Years ago I was meeting with two men from Chicago for work. I noted that the downtown financial district of Manhattan can get very windy, as breezes come in off the harbor and are funneled down the streets by the tall buildings.
I asked how the downtown area of New York compared with Chicago. It didn’t. It could get windy here, they agreed, but in Chicago the wind had once dislodged a large window pane from a tall office building, and the loose piece of glass had cut a person in half. I haven’t been able to confirm this story anywhere, but it didn’t sound like these guys were trying to bullshit me.
This story came to mind recently as New York was hit with extreme winds amid a storm that couldn’t make up its mind. I set out to work in a rudimentary rain storm. A few hours later, I looked out the window of my building to see snow blowing sideways and obscuring much of my normally pleasant view.
The snow turned to rain when I stepped out of the office during lunch time. Large snowflakes flecked my umbrella as I made my way to my bus stop in Herald Square. None of the snow was really sticking in Manhattan. The wind was bothersome but I did not have an idea of the scope of the problem.
Arriving home from work on Friday via commuter bus, traffic to the Whitestone Bridge was backed up at least one mile, with the backup spilling onto service roads; we later learned that tractor trailers and busses were banned, and heavy restrictions on the number of cars crossing imposed. As cars turned right up a local street near my building to try to steer around the traffic, a felled tree forced them to make a U-turn and plunge back into the gridlock. A few days later, the tree was still blocking half of the road and felled tree branches still littered lawns, sidewalks and streets.
The video of a truck being blown onto its side on the Verrazano Bridge began circulating over the weekend. Upstate on the Tappan Zee Bridge (no one calls it the Mario Cuomo Bridge) at least two tractor trailers were blown onto their sides.
In New York, we live in such a large, man-made metropolis, we like to think that for the most part we have conquered nature, that natural disasters are things we see on the news happening in less fortunate places around the world. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 sobered some people up and forced building code changes to those neighborhoods most in danger.
Within the past decade, we’ve been bombarded with one hurricane that did damage that is still being repaired, endured at least one earthquake that sent people fleeing their office buildings, had tornadoes touch down within city limits, and faced heat waves and cold snaps that cost lives. Despite the powers that we wield over our environment, despite our ability to carve and crush bedrock to anchor our buildings and lay track for our subways, we are still at the mercy of what the Earth will do.
The dire warnings swarmed throughout the media ahead of last week’s snowfall. A “Bomb Cyclone,” was going to smash the East Coast and wreak havoc on our lives. I left work on Wednesday prepared to work from home on Thursday amid a cataclysmic blizzard.
Early the next morning, I checked my work email on my work phone and looked out the window repeatedly for an indication that the ice age apocalypse was upon us and that I should stay home and enjoy a work-from-home day. It looked underwhelming. There was not even any snow sticking to the street and the collection of snow on the parked cars in my neighborhood looked relatively mild. I decided that the “Bomb Cyclone” had fizzled and that not showing up to work in person would be bad.
When I got outside, the snow was coming down at a healthy clip, and I regretted not bringing my umbrella. There were not as many commuters on the morning bus, as people saner than I were in their warm homes getting some extra sleep. The commute to work was uneventful, and I was at my desk at my normal time.
Things were uneasy though. The snow kept coming down at a faster pace. From a high floor of a high office building, where normally one can see all the way to Eastern Queens, the nearby buildings were barely visible through the snowy haze. Sure enough, this Bomb Cyclone was for real, at least in that it was dumping a ton of snow on our city at great speed. Snow was being blown sideways and windy updrafts made it appear that it was snowing from the ground up like some kind of winter flurry from the upside down.
Few people had made it into work. Most of them not even bothering with the commute in. There were so few of us in the office that one of the administrative assistants had lunch brought in for everyone. While enjoying my free sandwich, I started wondering how I would get home. My boss sent me a photo of Han Solo on a Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back.
The snow kept going into the afternoon, and I decided I would try to leave work early in order to get a head start on the commute home, which I assumed would be a journey of misery and anger lasing hours.
By the time I left work at 4 p.m., snow had stopped falling in downtown Manhattan and visibility had resumed. The streets did not look great but what little traffic there was appeared to be moving. Arriving in Herald Square for my commuter bus, 6th Avenue had been plowed during the day but not recently enough and several inches of snow had been pulverized into sickly slush by hours of traffic.
I stood on the sidewalk with the cold wind punching me in the face as some of my fellow commuters huddled for cover. Being cooped up on an office all day, it felt good to feel the real world, even when it feels like Old Man Winter is hitting you in the face with a cinderblock.
The ultimate irony of the Bomb Cyclone: it took me less time to get home from work than it normally does. This was because enough people had been scared away from the city and because I left a little bit before normal rush hour.
As our commuter bus headed over the 59th Street Bridge, I saw a line of inactive snowplows parked along the street on 1st or 2nd Avenue. The avenues of Flushing had been plowed but our bus struggled a bit up some sloping streets. By the next morning though, the streets were clear.
A hard, biting cold has gripped the East Coast recently, and New York City has taken its share of the brunt of it. But it is part of life here. We get all four seasons in the Big Apple, and we get all of them in a big way.
New York City is the city that never sleeps and never shuts down. It take events of epic proportions to knock us off of our game, and even then nothing is ever completely deserted. This is, after all, where the world takes its pulse and sets the pace for Western Civilization, and we take that task seriously.
New York is digging itself out from a winter storm that hit us on Jan. 23. It was as if we got all our winter weather in the span of about 24 hours. When winter started this past December, we had spring-like weather. Seventy degrees on Christmas? That’s bullshit. Old Man Winter got his revenge in a big way and buried much of the East Coast in a blanket of snow. For New York City, it was the second-largest snowstorm on record in the city’s history with more than two feet of snowfall recorded in Central Park.
Preparations started in earnest with people watching the weather reports and making jokes about stocking up on bread and milk as they made sure to stock up on bread and milk. Anyone who had plans for the weekend canceled them if they could, but it was heartening to see from social media that some things didn’t stop.
It was also heartening to see worthy displays of “New York Values” in dealing with the severe weather. The term “New York Values” has recently become an issue the 2016 presidential campaign, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz using the phrase as a smear against Donald Trump. I’m as cynical and jaded as any other long-time New York resident, but there was enough cooperation and good will on display during the storm to shame any friendly Texan. In the parking lot of our apartment building, one of our neighbors helped shovel out part of our truck. We returned the favor by helping shovel out the car parked on the other side of us, with a shovel lent to us by another neighbor.
My social media feed was littered with stories of neighbors helping neighbors with shovel and snow blower alike. A photo of a team of good Samaritans pushing a stranded ambulance out of a snowbank in Manhattan was enough to warm the heart even as your fingers and toes became numb.
City living makes people into blazing assholes, but it also makes people into cooperative souls out of point-blank necessity. When you are surrounded my millions of people, living life isn’t possible without some measure of cooperation. It may take a while to understand the ebb and flow of city life and plug yourself into it in a way that both preserves your sanity and allows you the boldness and hustle to get things done. New York rewards a certain level of aggression, but even the strongest of the strong cannot get by without a certain degree of give and take, there’s just too massive a crush of humanity to fight everyone to the death over every trivial slight.
Now as we look to get our work week underway, we all expect some of this city camaraderie to sublime like idle snow as we navigate an already overtaxed and incompetently run transit system in an attempt to get to work on time. Wish us luck.
It is the middle of February and my smart phone tells me that it’s a balmy 13˚F (-10.5˚C) degrees outside with a “real feel” of -17˚F (-27.2˚C). Walking outside was painful today and the wind is howling fiercely. It’s a yearly tradition to have days like these. Winter is not complete without at least one heavy snowfall and several days when the weather chills you to the bone.
We’re getting a true winter in the Northeast this year. No spring-like conditions should be welcome before mid-March. Some of the winter traditions can be done away with. Especially here in New York City, some of the lesser traditions include mountains of polluted snow, deceptive slush, walls of hard-packed plow snow, black ice, and transit mishaps.
The cold makes people tougher. You won’t get any increase in toughness from standing around in the sun. You may get sun-burned and skin cancer, but you’ll not improve yourself at all. The cold can kill you like the heat can, but coming in from the cold leaves you energized and glad for the warmth of the indoors. Coming in from a hot day leaves you slimy with sweat and smelling badly.
Every winter in New York has at least a few periods where the cold is biting and painful. Even for those of us with a high tolerance for the frigid, these times in winter are a step beyond our comfort zone. It’s important not to shrink from that. That’s not to say you should dedicate a few fingers or other bodily extremities to frostbite to truly experience the winter, but get out there and let the wind punch you in the face a few times. You’ll be glad you did.
Moving to a place where they don’t have a real winter is a bit of cop-out at life. We who live through the winters are better for it. There’s no reason to surrender toughness for the soft ease of the tropics. The sun-drenched climes have their place, but to not really experience all the seasons is not experiencing all of life. New York is lucky because it has all four seasons. There’s no weather that the earth can throw at the city that it has not survived. New York has survived hurricanes and snow blizzards and heat waves, sometimes all in the same year. And it will do it again, guaranteed.
States that are colder tend to have populations with higher IQs, research has shown. Those nations with consistently colder climates over the past few thousand years have produced some of the world’s most peaceful and democratic societies. Do you know what country has the longest-serving democratic parliament? Iceland. What country is doing better right now: Norway or Nigeria? Canada or Brazil?
Enjoy the cold weather because in a few short months it is going to be hot and miserable. Much of the Northeast that endures a frigid winter is not spared the humid suffering of summer. The cold will make you stronger. The cold kills off the weak and gives strength to the strong. Embrace the cold because you embrace life itself.