Along with a ton of snow, storm brings a brief respite

February 18, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AS THE STATE copes with its worst snowfall since 1922, a moment comes to mind from the years when I did a little work at one of our local television stations, where the slightest precipitation could lead to hours of viewers transfixed by their sets and, presumably, higher ratings if the warnings of disaster ahead were sold dramatically enough.

"You ready for some snow coverage?" the station's general manager asked one day. "Sure," said a veteran reporter who'd been through it before. "The usual three flakes of snow piled on top of six feet of [bleep-bleep]."

Well, nobody had to embellish anything this time.

On Sunday morning, as the first foot of snow accumulated across the area, and the local stations gave us wall-to-wall coverage, along the bottom of our TV screens could be seen the closings of the day: not only all shopping malls, heaven forbid, but houses of worship, too, leaving behind the implicit message -- Baltimore hasn't got a prayer.

Yet there was something calming about it all, if you didn't have any place you had to go. By late afternoon, my wife and I decided to take a little walk through the neighborhood. There, stretched before us in all its purity, was vast acreage in which nothing at all moved. There were no people, no cars, no honking horns, no exhaust fumes, no noise.

The area was a ghost town. When, after a long 15 minutes, we came across two women slogging through the snow, the four of us felt like survivors in a Twilight Zone episode in which everyone else has been wiped out and there are no lingering traces of a previous civilization.

A few minutes later, we bumped into more neighbors: Myra and Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman. But we were all so bundled up, with hats and hoods and bulky coats, it took a minute to recognize faces, since some of us have only known each other for about 25 years.

"I've just finished sending off a report on the schools," said Hettleman, a longtime public school consultant. "Now they'll have no excuse for not reading it, since nobody can get out of the house."

"I'm in the middle of reading War and Peace," said his wife. "This feels a little like a Russian winter, doesn't it?"

Then, from around the corner, came another neighbor, David Portnoy. He had a shovel draped over his shoulders. We braced ourselves for a wintry version of Portnoy's Complaint as he seemed to have been using the shovel for some time.

"They're still calling for another foot," I said. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I like shoveling," he said. "It's better exercise than doing that treadmill, which drives you crazy after a while. Shoveling snow is great exercise."

"Good," I said. "Come over to my front walk and exercise to your heart's content."

Portnoy let my generous invitation pass. "I've decided," he said happily, "there is a God, and Her favorite color is white."

Then the five of us stood around for a while, and nobody moved anywhere until our toes began to go numb. The unexpected meeting felt nice, and a little strange. We live in a place for years and years, and it takes something like this to make us bump into each other, since most of the time we move about at the speed of anxiety and ambition.

The snow slows things down. We can stop and talk to people who too often are just off the coast of our consciousness. In the snow, we have no excuses for running off somewhere, because the stuff is too deep. On a Sunday afternoon, even if you get somewhere, there's nobody there when you arrive.

"I like this," Buzzy Hettleman said. "It's peaceful, it's calm, it's kind of pure."

But anxieties lingered. We are all accustomed to going to work each morning. To stay home, to capitulate to the snow, would make us feel like slackers, like we didn't come from hardy enough stock.

Later in the day came a call from downtown, where my son was staying with a few friends. He'd watched a car emerge from a garage, get perhaps five yards onto Centre Street -- and stop, spin its wheels ferociously for a while, and die. It sat there now, he said, waiting to be towed.

It's tough to change pace. It's tough to think of staying home when we're accustomed to working every day. We have to learn to surrender a little. We didn't ask for the snow -- but now that it's here, if we're stranded in our homes, we have to learn to downshift emotionally and enjoy the moment.

We don't have enough of such times. We can becalm ourselves and blame it on nature. We can step outside for a few minutes and bump into neighbors we haven't seen in months. We can enjoy the miracle of a couple of cardinals, cloaked all in red, poised delicately atop the vast blanket of white.

Of course, late Sunday, I got a telephone call from my brother. He lives in Florida. He said the temperature hit 81 over the weekend, and he drove around with the top down on his convertible. "Problem is," he said, "I think I stayed out in the sun a little too long and got sunburned. But I guess I'll be all right."

We all admire his courage.

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