Sunday, December 11, 2016

Meditations in a Snow Emergency

Some Thoughts on the Most Smothering Companion We’ve Ever Known

Photo by Deborah Carver.

I. A Good Relationship Takes Work

Whether we consider snow a fact, a form, or a personality, it is a touch of pioneer reality and a reason to have an opinion. A forecast predicts a significant snowfall, and depending on the time of the season, we settle into one of a set of emotions: in November, admiration; in December, paranoid excitement; in January, fidgeting; in February, frustration; and in March, fear. For all Minnesotans, natives and transplants alike, our relationship with snow is the most dependable, devastating relationship we will ever have. The longer we live here, the longer we remain involved.

Like most relationships, we fall into the same fights, the same routines, repeated conversations because they are the only conversations we can share with absolutely everyone else who lives within a 50-mile radius. We complain, chide others for complaining, sulk in our bedrooms, pull down the shades so we don’t have to look at the way it clings tight to dirt and dog piss. But when it’s fresh and the flakes are engorged and voluptuously appealing, it catches our eye again, and our minds fill with thoughts of the beginnings of a magical affair, holding hands with a loved one and collapsing into a field to imprint twin angels onto the world, the firelit living rooms and bay windows of little houses, and kids waddling about in snowpants building snowpeople.

Of course, once we are forced into the business of repetition, laboring to clear a path, realizing that we still have the muscles where we need the muscles, the glamour fades. Considering the rest of the world—the streets, the gutters, the river, the runoff—it becomes our bane again.

Even in our most adamant “I’m not talking about snow at all, ever again” late-season arrogance, we are still responsible for heaving it out of the way, adopting the swagger of the snowbooted, ensuring that we can get from place to place on time. It doesn’t matter where we stand on climate change; our greatest commitment is to our ecology.

II. Selected comments from “Heaviest Snows May Stay South/East (6″+ still possible metro, over a foot southeastern MN?)” by Paul Douglas, March 4, 2011. Used with permission from the Star Tribune.


To all the whiners, winter happens in Minnesota. This is our first tough winter since ’00-’01, and ’91-’92 before that. Last year, it was NOT winter here from mid-March to mid-November. This is not communist China; no one is required to live here if you don’t like it. -paul44, 12:20 p.m.

III. Recent comments from the Minneapolis Snow Emergency Facebook page.

MPLS Snow Emergency

IV. Social Media Town Caller

A department of public works only appears truly in the public interest if its actions and declarations spring from an office that hasn’t been modified since the mid- to late-20th century. It is here—in the haze of greenish tannish cubicles and telephone networks and quiet, focused conversation—that the concept of a Snow Emergency manifests as a system, dissipating into our brains and car engines and in the streets of St. Paul.

Shannon Tyree, director of communications for St. Paul Public Works, describes the decision-making process for the declaration of a Snow Emergency: “It’s challenging—it’s more of an art than a science because it’s not always the same snowstorm every time. It’s not always the same every time, the way it’s coming at us.”

Declaring the emergency by 3:00 p.m. ensures that it can make the evening news, that 29,000 Snow Alert text messages and emails can be sent to St. Paul residents and interested parties, that over 2,000 Facebook fans and nearly 3,000 @stpaulpublicw Twitter followers receive the message (assuming that no one person is receiving alerts from more than one source, those alerted electronically comprise only 12 percent of the total population of St. Paul). But even with the same routines in every emergency—beginning at 9 p.m. taggers, towers, then plows, in the same order, on the same streets almost every time—along with the new communication technologies, the number of cars tagged and towed has remained consistent throughout the past five years.

“It has not budged the meter at all,” Tyree says. “For me, it’s really sad because our mission is to plow the streets, our mission isn’t to tag and tow people. We ask for people to pay attention, watch the weather. If you see that it’s snowing you might ask yourself ‘Hrm, I wonder if they’ve declared a snow emergency’ and go to one of the many resources we have to find that out, but we still average between 2,000 and 3,000 tickets and about 1,100 tows.”

The winter of 2010–2011 has charted a record nine snow emergencies for the city of St. Paul. According to Tyree, communications have improved over the course of the winter. The December blizzard merited a week of morning meetings for St. Paul Public Works that streamlined snow removal operations; the most recent Snow Emergency brought in fewer tows than earlier ones.

And the execution of Snow Emergencies remains on Tyree’s mind year-round: “I put a tweet out in July: ‘Sign up for Snow Alert! It’s never too early!’ and you should have seen the conversations that took place around that. ‘I can’t believe you’re sending this out.’ I waited for the hottest day to send that email out, but I was trying to be ironic. I mean, hello, I want you to be prepared. I don’t want you to get tagged and towed.”

V. Taking Back the Streets

There’s a mathematical clarity in Snow Emergency parking. Like a four-way stop sign, it requires prior knowledge and a few seconds to contemplate where you are and where you need to be in a little while, and strict obedience to the system is required for it to work properly.

If you are reading this from another part of the country, you are probably still a little bit uncertain of what a Snow Emergency is. In a Snow Emergency, residents are asked to move their cars from main roads and side roads in an organized fashion so the streets can be fully plowed. Cars that are not moved in time are tagged and, later, towed. St. Paul and Minneapolis have slightly different Snow Emergency parking rules. St. Paul’s Emergencies take up to 96 hours; Minneapolis’s take 47. Snow Emergencies are declared when three to four inches of snow are on the ground. Snow Emergency routes are marked with separate signs, as well as in the colors of city street signs.

The number of rules—and precision with which they are executed and obeyed—are enough to make a naysayer call “Socialism!” or “Fascism!” depending on one’s political leanings. Those who do not drive watch us putter our vehicles around the corner with a little bit of self-satisfaction, even though in the snow we all have a bit of trouble getting to where we’re going. After all, we are all living together in a state of Snow Emergency.

VI. Excerpt from the St. Paul Snow Emergency Website, December 12, 2010, 3:00 p.m.

We have been plowing streets for 36 continuous hours now and are using 80 plus pieces of equipment, some of which has proven to be small for the challenge but like the “Little Engine that Could” we are getting thru it – it is just taking longer than a normal 4-6 inch snowfall. With 23” of snow recorded at the DT airport, temperatures dropping and wind blowing it is making our job even more challenging particularly on streets with any kind of incline.

VII. Our Lot in Life

Allison’s car was towed in the Great Christmas Snow Emergency of 2010. She had parked on a street that had just been plowed, gone to celebrate the holidays with her mother at a St. Paul hotel, didn’t know that Minneapolis had declared a Snow Emergency, and was informed by her roommates via a 1 a.m. phone call that her car had been towed. The next day, she and her mother waited in line at 51 Colfax North.

“The impound lot is the great equalizer,” Allison says. “It’s all walks of life and everybody’s pissed.” The people, huddled in lines that snake around the lot, stand quietly angry and completely powerless to the judgment of those doing the towing. Occasionally, and especially in the cases of larger snowfalls, they are relieved of the responsibility of digging their cars out. On the day after Christmas, and after parking on a clear street, that’s a nonexistent comfort.

A towed vehicle brings a mixture of anger, resentment, guilt, defeat, and a unique simultaneous obligation to municipality and personal property. But even the impound lot and the city systems, a symbol of little else apart from power and industry, can become the stuff of legend:

“You’d always hear stuff, years ago, you’d hear about the friend who gets towed but catches the [tow] driver doing it, but hasn’t hooked it up yet. They used to say that the drivers during crazy snow emergencies were given an incentive of $75 per car, which—I have nothing to back that up—but I knew people that tried to bribe the driver, but it just never panned out.”

VIII. Selected quotations from Barbara Flanagan, columnist in the Minneapolis Star, 1973

“‘We can go to the moon,’ wrote one reader, ‘but we can’t or won’t cope with the snow.’” —Thursday, January 11, 1973

“Isn’t it too bad that no machine has yet been invented that can shovel a sidewalk as clean as a sturdy teenager with a snow shovel?” —Thursday, January 23, 1973

IX. Within Every Snowstorm Lies a Simon & Garfunkel Song: A Meditation by Andy Sturdevant

During the most recent blizzard, I realized I couldn’t handle being entombed in my apartment any longer, so I laced up my boots and drudged the mile between my apartment and my neighborhood bar to get a drink. Generally, I’ve tended to equate the hours directly following a period of heavy snowfall with complete silence. I expected my walk to be completely quiet and devoid of any human contact.

There were few cars on the road, so I could walk down the center of the back streets I was traveling to avoid the unshoveled snow on the sidewalks, feeling completely alone. The longer I walked, the more sensitive I became to the noises around me. I realized I wasn’t alone at all: each block had at least a half-dozen people on it, noisily shoveling their sidewalks and driveways. The sounds they were making was agreeably rhythmic and well-suited to the sort of methodical drudging one must make over three feet of unpacked snow. First, there’s a metallic skid as the shovel hits the sidewalk, and then there’s a muffled plop as the shoveled snow hits the fresh snow behind it. Repeat that, then multiply it a few times per block, and add in incidental conversation in English or Spanish if the shoveler has a partner helping out. On what I imagined to have been the quietest night of the year, these residential South Minneapolis streets seemed livelier than I’d experienced them at any point in the past five months.

The darkness reduces the color palette of the neighborhood to just white and black: snow, and everything that isn’t snow. If the shoveler was standing in front of a yard or snowbank, all you could see was a dark figure engaged in shoveling motions on a perfectly white backdrop. Even better, if the shoveler stood in front of the side of a garage or wall, all you could make out was piles of white snow, flying from the ground through the air as if by magic.

People were happy to talk, if briefly, but not about anything other than the weather. One guy in his front yard, shoveling out a driveway, pointed at me. “I’m gonna report you to the DOT,” he said. “Excuse me?” I asked. I could make out a smile in the dim light. “That beard,” he said. “You Old Man Winter. You brought this thing.” I laughed. “You got the wrong guy,” I said. “I just want to get inside and get a beer.” He laughed again as I walked by. “That sounds pretty good to me too, man.”

X. Stopping by the Knight Cap on a Snowy Evening, Northeast Minneapolis, February 20, 2011

Dive bars all over the Cities remain as sparse as this one, helmed by a bartender and a pull-tabs vendor, with about 10 to 15 paying customers. Toward the back is a group of vocal dart-throwing cronies, regulars bellied up, a young couple with gritted teeth escaping a weekend of cabin fever, and a me sitting in the corner, snowflakes in my eyebrows, waiting for my friends to show up. We all drink domestic beer and whiskey—the cheap kind—because fancy booze is for fancy bars, and you don’t visit fancy bars in a blizzard.

My friends arrive, and we celebrate the virtues of the snow storm: it brings people together, it’s empowering to walk through a blizzard for the sole purpose of having a beer. Every snowfall brings excuses: I would accomplish something but I’m stuck at home. I would sit at my computer and type more things, but everyone else has a snow day, so I will take one too. I would finish this book, but my friends are at the bar. I was late because I couldn’t dig my car out. I would clean my house, but I am mesmerized by staring at snow falling from clouds at night, something that never gets any less gorgeous or terrifying even though I have seen a hundred, maybe a thousand snowstorms.

And I leave and open the bar door, and in the snow storm every sense moves independently: the sight of so much white that inspired Berlin to compose; followed by the pure silence and stillness of moist, conflicted air; the warm taste of whiskey lingering in the obscure corners of the mouth; the absence of any of the usual neighborhood scents, no roast beef, no grease, all clean; perfect tranquility throughout every bit of the head. And then the prairie wind knocks the peace away and brings the personal snow emergency to fruition: every sense mashes together, and the only goal is to get home.

If only we could all put “accomplished in the navigation of tundra and blizzard” on our resumes, but that denies that we’re part of a tradition of elemental resilience that has gone on for centuries. The pioneers had nothing but fields of white to look at, didn’t have to move their cars around the corner, had a set of worries entirely alien to me, but they cursed the wind too. While walking in a snowstorm, it is impossible not to think of the pioneers.

XI. Selected comments from “Heaviest Snows May Stay South/East (6″+ still possible metro, over a foot southeastern MN?)” by Paul Douglas, March 4, 2011. Used with permission from the Star Tribune.

Go to the grocery store, get some food. Go to the gas station, fill up your vehicle. Go to the liquor store and get lots of beer. Then let what happens, happen. Stay cool. -dreesehaugen, 2:15 p.m.

Deborah Carver is the editor and publisher of Twin Cities Runoff. She recommends meditating on snow during weeks when drug-addled, abusive actors are unavoidable.