Where Are the Snows - and Shovels - of Christmas Past?
We had our first snowstorm of the winter in Manhattan this past weekend and it served to remind me that I have not actually shoveled snow in decades - the result of living in a city where other people are hired to do it for you. It once was said that the definition of a city was a place where one could keep a mistress and buy a violin; to me it's a place where someone else does the sidewalks.
This is after all, a cosmopolitan island off the coast of the eastern United States, where patrols of garbage trucks with plows attached to the front - sometimes half a dozen of them at once - scraped our streets several times during the night and following day. We even have those trucks that melt 60 tons of snow an hour and flush it into the sewers, where presumably the alligators who live down there are
going, "What the...?"
It wasn't always like this - four decades ago, in February 1969, 15 inches of snow fell on New York one Sunday and the city was totally paralyzed. Nearly 40 percent of our snow removal gear wasn't working properly because of poor maintenance. The borough of Queens was especially hard hit, with neighborhoods unplowed for days and no bus service or garbage pick-up. Mayor John Lindsay was booed as he tried to tour the streets.
That winter, I was just finishing high school and shoveling snow was still an important, if not just about the only part of my physical regimen. As the season began, there were a couple of tiny rituals in my family that were observed at the beginning of each December: phoning Mr. Witherspoon to ask permission to use his hill for sledding (a formality - it was always granted) and negotiating a contract for shoveling the snow from the sidewalk and driveway of our neighbors across the street.
This was slightly more difficult, as the neighbors, an older woman and her daughter, were perceived by we kids as somewhat crabby, although the daughter, who was a nurse, impressed me mightily one summer afternoon when she deftly flushed with a large syringe of water a bug that had flown into my little sister's ear.
A deal was made - five dollars for the entire winter - shoveling, scraping, salting. A paltry sum by today's standards; hell, a paltry sum by 1969 standards, but we were neighbors and this was what you were supposed to do. And of course, this was in addition to shoveling out our own home, which was performed gratis because we knew what was good for us.
It does seem as if there was more snow back then. Of course, in upstate New York, we had snow like southern California has almost constant sunshine. One winter when I was small, I remember seeing helicopters - a rarity then - dropping feed to snowbound cattle. And there were times the snow was so deep that someone from the sheriff's office would arrive at our house on a snowmobile to ferry my pharmacist father to his drugstore to fill emergency prescriptions.
Christmas seems different now, too, especially in this city. Two weekends ago, my sister was in town and she, my girlfriend and I went down to the Wall Street area where multiple Santa Clauses in various states of ho-ho-hilarity and inebriation slowly surrounded us. This, we learned, was SantaCon, an annual event of recent years described on its official Web site as "a not-for-profit, non-political, non-religious & non-logical Santa Claus convention, attended for absolutely no reason."
Although the organizers deny it, what it seems to have become is a glorified pub crawl, amusing at first, but a little intimidating as the red suits and white beards numbers grew in legion and sobriety steadily diminished, reminiscent of that old saying, "It's all fun and games until someone starts resisting arrest."
We retreated to the South Street Seaport where carolers from the Big Apple Chorus were serenading shoppers and sightseers. As they swung into "Jingle Bell Rock," this, too, triggered teenage memories.
Late each Christmas Eve, a bunch of us would gather, some with our band instruments from high school - a trumpet or two, a clarinet, a saxophone and trombone. We'd pile into a couple of automobiles and make the rounds of our small town, singing and playing carols: "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "Deck the Halls," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night."
We'd get out of the cars and crunch through the snowdrifts to our destinations; the homes of friends, mostly, and a couple of nursing homes.
The final stop was the county jail, where men would spend Christmas in cells for drunk driving or domestic disputes or non-payment of child support. As we performed, I always hoped we'd hear some voice from within, responding to our tinny renditions, like the old man in Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales, who answers the carolers' "Good King Wenceslas" in "a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole."
But we never did.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers