It is now a historical fact that on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2000, the nation's capital was completely paralyzed by what meteorologists called a "heavy dusting" of snow. Never has so little precipitation caused such agony and despair. This was the first example in the annals of the human race of a Paralytic Snow Flurry. If you had melted all the snow that besieged the city, it would have barely filled a Jacuzzi.
The official reading was four-tenths of an inch of snow at Reagan National, and two-tenths of an inch at Dulles. If that level of precipitation had been liquid, instead of frozen, it would have been something like one-thirtieth to one-sixtieth of an inch of rain. In many American cities, like Chicago or Pittsburgh or Buffalo, such a snowfall is so minor that people would be physically unable to perceive it. They would look outside and think: It's not snowing. In a place like Moscow, such conditions are known as "summer."
Only in Washington can 47 flakes of snow become as disruptive to ordinary life as a major plutonium leak. Every bus stop was mobbed with people who irrationally were waiting for a bus to come along and pick them up so they could be stuck in traffic. The major streets were turned into parking lots, which would have been okay, except that there wasn't an attendant in sight. (Mental note: Next time M Street turns into a parking lot, I'll valet the car.)
At this hour it's still not clear how yesterday's disaster came about. Obviously no one anticipated that our extremely cold streets would ice up so badly with such little snow. The fact that this was the first snow, and that there wasn't any residual salt down, compounded the situation. The absence of a scary forecast also meant that Washingtonians didn't go into their usual pre-snow panic, which would have greatly reduced traffic. The Post's David Montgomery is actively trying to solve the mystery as we speak, and I encourage readers with horror stories to E-mail him at email@example.com (include your phone number).
I was in the thick of yesterday's traffic nightmare, where my normal 20-minute commute turned into a 3-hour odyssey as arduous as the early expeditions to find the source of the Nile. I should note, however, that this included one hour spent in a bar drinking a fine cabernet. The smart commuter knows the good "bail out" routes.
At one point, wandering in the cold, I decided to check out the fabled Social Safeway, hoping to see someone like Pamela Harriman (only, you know, alive). The place was almost empty -- mathematically eliminating the "social" from the Social Safeway. What I did discover was that it has an excellent olive section. I don't think my Safeway has nearly as good an olive section. I was seething with class envy.
The simple solution would have been to leave my car overnight on a side street and walk the rest of the way home, about 2 1/2 miles. But I just didn't feel comfortable leaving my old, humble, slightly rusty car in a Northwest neighborhood where people might come along in the middle of the night and make disparaging comments.
Maybe this was, in fact, some kind of delayed millennial event, a punishment for our societal narcissism. I kept thinking of how, at the American Girl Store in Chicago, it's possible to have your doll "treated" at the "hospital." Undoubtedly there are dolls in America that have better health care than real children in certain poor neighborhoods. No doubt this has nothing to do with snowstorms, or traffic, but when you're going nowhere on your ride home you have these thoughts.
At this hour, we are all bracing for the onslaught of "one to three inches" of snow, which the weather people say will come tonight. The big question is: Can we endure? Can we summon the inner strength, community spirit and faith in Providence to survive a snowfall almost deep enough to cover the grass on our lawns? It's Gut Check Time 2000.
(Blizzard or no blizzard, join me at 3 p.m. today for an online discussion right here at washingtonpost.com. All topics entertained. Check out the Rough Draft archive to see what kinds of important issues and societal trends have recently been ignored completely in this space.)