In blinding white scenario, trauma of being 'nonessential'

January 09, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE FELLOW at my front door seems to materialize out of nowhere, like Rod Serling at the end of some unearthly Twilight Zone episode. And why not? I went to sleep in the city of Baltimore, and seem to have awakened in Nome.

"You want your walk shoveled?" the fellow at my door asks.

"What for?"

"For $50," he says.

"No", I say. "I mean, what's the point?"

The man on the television says it might be the worst snow since 1922. The mayor of my city is telling everyone "nonessential" to stay home. I step outside and sink into snow up to my pockets and notice a woman, who is the only sign of humanity on the street, gliding past my house on cross-country skis. My car is out there somewhere, but it's now been replaced entirely by something merely in the shape of my car, but covered entirely in white, and.

"How much did you say?"

"Fifty", says the guy with the shovel.

I have just come from the telephone, where I spoke to my brother. He is the sane one in my family, having packed up his wife and my two nieces and moved to Florida 18 months ago.

"They're saying it's the worst storm since 1922," I tell him, because I wish to impress him that we're a very hearty breed up here. "They're saying it'll top two feet. I walked down to the grocery store Sunday morning and the wet snow hit my beard and froze the expression on my face. I had a look of perpetual astonishment until it thawed."

"Hey," says my brother, "don't tell me about the bad weather. This morning I went outside, and I almost had to put on a sweater. But, you know me, I'll tough it out."

"I admire your courage."

He's feeling pretty smug -- and why not? He's got a beach for swimming a couple of blocks from his house, and I'm up here with Rod Serling at my door asking for $50 to shovel my walk and the big shots at City Hall saying, "Don't leave your house unless you job is essential."

I hear such a term, and I look in my mirror and see Joseph Pulitzer staring back. Who's calling whom nonessential? The city of Baltimore talks of laying off people, and the state of Maryland talks of laying off people and Washington, where they're all linguistic sophisticates, somebody realizes our modern sensitivities and changes the words from "essential" and "nonessential" to "exempt" and "nonexempt".

As if that makes us feel more secure. It was Monday, and now it's Tuesday, and we want to go to work. A piece of me wishes to tell the $50 snow shoveler at my door to buzz off until spring, and I wish to slide back under the covers and enjoy nature's convulsion, but something tells me the following: I'm essential. Don't anybody tell me I'm not essential.

When did snow become this traumatic event that once brought only joy? Once, it meant time out. Everybody cease what you're doing, and let's take a few minutes for a snowball fight, or stand by the window with something warm in your hand while you admire nature's majesty, or take the kids out for some sleighing. All of this was blissful time out from the routine drudgery.

Today we wish to embrace drudgery. The government tells all nonessential people to stay home, and we take it personally because they've been laying off the people they consider nonessential. And the boss at your business says it's understandable if you can't dig out, and we react with anxiety. We've heard the bad news. AT&T plans to eliminate 40,000 jobs. In the past two years, IBM's cut 63,000 and Sears has cut 50,000, and the folks who work for Westinghouse brace themselves over cuts and more cuts. Hey, buddy, who are you calling nonessential? Hey, boss, you think I'm not manly enough to dig my way out?

There was a time when we might have luxuriated a little. You got this much snow, you thanked heaven for your warm home and waited for the thing to blow over. Now, you wonder, what they mean by nonessential, and you wonder what the boss means when he says he "understands" that you can't make it in.

So you fight back the anxiety. You can't go outside for a snowball fight because the snow's piled too high to get out the front door, and the kids can't go sledding because they'll sink without a trace.

And there's a guy out there asking $50 to shovel your walk and he ain't here from the Twilight Zone, it only seems that way.

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