Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of winter in Chicago can’t be placed on a single date. Instead, we get glimpses of yellow grass beneath snow and whiffs of sodden, fertile earth. We have days when the sun feels a little more energetic on our ten exposed square inches, as if light is getting ready to shrink the eccentric white shapes sitting on every horizontal.
Occasionally our discontent thaws enough to venture out, hoping the breeze won’t sting.
I’ve lived here four years, and old-timers tell me that, thanks to global climate change, the winters are milder now. In that case, it won’t be long before Chicago is habitable in January. Eskimos have seven words for snow, and we have at least that many types—wet and dry, firm and fluffy, granular and smooth, snow that gathers under your boots like uncooked pie crust, and stuff that won’t stay, dancing off rooftops and glittering into your eyes.
Other cities brag more brutal winters—Milwaukee has more snow, Minneapolis is colder, Detroit and Cleveland are subject to sudden onslaughts—but Chicago boasts its amplifying wind, wind that insults injury and laughingly tosses freezing air every which way.
Plus, we have gray. This time of year some sidewalks offer single tracks between berms—on one side is unshoveled snow, on the other is a reef of plowed snow that’s started to melt and then refrozen, each time taking on a darker shade of grim. When and if spring comes, they will dwindle to reveal their full store of litter, but now we only see the half a wrapper, half a bottle, half a shoe, half a wig they’ve captured.
So living here requires managing hope. By all means, enjoy the day the temperature soars over freezing—let your crazy soul live in the moment—but don’t think spring is here yet. It’s still a dream to cherish, akin to the Cubs winning the series, a consummation devoutly to be wished, sure, but something that might be better where it is, in fantasy land. What would we do if this balmy 35º were spring?
As a newcomer, I might not have the right to say so, but that perspective IS Chicago, a sort of odd pride in misery, as if we’ve tied our self-worth to futility and hope. We’re yanked endlessly between the two, know not to hope too much, and are proud not to hope too much.
New Yorkers carry a black look with them on the street every day, but their expressions don’t fool me. Their masks don’t penetrate. The true Chicagoan has made black as much a part of him as the plowed ice has absorbed the city’s smoke. People in Chicago laugh and smile and jest, but whatever midwestern charm remains after one winter hardens into determination: I can survive this. I can survive anything.
For the last three winters, with the first snowfall in November, I’ve worn boots to work and carried my dress shoes. They stay at work, almost uninterruptedly, until March, and every morning I change, Mr. Rogers style, from serious boots (or my more serious boots) into those shoes. It adds a few minutes and a little hassle to the start and end of my day, but I do it without grumbling. I have nothing I’m willing to complain about. One day—though certainly not today and certainly not too soon—I’ll walk those shoes home. At least, I almost hope so.