As yet another snowstorm is heading into the New York City area, I have faced the grim reality of this winter 2013-2014. We have not seen a winter like this one in many years, and our prognosticators of doom (our local weather forecasters who are savoring every moment of this unending winter misery for those of you not living in the tri-state area) are telling us that this is the “new normal.” I shiver in me timbers at the thought of this, of NYC becoming similar to Minneapolis or Oslo or even Santa’s Arctic home.
As I finished shoveling after the last storm yesterday, I capitulated. I tied the white flag on the shovel and said, “I surrender to you!” I gave up, I allowed Jack Frost his due, and Mommy Nature her reign over all things I once deemed mine. They had won this battle because I felt all spent, my back and arms and spirit weakened by storm upon storm.
But then I saw my neighbor Matt who joked with me. Matt is that kind of guy, someone who never seems negative. During a nice conversation, he told me that he keeps thinking “spring.” And then I realized something – the unusually heavy snowfalls this year have been actually good for something I had not thought about before: communication.
In the New York City area, we sadly go about our days in a self-inflicted but oblivious fog. We may say “Hello” to a neighbor in passing, but there seems little time to stop and chat. This probably is a symptom of city life that we have allowed to fester and spread, but the advent of technology has had much to do with our insular attitudes and behaviors as well.
Now, get on a bus or subway train or into a car, and everyone whips out their phones or tablets. People are always looking down at their hand-held devices, with an eerie reflection on their faces. So even if you want to shoot the breeze, there are basically no takers. Going out to your car in the morning to go to work or school you can see people checking their phones as they walk. It’s a wonder that more people do not trip over things and have serious accidents (although recently there have been a number of stories of people texting and falling onto subway tracks).
The heavy snowfalls and harsh winter weather in New York have changed the playing field because we are suddenly thrown into a situation that requires both of our hands. You cannot shovel with your cell phone in one hand. That is impossible. You can, however, hold a conversation with your neighbor as you both hit the pile of snow and ice that the plows have deposited in your driveways.
The multiple storms this winter have thrust all of us outside again and again. Instead of sitting inside glued to our PC, TV, or tablet screens, we are venturing forth to tackle the hefty detritus of Frost and Nature’s fury. We shovel and talk and in essence are shooting the breeze as our breath clouds fill the air. Call it a misery loves company scenario if you will, but the unbearable heaviness of wielding a snow shovel seems somehow lightened by engaging in banter with someone.
Because of these storms I have discussed things I would never usually have had the opportunity to talk about with my neighbors. One storm right after the Super Bowl provided a forum for talking about halftime act Bruno Mars (we all generally gave him thumbs up) and the game itself (mostly thumbs down). We talked of the tasty snacks we had made for the game, the TV commercials (seems the Radio Shack one with 80s icons was the favorite), and the general feeling that we wished the game were held on Saturdays.
Other snow storms this year have provided similar opportunities for conversations that never would have taken place without them. I realized that shoveling snow had given us something lost in modern life – we were all engaging in good, old fashioned social networking.
Long ago my grandfather told of the lost art of neighborly interaction. He told of times before air conditioners, when everyone in sweltering apartments hung out windows in hopes of feeling cooler and found time to shoot the breeze while doing so. Stoops (what we call steps in NYC) were not just meant for gaining access to buildings but rather a social meeting place, vibrant venues of sometimes highly animated conversation. Everyone sat outside in those days during hot weather, talking to anyone who passed by. In the back of the apartments, sometimes in a thing called the airshaft, clotheslines crisscrossed over a common area that was covered by a skylight. Here women talked as they clipped the dripping clothing from their wash sinks to the lines, getting to know one another in ways that clothes dryers never allow today.
My grandfather used to describe what he called “an old fashioned winter.” In my lifetime I have only caught glimpses of this – usually one big blizzard to remember to mark an otherwise mild or snow-free winter. But Pop remembered winters like this one, when “snow fell almost everyday,” and when the rivers around the city froze over. He told of walking across the frozen East River to visit his grandmother in Brooklyn, and I used to think that was a “tall tale” but I understand after this winter. I am a believer now.
This has not only been the winter of our discontent but one of great inconvenience; however, there is a bright side to it all. Because of the excesses of snow and ice, we have had an opportunity for conversation, for a discourse of warmth that helps us until we can get the job done and go back inside and warm ourselves by (if not the hearth) the radiator. This old fashioned social networking is a benefit of all this snow, and the forecast for the weeks ahead seems to indicate more “shovel talk” is on the agenda.
Months from now when we are walking about in shorts and T-shirts glued to our cell phones, all of this will seem a distant memory. Sadly, we will be back in our insular modes again, waving and saying, “Hi” and moving on with our frenzied lives. I for one will think back and hopefully appreciate the chance this winter afforded me to slow down, to engage with others on a basic and intrinsically more human level.
So, despite all the many inches of snow and the overall inconvenience, I am giving a “thumbs up” to winter this year. If you think about it, damn technology to hell; it does feel good to be able to “like” something that is not found on Facebook.