Friday, February 11, 2011

Blizzaster '11

I started writing this during the actual Blizzard, and then I got distracted and played in the snow instead. I'm OK with that.

In the more-than-ten years I've lived in Chicago, I've never had a snow day. Somewhere along the line I came to believe that snow days don't happen in Chicago, and they certainly don't happen for adults. So long, snow day, you were an enjoyable part of my childhood.

Or not, apparently: today is my second consecutive snow day. My employer shut down all offices at 3:00pm Tuesday and is not opening until Friday morning. As I mentioned in my previous post, Chicago was expecting a significant blizzard. And then it received it, right on time.

It was eerie, really: the snow was predicted to begin at 3:00pm. In the Loop, where I work, it started at 2:45. Considering the usual dependability of weather predictions, this was a bit stunning. At a few minutes before three, one of my coworkers and I observed that the two men jogging back and forth on the plaza across the street, shoving big snow shovels in front of them, could not keep up with the snow that was accumulating. This was after roughly ten minutes of snow.

I was preparing to take the train home, but since this was a couple of hours before rush hour, I was already stressing that my usual train line's web site was giving conflicting reports about what time trains were available and whether they would stop at my stop. I was considering taking the bus - a prospect that made me a little nervous, with the fast accumulation and the fact that my bus would run down Lake Shore Drive, a road about which there had been warnings for the day or two before the storm. As I was considering my options, Marlowe, the coworker of mine who is both my next-door office neighbor and a next-neighborhood neighbor came up the stairs. Marlowe also has a large four-wheel-drive pickup truck.

I asked him if he was driving home. He said sure, and he offered me a ride. Cue total relief.

We left at about 3:20pm, and the short walk to the parking garage was literally breathtaking: the wind, usually coming from the west, was whipping in from the east and then wailing down Wabash, and it felt like a punch in the chest. Thick snow was blasting sideways. As we walked in to the office building connected to the parking garage, swarms of people were leaving work, including the president of the university, who brushed past me in a hurry, pulling on his gloves.

We got to the parking garage, usually filled with cars, and it was nearly empty. As the truck pulled up the ramp out of the warm, quiet garage, the exit door lifted up and the scene before us looked fictional: it was damn near a whiteout. Pedestrians were hunched against the wind, blinded by snow, sliding across the sidewalk. Marlowe and I both made a kind of this-is-exciting-because-we-might-die laugh, and he steered the truck on to Wabash.

Marlowe has kids who are only a couple of years younger than me, so as a dad and a Chicago native, he took it upon himself to tell some stories about the 1967 blizzard. He started with "You weren't around when that happened, were you?" (Ahem, no... I was born 15 years later) "Well, I was!" And the stories were crazy. As the truck crept south along city streets he passed the time talking about being snowed in for days.

We made it to Cermak (aka 22nd street) before we saw cars sliding. At this point, roughly an hour into the snowfall, easily four inches of snow were already on the ground, and the wind was kicking it up in the air over and over again. Visibility was total crap, and lane markers were obscured: drivers were already creating their own lanes. Fortunately nobody was trying to speed along. I'd say we averaged 15-20 miles per hour. We were listening to WBBM news radio, and they were focusing almost exclusively on blizzard coverage. When they reported that the commute time on one of the major highways was over four hours, Marlowe yelled, "who would plan to do a long commute today?" And then the car in front of us slid all over the road. Marlowe was just starting to make a comment about that small car having no traction when our truck fish-tailed. We were almost halfway home.

The rest of the drive proceeded apace: terrible visibility, slow traffic, people starting to make their own rules but everyone still being mostly understanding. A couple of blocks from my dropoff, Marlowe's eleven-year-old daughter called his cell phone. I had to stifle my laughter when he put her on speakerphone, set the phone in the console, rolled his eyes, and occasionally said, "oh, really?" She was speaking so quickly and with such pre-teen excitement that I couldn't possibly decipher what the story was that she was telling. Occasionally she would crack herself up, bursting into high-pitched peals of laughter, which made me bite my finger so I wouldn't laugh out loud. Marlowe was laughing, too: her giggles were infectious.

Then she suddenly turned serious: "Are you almost home? Are you safe?" And Marlowe's tone shifted appropriately. He assured her that he was driving carefully, he was almost home, not to worry. She told him to call when he was safe inside, which was one of the sweetest things I've heard.

Marlowe is recently divorced, and his kids live with their mom most of the time. He's a pretty tough guy, though, so I'm sure it was my imagination that his voice got briefly husky when he told his youngest kid he'd call her when he was safe at home.

DH and I had gone to the grocery the day before, which was its own adventure with people stocking up on junk food in panicked anticipation of schools being closed, but I had forgotten to get eggs. I had been struck with this thought that, if we were snowed in, I would need to bake. So I asked Marlowe to drop me off at the store two blocks from my house. It was on his way, so that worked for him.

I picked up two items at the store: eggs and some generic Fruity Pebbles (people - it was a DISASTER! Eat what you need to live!). Picking up the items took approximately two minutes. Waiting in the checkout line took almost forty-five. When I finally got to the front with my two items, the cashier looked at me like I was crazy.

The walk home wasn't too bad at first: the wind was calm for the first block, so I was just shuffling through a few inches of snow as it came pouring (seriously - pouring) down. Just as I foolishly thought to myself, "Hm - I lucked out with the wind!" A blast came out of the south, trying to rip the grocery bag out of my hands and almost knocking me down. I could hardly breathe for that last block, and the ferocious wind meant it was tough to see if any cars were coming down the street I had to cross.

And then, at last, I made it home.

The rest of the evening was happily warm, dry and indoors, but when we tried to sleep, it was neither quiet nor dark: the wind kept smashing the tree outside our apartment against the windows, and the snow blowing everywhere was reflecting all the streetlights such that even with the blinds drawn, it looked like we were trying to sleep through daylight. I'm not complaining, though: I was wrapped up in quilts when the fantastic maintenance guy for our building was out snow-blowing before the blizzard had even finished. That sounds a little nuts, but it means our sidewalks were beautiful when everything else looked like... well.

I have pictures, but I'll save them for the next post.

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