When it comes to snow: It's The City That Panics


November 08, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

We know it is coming. It is only a matter of time.

It may be tomorrow or next week or next month. But it will come.

The terror from the skies will come. The White Death will come.

The snow will come.

This year, however, things will be different. This year, the city has its financial back to the wall.

In the past, the city has spent upwards of $100 on snow removal. But this year, Mayor Schmoke must choose between spending money on snow removal or making sure every city worker has a job for life.

Even as the snow clouds gather overhead, the mayor is preparing his inaugural address. In that address, he is likely to ask each citizen to do his part to make sure Baltimore keeps its title: The City That Panics.

One plan under consideration at City Hall: At the first sign of snow (cold weather in the Rockies, for instance) every school child in Baltimore will be asked to stand outside and stick his tongue out. If each child melts just 100 flakes this way, more than 3 tons of snow can be kept off city streets this winter.

And I think we can all agree that a cold tongue is a small price to pay for that.

When I first moved here, I was living in South Baltimore and I had made plans to meet someone for Sunday brunch at Cross Keys.

I awoke Sunday morning to see snowflakes gently falling past my window and about an inch of snow on the ground. In others words, a normal winter day.

But that just showed what an Accidental Tourist I was.

As I drove through the streets I began to notice an odd thing: I was the only motorist on the road.

As I neared downtown, I did see a Red Cross Blood Mobile driving in the opposite direction. And the driver rolled down his window and yelled at me: "Go back! It's hopeless! There must be an inch out there! The horror, the horror!"

I thought this odd, until I got to Charles Street, where it begins to rise to make the long climb to the Washington Monument.

My car, which had made it through many a Midwestern blizzard, could not make it up Charles. And that was because not a crystal of salt or a grain of sand had been spread. Not a quarter inch of snow had been plowed. And the street was a sheet of glass.

Being very clever (and after driving aimlessly for a while) I took Calvert Street instead and when I got to Cross Keys I asked my friend why the city did not salt or sand or plow its major streets.

"Why should the city do that?" he said. "Nobody in Baltimore goes out in the snow."

Are you telling me, I asked, that because nobody goes out in the snow, the city feels there is no need to salt or sand or plow?

"Exactly," he said. "Why waste millions of dollars on removing snow from the streets if nobody has the guts to go out on the streets anyway?"

And that's when I understood the brilliance of the plan: Snow panic is not an accident in Baltimore. It is official city policy.

Oh, sure, we throw a couple of handfuls of salt on this street and that for the sake of the occasional winter tourist. And we do have some snow plows. But have you ever gone up to a city snow plow and taken a close look? If you do you'll find that 90 percent of them are made out of papier mache! They are dummies, created so that the TV crews will have something to take pictures of.

Most citizens of Baltimore understand this. But thousands of new people move to Baltimore each year, and these people have to learn the hard way.

So take this simple quiz to see if you are snow savvy:

You are driving on the JFX and listening to the car radio. You hear the weatherman say the two most frightening words in the dictionary: "snow" and "accumulation".

So you:

1. Immediately increase your speed to 95 mph and close your eyes to prevent snow blindness.

2. Stop, abandon your car, set your tires on fire, and wait for the rescue chopper.

3. Head for a grocery store, buy all the perishable items you can and then offer to sell them to the elderly people in your neighborhood at an exorbitant profit.

4. Go crazy, eat yellow snow, die.

As real Baltimoreans know, the correct answer is: All of the above.

Last year, Baltimore was once again voted an All-America Snow Panic City, beating out Washington by one vote and Atlanta by three.

And we do not want to lose our rating! We managed to eke out our victory over Washington, where government workers often break out in ugly red blotches and demand to go home if they even hear the word snow, by virtue of our Umbrella People.

Baltimore is one of the few cities in America where people, mostly women, go outside in snowstorms carrying umbrellas.

Unfortunately, they are a dying breed. Two things account for this: One, at least a dozen ladies each year are picked up by winter winds and are deposited, Mary Poppins-like, everywhere from the Eastern Shore to the Irish coast.

And two, after walking around in a snowstorm with an umbrella, snow inevitably builds up on top, the umbrella snaps shut and the hapless victim is cut in half.

Soon, therefore, there will be no Umbrella People left. But their spirit will live as long as even one person panics, one person overreacts, one person breaks down in tears when the first snowflake falls.

And I am counting on each and every one of you to do your part.

Now I've got to go and start hoarding Twinkies. The weatherman says it's snowing in Nebraska.

And it won't be long now.

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