Without television and Internet and computer models we should have expected nothing. The eleventh turned raw and damp before the cloudy sky faded to black with nothing falling out of it. The next morning I awakened to silence, and snow so deep it muted the high-pitched part of the sound of steel scraping asphalt.
I bundled myself in a warm sweater and padded downstairs. Furnace working, steps and sidewalk a foot deep, more falling fast. City plows had already constructed a three-foot rampart across the mouth of our driveway. If the newspaper had been delivered—unlikely—black truths and yellow journalism alike lay concealed under a white blanket. I went downstairs to drink coffee I had roasted in fading sunshine the morning before.
What do you do on a snow day when all quotidian obligations are canceled or postponed? Curl up with a good book? Skype the meteorologically better-favored? Push toward a new blog post? Light up a joint and spend the day in bed? Start a new game of Diplomacy? Or shovel your snow?
We live on a corner, where we get more light in summer and more snow in winter. A few years back, the city built a traffic-calming bulge on our corner where plow drivers leave me compacted wads of other peoples’ snow to dig. But shoveling snow offers the same secret obsessive satisfactions as washing the blackboard did in school.
Snow on the sidewalk outside my house, which is not my property, becomes as much my responsibility as what falls in my driveway, which is. Because the city forbids me to abandon my snow in the public street, and because my house and my neighbor’s bound our shared driveway so closely, I must carry what falls into it out to the street shovelful by shovelful, and away from the driveway’s mouth, to pile it on top of the rampart the plow makes at the edge of the sidewalk. The pile I construct must be secure as an igloo to avoid collapse either way.
How much snow confronted me? On our 160 feet of sidewalk the city demands a walkway three feet wide, but that looks stingy, and the melt-freeze after a storm can turn so narrow an alley into a skating rink, even salted. Out of concern for mothers pushing prams and oldsters pulling shopping carts I do four. So let’s see. Four feet times 160 feet means 640 cubic feet of snow for each foot that falls before I start the steps or the path or the driveway. A good eight hundred cubic feet for each foot that falls, and they predicted a foot and a half.
According to Reade Advanced Materials, freshly fallen snow weighs ten pounds a cubic foot, and compacted snow, like what the plows leave, thirty. Call it twenty on average, though the weathermen warned that our blizzard would bring wet, heavy snow. I would have over a ton of snow to lift two or three feet when I started and four or even five as I built the rampart taller. I had only to lift what fell along the sidewalk, but I would have to carry what landed in the depth of the driveway more than the length of a car, some thirty feet.
I used to pride myself on shoveling my own snow, and enjoyed the exercise. I saved the price of a gym and enjoyed brief interactions with neighbors and passers-by, eyes rolled at nature’s perfidy, a thank you for shoveling, a grim eyes-front march across my territory to duck away from my effort, as if I might expect a tip.
Alas, my lumbar spine has aged faster than the rest of me. Three years ago, when a snow storm coincided with a low back storm, I tried to take less in each shovelful, slow down, but it hurt. When a young teenager offered his services, I negotiated a price, but he did a poor job and sulked when I told him so, so I paid him off and resolved not to employ him again.
In the aftermath of that storm my thigh and calf burned for a week. One time in years past when we were away, the local landscape company did a crappy job, and the fee they proposed as the next winter approached was outrageous. The responsibility for the snow which had been a sometimes burdensome part of the texture of life here became a worry, worsened by having to admit to another bit of age and infirmity.
On Craigslist I was lucky enough to find a young man who shovels snow the way I would if I were able. He is about thirty, with a young son who sometimes accompanies him when he shovels, and well-spoken; in his other life he may be a graduate student. After each snow storm he bills me what his work is worth, and either of us can cancel at any time. Knowing that he will help eases my terror.
Terror? Snow may be heavy, but it isn’t terrible. It may fall at inconvenient times, and if it freezes on the pavement, provoke worry in a litigious society. But if you wait long enough it will go away by itself. The terror comes from knowing that my body is as transient as the snow, that my waning capacity to move snow is another hint of changes to come.
Snow is beautiful, too, so for now I shall enjoy it.