Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Proper Stranger

It was another winter in central Illinois, crunchy cold, low grey skies, a thick layer of ice under the thick layer of snow. Ice and snow owned the world, making a claustrophobic bunker out of what was breezy and open in summertime. It muffled noises so that only the low thuds of doors and slow smush of tires in slush were the only sounds. Those, and the relentless wind through skeletal trees were the sounds I heard for months.

OK, I admit it. I’m not a fan of winter weather. I grew up in Florida where winter meant we wore jackets and sweaters over our sleeveless outfits. This stuff was for the birds. No, that’s wrong. The birds left, except the cardinals whose bright colors reminded me that other birds will be back, but not soon enough. Winter clothes I liked, wools and boots, jackets and sweaters. Winter that inspired them I liked not at all.
Every year we had to “winterize” or pay. Stocking-stuffers at Christmas were always accompanied by Lock-Eze, stuff to spray into your car’s lock so your key would turn. If you were lucky, you had a garage to park your car in. Most people weren’t so lucky, of course, so if you found your car under the car-size load of snow or ice and got into it with the Lock-Eze, you had to turn on your windshield wipers, grab your scraper and prepare to get out of the car again to dig it out just enough to see out of the windows. After a cold night, the first blast of air from the defroster shot snow in your face, clearing the condensation-turned-to-frost-balls out of the vents. By the time you dug the car out, it was likely that the windows had frosted over again because the defroster and heater in the car had not yet warmed up the glass. Once you had your car cleared, you had to make a choice: Turn off the engine, go back in the house, take your shower because you’ve worked up a sweat with all this work, in spite of the cold, OR hang it all and go to work pretty certain you were going to go bad before the day ended.

I memorized the snow plow schedule. In my town, after a big storm the streets were plowed alphabetically. This wasn’t too bad when I lived on Grant Street, but I could have been stuck for days on Walnut Street.

Tree branches gave way under the weight of ice and fell on the houses and cars. The snow pushed to one side had to go somewhere and was scraped into piles in parking lots and edges of yards. It had to be navigated, accounted for. Trips to the grocery were pre-meditated with surplus in mind. After all I never knew when I would be snowed in for a day or so. And I lived in town. What did they do, the people who lived in the country?

I had started my new career as a computer programmer for State Farm. I was so nervous, being a little older, not by much, but enough to notice, than my co-workers who were by majority recent college graduates. I had worked for the telephone company for six years and for an attorney’s office for a couple of years before that. I had gone back to college, gotten a second bachelor’s degree, this one in applied computer science just to get this job. My grades had been good. I was confident in my skills. But I remembered the adage that warns of any enterprise requiring new clothes.

On this cold winter day, I headed for the office from my apartment in the upper half of an old house. I was lucky to have off-street parking but I had no garage. The daily dig was required at the beginning of every workday. In Chicago, they call the wind that howls through the streets made faster by the physics of air pressure and the narrow pathways between the tall buildings “The Hawk.” In my town, two hours south of Chicago, there was just nothing to stop the wind. Its beak and talons were just as sharp. My office was only ten blocks from my apartment, but the blocks were long ones. It was worth it to drive to the parking lot only five blocks closer, only halfway and walk the rest of the way.

There was a great little explanation of how to walk on ice and snow. It encourages you to walk like a penguin, keeping your center of gravity over the flat of your foot for the least chance of slipping. That works great but only if the frozen surface you are walking on is also flat. If it’s sloped, all bets are off.

The sidewalks in the five blocks between the parking lot and the office building were crumpled at dangerous angles from the upheaval of the lovely large tree roots underneath. The streets had similar angles with the added hazard of the berm of plowed ice and snow to dodge. It was the daily shooting gallery that was getting to work in winter, that lovely time people fondly call the “change of seasons.”

I was well-bundled that particular day, wrapped and layered against the cold with the double benefit of providing a bit of extra padding when I fell. Oh, and that’s when I fell, not if I fell. It was a pretty good bet I was going to fall.

I stepped out of my car gingerly onto the parking lot which even after being plowed was filling up with snow again on top of the ice that had not been taken by the plow. I hobbled through the first block, hunched against the wind. I stepped in smush and slush, turned my ankle more than once. In the second block I picked up speed and looked up from watching my every step to see someone else walking, another frozen stranger in blue jeans and a coat that would never be warm enough. He was right in my path. And I couldn’t stop. In the swirling snow and icy wind, I slammed into him full-force. And he caught me, this stranger, this frosted young man.

I looked up into his eyes. We were both amazed to still be on our feet.

“You can laugh if I fall,” I coughed at him, “but you have to help me back up.”

He grinned, accosted by a sputtering blonde. We had not been introduced. I pointed ahead.

“We’re going to that building over there.”
He nodded, suddenly the plodding Knight of Pentacles, there to steady me on our way as I skittered on the glazed sidewalk. We never spoke; we only laughed the entire time until he deposited me at my office building’s front door. I remembered to thank him. He just laughed and saluted and leaned into the wind to continue his trip.  I never knew his name. I never saw him again.

** ** **

There was snow on Mt. Diablo a couple of weeks ago, way up high at the top. It’s pretty up there, up there where it belongs.

Best wishes.

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