Snow Day

“Watch, he’s gonna tax the snow.” We turned toward the TV mounted on the wall. “Gonna pay for it now!” the counter clerk said, and people in line laughed as they paid for their papers. Mayor Mike Bloomberg had just come on to do a live news conference. They had the TV on in the candy store to get updates on the weather. Mr. Bloomberg announced this was “the first big test” of his administration. The guy next to me caught my eye; we smiled and thought: Thanks for the context—we thought this was about the storm. We forgot it’s about you! It wasn’t obnoxious, just comic, a pure moment of the inevitable solipsism of a modern mayor in the media age.

We were extroverting in the candy store yesterday afternoon on Montague Street in Brooklyn. Everyone was talking because it was snowing outside, heavily, with three inches on the ground and three or four more still in the sky. When I walked in, an old man pointed at me and said, “There is snow on your coat,” in the manner of Sherlock Holmes making a discovery.

“They say it’s snowing outside,” I said in the manner of one sharing primo gossip.

“That explains it,” he said.

Strangers smiled at each other as they trudged by on the street. Outside a church they were leaving noon mass, and a woman with an unplaceable accent said, “Nice day!” And we all smiled at that because we were in the middle of a storm but it was true. It was nice. It was beautiful. I came home to e-mails. One, from a friend in Maryland: “Got weather? We’re under piles and piles of the stuff, predicting 10-12 inches. I love it. It’s so quiet out here, and wonderful soft monochromatic hues. This is the best.” Another happy e-mail from a friend who took his three-year-old to a hardware store, bought a cheap sled, and pulled his boy through Brooklyn. “Everyone we passed stopped to talk to us.”

*   *   *

We are loving the snow in New York. Everyone is walking or looking out the windows or talking about how bad it’s going to get. The storm began last night in the South, swept up through Washington, where it may leave eight inches; on through Baltimore and Philly, up to New York yesterday morning, heading later, they said, for Boston.

For every adult the first day of snow forever brings back memories of old snow days—the radio on and everyone listening, and the announcer saying, “. . . and public and parochial schools on the south shore have just announced they will not open.” And from house to house you could almost hear the kids cheer. Freedom, a free day—what a gift from God.

This year, up here, the snow seemed more than ever an unexpected gift. At this point last year we were all still rocked by Sept. 11, and barely noticed the snow. (My unscientific telephone survey tells me no one in New York remembers any snow at all last year.) In fact we had very little, as if the heavens too were in shock.

But this one yesterday, this first snow—it was heavy, wet, coming down at a slant, it is building. It was a real snowfall. And it was beautiful.

The first snow always startles you. It makes everything look better. In the suburbs it gives a layer of cottony brightness to trees and fences and lawns; it covers the tricycle left in the driveway, turning its little aluminum frame into an abstract sculpture that says: See how quickly yesterday turns into today. In farm areas the snow is a blanket over cold corn and baby wheat. But it’s in the city that snow does its most obvious magic. It heightens beauty, covers flaws, softens hard angles. It makes a row of trash cans a craggy white wall. It gives wholeness back to rusty fences and heightens the dignity of plain things like stoops and elegant things like steeples. It makes us see again what we’d been forgetting to notice.

*   *   *

But it isn’t only the beauty. That’s not the only thing a big snow brings.

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plane, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.” So wrote James Joyce at the end of his great short story “The Dead.” They are famous words; it’s a famous passage. Joyce’s snow didn’t fall over the house, or the city, or over his sensitive characters in a neighborhood in Dublin. Snow was falling all over Ireland, and touching everyone, as if they were together.

The biggest problem no one talks about in America, still, is loneliness. Maybe we don’t hear about it much because most of the talkers about America—TV people, pundits of all sorts—are pretty well integrated into the world around them. And busy, so that if they’re lonely they don’t know it.

But a lot of people are lonely, encased in their thoughts about their own lives and experiences and memories and challenges. Encased in habit, too. And embarrassed to be alone in a technologically sophisticated place where a high value is put on our ability to reach out and touch someone.

But then something happens. Nature comes along and hands us something big—a storm or an earthquake—and the lonely come forward, if only by inches. We all find ourselves sharing the same preoccupation. This breaks down reserve and gets us thinking of and dealing with the same subject matter.

Bad weather, bad news makes you part of something: a community of catastrophe. You see your neighbor, and this time you don’t just nod or keep walking. You call over, “Wow—you believe this?” And you laugh. You make phone calls. Weather makes you outward. It eases the lives of the lonely.

And then when the storm passes or the earthquake is old news, people retreat back into their aloneness with their own thoughts. They get quiet again. It will take another snowstorm or a hurricane before the ad hoc community of catastrophe springs up, and makes them a member of something.

*   *   *

So that’s what was in the air too, yesterday: an easing of estrangement, a coming together, and people who didn’t know each other talking.

I could see it all outside my window. I write in a room with a big window just beyond my computer. The window is seven feet tall and 40 inches wide. At this moment I am looking out the window at the church across the street. It is made of granite stone, is more than a century old, and its big brass doors were once the doors of the old ship the Normandie. To the right of the doors there is a little garden. In the middle of it is a statue of Mary of Fatima. She stands almost five feet high. Before her, two statues of kneeling children look up. There was a third but someone stole it. I have seen people stop and look at the statues at night. There is a lady in the neighborhood who every time she goes by stops and says something to Mary and nods; she sometimes gestures as if they are old friends catching up, and then walks on. You see wonderful things when you live across from statues.

The day of the storm, Mary and the children have snow on their heads and their cloaks. She is still looking down at the children, and they are looking up, their hands together in marble prayer. People are bustling by. The snow is coming at an angle against them as they walk by the church toward Montague Street, and they are leaning forward in the wind. A nanny and a child in a red jacket and a black cap just passed, holding hands. Now an old woman in a raincoat and an umbrella. Now a bunch of teenagers are running, throwing snowballs. A boy just literally slides by on the street as if his back were a sled. I want to applaud. There’s laughter out there, great gaiety.

And now just outside the window I hear for the first time the authentic sound of winter in the north: a shovel scraping a sidewalk. It is an undistinguished and prosaic sound, and yet if I took a high-quality tape recorder and taped it and played it for a room full of a thousand people and said, “What is this sound?” I’ll bet 990 of them would know: That is someone shoveling snow. It is a distinctive sound. Soon I hope I hear the slap of tire chains on a blacktop road. I haven’t heard that yet this year. I can’t wait. I have no idea why.

*   *   *

It’s dusk now, and it’s still coming down. Snow is general all over the East. It is falling on every part of the crooked shore, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Chesapeake Bay and, farther north, softly falling into the dark mutinous Montauk waves. It is falling, too, upon every part of the lovely churchyard across the way.

And this, to end. After snow gets you out of the house, and out of yourself, and into the world, it stops you in your tracks. Because it reminds you of something you know and forget to think about. It reminds you that there is a higher force at work, it is beyond and above, it governs all the heavens and “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling.”

Thank you, James Joyce. I spent my snow day with you.