Thursday, January 29, 2015


It was around eleven in the morning, a time when Sixth Avenue would normally be filled with white-collar workers hustling off to martini lunches and tourists with their necks bent in forty-five degree angles as their eyes scanned the tops of the towering skyscrapers hugging Avenue of the Americas. The blizzard of 1996 had ground the city to a halt. It arrived just after the New Year. Christmas still clung to the city's facades; the Rockettes were still kicking their legs above their heads in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City.
I had a scheduled lunch with a client at The Peninsula Hotel on Fifty-fifth Street where Deborah was staying. The storm had dropped over twenty inches of snow the night before and the city was ill prepared to deal with it. Most everything was closed but the restaurant at the Peninsula was still serving to its guests. Cabs were out of the question. It would take days before a meager army of municipal plows could clear the streets. The weather wasn't about to help either. The temperatures remained below freezing.
There was magic in the air when quiet covered the canyons of midtown. There were only a few brave souls sinking their Hunter boots into the snow-covered sidewalks stomping down a trail for those of us to follow. Some of the subways were running on limited schedules. I was lucky enough to find an F train that took me as far as Fiftieth Street. I could feel the silence as I climbed out the subway exit from below ground my boots trying to find their footing on the exit steps that had yet to be shoveled. I still had to walk the five blocks north to Fifty-fifth before I could turn east and get to the hotel. That crunch of untouched snow was the only sound singing in my ears. My eyes had been focused on my feet. The iced over sidewalks were treacherous requiring focused attention to keep me from falling. Then through the crunch of my boots and the whisper of the wind came an added element to the song of the storm. Walking down the middle of Sixth Avenue from the direction of Central Park came a woman dressed in a red parka a burlap bag over her shoulder. She was leading a reindeer down the middle of the avenue. She led the reindeer on a rope leash. As she got closer the crunch of my snow steps began to play melody blending with the cords coming from the ring of bells around the reindeer's neck. Magic.

The airlines started notifying fliers the Sunday before the storm was to hit that they could change their tickets without any added fees to avoid canceled flights. I was ticketed on a flight scheduled to leave Milwaukee for New York at 11:10am on the Monday the storm was supposed to start. I had several meetings I didn't want to miss. I decided my best bet would be to grab the earlier flight and hope I could make it in before the storm hit. I had to set the alarm for 3:30 so I could make the drive to Milwaukee and get on the 6:40. The flight was almost empty; there weren't many people interested in flying into the eye of the storm. We left Milwaukee without a problem and arrived in New York twenty-five minutes early. It was the last flight to make it out of Milwaukee. All the flights after that were canceled.
As soon as I got off the plane I fell into blizzard fever along with most of the rest of the city. Forty-five minutes in line at the grocery store to stock up on food to get me through the next few days. Off to get my errands out of the way before the city shut down all forms of transportation and started handing out fines for anyone out and in the way.
There was a dusting by Wisconsin standards, maybe five or six inches before the snow stopped. The local TV stations had preempted regular scheduled program with storm coverage. The biggest part of the storm was supposed to hit after midnight Monday and then hold on through most of the following day. I kept trying to stay awake although it was now approaching twenty hours since I had gotten up that morning. I fell asleep to Lonny Quinn insisting the storm was on its way: it was cold enough, it was wet enough, and the only possible glitch was how the storm tracked.
When I woke up at 6:30 Tuesday morning the TV still broadcasting storm news there wasn't a flake more I could see outside my window then had been there when I fell asleep. The ban on travel was still in effect and the parks were still closed. I squeezed into my jeans, but on my ultra-thin down vest, grabbed my quilted corduroy jacket and rubber boots, and walked out the door to the park. The same crunch of boots on virgin snow I had listened to nineteen years ago was back. It was a sweet illegal walk into the park and then down the middle of Central Park West before I turned around at Sixty-sixth and headed back home. For an hour or two the streets stayed empty until the rest of New York started waking up and joining in the freedom of walking in the middle of Avenues that would soon turn back into arteries packed with yellow cabs, Asian delivery boys on bicycles, and New Jersey drivers thinking it's legal to turn on right. I missed the magic.


The Upper Westside of Manhattan, Tuesday morning, January 27, 2015
Lee Melahn, photographer

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