Souls on ice

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; C01

Voices carry. They bounce off buildings. They come from just beyond the plane of visibility, behind the churning haze. No one's around, yet there are sounds now and then -- sharp laughter, garbled shouting, detached, coming out of nowhere, coming over roofs. It's a gray-white echo chamber out here. Spooksville. Lunar. Plains-y. A winter episode of "Little House on the Prairie," with the hatches battened down. Dark figures fade in and out of view. (Zombies?)

It's mostly quiet, though, along 14th Street NW. Quiet enough to hear the muffled whine of vacuum cleaners and the wails of cooped-up toddlers coming through rowhouse windows, perhaps hinting at the deranged menagerie indoors: Frantic parent, in the late stages of cabin fever, turns to the Hoover for something to do, for something to drown out the child who has exhausted every toy, every Disney DVD.

There's a sick thrill to desperation, real or imagined. Everyone's ready to bear witness to the blizzard to grandchildren they won't have for another 25 years. Mother Nature has permitted the city to feel edgy, hardscrabble, panicky, overreactive, survivalistic, with the implied assurance that the plows (and spring) are just around the corner. Right?


"Our alcohol consumption has gone up remarkably," says Jody Lee, 42, a stay-at-home mom in Friendship Heights who is slowly bowing to the strain. Her visiting mother had to postpone her flight out until next week. Her 2 1/2 - and 6-year-olds have gone stir-crazy. On Tuesday they broke icicles off the house and put them in the tub during bath time, just for something to do. Post-bedtime, Lee has graduated from wine to her husband's Scotch.

The drink will see us through. At Whole Foods, wine bottles trundle down the cashier belts before the store closes early. Neighbors rotate through each other's houses for a change of scenery. The masses discover On Demand cable, then tire of it just as quickly. Gross, crusted Super Bowl leftovers are consumed, followed by bread heels and wrinkly grapes, and everyone starts to feel hardy, resourceful. It's "Man vs. Wild," if "wild" equals that dusty can of tuna at the back of the cupboard.

People in Fairfax call 911 after discovering their special parking spot has been taken by someone who didn't have to do any digging. HVAC units disappear under snow, then shut off automatically. Cell circuits jam. Trash piles up. Carports sag. End times.

* * *

Washington persists in little ways. There's the dude walking to the gym, his shorts flapping in the stinging gusts, his bare sculpted calves caked with frost. There are the noble neighborhood shovelers, obnoxiously high on altruism, paving a path for dogs that must be walked at appointed times. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow will keep a Washingtonian from his 10:30 a.m. chain-brewed caramel macchiato.

The weather was promptly politicized. It's no longer snow that has paralyzed the city but a hail of big-government bureaucracy. Insurmountable drifts become allegories for Senate stalling tactics. The storm buries even the notion of global warming.

"It's going to keep snowing in D.C. until Al Gore cries 'uncle,' " tweets Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

A region of itemized agendas and rigid customs will bend with the weather, but only for so long. The Wednesday afternoon scene at Griffin Market at 28th and P streets NW: People pick up takeout orders of white bean soup, gruyere cheese and mushroom frittata, lasagna Bolognese, veal ravioli with sage butter and veal jus. One imagines all of silent Georgetown daintily subsisting on olive oil and polenta cakes until the big dig-out.

The news didn't stop. It wouldn't stop, no matter how much we wanted it to. In front of the White House, a correspondent from Denmark's Atlantic Television News looked into her camera and uselessly declared: "This is what the White House looks like in whiteout conditions!"

The coping mechanisms are digital. Superlatives are flung on Facebook and Twitter. We try to own the storm by naming it. This isn't a paralyzing event, it's merely snOMG II! Snowpocalypse redux! Snowmageddon! SnowtoriousBIG! Snowverkill! It's a cutesy hashtag, not an episode that's endangering lives and costing the shuttered government millions of dollars in productivity. (Question: What would Laura Ingalls Wilder name this snowstorm? Answer: Nellie's Revenge. Or maybe Pa-calypse?)

Just after 2:30 p.m. a woman in a pink scarf and a man in a blue parka arrive at the Starbucks in Columbia Heights and look at it, expectantly.

"We're here!" pink scarf says. "Should we go in?"

"I don't care," blue parka says.

The coffee was not as important as the achieving of a goal, the having of something to do. Cue the cross-country skiers in Adams Morgan. Cue the folks wandering into hardware stores to pick up paint for that long-delayed project. Packs of Type A's prowl the city, swaddled in thermals, smelling vaguely of mildew, looking to accomplish something, anything.

Who is trying to gun their Ford Taurus down clogged-up Church Street, and where could they possibly be going?

* * *

"I'm going crazy," says the voice on the other line. "I'm going absolutely crazy."

IT consultant Jeanne Peck is snowbound in McLean. Garbage bags are piling up in the garage. It has been two weeks since they've had a pickup. She fears raccoons. She fears the smell. She fears . . . her family. Everyone wants more time with their family. Until, of course, time becomes infinite.

"I'm trying to get my children to do schoolwork because I'm afraid they're going to forget how to read because they haven't been in school for a week," Peck says. "I'm sitting in our home office with my husband. We're five feet apart. It's like we're together all the time. Which is great. It's just great!"


"He's looking at me right now."

"CRAZY!" comes a cry in the background.

* * *

One of the only passengers on the Green Line from Fort Totten at 9 a.m. was a sparrow that fluttered from seat to seat. A guy going into the city to plow snow fed it from a package of Grandma's vanilla sandwich cookies. Sparrow got off at Waterfront.

At the escalator at McPherson Square Station, 35 pigeons, 14 sparrows, three starlings, one duck and four men with sleeping bags ride out the storm. The birds tuck their bills under their wings. The men watch the snow blow sideways along H Street NW, hug the corner and whoosh south on Vermont.

"I've been homeless for six months," says a man named John, 46, who didn't want to give his last name because he hasn't told his friends he's homeless. "This is my first winter."

What a winter. A city of transients, homeless and otherwise, of meteorological wimps, is getting a hard look at the season at its fiercest, at its most intemperate, at its dictionary definition. The snow seems to be climbing fences, stealing doorsteps.

The wind beats against Lawrence Guyot's red brick house in LeDroit Park, and inside he divines a lesson from the storm.

"It shows us someone other than us is in charge," says Guyot, a civil rights activist. "It allows us time to be contemplative, to be wishful, to be pragmatic and revise our values. If this storm does nothing else, it brings home to us our interdependence. We have become too isolated. This is the age of going it alone when there is no storm."

Two neighborhoods away, the alley behind Kingman Place NW has become a wind tunnel, and general contractor Barr Huefner teeters on a ladder, pulling snow off a buckled carport with a garden rake. Ryan Triplette watches from inside her house, wearing a winter headband and scarf. She called Huefner to take care of the carport problem. He drove his pickup from Virginia and has 10 more identical house calls to make. Ten more carports shudder as they wait for the handyman. You can almost hear it, that dull groan of things about to give in, mixing with those disembodied voices out in the squall.

For Triplette, as for other lucky Washingtonians, the day has been passed by plodding around the house like there's a chore to be done, by taking conference calls to stoke the embers of stalled progress. On a day like this, during a storm like this one, there are moments for reflection. Maybe too many.

"There's nothing more beautiful in this city," Triplette says of the snow. "But what's going to happen when it all melts?"

The mind leaps to flooding basements, leaking roofs, clogged sewers, ruined gardens.

For the first time in a long time, this city will deserve the month of May.

Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, DeNeen L. Brown, Michael Cavna, Jen Chaney, Monica Hesse, Jason Horowitz, Philip Kennicott, Ned Martel, Ellen McCarthy, David Montgomery, Liza Mundy, Chris Richards, Tim Smith and Hank Stuever contributed to this report.

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