Sunday, November 13, 2011

October Chill

I mostly receive expressions of sympathy, and sometimes of alarm, when I tell New Yorkers that I’ve never been through a real winter.

“Oh,” they say, looking me up and down, eyeballing my wardrobe and estimating fat thickness. “Do you have winter clothes?”

“I’ll get some,” I assure them cheerily, not bothering to admit that I am in fact already wearing what I consider my winter clothes – jacket, shoes, and a hat when it really gets nippy. Which it hasn’t, not by New York standards, though my Mississippi-California-Philippines background has established a rather different set of definitions.

So I found myself stumbling through the winter’s first snow two weeks ago, wet and cold from the slushy mess sweeping down Seventh Avenue. I had spent most of the day staring out of the windows of the bookstore, transfixed by this small amount of snow that quickly eclipsed the one significant snowfall of my youth (a sprinkling, but to us Gulf of Mexicans a blizzard). The bookstore was warm and homey, its soft lights inviting, and it felt like nothing so much as a well-kept cottage in some snow-swept northern village.

The snow wasn’t exactly piling up outside, but it wasn’t keen on leaving, either, so when my shift ended I slipped and slid up the sidewalk, angling for a warm café and hot coffee. Café Grumpy was packed: the stools were taken, the standing-room-only tables (another novelty to me—oh, brave new world with such a lack of seating) were surrounded by a collection of strangers smiling amicably or suspiciously (it’s hard to tell which, sometimes) above their cups, and there was only a narrow corridor between the counter and the dangerous gallery of caffeine fiends.

But the air was warm—warm enough to cover my glasses with a fine sheet of fog when I entered, and to generously apply new coats even as I wiped them clear. The girl at the counter wanted to know what I was having. I told her coffee. She asked what kind, pointing to the coffee menu, as if I was the kind of person to nitpick between Guatemalan and Costa Rican beans. (After due consideration and thoughtful lip-pursing I decided on the Costa Rican.) Without a place even to stand, I stumbled back out onto the sidewalk, clutching my coffee and relishing its warmth, especially when I slipped and it sprayed out onto my hands.

I went home and enjoyed the rest of the day’s snow from the vantage point of my bed, watching it swirl in the air above Moore Homestead Park and pile up on parked cars. It was a nasty, wet snow, and I had a soaking jacket to prove it, but it was also vaguely magical, and it reminded me unavoidably of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

The next day I bundled up and went exploring in the vast wilderness of Central Park, but first I stopped by Roosevelt Island, which I suppose is primarily known for lying between Long Island and Manhattan but being neither. It’s a slender spit of land shrugging off the East River to either side – from the center of the island I could see both channels – and providing a pleasant sense of calm before the mighty metal bulk of Manhattan. To my delight, there was a tram from the island into the city. (That’s how insular-minded New Yorkers can be – Manhattan is “the city,” and everything outside that compact space, even Brooklyn, is hinterland.) To my greater delight, it is part of the metro system and thus required nothing more than a swipe of my trusty card.

The tram car rose alongside the Queens bridge, providing nice views of the south end of Roosevelt Island, the Queens coastline and Manhattan’s saucy curves. We docked after far too short a time, and I took off for the park.

Snow still nestled in the park’s niches, in the cool spaces shaded by trees or hills, though the temperature had jumped up above freezing and the sun was blazing from a clear blue sky. The trees hadn’t yet lost their leaves – this was the earliest snow in many years – and the snowflakes, so delicate individually, had piled onto the greenery, snapping and toppling limbs across the paths. Apparently nature hadn’t yet prepared for itself.

Even in the great frozen North, October snow is an ephemeral thing, and it was dripping away into the park’s hollows as I emerged onto Seventh Avenue. It was a lovely Sunday even without the diminishing carpet of snow, and hordes of people were taking advantage of the open skies and bright sunshine.

The day was following the pattern of the previous day: go outside, get cold, buy coffee. But before I put away my camera and sought refuge in a darkened café, I caught one last scene: a man with a telescoping lens reclining in the shadow of a cathedral, snapping away at an elderly headscarfed woman resting on the church steps. I caught the man as he caught the woman, and the only thing missing was a camera in her hands, pointed at me, to complete an absurd triangle.

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