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Reporter's Notebook: 'Polar Vortex' Hits New York City

  • Adam Phillips

People bundle up against the cold in New York City, Jan. 7, 2014.

People bundle up against the cold in New York City, Jan. 7, 2014.

Like many New Yorkers, I felt a sense of fascination and dread over the past several days as I watched weather reporters jockey for ever more dramatic ways to characterize the bitter cold they were predicting, and which we are now experiencing.

Unlike rural folks who actually produce something tangible (even edible) for a living, we “born, bred and buttered” Gothamites tend to view the weather as an abstraction that must surely exist, but which you only need to notice when it is extreme, or pesky or otherwise somehow impinges on the busy plans we have that have “bupkis” (New York Yiddish for “nothing”) to do with Mother Earth and her messy goings-on.

These attitudes are absorbed early in life. I remember as a child boarding the Madison Avenue bus during a heavy traffic-snarling rainstorm and hearing grownups grumbling about it as if someone somewhere in their incompetence or plain mean-spiritedness had foisted it upon them.

“How dare the weather obstruct their well-laid routine?” they seemed to ask.

Ice forms on rocks on the Brooklyn waterfront across from lower Manhattan in New York, Jan. 7, 2014. The high temperature is expected to be 10 degrees in the city but wind chills will make it feel more like minus 10.

Ice forms on rocks on the Brooklyn waterfront across from lower Manhattan in New York, Jan. 7, 2014. The high temperature is expected to be 10 degrees in the city but wind chills will make it feel more like minus 10.

Right now, from my comfy, temperature-controlled room, at the Voice of America, 30 floors above frigid, if sunlit, Broadway, one can almost forget that the weather down there is in the single digits. Sure, I can see the usual telltale signs of winter in this maritime city; - the hyper clear light (all radiance but no kindness), the lazy curling columns of wispy steam billowing through street-level vents and manhole covers, the heaps of gritty frozen snow where the plows from last week’s storm have piled them. But those visuals don’t even hint at the reality on the street which even a jaded New Yorker cannot ignore.

Even the five-minute scamper from my apartment to the subway this morning was a novel adventure. Sure, my wife had sternly prepared me as best she could - beginning with fire engine red woolen long johns and radiating outward in five ever-thicker layers of clothing. I felt like a giant balloon at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But she hadn’t prepared me for the sensation of having my nosebone threaten to freeze right between my eyes, or the icy way the air itself felt inside my lungs, making my chest ache, and the how the air found its way to every vulnerable nook and exposed surface area - including my bald head, reachable only through the tiny grommet holes in my felt cowboy hat.

Ever diverse, New Yorkers showed their individual styles even as they braved the weather together. One young man on the subway platform shivered inside his thin, undeniably chic topcoat; he didn’t seem willing to compromise the careful look with a bulky sweater. Women wore wool dancer leggings over other leggings, as they clutched paper cups of coffee for warmth with gloves with cut off fingertips. One rakish fellow had a ski cap underneath the obligatory Yankees cap; the kerchief over his face made him look like an outlaw from the Old West, or a cartoon terrorist.

Still, it was strangely touching, even intimate, to see people’s breath melt into the air as they exhaled. The rhythm of their respirations are a visible, altogether public, expression of an internal bodily process that is frankly, de rigeur for all warm-blooded mammals, whatever their carefully cultivated urban personas - hedge fund manager, actor, construction worker, hot dog seller, or cop.

Icicles form on a car in front of a building where the New York Fire Department was fighting a fire in low temperatures, Jan. 7, 2014.

Icicles form on a car in front of a building where the New York Fire Department was fighting a fire in low temperatures, Jan. 7, 2014.

​Sure, there are inconveniences, and worse. Parents worry about sending their children to school, lest the schools decide to close during the day, while the parents are at work. Subway delays occur as tracks freeze. Homeless people in danger of prolonged exposure to the cold are putting both life and limb at risk. On the other hand, parking restrictions have been lifted, and people have something new to talk about in the elevator.

But for me, I am reassured to know that the seasons are going through their accustomed paces, and that there are realities more fundamental and urgent than the next mortgage payment, or who the most promising young Broadway star might be, or whether our brand new mayor, Bill de Blasio, will be able to deal with the next major snowstorm - or heat wave - whenever the weather has the temerity to impose one on us.
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