Snow and the City: looking on the bright side

On stormy days like this, it can be hard to appreciate the things that make this place special

A friend of mine in Vancouver recently lamented about the lack of weather-related holidays in that part of the world.

“I need to move somewhere where a day off work due to inclement weather is at least occasionally a possibility,” she lamented.

I can commiserate. While the endless mounds of greying blackening snow can get a bit old come February April and March May, at least we get a little something out of it now and then. Why, I always take it for granted that between January and April we’ll get at least a half dozen snow days. In fact I feel affronted if we don’t. I’ve often argued that labour unions should bargain them into collective agreements. A minimum of 5 snow days a year. And if the weather won’t cooperate (say by dousing us with blizzards on the weekend)…then we get them anyway.

Snow daze

There’s nothing like the anticipation of a snow day. I remember one particular day when I was taking undergrad courses at MUN. I checked the forecast before going to campus, and sure enough, the previous night’s forecast of a blizzard was holding. Snow to begin around noon. ‘Yes!’ I cheered inwardly. If everything worked out, no boring afternoon linguistics class.

Of course, “snow beginning by noon” is a tricky issue for those of us hoping for a snow-day. MUN, for instance, is notoriously slow making up its mind about snow-days. And then they pull things like being “closed for the morning: further updates at noon”. Like really MUN? Come you come up with any more useless and annoying model of indecision? Close, or do not close, as Yoda once said. There is no afternoon.

Anyway, on this particular day I was sitting in my noon-time English class, waiting for the snow to begin. And so was everybody else. As the professor lectured, our eyes were glued to the window, watching the snow start to fall. Was this it? Would it intensify? Would MUN close? Before 1pm? It was an important question for us. There is, after all, only a very narrow window between the beginning of a snow day, and the closing of the liquor store. In fact there’s a very precise order to things: MUN closes first. Then the buses shut down. Then – last of all – the liquor store closes. But timing is of the essence.

The professor was irritated. He knew what was up as much as the rest of us. After unsuccessfully trying to get us to pay attention to him instead of the snow outside, he finally marched over to the window and yanked the blinds closed. He glared at us, half challenging, half triumphant. He began to resume lecturing. We were distraught. How would we know if the snow day was coming true, without being able to see the snow? Suddenly a student’s cellphone buzzed: a text message! The student reached for the pocket, but the professor was faster.

“Stop!” he declared, pointing at the student. “Don’t touch that cellphone! If the university is closing you can find out in 20 minutes!”

We stared at each other. 20 minutes?! No way. We had to know now. Snow day? Or no snow day? I wondered whether I could get my own cellphone out of my pocket without anybody noticing.

And then, it began. A cheer, far off down the hall. And then more cheers, even closer. We could hear a scraping of desks in adjoining rooms, doors clanging open. Bustling in the hall. The professor paused, glaring uncertainly at the closed door. And then, all of the sudden, the door burst open. Some random student poked his head in. The intruder pulled back his tasseled cap and raised a fist in triumph.

“MUN’s closing, b’ys!” he proclaimed triumphantly. “Snow day!”

The class erupted in a chorus of cheers and upturned desks as students grabbed their bags and charged for the door, professor long forgotten.

And that was that.

Meanwhile, in Toronto…

I happened to be in Toronto for the recent “blizzard” they had a couple weeks ago. You know, the one that dumped a horrific 28 cm of snow on the city (a lesser person might point out that’s about half of what the Avalon Peninsula got during its own blizzard two weeks previous. But we are not that sort of person).

I was curious to see how Toronto handled a blizzard. So, after sheltering inside for the better part of the day, I eventually bundled up and wandered into the outer world in the early evening, around the time the snow was petering out.

I, like most bipeds, and in fact all non-penguinoid forms of life, am notoriously prone to slipping on snow and ice, so I approached the steps to the street gingerly. I reached the spot where the sidewalk ought to be. And then I looked down.

And gaped with astonishment. There, in front of my very eyes, was a two-foot stretch of bare black pavement winding as far as the eye could see.

Yes. Mere minutes after 28 cm of snow had fallen, Toronto had…sidewalks.

My shock and horror continued – just beyond the sidewalks, separated by a roughly foot-high bank of snow, was an equally great wonder: a road! It was equally black, and equally…flat. Roads and sidewalks. Unheard of!

My disbelief grew as I followed the sidewalk. It was salted, hard, flat…and it continued all the way to the nearest intersection. There – wonder of wonders – it intersected with two other equally bare flat sidewalks.

I felt sick to my stomach. “Noooooooooooo!” my heart wailed. “Don’t let them have done something right for once. Their egos will swell and implode and poison our water supply like some demented urban fracking operation!”

Alas, it was true. And it was unnatural, to my eyes at least. Sidewalks, of course, are a seasonal phenomenon in Newfoundland. They appear in late spring and bloom until late fall, whereupon they – like daisies and roses and blueberries and all other good things – go into hibernation until the cold winter snows are gone and the world is reborn.

Of course, I later figured out how the City of Toronto managed this astonishing and unnatural feat of sidewalk evergreens.

They spent $4 million clearing the snow from that one blizzard.

Four million dollars, incidentally, is equivalent to roughly one-third of the entire City of St. John’s annual snowclearing budget (in Toronto, it’s 5% of theirs).

That put a bit of a different spin on things. Now, when I venture out of my home in St. John’s following a snowstorm, and find myself clambering over 3- and 4-feet high labyrinths of snow to get to work, I won’t feel quite as resentful as I once did. I won’t just see barriers evocative of First World War trenches troubling my journey to work any more. Instead I’ll see dollar-signs – all the money the City of St. John’s is not spending on snowclearing. Green snow, if you will.

Mind you, this is not an argument that the City of St. John’s should shirk its snowclearing responsibilities.

Rather it’s an argument for installing heatlamps on every streetlight. We could melt the snow and get a tan and avoid seasonal affective disorder all at the one time.

Well, it’s an idea. And it would probably cost about as much as Toronto spent last week digging itself out from its “blizzard”.

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