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New Haven in the Snow

February 1, 2011

Tonight after dinner we gathered by the window to watch as the plows went to work on Marvel Street, which runs down by the side of our apartment.

“What’s that truck doing, Mommy?” Elisio asked.

“He’s plowing,” I said. “See the big yellow thing on the front of his truck? And the tall lights on top so he can see while he does his work?”

Three-year-old boys as a rule are fascinated by construction and equipment. My little guy is no exception.

“Why is he getting out?” Elisio asked.

“Maybe he got stuck, and he needs to check something,” I said. I didn’t have any idea why he might be getting out of his truck or what he might be checking, not being the least bit mechanical, or too familiar with snow for that matter. The three years I’d lived in it before, we’d had a parking lot or a driveway, and those winters were nothing like this one is shaping up to be. We kept watching and soon the plow operator was climbing back in the truck, and the scrape of metal on asphalt muffled by snow was seeping in through the windows again.

“There comes another plow!” Elisio said. “It’s a big one!”

“Wow, it really is a big one,” I said. I looked down Edgewood and saw a dump truck outfitted with the largest plow I’d ever seen. It was about to make the turn onto Marvel right behind the other truck.

“Where did the little one go?” Elisio asked. From where we were watching, the four-wheel-drive V8 Dodge Ram now looked small, like it might be rammed forward into a frozen snowbank just like it had been doing to the snow in its path if that dump truck should take a notion. I looked left and saw the tail lights of what might be it drive out of sight behind the trees.

The dump truck rumbled just under our second-story window, and I wondered if it was going to pick up the snow and lift it over the cab and into the back like a garbage truck. Where would it go? Where do you dump a city’s worth of snow that’s been piling up since the day after Christmas?

____________________

Bambambambambam.

Was that someone knocking on our door? I looked up from my computer, which was perched on my knees as I sat in one of the reclining wing back chairs in our office. I looked up, but I didn’t get up. I left that to Eduardo, who was sitting in the comfy chair in the living room next to the lamp with his feet stretched out. Mine were too, but they were tucked under a blanket, lending some degree of effort to the notion of going to the door. We were both working from home, and anyway I was on deadline.

“Hello?” Eduardo said, sounding as surprised as I felt. We live in a hundred-year-old six-unit building in a quiet neighborhood of mostly tall three-families and giant single-family colonials. One of the many things that doesn’t work in a hundred-year old building like ours is the doorbell. In the morning while I was scraping the ice off the windshield, a neighbor had walked by with his dog and told me he’d rung every doorbell on the building the other day, trying to find us to let us know someone had smashed our passenger-side window before the entire car filled up with snow. Every time we get a UPS delivery, we have to take a sticky note – with “No name on doorbells!” or “Doorbells broken!” – to the warehouse over in Orange to pick up our package. So, it was a surprise to hear a knock on the door of our apartment itself, since to get up to it whoever it was would have had to make it past the front door.

“Hi,” I heard from across the living room and through the half-closed office door. “I’m trying to get some plows in here, so I was wondering if you guys could move your car.” I heard footsteps heading up to the third floor and realized the college kids who live upstairs and roll ping-pong balls across our ceiling at all hours must have let him in.

“Sure,” Eduardo said.

“There’s only one travel lane at the moment, and we really need to open up both lanes,” the man continued. “Parking is really only allowed on the even side of the street when it gets like this.”

“Of course,” Eduardo said. “We’ll come right down and move it.”

“Great,” he said. “As soon as we get these cars out of the way, I can call in the plows.”

I finished the paragraph I was working on, threw on my shearling lined boots, and grabbed the keys. I forgot my gloves.

I was lucky enough to find a spot just across from where we’d been parked – illegally apparently – and once I got the half-inch thick later of ice pellets off the windshield with the scraper and brushed the remaining snow out from under the wipers, I moved the car. Getting in the spot was relatively simple. I only hoped getting out would be too.

“Thank you!” I heard someone say as I hopped out and blew warm air into my hands.

“No problem,” I yelled back at the man who’d knocked on our door. I walked carefully in the tracks of the tire treads down Marvel Street, unwilling to attempt to leap a snowbank nearly as tall as I was to make it over to the sidewalk.

____________________

The guy who lives two doors down from us drives a blue Volvo station wagon with a lot of bumper stickers on it. One of them – which inspired my dad to strike up a conversation with this neighbor I’d done little more than nod and smile politely to in the six months we’ve lived here – reads “Live the life you love.” I don’t know this guy, but I do think you can usually tell a lot about people from what they permanently affix to their cars. Our car, for example, has an entire rear window full of university logos. My dad said he was a nice guy, at least from what he could tell in the brief conversation they had while he’d been shivering and puffing a cigarette on our front porch in the middle of a blizzard.

Even still, I was shocked the day after the third (fourth maybe?) major snowfall in as many weeks, to see him out there with a shovel digging away. He had the car radio going the way some people do in the full heat of summer when they’re vacuuming between the seats and putting Armourall on the steering wheel. On top of that blue Volvo was a gallon jug of Arizona iced tea. He’d clearly been at this for a while. Not only had he chipped away at the latest 18 – 24 inches that were piled on top of and around his car, he had dug with precision into a wall of plow-pushed snow that was taller than me. His neat new parking space stretched over a dozen feet. It made room not only for his car but two more if one of them was the Mini down the block, which was, at that moment, completely submerged and invisible under the snow.

I saw him as I was headed out – to the grocery store for milk and bread maybe, though it was much too late for that – and when I came back the extra spot he’d cleared was still open, but he’d finished his work and gone back inside. I drove around the block four times, circling past it again and again.

“I’m having a hard time finding a parking space,” I said to Elisio.

“Why?” he asked.

“There’s too much snow everywhere,” I said.

“Too much snow? Why’s there too much snow?” Elisio asked.

“Good question,” I said. “Why do you think there’s too much snow?” I pulled around again, deciding not to take the spot in front of the one we’d dug out; it was kind of a mess and looked like it might be a little unreliable when things inevitably froze over later that night. Eduardo, a native New Englander, had taken care to clear away any snow in “our” spot that might cause the tires to spin. He’d made enough room to back up a little and ease out onto the treacherous and unplowed street. But that spot was taken now, and anyway it had nothing on the spot two doors down from us on Edgewood, a main street that had seen plows nearly continuously since the snow started to fall. Its only challenge in icy conditions was avoiding sliding going up the hill to Forrest if the light turned red.

“Hold on, baby, I need to make a call,” I said to Elisio.

“Why? Who are you calling?” he asked.

“Papa,” I said. “Just hold on a minute while I talk to him.”

“Okay, Mommy,” he said. And he was quiet, keeping his good questions to himself for just a little while.

“I’ve been driving around out here for 15 minutes,” I said, probably skipping “Hello” and definately moving right past “How are you, honey?” on my way to “Can you help me? I have a call at 4:30,” I said, “and I have to prepare.”

“Are there not any spots?” Eduardo asked.

“Well,” I said, “there is a spot.”

“And?” his momentary silence asked.

“I can’t take it. I mean, have you seen this spot? This guy invested a lot in digging out this spot,” I said. “I can’t just take it.”

“Take the spot,” Eduardo said. He sounded so matter-of-fact.

“But isn’t there protocol here?” I asked.

“Protocol? I mean some people put garbage cans out and stuff, but if its open, its open. You can take it.”

I sighed. Then I pulled forward a little and slowly backed into the spot.

“I hope nothing happens to our car,” I said.

Later, someone smashed in our window and stole the GPS. I’m not blaming Mr. Arizona Iced Tea at all. I deserved it.

____________________

“Isn’t this weather just insane?” I asked, trying to make small talk at just after six in the morning while I waited for the bus.

“Yeah,” he said. “The bus wasn’t even running yesterday until 11:00, even though they’d said it would be going at 8:00. I waited for it out here for a while but I had to be in Shelton for work, so I just walked downtown and caught it there.” It is a good 45 minute walk downtown – when it isn’t winter. I couldn’t imagine doing it on slippery sidewalks in falling snow.

“Crazy,” I said, shaking my head in sympathy. We were both quiet for a minute. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I checked the weather app: 21 degrees. I wished again I’d known how to take a screen shot the morning a few days before when it had registered -1.

“Hey, didn’t we push you out yesterday?” the man asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Kitty litter.”

He laughed. I knew the kitty litter had been the other guy’s idea, but with a bit of it under the back tire, we stopped spinning long enough for me to gun the gas and get us out of there while the two of them and my husband pushed us down the road.

“Thanks again for that,” I said.

“I’m Mike,” he said, and extended his hand.

“Angie,” I said, and shook it.

We jammed our hands deep back into our pockets until a minute or so later when we both stepped out of the glow of the street lamp to wave down the approaching bus.

____________________

“Who was that guy?” I asked Eduardo later in the day, after he’d returned from picking up Elisio from school out in Bethany. The preschool is 20 minutes or so out into the woods on Amity Road, and even though it it is a main highway of sorts, it is the kind of road where black ice hides in the edges of the curves and startled deer could hop out of the trees at any moment. Getting out of the parking lot of the school is nearly impossible, since the plows have pushed the snow from the entrance to the sides of it in mounds that reduce visibility to nearly nothing. Cars come barreling down the road at 40 or 50 miles per hour; we’re lucky that the fender bender that happened out front during “trunk-or-treat” at Halloween has been the only accident this school year.

“Who?” Eduardo said.

“The guy who knocked on the door and asked us to move our car,” I said.

“Oh, he’s our alderman,” Eduardo said.

“We have an alderman?” I asked. “What’s his name?

“He’s a stay-at-home dad,” Eduardo said. “He gave me his website. That was the second thing he said to me after he introduced himself the other day when we were all out there shoveling, but I don’t remember.”

“His name or his website”” I asked.

“Either one,” he said.

“Well, they still haven’t done anything out there,” I said, looking out the kitchen window as I sat at the pub table.

“Yeah, guess Mr. alderman didn’t have that much say-so after all.”

We both laughed a little. But not too much, because we had kind of hoped he would.

____________________

With a little searching, I found out that our alderman is Greg Dildine and not only does he have a website, he has a blog – and he seems to have started the Westville Wiki – which includes a calendar that lets visitors know he keeps “office ours” at a local coffee shop on Tuesday mornings. I was looking to see if he had a Twitter account, and found that the New Haven mayor’s chief of staff had mentioned him in a tweet three days ago, saying “#NHV Alders Matt Smith & Greg Dildine now in the EOC reviewing City operations. Got issues? Call 203-946-8221.”

Reading through the other tweets in Sean Matteson’s stream, I found out there was actually a parking ban, and over the last 24 hours, 250 cars had been towed. And, while we were plowing out parking spots, our local politicians were holed up 40 feet underground in a bunker and the mayor was planning robocalls I never received. I learned that “Reverse 911 calls to #NHV residents about to go out. Important parking ban info as we are going to ticket & tow for the storm tomorrow.” Some of Sean’s tweets were hilarious, while still being informative, and I was impressed at how this public servant was embracing social media in an effective and human way. As a result of reading his stream I signed up for alerts from the Emergency Operations Center – something I would have done ages ago if I had taken the time to find out I could.

Even though we’re halfway through our one-year stint here in New Haven, Connecticut, it has taken this winter’s mad series of massive snowstorms to provide me with a real sense of place. I don’t have a home phone to receive those reverse 911 calls. I am hanging on to my 305 cell number and commuting every day into New York City by train. My social media streams still give me almost exclusively news of friends in South Florida, Providence and Atlanta, mixed in a bit with the community development non-profits all over the country whose Twitter and Facebook I monitor for work. I don’t have a television or a newspaper subscription to get local news, so aside from within the walls of our apartment, the noise we try not to make for the people below us, and the familiar neighborhood trails to the library and the farmer’s market, I could be anywhere.

I’m a digital nomad, I suppose, and sometimes life feels like it fits inside the spaces I inhabit. Proximity, geography and community are usually experienced through their online approximations.

Except I’m not anywhere, I’m here. Here where my one neighbor shovels out an extra space while he’s at it, just in case somebody loses theirs when they make a run to the store. I’m here, where my other neighbor tries to let me know about a break-in before several inches of precipitation settle in to my upholstery. I’m here, where a couple of guys we don’t know sprinkle kitty litter under our tires and give us a good shove. And mostly, I’m here, where despite my lack of effort to engage in the multitude of ways my (physical) community could reach me, I am finally found with a good old fashioned knock on the door.

____________

Just outside our front door, right next to the larger-than-life-sized statue of a man with a very large nose, there is a shallow burrow dug into the snow. The two kids downstairs made it with their dad by digging snow out with beach shovels and mittened hands. It is just the right size for a small boy like mine to crawl into and turn the packed white powder back into something magical. An igloo, perhaps, or maybe a cave. You might call it a haven. You might see it as something new.

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