Icy, with associated resentment

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.

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