A short winter's tale
Like an overeager immune system which sends its host into a slick, freezing shiver amidst a sweaty campaign to extinguish a burning fever, lived experience has the effect of steadily deafening the visceral stream of childhood, of thwarting its attempted intrusion into the realm of adulthood by cooling all those pit-lingering yearnings, the only worthy reminders of those times when, without ever being quite sure, we knew, with all we had, that each moment—the flicker of a candle against a dark, wooden lazy Susan, the skid of a heel against the gutter of an icy curb—was worth everything. How tantalizing the urge to slip back, even momentarily, into that strange and precious dimension.
Twelve years ago, on the night after Christmas, the heaviest blizzard of my lifetime hit New York City. So much snow fell on December 26, 2010, that, for the next day or two, the streets were off-limits to wheels; no cars, bikes, buses, or trucks. For two days, I was twelve, my sister was nine, and we had the slippery streets of New York City to ourselves.
If the liberation of the city’s 2003 blackout—the only other force majeur event of my lifetime which cleared the city in the same peculiar way—was colored by angst (we weren’t sure then when the refrigerator would come back on, and I realized only later how heavily the specter of the 1977 power outage must have weighed on the city during those few August days) the open streets of the blizzard burst for those few December days with a total, unbridled joy. The morning of the 27th was particularly glorious. The novelty awoke my sister and I, in our leveled trundle bed decorated by BMX biking sheets, as soon as the sun rose. It was a sunny day, and the glare of fresh snowpack, thick and pure through to the center of every block, blazed eyes accustomed to the slanting, ozone-filtered rays of the season. We clanked down the apartment’s gray, grated stairs, opened one door to the black-and-white marbled lobby of our building, the next one to the street, and squinted our way onto the sidewalk.
We trudged around for hours. Sticky cold seeping through my neon green gloves as I tugged at the gate enclosing the Tompkins Square Park playground; snow canyons on Sixth Street; an abandoned city bus strewn diagonally across Avenue A. In untouched spots, the snow piled up to my thighs. It rose above my sister’s waist. Near the curbs, on streets where trucks had first attempted, early the previous night, to keep the roads clear, chunky white drifts stacked up at least one and a half times overhead. I attempted to ascend those mountains, gripping the steep ice with outstretched limbs like a sloth grasping onto a particularly tenuous branch, but the snow always gave way, and I collapsed back down onto the deep and forgiving street below. After an hour or two, we were cooked. Clattering our way back into the building, we slung off our squeaky boots at the door. I remember stumbling inside and collapsing into our sticky black leather couch.
A large part of our exhaustion, I imagine, was tied to our activity the night before. Almost certainly it’d been my uncle who’d had the idea, around sunset on the 26th. Night sledding, in Central Park, as a family, in the middle of the worst of the blizzard. The pitch was too good to pass up. We’d get Cedar Hill’s freshest snow and preempt the lines which were sure to arrive with the crowds the next morning. It didn’t take much convincing for us all to agree, my mother, father, sister, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, and I. When the snow piled high enough, we’d head to the park.
The ensuing hours purred with a buzz I can’t quite remember any other moment of my youth matching. The concept of an impending snowstorm was enough then to keep me up for many, many nights. Sledding, in the manner my uncle had described it, with no one else around, in the middle of Central Park, on a winter night lit up by the holidays? I twitched, writhed, couldn’t pretend to sit still that evening, from the moment my uncle brought up the idea until the second we stepped out the door.
Around eight o’clock, snow piled up calf-high, we made the call. I strapped into my puffiest jacket and slowly descended into the basement with my uncle. Moving aside rusted paint cans and cobwebbed ladders, we found what we were looking for. I picked up a green aluminum saucer, he a toboggan (he’d jerry-rigged it years earlier out of a few skis and a dozen wooden planks), and we dragged the vessels back up the basement stairs. Suited up in our thickets coats, beanies, and scarves, we lugged our way out the front door with the rest of the family, three generations steeled for some absurdist battle on a far-flung frozen tundra.
The actual sledding? A bust. I’m still not sure if we found the right hill through the howling wind, the startling dark. Enough snow had fallen in the park by the time we arrived, but the flakes hadn’t quite coalesced enough to form a suitable sliding base. The second my uncle strapped himself into his beloved toboggan, the contraption sunk into the snow, plopping like a small dog into deep sand, unwilling to relent to gravity nor the righteous desperation of our collective shoves. Meanwhile, lightning began crashing down with the roaring thunder, a development which instantly stripped our saucer—just before a symbol of unfathomable promise—down to its elemental core: it dawned on us that we’d attached ourselves to a heaping scrap of conductive aluminum in the middle of a now-lightning storm. After just a few minutes in the park, we gathered the sleds, returned to the empty streets, rode the subway home, and crashed, having spent an almost imperceptible sliver of the night actually sledding.
No matter. That evening immediately synched itself into the annals of family lore: three generations, piled into a late night subway, headed for a doomed, icy mission in the middle of a vacant Central Park, population seven, dodging lightning strikes aimed at our big green magnetic saucer. When we discuss it today, we don’t even mention the park. The novelty was in the trip there; schlepping the sleds over our shoulders amidst the long corridors between subway transfers, the glint of a redundant traffic light bouncing off the icy belly of a deserted Fifth Avenue, swatting thick snowflakes out of our faces as we oriented ourselves along the flank of the park. As they transpired, the events of that night bent to conform to the narrative my family has always preferred for itself. While the rest of the city lay dormant, content to retreat into the cozy comfort of Christmas lights and the couch, we charged into the blizzard, invented adventure. Knowing the stories we’d have cued up for the next morning, in contrast to the staid warmth our friends were enjoying right then, was most of the fun.
Which is why it’s always been so peculiar to me that, amidst the endless retelling of that night’s journey, no one ever mentions the evening’s most unusual moment, the one which occurred right at the beginning, just after we’d entered the Second Avenue subway station and begun waiting on an uptown F train.
We’d been standing by on the platform for a few minutes when the familiar, distant tremor of an incoming arrival ricocheted in the distance. Seconds later, a train rumbled up the tracks and emerged from the tunnel. But it was so strange: the convoy entered the station on the opposite side of the platform as usual, on a track marked only by permanent “No Service” signs hanging from the ceiling, in a manner which at no time, amidst the thousands of F trains I’ve witnessed coming and going through the Second Avenue subway station, can I ever remember a train entering that stop. Yet there they were: unmarked, empty, gleaming cars, dotted with smooth bolts the size of silver dollars, grinding to a halt, breathing a collective sigh, and wordlessly sliding open their doors. Then, instead of closing after the customary few seconds, those doors remained open. The couple dozen of us standing by looked around, dumbfounded. No one on that platform, I suspect, had ever witnessed a New York City subway act so erratically.
Minutes passed. We loitered on the platform, stamped with now-black chewing gum from the seventies, and dithered around, pretending to be useful. My grandmother, then nearing eighty, peeked her head inside a car. This was before the MTA displayed digital arrival times in stations, before we could check our phones for a live train schedule. We were flying in the dark, the seven of us, lugging a homemade toboggan and a big metal saucer under the streets of New York amidst the biggest snowstorm in a generation, and we couldn’t decide whether to board the train stuck, right in front of our faces, on the wrong side of the platform, or to wait indefinitely for whatever might be coming next. Someone went to find the conductor.
That train is seared into my mind. On the one hand, its fixed doors, measured against the expectation of their timely shuttering, gave the procession the impression of a beached whale, stuck inexplicably on the wrong track, the outcome of some weather-related service interruption. On the other, how that train, on that snowy night, with its speckled brown floors and sweeping orange seats reflecting against its own bright, fluorescent light, beckoned. When I was even younger, I’d demand to ride in the front car, for someone to lift me until my nose pressed against the window of the conductor’s door. From there, I could just make out the tracks ahead, the kaleidoscope of green and red and orange irises dotting the tunnel walls, the slow-growing incandescent glow marking each approaching station, the outlines of backlit figures slouched on the platform. Often, there was nothing but darkness out that window but for a darting gleam against a track or the peripheral passing of some shadowy object, a column of dividers or a safety hatch built into a brown, sooty wall. To generate so much motion, such rattle and noise, out of nothing; to be propelled up or down into twisting, tiled atriums set under stairs ascending to the tips of skyscrapers, emerging to the smell of honey roasted almonds, skates swishing against an ice rink, a wrinkled man appeasing a flock of cooing pigeons with a crusty baguette. I’ll make it to Jamaica someday, I’d think to myself, aware of that place not for its vague proximity to some far-off Caribbean island but because it was the last stop on the Queens-bound F train: the end of the line.
I heard a ding, the scrunch of subway doors closing in front of me, and blinked open my eyes. A muddy, swirling river now stretched out beneath my feet. I looked up and caught the blurry outline of my family, still milling about on the platform, through a pair of ellipses. Suddenly, my father came into stark focus through the graffiti-scratched window. He slammed his hands against the door. Glass fogged up under his palms, an unfamiliar hand began shaking me by the shoulder, and I discovered I was standing inside the train.
Happy New Year from TRIAGE? Subscribe for free to receive every new post.