Friday, January 22, 2010

Coldest Winter Ever

I lived in Syracuse until I was twenty-five. It’s the lake effect snow that gets you, storms which come off the Great Lakes dropping fat flakes at a rate too quick for windshield wipers and snow plows. Those storms are the reason we have pictures of shoveling through several feet of snow dated in May, but that doesn’t necessarily mean April was anything more than slush that year. I can count the number of times it snowed on Halloween on one hand. It’s impressive to claim snow eight months out of the year, but those were banner years. Only January through March was it guaranteed to stick.

What’s cold in a place like that, when you’re not impoverished? Staying out too long for snow forts and snow men, shivering your wet clothes off in front of the radiator, stripping down to long underwear and running upstairs as fast as you could for fresh socks, sweatpants, and sweaters, leaning over a hot chocolate or a Campbell’s tomato soup that mom had waiting for you. Yes, your toes were numb, ditto nose and fingers, but it was in the service of fun. It made getting warm that much more comforting.

Waiting at school bus stops, dancing from foot to foot, hands stuffed in pockets, head ducked turtle-like in collars, it wasn’t the puffy flakes you worried about, it was the wind. Wind chill could make ten degrees feel like twenty below. But the busses were coming, Cheese Boxes heated with religious fervor. Your toes might not be dry by the time you reached school, but your hat and gloves would be off, your jacket zippered down, hairline dappled with sweat. We were too old to take a change of footwear without looking like dorks. If you were rich, you wore Timberlands. If you were not, you wore knock-offs. Either way, you waited until second period for your toes to dry.

College classes could get nasty. For the transplants, walking around Syracuse University – the Hill – revealed the crucial difference between Manhattan Smart and Survival Wear. For the natives, Onondaga Community College’s lack of foliage and low industrial buildings offered no protection from the raging winds.

Yet coldest I’ve been in my life was during this past cold-front, in sunny Miami.

The way few homes up north have air conditioning to keep cool during the couple months they may actually need it, few down here have heat. To keep warm at night, I had my usual sheets and blankets, plus a couple of fleece throws which Algonquin Books had sent as a promotion with paperback copies of A Reliable Wife, along with three pairs of socks, a toque, three t-shirts - two short and one long – pajama bottoms, and underwear. I hate sleeping in underwear. If I wear underwear to bed, you know it’s cold.

All this would have been fine. Nostalgic, even. Except the buying office at Books & Books doesn’t have heat. The Westin Colonnade across the street blocks our sun. Books & Books rents three of these offices, one for buying, one for marketing and events, and one for accounting. The architects who own the building occupy a fourth space, and the fifth is currently unoccupied. The architects worked from home a lot that week.

Why are we paying rent, exactly? They could have at least offered us space heaters. Instead Mark and I hunched at our desks, fingers white, noses dripping, toes numb, cracking jokes about Scrooge and coal and Bob Cratchit.

If you northerners think we’re weak, step outside and have a seat in the shade next November or December, whenever it gets down to the thirties in your neck of the woods. Sit there for eight hours. Believe it or not, typing doesn’t get the blood flowing like you’d think it would.

I walked instead of biking. The wind on your face in spring or fall? Delightful. This week it burned.

I was in a car a few times with the heat blasting, and the children’s section at Books & Books was toasty warm. Other than that, I froze my ass off the entire week. I used to say I preferred cold to the heat. It’s not so bad up north, I’d say. You can always add more layers, but what are you supposed to do down here? You can only get so naked. That’s logical.

But when you’re getting dressed in front of an open oven in a vain attempt to feel your feet, logic doesn’t keep you warm.


  1. Hullo AJC,

    Tinned tomato soup definitely tastes best in that kind of weather - or on the top of a mountain - the perfect thing to heat you through.

    Wind chill and damp are the big issues here in the winter. Although we dont get the desperate cold of sub continental Europe or America, the wind,damp and cold combination can make -8 complete and utter misery.

    Having spent the last 10 years working in half built buildings with bare concrete floors and often no windows or heating I sympathise with the comment about typing.


  2. I felt like Bob Cratchit too. I have drafty windows in my office, and NO heat. My friend in Toronto told me to "man up"...

  3. "man up!"
    It sounded awful in Miami. It was warmer up here in Seattle.