Thursday, January 2, 2014

Traffic vs. Weather

Traffic vs. Weather

When we first encountered the fifteen-minute-long weather reports that aired four times a day here, we found them charming, but exasperating.  Meteorologist Paul Caiano's discussion of regional weather broken into six separate reports seemed quixotic, affording variations so small as to be invisible.  How much could things vary between the Mid-Hudson Valley and the Litchfield Hills a half-hour away?  By contrast, his discussion of major weather events in the past 24 hours, with their attention to the last waterspout reported in the South Pacific and the global and continental low and high temperature records for the day, seemed a bit like showing off.  Ciaano's high, nasal voice rose and fell but his emphases seemed wrong, as if he was reading something handed him just moments before airtime.

We were used to Chicago's radio, where the weather reports were quick, informative, personable.  It's gonna be a bad one out there tonight:  you bundle up or, better yet, just stay at home and snuggle with a good book or a loved one. The weather reports were appended not to news but to traffic;  in fact it was traffic that mattered, and the segment titles agreed:  whether on the 8s or on the tens or on the half-hour, it was always Traffic and Weather, not the other way around. The tone of the announcer didn't change between the two;  in fact, most of the time weather was there to explain traffic, or to prepare you for workarounds-- take the train, not the bus; make sure your windshield wipers are working well; stay off the I-90 corridor where there's bound to be semis jack-knifed or stalled where bridge freezes before road surface

We bought the farm just after the Great Crash of 2007.  For a few years we had looked at real estate in Chicago, more than a little skeptically.  Various agents would solicit our interest, and some of the places were interesting;  they promised the possibility of changing lives by changed geographies. In Chicago, a shift of neighborhood is also a shift of transportation, which brings new faces in the train cars or the buses, and new vistas out the windows.  After the awkward first months, things would settle down;  you'd recognize people whose schedules matched yours, and you could imagine their lives, filling in the stories as new details emerged.  Similarly, there'd be places you'd look for;  a tree that, so vivid so early in the fall, might not make it through till spring, or an explosion of yellow forsythia in a yard that grew dense and green over the spring and summer. Just the repainting of a carwash sign would, for a time, be a cause for comment.

We'd been in the same place long enough that those pleasures had dulled.  The Red Line, our train line, was rebuilding half its roadbed; everything would be slower, more awkward, frustrating. And we'd read the reports on the importance of home ownership, of real estate investment, of wealth building. We weren't the sort to watch investment infomercials on television, but there was a vague sense of opportunity left behind. So we started, haphazardly at first. Then, as the calls began to come, and the notices appeared in the inbox daily, then hourly, we found ourselves part of a new class of people, new to us, at least:  house-hunters.

There were places that looked out at vast sweeps of cemetery, places tucked in what seemed improbably like cul-de-sacs-- improbably, because Chicago's grid forbids the frivolity of small closed areas or hidden clusters of people and houses.  There were run-down two-flats and converted manufacturing lofts and bungalows in neighborhoods where police and fire families had lived for generations.  There were places we felt we might be welcome, and places where we knew we would always be outsiders.

What all had in common was the price:  too high for us.  And when we pointed this out to the broker, he or she (always better dressed than we were, always with a nicer car and a more perfect sheen to the skin) would look at us blankly.  Then would begin the homily on remedies:  second mortgages secured by a note-of-hand to bridge the down payment, specialty mortgages with escalation tiers and cascading principal payments and guaranteed rate-links and refi codas.  It was religion, and we knew it.

So we stayed in the rambling rundown top-floor walkup that looked out onto a small beach where the drummers assembled for their drum circles, and the boys with their baseball hats with the tags still on them cocked crazily on their modified afros as they perched on the backs of the park benches, warily eyeing each other while the lifeguard watched them from the top of the tall white chair. We were immunized from danger by Georgie the dog, whom the gangbangers had adopted a few years before, because she was so very old and so careful as she walked, and because she was direct in her relations with all people, and received directness in return.  In the winter, they would stop us to ask how she was doing; was the salt still hurting her paws; did she mind it when it was this cold? In the summer, when we would bring her out to the beach, they wouldn't look at us from their stations on the benches, but their hands might stray down, casually, almost as if by accident, so that Georgie could put her nose in the warm palm and nudge it gently before going on.  

Back East, at the edge of the Hudson Valley, the old man and the old woman were often sick, or in need, and we found ourselves driving over the Skyway, into Indiana, then Ohio, Pennsylvania, crossing into New York at Port Jervis, then reversing the drive a few days later. As the market faltered, we began to think of buying something there, something that could draw us when the time came. We had not planned to live long in Chicago;  we were Easterners, both of us, and the sublimity of the Midwest and the spectacles of a vertical city you could observe from a distance, approach, enter, and then exit, smoothly, with a steady continuum of rise and fall: these were treasures we spoke of to others, to visitors and outsiders, but with less and less enthusiasm and more and more duty in our voices and gestures. As the apartment crumbled around us, we looked eastward.

The farm had been a real estate disaster.  You wouldn't have guessed it from the gorgeous webvideo Mary Collins Real Estate had produced back when the market was smokin'; Pachelbel's Canon played in the background and the vaseline-smeared lens idealized the soggy wet stretches where the hayfield approached the creek.  There weren't any interior views of the house or the barn;  instead, there were carefully crafted approaches to the buildings that accentuated their rural and colonial heritage. You'd never guess that the old wideboards had been covered with pine and the plaster walls with wainscoting and the only trace of a kitchen was a stove stuck improbably in the main room, with a bathroom vanity for a sink and a refrigerator always and only filled with pizza boxes from Benny's and gigantic bottles of Pepsi and Sprite.

Before Mary Collins stepped in, the couple who'd owned it had attempted to exploit the letter of the zoning dating back to the 1950s, parceling out the acreage into fifteen one-acre lots, proposing paved lanes that they must have imagined would be magically impervious to the relentless drainage from the ridge to the creek, magically immune from the state's wetland regulations.  When the proposal died on the desk of the town planner, they were disgusted;  for weeks afterward, they raced their all-terrain-vehicles in great loops around the property, the halogen headlights illuminating the stubble and warning them away from the deep rivulets, sometimes dry and hard, sometimes brimful with snowmelt or the runoff from a sudden storm.  They relented and redrafted:  four five-acre luxury-living sites with the wetlands redesignated as common parkland and playground.  This time they made it to committee, where they sat, we're told, stiff and silent as the planning board asked them questions they could not answer.

And so they turned it over to Mary Collins, and to the soft-focus videographer and to Pacelbel's Canon. By then, though, they were a year behind the market, and their new place on Long Island, so attractive, so affordable when they'd bought it in giddy anticipation of their real-estate speculations, now had entered the second tier of its multi-story stairway of rate increases, and refinancing, once the equivalent of a brisk walk from one department at the bank to another, now became something closer to one of those dreams in which it is impossible to run, and then to walk, until you feel yourself falling forward in slow motion toward the quicksand in front of you.

Shortly after the third tier payment increase kicked in on that place on Long Island, and long after Mary Collins had graciously bowed out of the picture, they sold us the farm.  For a year after that, I continued the drive back and forth whenever the university schedule gave me seven days or more.  The furniture back then consisted of an inflatable bed, a card table, and six extruded plastic lawn chairs, one of which stayed at the table with the laptop.  Oh, and a dog bed.

We thought we'd continue that way for a while, but the tug was too great.  Even now, with the hayfield nearly obscured by the steady fall of snow, and the heat in the house and the studios only barely able to keep up with the steelhard cold that locks the pools down at the wetlands into grey lessons in the geography of small dangers, and the creek longer audible under the waves of ice it has made of itself.  Even now, when, I am sure, back in Chicago the buses run in the tracks made by the city snowplows and the most intrepid of hipsters are still riding their single-speed bikes down Milwaukee Avenue toward the School of the Art Institute or the design studio in the South Loop.  Even now, I know what it means to recognize a place as home.

Traffic and Weather on the 8s was more than a comforting murmur to us.  To those who drove, it was the most important part of the radio morning or evening.  If you lived in the suburbs, or the exurbs, or reverse commuted to one of those office parks out in edge city, you knew that the Jane Addams was actually a fragment of Interstate 90 heading northwest past O'Hare Airport and Schaumburg;  that the Ike was the Eisenhower and the Eisenhower was I-290; that the Bishop Ford was I-94 and you didn't want to take it if there was any way around it. Repair crew incidents or rollover accidents were Greek tragedies into which you found yourself, perhaps merely as a member of the chorus, but perhaps as Lear or Macbeth or Oedipus. When traffic came on, you stopped what you were doing in mid-gesture;  your eyes turned inward as you visualized the elaborate network of roadways, felt the ebb and flow of them, probing for the places where the ripple effect would be least.  Perhaps your lips moved in a silent litany as you added up the different times, discarding one, holding another in your pocket, just in case, the way an old woman counted score at cribbage or rummy.

These days, we treat Paul Caiano and his weather reports with a similar intensity of attention.  What was once charming or eccentric is now urgent;  what seemed rambling or deliberately overstuffed is now taut, even compressed. There's a reason for every part of it, even the most obscure or distant in geography.  That waterspout over the Sea of Japan:  it will never reach us here, but it does remind us that our dangers and catastrophes have their counterparts or trump cards far from us.

 It's not just that they close the schools when the snow forecast looks bad. The superintendent is up at 6, waiting for the first of Caiano's reports, his computer open to the email address of the school closing hotline. This is a stretch of country with many hills, some mountains, and very little in the way of surplus tax revenue.  A plow with a sander on the back has to cover most of three or four hamlets, and the driver is paid by the hour, not by the day, week or year.  We may get out today.  Or we may not. Or worse:  we may not get home.

That's the winter's tale.  In the summer, when the thunderstorms race down the mountains toward us, a hailstorm can flatten Harry's vineyard in a half-hour and end the year's harvest. In the fall and spring, there's the threat of clashes between cold fronts coming in from the north and warm air heading from the south, picking up moisture as it meanders out over the Atlantic and then back in again. Wild bursts of water, inches in an hour, can overwhelm the drain tile in the fields and leave the corn or the pumpkins, the beans or the peppers, mired in, where they can rot in days, ruining the season and dimming the hope for the down payment on a new haymow or corn harvester.

Or there may be nothing here at all, nothing but blue skies, puffy white clouds, a pleasant breeze, everything a weekender up at the b&b at the top of the hill imagined when they made the online reservation months ago.  But up past Ashokan Reservoir and Phoenicia, in the dense cover of the Catskills Park, such a storm will sweep in and then disappear, invisible to the valley.  An hour later, you can hear the creek begin to rumble as you stand in the kitchen listening to Paul Caiano on the radio:  rumble, then develop sibilants, the percussive cracks as the water throws tree limbs and pieces of storage sheds or old mobile homes up over the banks before it, too, rises over the edge and then spreads quick and, by comparison with the main channel, silent, unobtrusive, up past the outhouse, toward the main house, and the sump pumps go on in the cellar and the crawl space, and they don't stop, even as the sun shines as cruelly as ever, the clouds waft past, reflected in the spreading pool that threatens the second haying.

The descriptions of fronts and troughs, of warm air massing off the Outer Banks or a Manitoba Clipper gaining strength isn't exotic color any more.  It's a compilation of possibilities, and you listen with your gaze turned inward, working out the calculus that could mean hailstorm or blizzard, or a line of small tornadoes dropping improbably onto the bucolic stretches of hayfields and dairy cattle up and down our valley, tornadoes like the one that ripped the front off our barn three years before we bought the place, when Pachelbel's Canon was still the ode to the place.

They cancelled school early this morning.  As a consequence, the town didn't call the plow drivers to the garage.  Better to wait; three inches on the roads slows things down, but most everyone has an all-wheel-drive car or a pickup, or big tough snow tires with aggressive tread, tires that spew mud up the sides of the car when the thaw lasts more than a day or so.  The plow came by at 10, doing a quick pass so the van that takes the group-home patients to dialysis and physical therapy and to medical appointments could make its morning run from the place up in the woods at the top of the hill, behind the Bushes.  About an hour ago, as the sky was visibly darkening, I heard it come again, just ahead of the return trip; when I looked up from shoveling the walk, I saw the van go by, slow, stately, the guys strapped into their wheelchairs high up inside the windows, looking out indifferently at the line of evergreens striped with white and the man in the old parka with a shovel, and a dog racing around him, reveling in the snow.

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