather, … (just the wrong clothing).
What Dylan Thomas called "useful presents" in his classic short story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, seemed to be the overriding theme when it came to gift giving. Christmas and Hanukah weren't complete without the ritual exchanges of jumper cables, flashlights, sweaters, flannel bathrobes, hats, scarves, gloves, electric socks, and quilted slippers. Nothing says "Happy Holidays" quite like a woolen facemask!
Nowadays people dress lightly in winter on the theory that they only have to make it to the car, and then into an office building or the mall. But those clunky automobile heaters of the 1970s were slow to get rolling, and the inside of the vehicle was just starting to thaw out by the time you arrived at your destination. Whereas people down South worry about their milk spoiling if left in the car, we were trying to prevent our fresh vegetables from becoming flash frozen.
A white car, like a long white coat, was NOT a good idea. If you were parallel parked in the street, the plow would heave the vehicle over the curb right along with the snow. A black car wasn't such a great idea either in treacherous driving conditions on a dark night. The "be alert, don't get hurt" families opted for fire engine red. Even then, it was best to put some identifying mark such as a Wonder Woman bobblehead on the dashboard, so you didn't accidentally spend a lot of time scraping off someone else's red car. After a big snowstorm and a few plow runs, the street doesn't look anything like it did when you parked. You may as well be in the Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling's hometown of Binghamton, New York.
By the end of October the Norse gods pulled the trigger on the starter pistol and winter was officially on. Some years it had already snowed and the temperature dipped below freezing by then. As a kid you knew that your Halloween costume had better somehow incorporate a down parka, wool hat, mittens, and possibly boots. A ghost was a good idea; simply throw a sheet over your coat. A hobo worked well too; a little burnt cork on the face and a stick with a satchel made from a red bandanna over the shoulder. And you could never go wrong as the Abominable Snowman.
Growing up in a cold climate you don't realize how it is such a big part of your life until you leave. Upon moving to New York City shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I threw off my hat the way Mary Tyler Moore did in the opening of her show. Then, I tossed out the heavy scarf, mittens, and boots like an ailing pilgrim reaching the Promised Land. Though only 450 miles away, Manhattan is usually ten to thirty degrees warmer than Buffalo, and has about one-fiftieth the snowfall.
While working on the floor of the stock exchange in Manhattan that first winter, I was shocked when all the traders, clerks, and brokers dashed off the trading floor one day in early January. With so much money at stake, people often won't even leave during bomb scares or to use the bathroom, never mind to see a doctor or have lunch. There was so much paper scattered about that I thought a fire had broken out. Then a multimillionaire partner in a trading firm came skipping past and giddily announced: "It's snowing!" New York City may be only seven hours away from Buffalo by car, but it truly feels like one has crossed into a more temperate zone.
Another strange thing that New Yorkers do is open their windows in the middle of winter as a way of adjusting the temperature indoors. When Buffalonians raised during the energy crisis see an open window in winter, we practically faint, while hearing the distant voice of an irate father shouting, "Who is going to pay for that?!" It's the upstate New Yorker's version of recovered memory therapy.
Manhattan gets a good snowstorm every few years, the kind that Buffalo kindergartners would think nothing of walking to school in. And it's hit by the occasional Nor'easter, a gale force rainstorm that leaves in its wake a mass graveyard of take-out menus and commuter-sized umbrellas. When a storm is predicted, even one with only a few inches of snow that will last a day at most, New Yorkers stampede their neighborhood delis and grocery stores, purchasing enough batteries and food to be trapped inside their apartments for a month. And not just your storm staples like milk, bread, and eggs, but pimentos, papayas, and taco shells; as if terrified by the thought of not being able to have an omelet with Gruyere cheese, capers, pearl onions, and shitake mushrooms for eight hours.
The only weather system truly indigenous to Manhattan is the Trash Twister. This micro tornado of pedestrian refuse—discarded wrappers, unwanted subpoenas, parking tickets, newspapers, and plastic bags—hovers between skyscrapers for an hour or so prior to settling back down on the pavement, or blowing out to sea.
While New York City kids are taught how to ride the subways, in Buffalo I learned the correct way to pull on double mittens and wrap a scarf around my head, face, and neck mummy-style, so only my eyes showed through. As a first driving lesson I was taught how to rock the car back and forth in order to get unstuck in the snow. Next, I learned how to pump the brakes when skidding on ice (this was before antilock brakes). After a certain amount of practice we develop the fine art of banging frozen windshield wipers against the glass hard enough to chip off the ice, but not so hard that they snap in two. Occasionally, I donned cross-country skis just to retrieve the mail from our box across the street.
Outdoor parades between October and April could be a problem, with only the hale and hearty participating in the high school marching band. Picture the mouthpiece of a metal instrument as the equivalent of a flag pole or pump handle, or anything else you really don't want to lick in the cold. The paramedics were called upon to deal with tongues frozen to flutes almost as often as they were for hypothermia.
It's only logical that a snow blower society like Buffalo is going to produce more gender confusion than the Bikini Belt, and perhaps for this reason it's a hub of lesbian folk rock music, and the potential staging ground for a bisexual revolution. Snowshoeing around town semi clad was a handwritten invitation to frostbite. When it came to outerwear, we didn't care if it was from the men's or the women's department, as long as it was warm and waterproof. And menswear often claimed superiority in this area, antediluvian manufacturers assuming that only the menfolk were outside starting cars, while women in spike heels and pillbox hats warmed hot cocoa in the kitchen. Result: the Sasquatch Sisters. Darn, that would have been a good name for a band.
We wore fluffy down parkas that made a size-four woman resemble the Pillsbury doughboy. Snorkel jackets lined with neon orange and a gray ring of fur around the face suggested deranged bounty hunters and offered no peripheral vision. Add moon boots, ski mittens with the circumference of oven mitts, caps with earflaps that make you look like Piglet, electric socks, wool sweaters, bank-robber-style facemasks with cutout eye and mouth holes, a Buffalo Sabres scarf to top it all off, and you had a winter carnival at the psych center. Astronauts appeared to be dressing pretty lightly from where we were standing.
Mitten strings and mitten clips were forced upon children. (The mittens hang from opposite ends of a piece of yarn that goes through the coat sleeves and theoretically cannot be lost. Or clips attach to the end of each sleeve hole for the same purpose.) Then there's my dad, who is legally without memory the way some people are legally blind, and became so tired of losing his gloves that he wore mitten clips until he was fifty-seven. He only retired them because he moved to New Mexico, where he now regularly misplaces his cap.
The good news is that in subzero temperatures, fashion mutations are understandably forgiven. Winter maxim: The warmer you feel, the dumber you look. It's a place where down jackets, quilted flannel shirts, and turtlenecks will never go out of style. An entire city clomping around like mushers in search of the Iditarod, we sported the layered look long before stores like the Gap and Banana Republic mass marketed it as a fashion statement. Furthermore, with almost nine months of chilly weather, Buffalonians needn't worry about storing bulky winter clothes and coats. We didn't even bother to move them to the back of the closet.
It's safe to say there aren't a lot of naturalists raised in Buffalo. However, we did know our types of snow, road salt, and tires. If it's true that Eskimos have fifty words for snow, then Buffalonians have fifty-one. We've added "Sisters snow," a storm that leaves a sheet of ice on which your grandma slips and breaks a hip, and winds up in Sisters Hospital.
If any out-of-work war correspondent wants to do a book on Buffalo blizzards called, What They Carried, let me get you started. First are the fifty-pound sacks of kitty litter that serve double duty. They sit in the trunk and provide ballast while navigating slippery turns, but if you get stuck on ice, simply break open a bag and scatter it under the wheels for traction. Somewhere in every car there's a blanket tucked away so you don't freeze to death if caught in a storm. There's also a first-aid kit. This is slightly mysterious because getting stranded in a blizzard doesn't usually pose a health threat aside from the aforementioned freezing to death. But women knew that the plastic container which housed the Band-Aids and surgical tape also made a good place to pee if you were stuck in the car for hours on end. Finally, there was the roll of paper towels and bottle of Windex. Cars are made better now, but back then road salt corroded the windshield washer fluid dispenser, and the slushy salt spraying up from the street turned the glass a milky gray every two or three blocks, making it impossible to see. So at every stoplight, people hopped out to swab the windshield.
After a single winter, a car showed more rust than paint, especially if you didn't have a garage. When the salt corroded the bottom of an automobile so much that it was possible to see the pavement, cardboard was pasted over the holes and it was referred to as a Fred Flintstone car. Our shoes and boots had wavy, white salt stains along the sides and over the tops, making it look as if the ocean had washed up to our laces before receding.
When we were stuck in our cars on the highway, we'd leave the heat on for a while and then, to conserve gas, turn the engine off until our faces began to go numb. If the blizzard was still raging when the motor finally conked out, we tried to get into the cars in front of or behind us. Eventually everyone would be packed into the few automobiles that could still run their heaters, like circus clowns crammed into a Volkswagen.
Every Buffalonian has a story about being stranded with strangers and the human
chain stretching from a barn in search of firewood; or else being saved by the warmth of an animal, or the milk of a cow, or a clothesline leading back to the house. Women in Buffalo take Lock De-Icer wherever they go, the way folk in New York City carry around emergency Valium and Mace. Men can always unfreeze a lock by peeing into it. .
For some reason known only to thermodynamic engineers, in the 1970s the "way back" window of a station wagon was always the last to freeze shut. Therefore, in the grocery store parking lot you could usually spot some poor housewife rolling down the back window, squeezing through, and then climbing over the seats to open a front door using the inside handle.
The first naked people I saw were Canadians. And we weren't on a date together. The Canadian loonie was flying high, and so the Frostbacks would slip over the border to take advantage of cheaper prices and avoid higher taxes back home. After shopping they changed in the mall parking lot, ripping off old clothes along with the price tags on their new ones. I'm convinced that the majority of Buffalo's homeless population was outfitted in these Canadian castoffs, all conveniently located in and around mall parking lots. The other way to pick out Canadians, when they weren't undressing in the mall parking lot, was to catch them in the act of pouring vinegar on their fish and french fries.
When a storm blew in, all sorts of public service announcements came over the radio—what roads and bridges were dangerous or closed; what schools, churches, and community centers were canceling classes and events. Kids would call radio stations and impersonate their principals and superintendents in an attempt to close their own schools. Unfortunately, a special code was needed. In an effort to get the superintendent to make the call, high school students with cars would drive over to his house early in the morning, purposely slam on the brakes, and do doughnuts out front in order to make the roads appear treacherous. They were hoping he'd glance out the window and make up his mind at that very moment.
Most organizations didn't need passwords to announce cancellations, and so kids would call in the names of bogus groups just to see if they could get them announced on the radio—a meeting of the Rutabagas Recipe Exchange Club in the basement of St. Benedict's and St. Jim Bob's Apple Bobbing Competition for the left-handed. The area being predominantly Catholic, we were pretty safe so long as we stuck the word "saint" in there somewhere. The downside was that the preponderance of schools and organizations beginning with saint resulted in a very long wait for those of us hoping to hear Sweet Home, the name of my school district. "Saint Mary" was good for about a dozen listings all on its own. The closings were followed by the usual litany of ads for plow services, tow truck operators, and collision shops.
The other big entertainment, when the snow filled the streets faster than the plows could remove it, was pogeying, also known as bumper sledding. This entailed hiding behind a tree or newspaper box until a car went by, and then hitching onto the back bumper and being pulled along, your boots skating atop the icy slush. Drivers (especially those who were once Buffalo kids themselves) would be on the lookout for devotees of this treacherous sport, and so you had to be ready to run if one stopped the car and jumped out to yell about how dangerous it was. Some drivers used the more Darwinian teaching technique of breaking fast so that we'd slide underneath the back of the car, right between the wheels.
Oftentimes a ban on driving was issued, with the exception of emergency vehicles, including anyone involved in snow removal, police, fire, and medical services. So if I wanted to go someplace it was necessary to sneak into my mom's closet and cadge her student nurse cap (she'd since graduated to the real thing). Mom worked evening or zombie shifts and slept during the day. Her car was a stadium-sized, yellow Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon with simulated wood paneling that was crashed in on the left side from bow to stern. It regularly needed jump-starting; the "heater" blew arctic blasts; the gearshift was dubious; and the brakes unpredictable, at best. It's doubtful the Joads would have taken it as a trade-in for their Dust Bowl jalopy. The vehicle was, to quote the British writer Saki, "The one they call ‘The Envy of Sisyphus,' because it goes quite nicely uphill if you push it."
However, during a snowstorm the rules of the road drastically change to favor the most battered wrecks. Lights and stop signs no longer matter, because if you brake you're likely to go into a hard-nosed skid. Thus, folks with cars in good condition must wait while the junkers briefly reign over icy streets. On the bright side, all the gargantuan potholes made by the plows and salt trucks are filled in for a few days and, for a change, you don't have to worry about dropping your transmission.
Rarely does anyone fall asleep while driving in Buffalo. When you take into account that Catholics usually have only one hand on the wheel, since the other is being used to bless themselves, it's just too darn exciting, like a ride at an amusement park.
© Copyright 2008, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.