A. left Buffalo, Wyoming just now (it’s two hours earlier there, so I guess she is sticking to her 9 a.m. start time each day). She is within a day’s drive of College Town; hopefully no weather or road conditions will stop her from arriving tonight, as she starts work tomorrow.
A. just texted me a few minutes ago to let me know that she had reached Minnesota. This was her second such message of the day; the first advised that she had entered Wisconsin. (She departed her brother’s house in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, this morning.) I asked what the weather is like. “Snowy,” she texted back. There’s only so much elaboration you want to ask of a driver via text message, so I let it rest at that.
Snowy. I can only imagine. I try to picture what she’s seeing, and all I can manage is a sort of generically wide horizon, a lot of white, and maybe some mountain-like lumps off in one direction or another, but I can’t actually summon up any views of Minnesota in my memory so it’s all guesswork. Besides, she’s not just seeing Minnesota, she’s seeing Minnesota on one leg of an almost-cross-country drive that is taking her away from everything familiar in her life and toward a dreamed-of future.
Must be quite a view.
This morning much of the country was supposed to be in the grip of what CNN.com was styling a “deadly blizzard”; the accompanying photograph showed a firefighter in turnout gear struggling against wind-driven snow in front of a fire engine. Most of the time it’s hard to take this kind of coverage seriously, but I had reason to pay attention: yesterday, A. packed her camping gear and her other baggage and a five-pound bag of Gummi bears into the Toyota and departed for Montana, and I knew that she would eventually be driving through some of the states mentioned right up at the top of the CNN article next to phrases like “blowing drifts” and “fourth horseman of the apocalypse.” In fact, the very reason I had turned on my computer while waiting for the coffee to brew was to look up the weather between Pittsburgh and Chicago, A.’s route for the day. I was pleased to learn, upon closer examination, that this particular part of the country wasn’t going to see the worst of it, and of course the actual storm will be over by the time she reaches states that will have borne more of its brunt, like South Dakota. I called her with this news and to say good morning and we talked for a few minutes while she maneuvered out of Pittsburgh. I looked up the weather forecast for Baltimore, saw mention of some “wintry precipitation” with no predicted accumulation, and promptly buried myself in figuring out some of the features of my new computer.
When I surfaced again, at around 2 p.m., the world outside my window wore a coat of white. In just a few hours, over two inches of fluffy-looking snow had fallen, smoothing over the leftover ice from last week’s storm; the sky and the snow shimmered with diamond-gray light. I took some pictures from the office window and the sun porch and then suited up for a walk. Two neighbors were already shoveling but there was no one else around and the snow looked fresh and mostly undisturbed. I walked north up Ellerslie and cut east on 36th, diverting up along the little hillock that stands just inside the old Memorial Stadium grounds. The grass on the little hillock is overgrown and clumpy. The uncertain footing, the icy needlelike snow on my face, and the dramatic wintry view all had me feeling for a moment like I was walking on some English moor.
I turned north into the gingerbread houses of Ednor Gardens, where lights already burned in tiny windows and snow slid from the steeply pitched roofs and dormers with a gentle whispering sound. Underfoot, the snow was crunchy and airy but wet enough to pack together into perfect, medium-weight snowballs. I threw one at a tree across the street from where I was walking and watched it miss, skidding to a stop in the snow on someone’s lawn. The street was still mostly white and I walked right down the middle. Spiky black tree branches arched toward the sky above my head. Itinerant professional snow-shovelers seemed to be the only other foot traffic, slouching past in great long t-shirts over waffle-knit long johns, flimsy-looking shovels over one shoulder.
I decided to check on the crows. I had first noticed the crows on a morning run sometime around Christmas, although it might have been closer to Thanksgiving. At first, I had thought that the large number of crows I had spotted in a half dozen trees near the t-intersection of an alley near Loch Raven Boulevard was the kind of gathering that precedes flying south. But A. told me that crows, and also ravens, don’t leave for the winter and instead tough it out in a group roost. On a snowy Sunday evening a few weeks ago, A. and I walked out to look at the crows, which she had so far only seen from the car. We found the first ones just east of 36th and Loch Raven and followed them for blocks. Crows filled tree after tree, inky spots against the grey sky. A man hanging around near Loch Raven and the Alameda noticed us craning our necks and looking around. “Can I help you folks find anything?” he asked. “We’re just looking at the crows,” I told him, pointing out the thousands of birds in the trees around us, stretching out of sight in all four directions. The focus in his face shifted a little and he staggered, as if with the weight of his new knowledge of the complicated natural web that surrounds us all, or maybe he was just drunk. Inspired, A. and I walked home and made ourselves some Bailey’s-laced hot chocolate.
But the crows were gone today, moved on to a new roost, and I turned back toward home. Trudging uphill along 36th again, but this time headed west, I came upon a fire engine stopped in front of a house. Two firemen stood on the sidewalk, one of them kicking his rubber boot idly into a small pile of snow next to where someone had cleared the sidewalk. I thought of the fire cadet who died in the training exercise recently. The strange thought occurred to me to express some kind of solidarity to the two firemen, but I had no idea what form this might take. I couldn’t even remember her name (it’s Racheal M. Wilson). I walked past in silence. On the front steps next door, a man stood talking into a cell phone.
“Accidents happen,” he said. “Accidents happen.”
One house further along, a man shoveled snow from the front walk, working steadily, the shovel scraping along the concrete again and again.
The ice is grey and sullen, and the people picking their way along on top of it, struggling toward bus stops or trying to manage their folding grocery carts, wear expressions that say “why is this stuff still here?” In a city that seemed to be growing used to not really having winter anymore, it is strange to see this evidence of what the season used to be. Stranger still that it has lingered a full week. A storm can strike anywhere, of course, but to have the frigid temperatures necessary to preserve that storm’s leavings — well, that just doesn’t feel like Baltimore to us anymore.
What does feel like Baltimore: the patchwork efforts at clearing this ice away. Some people get right on this kind of thing, others wait a few days, and still others never make the slightest effort. The sidewalk on the north side of the Charles Street Safeway’s parking lot is an example of the latter. Still sheathed in a two inch layer of ice, it’s a formidable obstacle to the arrival of pedestrian shoppers. Just now I passed an elderly couple hanging onto each other tightly while attempting to share the tiny ant-trail-wide strip of sidewalk that only started to show through as a result of today’s — finally! — 40s+ temperatures. As if the ice weren’t enough, someone had actually thrown a banana peel on the sidewalk, like a visual pun. Is something like this ever really an accident?
So far there have been two sledding-related deaths in the area since last Tuesday’s ice dump. For once, it seems the deadliest place to be is outside the city: both deaths involved the kind of massive, unsupervised hills that can only be found in the farms and fields outside the beltway. One of these hills, the one which did in a teenaged boy yesterday, was so steep (40 degree pitch!) that rescuers needed ropes and pulleys to reach the boy’s body, lodged against a tree. The other victim was a middle-aged man, sledding on his family’s property with friends and relatives. One minute there, the next dead. From sledding. It’s the kind of thing that will get you thinking, if you let it. If you have the time and equipment.
The other danger comes from chunks of ice flying off of cars on the highway. And let me be clear: when I say “ice,” I’m talking about a substance that started out as 2-3 inches of snow and was then soaked and hardened by an overnight storm of freezing rain. The regional AAA executive I saw interviewed on the TV news on Saturday wasn’t exaggerating when he compared the resulting airborne chunks to pieces of concrete. The news story centered around a brother and sister whose windshield had been struck and shattered by a piece of this stuff while they were driving on the Baltimore beltway. The brother was bloodied but the sister managed to bring the car to a safe stop. “I’m so proud of her,” the brother said, managing to sound not the slightest bit condescending.
A. was on the road herself at the same time that I was watching this report, driving home after having spent the day with her parents down in southern Maryland. I walked out to the kitchen to check on a culinary experiment I was conducting and took the opportunity to stare out the back kitchen window. Strangely, this is probably the window I look out of most often — really stand and look, nose pressed to the glass, arms folded on the windowsill, gazing at the jumbled backyards and clotheslines and crumbling old houses. Would A. be struck by flying concrete-like chunks of ice on the highway?
The odds were probably in her favor, I decided, but eventually the flying ice caught up with us, if only indirectly. In preparation for A.’s departure for Montana next Sunday, we had the car looked at this week. We ordered up the “seasonal special,” in which — whatever season it is — they change the oil and oil filter and top off various fluids, and we also asked them to look around and see if they could find anything else to charge us money for. Having seen the report of the imperiled brother and sister, I was particularly receptive to the mechanic’s arguments in favor of finally fixing our cracked windshield (while it is unlikely to break on its own, the crack of course reduces the thing’s ability to withstand impacts, and now, thanks to that news reports, it is impossible not to imagine these impacts and their consequences quite vividly).
Now that we won’t be driving the car on Baltimore’s rotten streets, maybe the new windshield will last more than a few months, but I’m not counting on it.
It snowed the day before Valentine’s Day.
There is something about the possibility of snow that often drives A. and me to seek refuge in our friends’ house in Fells Point. When A. and I stay over, we get the third floor to ourselves (except for the ancient cat confined for hygienic reasons to a large cage there) and in general feel so comfortable and somehow pampered that we have taken to calling the place “the bed and breakfast.” The house is a narrow maze of nooks and corners and landings and tiny attic windows that give onto views of gables and rooftop decks, one of the better landscapes for watching snow pile up and feeling glad that you’re not out in it.
The evening began with a quick hour’s meeting with our accountant — everyone in the office asking “how are the roads?” when we walked in — and then A. and I met up with our friends and walked to the Waterfront on Thames Street, where we secured a booth and enjoyed the $10 entrees special and quite a lot of Jack Daniels. After a while, we had the place almost to ourselves and moved to the back room near the fire for a few games of pool. There was a little more whiskey.
On our way home, we dropped in on the Full Moon Saloon, where Uncle Dave Huber was channeling Bob Dylan for the bartender and one customer, who turned out be second on the playbill, which might explain why he was clapping so loudly for Dave (nothing against Dave, though).
It was the kind of night after which a snow day would be particularly welcome. My company officially follows the city schools’ lead on such matters; unofficially, of course, one risks looking like a weakling for taking every possible day off that this would theoretically provide. Waking at 6 a.m. with a bit of a headache, I could see from the attic windows that a few inches of snow had accumulated since the night before, but the important question was how bad the main streets were. A few hours later, I walked to Burger King, hungry at a kind of existential level for a fast-food breakfast sandwich. Eastern Avenue was slushy but apparently passable by a light but steady stream of traffic.
Returning with sandwiches, I found everyone else up and wrestling with varying aspects of the relationship between the weather and having to go to work. E. wondered if there were any way she could get out of nannying that day; A. called work and learned that she had a delayed opening, which eventually was updated to a complete cancellation. I wondered what to do. Go in and pick up work to complete at home? Just take the city schools’ cancellation as a blank pass? As it turned out, we did stop by my office on the way home, only to find no one there, and I decided to take a snow day myself.
I felt guilty; was I setting the right example for my supervisees? After a while, I was able to relax, but it would have been a much nicer day, all around, if I hadn’t waited until 5 p.m. to check my cell-phone messages. My boss had called at 7:30 a.m. to make it official: the office was closed.
Speaking of snow days, and I believe we were, I was amused to read comments on the subject earlier this week from one whose contributions to Baltimore’s public discourse usually run more toward “no comment.” In a brief Sun op-ed, Matt Jablow, “public affairs director” (usually identifed in news reports as “Agent Matt Jablow” and “a spokesman”) for the Baltimore Police Department, shared his opinion that “we” are “weather wimps” for closing schools and cancelling work “at the first sign of the possibility of snow.” (He contrasts our wimpiness with the fortitude shown by Washington and his troops during their winter at Valley Forge, and finds us lacking.)
I really want to say something snarky now, but I’m trying to break that habit.
Update (2007 02 20): Some letter writers did it better than I could have. The best point: we move a lot faster these days than was possible in old George Washington’s days. If everyone were just inching along on foot, that would be one thing. But if George had ever had to worry about a bus in a ditch, he probably would have kept his kids home, too.
It is hard to come to rest on a cold winter’s day in midtown Manhattan. The crowds flow eternally, swirling around and past anyone who breaks stride. The sun is painfully bright and its light is pale and cold. From the point of view of the visitor, the city and her business can seem to rush past like a missed train, its lighted windows framing millions of lives that have nothing to do with you. Along with the wonder and the exhilaration that this city can inspire, there is also always the tiny little shock of realizing that the city hasn’t really noticed and certainly doesn’t care that you are there.
Scoured raw by the wind after hours of walking, we started to think about getting indoors for a little while. On the central midtown avenues, there were restaurants and there were Starbucks, and we decided that a half hour over a mug of hot chocolate perched at a window seat in a Starbucks would be the most reviving thing.
And we are not made of money, after all.
There was a Starbucks every two or three blocks, but they were all stuffed full, every seat taken on this blustery Saturday afternoon. At the third Starbucks we came to — also full — we bought hot chocolate and walked across the street to the Shops at Columbus Circle, an upscale mall, hoping to find a bench and watch the shoppers while we warmed up.
In the gallery-style entryway, the first thing I saw was an enormous statue, a corpulent standing body in black gleaming stone, sort of like an infant but also sort of like a sumo wrestler. We walked the mall’s curving halls, past windows of jewelry and clothes. I paused outside one window and pretended to study a sign on the wall. Just inside, a clerk was draping a glittering metal bracelet around a young woman’s wrist while an older woman looked on. The trio was huddled next to a display case, their backs to the rest of the store. As I watched, the young woman looked up from the bracelet around her wrist to the older woman standing next to her and nodded, smiling.
We couldn’t find any benches. On the second floor, we leaned on a railing and looked down onto the corpulent statue and its twin standing guard on the ground floor, one story below us. Exhausted, legs and feet aching, we sank to the floor, joking that we would probably be told to move by a security guard. A few minutes later, a security guard told us to move.
“Where can we sit?” I asked, looking up at him. He was not wearing the gaudy, police-style uniform of a Wal-Mart rent-a-cop. Instead, he was dressed in a dark suit, a discreet badge reading “Security Officer” hanging from his coat’s breast pocket. This being an upscale mall.
“There are seats on the second and third floor,” he told me, already edging away, perhaps not wishing to see how quickly we complied with his order. He made a hand signal at someone down the hall, a sort of “call off the dogs, all clear” wave-off.
I was confused, because I had thought we were on the second floor. We rode the escalator up one story, which turned out to be the third floor. The third floor was full of restaurants, which do indeed contain seats, but paid sitting wasn’t the kind of sitting we were in the mood for. We retired to the Barnes & Noble and consulted a guide book for a good Korean restaurant near our hotel.
There were no benches in the Barnes & Noble, either, so I just threw my coat on the floor and we stood there reading in the aisle. Another discreetly uniformed security guard walked by us two or three times, circling like a fish in a tank. I tensed, waiting for the “excuse me, sir” that would push us along again, back outside if we weren’t going to buy anything. As it turned out, the guard left us alone, but it was still a relief to get back to the hotel and flop down on the bed, where we could arrange our bodies any way we wanted and no one could tell us not to.
In an email with the subject line “craziness,” my brother asked:
“so.. how long will this be for? When are you leaving? What will you do for work? Will you buy another house? What will you do with this house? Will you come back to baltimore? Will you buy cowboy boots? How are you guys gonna move there? What is the job like that [A. is] taking? Are you scared?”
And I answered:
“1. 2-3 years, assuming A. likes/does well at the job.
2. A. leaves late Feb., I leave early August.
3. I don’t know: I have a decently varied writing portfolio at this
point, plus I’ll have… 4+ years’ experience doing
“policy” writing, with one year’s experience at the
management [supervisory] level.
Not bad. On the other hand, it will be very nice to be able to take
advantage of the travel opps out there (3 hours from Y-stone, 3 hours
from Glacier, able to stay indefinite periods of time in a tent at
A.’s base camp during the summer, you in SF, old old friends in
Seattle/Portland, etc.), plus I am in the mood to do some serious,
more-than-one-hour-every-morning writing, plus when we analyze our
expenses I don’t “need” to make anywhere near the $[redacted] I’m pulling now
(if we cut out a lot of frivolities, which I think we could manage),
so I am open to forming a mix of freelancing… temping, waiting
tables, whatever, for max flexibility.
4/5. We’re not sure about the house. We are thinking of putting it on
the market in spring to see if we get a decent offer; if not, then
renting it, although I would enter into that with extreme reluctance,
as I feel pretty fiercely that landlording is not for dabblers (we
would hire a management company, I think).
6. I have a feeling that Baltimore will exert a certain allure from a
distance that it has, frankly, mostly lost for me up close at this
point. We’ll see. [College Town] is an interesting-sounding place, though, a
college town, etc., so it won’t be too sterile, I think…
7. I doubt it. I’ve never really seen how they are practical footwear.
I may adopt an eastern dandy mode of dress.
8. Movers, I hope. We are exploring.
9. A. will be the year-round supervisor of [a university field research project studying songbirds].
10. Obviously. But I am happily excited, too. This is a chance to move
back toward a lifestyle I once assumed I would have but which faded
away over the last half decade, i.e., a little unstable, more
exploratory, more travel, more catch-as-catch-can, see the world, less
worry about conventional markers of middle class success.”
I originally started Margin Notes in the summer of 2005. I posted pretty regularly for the next half year or so, then trailed off at around the same time that I matriculated in a master’s program in non-fiction writing at a local university. As I started working more seriously on some personal writing projects, I found that blogging was a distraction from the type of writing I wanted to work on then. In short, blogging was no longer filling a need.
Now I’m back. Big changes are looming in my life, as my new wife (six-year girlfriend before that, though) and I contemplate moving from Baltimore to Montana so that she can begin her first full-time job in wildlife research. She’ll leave first, in late February, while I will stay behind to (1) finish out a third year at my current job and (2) deal with whatever we end up deciding to do about our house. She’ll rejoin me in early August, when we will pack up and pull stakes for the drive west. Several factors in all of this have conspired to awaken the blogging itch: my impending solitude (through August), the upheaval, the desire to keep up with old friends and make new ones, etc.
There’s another factor, too: I want to be a student of my new home, right from the start, in a way that I never was a student of Baltimore. I’ll be a true alien in Montana, or — at least — Montana will truly be alien to me, and I want to approach my new living situation with a writer’s comprehensive curiosity. As an easterner and big-city dweller these last 8 years, and an easterner in general for most of the 25 years before that, I carry all sorts of prejudices and assumptions — suspicions, even — about “flyover country,” and I want to pay careful attention to the confrontation between these preconceptions and the truth.
And writing is the best way I know to pay attention.
Last night, I erased the old Margin Notes mySQL database from my host’s server (although of course I backed it up first).
Here’s to new beginnings.