Nostalgia can be triggered by almost anything. The snowstorm this past Christmas week did it for me. New York City is rarely motionless, but this storm made it nearly so, even if briefly. Since I couldn't really go anywhere anyway, I just kept looking out the window and writing down all my memories of snow. Mainly, those brutal winters in Michigan -- one time so bad, my mom, a nurse in a kidney dialysis unit was driven to work by the police on a snowmobile.
I almost feel like adopting some Orville Redenbacher voice here... Just snow and sand in that little town battered against Lake Michigan in the dead of winter. White, more white, except nearly all the people in Benton Harbor were black.
They called cocaine snow in the movies at the theatre downtown. The same one that occasionally curtained off the screen for live evangelists, call you down the center isle to give your heart to the Lord. Everyone so excited, you start to cry. They give you a "Living Bible" on your way back out into the snow. And there you are looking back at the theatre from the rear window, Chains on tires, spitting up sand and snow into the red of tail lights. Was it real? Was I "touched" by the Lord? Or was it just 2 hours sheltered from the cold?
Besides that theatre, not much else. The Y. We went there with Dr. Allen, our neighbor. He ran 10 miles a day. Even in the winter. One hundred laps around the indoor banked track that overlooked the basketball court. The Red Rooster closed down. Used to like to look at all the gum stuck up under the tables when I was little, our parents rattling coffee cups against saucers above, windows frosty with the steam of cooking. Soon just another empty diner next to an empty hotel, abandoned factories, mom & pop stores with vacant windows through which is seen an occasional odd shoe or hanger.
"Clarence's Taxi: Here to take you There!" painted by hand on the side of the faded turquoise Checker cab grining from between a mound of snow and Clarence's office, which was about a quarter of an abandoned gas station, mostly covered in plywood and leafless shrubs, next to the railroad tracks where I once ran away from my mom.
When anticipating snow, the clouds accumulate overhead. Clouds always seem to promise something new, like fortunes in tea leaves, but mostly just look like snow in the sky. So there's that dread every November, you plead with the sky, "C'mon! One more green weekend, one more chance to toss a football without gloves. Then the air turns milky, and the gods dump on your head. Convoys of dumptrucks with plows, dumping huge mountains of sand and snow in the parking lot of the shopping center outside of town. We sled. Crashed like cars, often and everywhere. If it weren't for the snow, you could see that car would be on the sidewalk. Silly snow. Almost slid into someone's living room in a car once. We'd bounced off another car, and went sliding in circles across someone's front yard, ever so slowly, like ballerina. Only the evergreen shrubbery repelled us away from their livingroom window. For a brief second, you could see through the glass a little nativity scene on the window sill and one of those bronze wagon train clocks on the mantle that everyone seemed to have back then. I bet they had Brazil nuts and M & Ms in little cut-glass bowls on a coffee table, had I the time to truly examine. In a blizzard, stop lights forego their red to yellow to green routine. Sometimes they flash red or yellow over and over, other times just die, if you can even see them through the vertical white lines of a wet storm.
Lake Michigan gradually freezes. The iceline moves out further and further from shore each morning, till you can just go wonder out, take a nice, long walk through all these frozen rises and troughs. Seems waves just freeze right there. You can climb right in, Iike a surfer stepping in and out of frozen time.
Snow glazes over everything. Pathways through the woods lost beneath a vague, shimmery surface like frozen cream of wheat. The sound of crust breaking with every step vibrates up your legs, through your body to your ears. It's the only sound due to some sort of felt-covered effect: The hush of every sounding vibration in the air having lost its way. A riot absorbed in the snow: ribbetting frogs, chirping crickets, an occasional misdirected bird.
One Friday morning in Benton Harbor, I ran away from the car into the snow. My mom was yelling and I was just sick of it. Disappeared in the quiet felt. Walked and walked through several padded alleys and lightly trafficked roads. Took relief from the snow in a phone booth. Remember them? Called some friends. Cruised around as the snow accumulation grew thicker and thicker. I think it was Steve...a long time ago...I forgot his name to be honest. I just remember he was funny, glasses, drove a blue Camaro with big speakers. Smoked pot for 4 days listening to hard rock and Martin Mull. I think we played Yachtzee. Once the snow started, there was no where to go. Just snow.
Stuck at Steve's place, you could look out across the flat fields outside their house. Dead prickly corn sticking through the snow. A cyclone fence. A barbed wire fence. A picket fence directly in front of the house. Each surface capped with white afros. An intersection a hundred feet away. Two roads meet and fade into the white. Straight lines. Roads laid out in quarter or half-mile squares out here. No need for more. Just farms. After a couple days we were stir-crazy enough to drive over to Tony's, sound track of Blue Oyster Cult and a joint.
Tony's family had a horse, or a mule or something in the barn around the side of the house. Don't know how that thing survived the winter. The doors were closed, but damn. It's not like it was attached to the house or anything. Maybe the snow just covered the barn, turning it into an igloo. Like on PBS: they can birth babys and shit, it's so warm. One spring, I shovelled about 3 feet deep worth of shit out of that barn. Got paid ten bucks. Maybe that horse's shit's what's keeping him warm. A fresh steamy one probably heats up his stall for 5 minutes. If he just keeps eating enough and shitting enough...well, I'm no economics professor, but I bet that's how the damn beast keeps warm.
Things can just come up and smack you out of the snow. Like during that sophmore class retreat up north, when my horse ran me into a low branch and I woke up in the snow. For a second, no memory, just looking up through a snow tunnel to the gray sky. Walked back to camp and Cindy told me to go to the bathroom. In the mirror my nose was to one side and streaks of blood radiated from the center of my face. Quickly, before my face thawed, I just popped my nose back in the middle and walked outside. The cold froze my face again into a painless calm.
At the end of the weekend, we couldn't go home cuz of snow. Our whole class, a hundred or so of us, just stuck in a big, T-shaped cabin up north, under snow. It was a Seventh-day Adventist school, and they sent us up there on some sort of religious brainwashing campaign. But they only had like 3 days worth of programming. Then we were snowed in and they had to improvise. Our teachers organized a talent show. Lord knows, you wouldn't want an idle mind, in all this snow! That really pretty blonde exchange student from Australia sang "You Light Up My Life" -- horribly! We would have never known what a truely horrible singer she was if not for snow. Snow ruined her mystique. Almost as bad as pee-pee pants in second grade. Like one minute, she was this Olivia Newton John fox, and the next, just a really bad singer. "High school," she must have thought, "ruined by snow."
Cindy and I "parked," in snow, behind the Lakeside Tavern. The windows steamed white within the otherwise white backdrop outside. The only colors, her flush cheeks, neck and blue eyes. Our body heat and breath radiated outward but was trapped by the glass. You look up and it's crystalized on the window, like a wanna-be snowflake that was never free to be so. The artist formerly known as Steam never became Snowflake, like a frustrated catipillar unable to escape a cocoon.
Another time she made snow angels. She was a snow angel. Girls are snow-angels, boys are snow monsters, who get to kiss girls in the snow, tongues slick, red and hot licking the sky for snowflakes. Snowflakes melt on her tongue. Not the otherway around. Like saliva didn't freeze on her tongue. Then there was that acid rain scare, and you figure: acid snow. Evil lurks everywhere: Satan in the mind, polution in the air.
In head on collisions on an icy highway 31. A strangely common place to end one's life. Visually very logical. One's mortal vision is obscured by an act of god (snow, of course). Two drivers, human error results in a collision of fates. People's souls disappear in the whiteness. People are often thrown significant distances through windshields, sailing through that whiteness. That horrid ultra-serious death tone that takes a grip on a community after a road death, conjuring flashing red emergency lights whenever you blink. The sort of week-long paralysis that comes with sudden loss. People saying things like, "but for the grace of God." Imagining yourself evaporated into the white sky. A classmate, like Galen Velting resting in his open casket, a motocross t-shirt, half of his face wax and everyone trying to recall the last joke he told.
Ironically, the very first time I saw real snow was in Southern California. It was our last day, or last week before we were supposed to move with the Macks to Illinois. Bob Mack and my dad had just finished Med school together. It never snowed in California. I had only heard of snow from movies, TV and the Dr. Schivago record cover. My dad gave me a black mitten so I could examine the snowflakes better. Each flake was different. Really. My dad told me we were moving to a place, Chicago, where it snowed all the time. Like the north pole. He was right. We went to an amusement park in Chicago with my grandma called Santa's Village. They said it was the North Pole. They even had a candy-striped pole with a sign at the top that said "North Pole." Must be so! They had snow, and they had fake snow. One was cold, one was poison, my grandma said when I tried to eat it. There was poison in Snow White somewhere, too, but the connection's hazy.
The first day I went back to school after running away, I was pretty much wearing the same clothes I ditched my mom in 4 days earlier. I guess she had called the police. Turns out Cindy's folks were called, and a dozen other friends of mine. People I didn't even know that well, and certainly didn't know she knew. Imagine all that going on during a snowy weekend like that. All that snow whirling around, and all these phone calls and household conversations. Parent to parent, parent to child, child to parent, parent to parent. All these conversations, and she never even suspected I was at Steve's. Nor was I aware enough to consider myself even hiding. We were probably cruisin' around the farms going like ten miles an hour in the snow with Blue Oyster Cult going full steam, coughing our heads off from mounds of pot, and there was Mom coming out of a phenobarbitol stupor going, "where the fuck is he?" (I'm doing drugs, mom!)
Apparently, she'd gone through some Bible class notebook I had in the backpack, which I had left on the car seat in my haste. Everyone in the class was listed, so I guess she just spent the day going through that list. We'd had some assignment to confess a sin or something. I had written a rather sensational account of smoking pot and going to see Ted Nugent -- on a snowy night, even. After the show we spent the night in a college dorm with a bunch of other "party people", as they said back then.
Snow. Snow. Snow. It just goes and goes...
So she sent me to a Seventh-Day Adventist boarding school way, way up north. Made Benton Harbor seem like Miami. Upstate, like that class retreat, snow could be 8 feet deep. If you were on the first floor, you looked out your window at snow. It would have been flush against the glass, if the actual heat of the building didn't make a slim little 6-inch gap. Suicide was rampant. At least attempted suicide. It may have been a way to pass the time. Everyone just immobilized, no where to go, nothing to do. Chapel every morning, and often the evening too. Jesus, snow, God, snow, the Lord, snow, Savior. Jesus, snow, God, snow, the Lord's will, icicles, Savior. Slice my wrists. Jump off the building. Nothing. Land in snow. Blood flow frozen. Knock on a window to get back in the dorm. At morning chapel, one kid confessed he jerked off. Like just right there in front of 400 schoolmates. One girl confessed to being devil possessed. Now I can see, they were just bored due to snow. Drama to pass the snow. I'm certain.
On Mondays, we had ski night. That was fun, and a good use of snow. The snow at night under big floodlights that turned the white mountain into a dayglow, plutonium mountain. Swoosh down the hill, then up the lift. Down, then up. Then back on the bus at 10pm. Snow mesmerizes you driving at night. Each flake comes right at you. Little kamakazis. Wee suicidal faeries. A tiny elf cap on each one. So that was ski night.
And in the mean time, you're a kid, and you try to joke around. Try to have fun. I mean, I'm sure there were a few people who really liked it up there...way, way up there. Let me think... No names come to mind, but some people really are into being snow-bound and force-fed Jesus and hell for months on end. What were their names? Who was an example of someone just made for that envioronment? No names come to mind, but I'm sure they're out there.
There were girls, sure, but I wasn't quite hip to how it all worked yet. Everyone was German, Swedish or black. I was Italian. My nickname was nose. Suppose I looked like an ogre. At one point, my nick-name was Horshack. I would have preferred Vinnie. I went to a movie, "To Sir With Love," I think, in the gym, with a girl who I thought was the prettiest girl in school. We walked across the blanketed white campus. She was blonde and about a foot taller than me. She told me she wanted to be a missionary in China. Somehow, I found that perplexing. Through the whole movie I thought about her in China. Became completely detatched from the moment, absorbed in the image of her in China, all six foot two blonde of her, wee Chinamen and women scurrying around beneath her like mice. I didn't try to hold hands, kiss her or anything. I don't think we said another word to each other when I walked her back through the snow. Like I was seeing through her, past her, into the future and realized we were so different, I couldn't even begin a conversation. I was probably thinking about her in China the whole next day, too, asking myself, when I should have just asked her, why China?
On the suicide topic, lets see... how many were in winter? English teacher. OK. That was in the spring after all the students left. The hemopheliac kid who slit his wrists, that I heard about the following fall. Beat-off Baker. Jumped off the roof into the snow. Didn't die, not even injured. There was almost a murder. The black kid from Detroit who'd found his dad chopped up in the kitchen chased another kid around the dorm with a meat cleaver. Odd to have that around in the first place, since everyone up there was vegetarian. There were other suicides. One of my brother's classmates hung himself he was like 12. Well, it may not have been as much of a suicide as one of those auto-erotic asphyxiation incidents. It was one of those "youth problems" in the late 70s. A friend's mother, who went to college with my dad in Tennessee. I think that one was in the winter. Car exhaust in the closed garage. Southerners shouldn't move up north. It's just too bleak for their crackery spirits. In snow everything matches. No primary colored football jacket can cut the uniformity of white. It's practically sublime, the whiteness of the snow, effortlessly overtaking tacky, clashing color with a single sweep of a storm front.
The Adventists are into work, and into health. Everyone at Cedar Lake Academy had a 3 to 4 hour after school job. There were two campus industries. The picnic furniture factory, and the Choplet factory. I worked at the Choplet factory. Choplets are vegetarian meat. Basically, patties of wheat gluten canned in soy sauce. Wheat gluten is dough with the starch boiled out of it. I'd walk through the snow a half mile or so past the edge of campus to this cinderblock factory. Walk in the door, and there was a little locker room. Hanging in there were my overalls. I took them off the hook and stood them on the floor in front of me. They were caked in starch and stood there by themselves like a paper-machiette statue of myself. I walked over to a shower area and threw them in, softening them a bit, they'd go from that chalky starched color, to the color of wet blue overalls, I then climbed into the wet overalls and went into the steamy main line of the factory.
This is how the factory worked: First, they had this meat texturizer. This really pretty "townie" girl with only two fingers on one hand shoved dough through this hole in the top, and the dough went through this grinder. Apparently one day some had gotten stuck, and Rick Papendick told her, not very wisely, to just push it through. She and Rick wound up dating and maybe even got married. Memory's fuzzy. Long time ago. Fade to white.
Anyway, after it was texturized, the dough was put through this little chopper thing, like what they use to make frozen hamburger patties. Then there's this long, long conveyor belt that goes through a long aluminum vat of steaming water that runs nearly the length of the factory. All along the approximately 100 foot long route, frothy, white starch is boiled out of the little patty and rises to the top of the long vat of water. It bubbles over the top of the aluminum trough in big white globs onto the floor and over the course of the day accumulates to about a foot deep of what looks like Elmer's glue all over the factory floor. My job was to then squeegee all that white goo into a big hole at the back of the factory. The patties were then packed into cans with soysauce, labelled, and trucked off to Seventh-Day Adventist health food stores across the country.
A couple times, they had us go door-to-door witnessing. Adventists are also notorious prosteletizers. I wasn't even sure if I believed at this point. They took a dozen of us to town in a van after school. The sun was already down. It was a small town, and apparently used to this. The first door I knocked on, I started the schpeil that we were taught in Bible class to the weary looking man in long underwear and suspenders holding a can of Schlitz. He interrupted me. "I'm watching TV. You're welcome to join." His wife, without a word, put a plate of brownies on the coffee table and returned to working in the kitchen. I watched TV for 45 minutes, saying almost nothing. I can't remember what was on, I just remember being embarrassed for having intruded upon these nice people so randomly. At the end, he said, "Just tell them we talked about The Lord's Prayer." I thanked him for letting me duck out, then shuffled out into the snow, and back to the corner where I was to meet the others.
Things didn't always slow down in the snow. Especially for our neighbor, Dr. Allan, an Osteopath, a surgeon, and one of only two doctors who catered to the impoverished black population. He was perpetually late for something or other. Barrelled through the snow in his red Dodge Dart to his office, then to the county jail, where he was the house doctor, or to county hospital, where he did his surgury, popping amphetimines the whole time while criss-crossing the county. Infact, he took us to school a few times and the black carpetted floorboard was covered with little white pills. He just grabbed a couple pills off the floor when he needed one. Or asked one of the kids to hand him one if it was out of his reach. "Say, Maxie, can you hand me that little yellow one by your foot?" He was real absent minded. So absent minded, that one day he backed out of his garage door when it was closed.
He took us hunting in the snow once. He wasn't Adventist. Adventists didn't have guns, as a rule. Conscientious objectors, and all. I got a rabbit in my site, but I couldn't shoot it. The mark of a true Adventist. I shot a tree instead, just to see what it felt like. I'd never eaten rabbit, nor did I want to. But Dr. Allen shot one, grabbed it by it's legs after, ring of blood on the snow, and we cleaned it in their newspaper-covered kitchen. Blood everywhere, pulling, grunting, a tug-of-war trying to get the skin off the damn thing. Then I remember we just wrapped up all the newspaper, and their kitchen was as white and shiny as if we'd never been there.
Snow fights took all day. After a while kids changed teams out of boredom. And the memory of which team you were on shifted from year to year. No names of teams, but somehow, from 3rd grade to about 6th, the packs of warriors picked up where they left off from the previous year. Though drifting from team to team according to whim. There was as much snow in my snow suit, as there was outside, compacted into hard, tight packs like concentrate. If you had time, and could take your mittens off, bare hands made really hard, tight snow balls, stuff them in a pocket for later use, often forgotten and dripping to the floor once inside. My mom may wake from slumber to yell about that, but mostly she just slept, if she wasn't working. She played piano sometimes: 'I can't help falling in love with you.' You'd be walking in the snow, the wind whistling up the bluff from the lake, whooshing around the house about strong enough to knock your feet out from under you, and gradually, you'd hear her from the living room playing that song. It created a faint warmth in the air, because you could imagine her in there, at the piano, in front of the fireplace, and you only had a few more steps to the door.
Sooner or later you realize snow is a long, persistant torture from November to March. All that white, no green. Limiting movement, shrinking your horizons, your range of emotions, snow is "the man." You just get so sick of looking at it you just want to murder it. Or maybe just cry. Spring really means something up there.
In spring, snow melts alongside the sagging canvas domes over the tennis courts. A spot around the side of the house stays white through April, though early flowers blossom on the sunny side of the house in March. The wetness on the carpet beneath the coat rack, where you hung your wet coats, kicked off your wet boots all winter long, begins to ripen with mildew. Slushy streets. The salt clinging to the lower edge of the car. Rust. The winter a disappearing glacier. The most dreary and monotanous point in the year. As slow as watching snow melt. Trickle down effect. The poor snowman, the shrinking man. Time drifts until the drift is no more. If I'd known the dream would melt like snow, I'd have told myself not to go. The rivers flow with the blood of snow, especially in Michigan. Go, snow. I hate your guts and we've always hated you.
At the end of the semester at Cedar Lake Academy, the huge icicle at one corner of the dorm goes from looking like a solid 2 feet wide column from the roof, stratight into the snow, to being a spindly 18 inches at top, and nearly reaching the ground, then to like a foot wide, 8 inches and so forth. Finally, by the last day of school, just gone. I drove back to Benton Harbor with the Gustafson's. Me, Sonja, Eric, each with a footlocker or two in the back of the stationwagon. Drove up the road, exited campus, looking out the car window to the remaining snow along the shoulder of the road, a long thin white stripe where the ploughs pushed it back all winter long, battered with pocks from rain, gravel, black splotches of soot along the shoulder 6 inches high, 6 inches to two feet wide, snaking along at an inconsistent distance from the road, brown grass starting to turn green in May, the cinder block choplet factory, drove past Rick Papendick perhaps walking to his girlfriend's house, still in snowmobile boots, his parka unzipped. Slept in the car while the Gustafsons talked about getting summer jobs. Dreamt about beach grass, or moving to my Dad's in Tennessee.