Today I watched with rapt fascination as two men fought to carve a path through waist-high snow filling a vacant lot under my office window. Their apparent goal was to reach a fence. Their tools consisted of a shovel and a snow blower that seemed to be only 50 percent functional. Shovel Guy was simply shoveling snow into the stationary snow blower, while Snow Blower Guy kept a broom wedged into the machine because I guess this is the only way it works. From the sidelines, an older man yelled instructions and gesticulated animatedly at their ineffectual struggles.
I couldn’t tear myself away. I considered going downstairs to interview them about their efforts; part of me just wanted to join the battle. Occasionally the trio would pause to yell and wave their hands at each other in a beautifully choreographed display, but would then continue the work. Shovel Guy somehow managed to smoke three consecutive cigarettes during the process, because this is New England. The pitched combat continued for 30 minutes when they finally reached the fence.
And then a snowplow appeared, crashed into the narrow path they’d cleared like a charging rhino, and promptly got itself stuck.
We may all be going insane.
Snow is a factor in the northeast, but the past few weeks have tested even the steadfast resolve of typically stone-faced New Englanders. I’ve seen some commentary online from people in places like Buffalo decrying the whiny crybabies of Boston, seemingly without perspective to recognize that Boston has twice the population of Buffalo, and much of that population resides in close quarters in very historic, very old, very narrow, very not-running-in-easy-straight-lines streets. (Seriously, I kind of want to build a giant snow fist around my actual fist and punch whoever wrote this headline in their smug asshole neck.)
Sure, Buffalo (and other places, like, ALL OF CANADA, or Alaska — although Boston has actually far outpaced Anchorage for snow this year, four-fold) often gets more snow more often, but Boston is not equally equipped to handle it. In the same way that, last year, thousands of people were stranded in their cars for a full day in Atlanta as a result of two inches of snow, snow problems are not always a question of volume, but one of preparation and resources. I, for one, am not about to tell someone who spent 20 hours trapped in her Civic on a Georgia highway that her snow problems were insignificant because it wasn’t “that much” snow.
Until this week, Boston’s 30-day record for snow accumulation was 58.8 inches, which fell between January and February of 1978, and which included the fabled Blizzard of '78, a memory folks up here collectively recall with a hushed awe and reverence, as though they had witnessed actual snow kaiju rising out of the ocean by the dozens and smashing homes and destroying property with frosty sweeps of their icy claws. And with good reason: That storm was devastating to the Boston area; it destroyed nearly all the buildings on the beach on which I currently live today.
This week’s snow shattered that 30-day record, and not only did it shatter it in sheer depth, but it did so in a fraction of the time — as of last Wednesday, Boston had received 71.8 inches of snow just in the prior 17 days. That’s just shy of six feet. In 17 days. (It is, in fact, snowing again as I write this. And we’re getting another storm this weekend.)
In case you’ve never lived in a place where lots of snow happens, when you plow six feet of snow in a densely populated city and push it out of the roadway, you wind up with snowbanks on either side of the road reaching eight, nine, ten feet or even higher in many places (it's really difficult for pictures to convey this adequately, but here are some examples). Going anywhere, by car or on foot, feels like you’re a rat in a maze. For pedestrians, many streets are uncrossable without climbing over a pile of snow that may be taller than you are.
So the key is to get the snow out of there, right? Unfortunately, Boston also lacks places to put it all. Until 1997, the city would blithely dump its extra snow into Boston Harbor — but then environmental experts were all, hey, hold up, that road-snow is full of horrible pollutants and chemicals and pouring it all in the Harbor is probably unwise if we also want the harbor to continue to support water-dwelling life-forms and not turn into a giant sewer. Since then, Boston has piled up its snow at quaintly if inaccurately named “snow farms” around the city — open lots where trucks cart all the snow that needs a time-out until spring. They are also using snow melters, some on loan from other states like New York (thanks, New York!), which are big machines that do what they say and are usually found at places like airports where clearing snow and just getting rid of it are critically important to keep the place functioning.
Oh, you think you’ll take public transportation instead? I hope you like soul-destroying delays. Boston’s aging MBTA system has arguably had the worst PR month of all, when on some lines there were more broken down trains than functional ones and people faced hours and hours of delays on trains that never left the station — or simply never showed up in the first place. Between the trains being stopped and buses having trouble navigating the roads narrowed by snow, commutes that usually take 30 minutes are taking two, three hours or more.
I'm not a local, but this is not my first snodeo. The record-breaking snow of 1995/1996 was my very first winter in Boston. Of course at the time I didn’t know that wasn’t normal. Then the April Fool’s Day Blizzard that dropped over two feet on the city happened the following year. This storm, aside from happening on April 1, also featured Thundersnow, stuff of legend, and I didn’t even know enough about snow yet to find it apocalyptic (for the uninitiated, it’s not generally supposed to thunder and lightning during a snow event). That was my first real blizzard, and I mostly remember it because I received a phone call the following morning from the manager at the convenience store where I was working, assuring me that yes, we were open and yes, I needed to show up for my shift. It took me over an hour to walk four blocks on uncleared sidewalks — four blocks on which everyone else was having snowball fights and enjoying a day off.
All of that happened before I had a car, though. Trying to get home from work after the 2003 Presidents’ Day Blizzard — still the snowiest blizzard of all time in Boston, having left behind 27.6 inches — the streets were so narrow as to cause literal gridlock, and I got stuck on a street, motionless, for 90 minutes. I wasn’t stuck in snow, to be clear — I was trapped in unmoving traffic. It took me nearly four hours to make what was usually a 40 commute that day, and the next day when I had to do it all again, I burst into fully hysterical sobbing and shaking in my car, not just because I was frustrated but because being surrounded by so much snow was completely overwhelming. When a fellow gridlocked driver got out and tapped on my window to ask if I was okay, it only made me cry harder. I realized I felt like I was having a panic attack, from snow.
These days, I have the extreme good fortune to work from home, so my morning commute only spans the space from the bedroom to my office, and the worst I have to deal with during this kind of snow horror is the inevitable cabin fever. But I’ve never fully processed the weird and hard-to-describe anxiety of this kind of snow situation. It’s snowing right now. Again. We've got another blizzard coming over the weekend. Last Monday, during a lull in the last storm, I cajoled my husband into going outside, just . . . to go outside. The sidewalks that have been cleared are like narrow caves between towering banks looming ominously over my head on either side. We crossed the street to see what the beach looked like; my husband grew up near Albany so is fearless even in lots of snow, and as he forged ahead over the buried seawall and onto the hip-deep snow on the beach itself, I wanted to scream at him to come back. I’d probably be less terrified if you dropped me in the middle of the ocean. It’s too much.
I am at maximum snow. Driving anywhere is one overcorrection away from human pinball, which would be fun if only snow was bouncy and not a terrible slurping void that wants to swallow you and your car and devour your life force to feed its monstrous form. Walking is just laughable, even more so for someone like me, who falls down all winter long even under the best of circumstances. Pedestrians, likely emboldened by rage over impassable sidewalks, stride purposefully and fearlessly down snow-choked roadways in the midst of dangerous traffic like they are made of impenetrable armor and unsinkable moxie. People besides me are writing snow-based think pieces.
“It is assaulting people,” said Barbara Green, a psychologist at the Center for Integrative Counseling and Wellness in Hingham. “Even strong, resilient, upbeat people are starting to feel a bit frayed emotionally.”
Green said she is hearing from patients that normal daily stresses — commuting, working, taking care of a family — seem magnified many times over, especially for people with low-paying jobs who do not have the luxury of missing a day at work.
“People’s normal coping skills and strategies erode,” Green said. “Instead of eating a healthy diet, they eat cookies, maybe even drinking more.”
Mmm hmm. If you need me, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here trying to figure out what wine pairs best with Mallomars.