LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, I was going to be very smart about the whole thing. This was hardly my first Washington snowstorm, hardly the first time I've been caught downtown when the weather forecasters were caught off guard, when they predicted 2 inches of snow and we ended up getting 6. I've been around long enough to remember the Great Blizzard of '66 when 23 inches of snow immobilized the area for a week and schools were closed for five days.
Now if you survived the Great Blizzard of '66, and even if you survive the 2 inches of snow that routinely stop Washington traffic, you know at least one thing: you do not, under any circumstances, leave your downtown office and head for home early in the afternoon. You know that all the out-of-towners living here will be doing the same thing, and you know the minute you wheel onto K Street NW you will run into a traffic jam and it will take you an hour to get home.
By 4 o'clock Monday afternoon reporters coming into the office were bearing news of downtown traffic jams proving once again that it would be smart to stay at the office until the rush hour was over.
The first hint of the unusual came around 6:30, when two reporters said traffic was still at a standstill on K Street. Shortly before 7, disturbing reports started coming into the office about traffic not moving on bridges. Exaggerations, I decided. The horror stories were getting pretty wild: one editor was even telling people that it took her husband an hour and a half to travel 30 blocks. More exaggerations, I decided.Snow does that to people here. At 7:30 I decided to leave.
15th Street was clear and I turned onto K Street with all the confidence of the horseplayer who has found a system.K Street was clear, traffic was moving well. Obviously, I'd been smart. I'd waited long enough not to get stuck. The car was handling the snow well. This was going to be a piece of cake.
And it was. All the way to 18th Street. By now everyone knows what happened there. Traffic stopped, and it never really started again. Cars moved here and there, a half-length at a time and sometimes entire groups of cars would turn around and try to find some other route out of the city. Then we would move up four or five lengths, creeping along to 20th Street, close enough to the underpass at Washington Circle to see that nothing was moving ahead. Some of us turned off K Street and went up to the circle, hoping traffic would move there, and after an hour or so, it did.
But it didn't move like Washington traffic. People stuck in the circle made room for cars trying to get out of it onto sidestreets. Drivers allowed other drivers to move in front of them so they could cross over to Pennsylvania Avenue, and finally when we moved toward the ramp leading down to the Whitehurst Freeway, drivers stopped their cars before intersections and didn't block them.
There was one car that slipped into the intersection, partly blocking it so another car couldn't get through. That driver rolled down his window, stuck his face out into the wind, shouted obscenities and pounded mightily on the side of his silver gray chariot. And suddenly it struck me. I'd been in traffic for two hours, seen people abandon their cars and walk off into the night, and this was the first and only person I saw who lost his temper.
He was one of the few who drove with his horn and his finger in an area of town where people routinely roll down their windows and holler at other drivers, where they routinely cut each other off going around the circle, and where they routinely refuse to let cars merge onto the Whitehurst Freeway. But that wasn't happening either. At the bottom of the ramp leading out of Washington Circle onto the freeway, people who had stopped dead still under the overpass for an hour, stopped once again to let people from the ramp merge in front of them.
This was no small thing. It was after 10 o'clock by then, and the radio broadcasters had finally stopped saying the downtown traffic was clearing up. It was not. We sat on the freeway, staring at the same red lights ahead of us and the same white lights stringing out behind us in all directions, knowing we'd probably not be home before midnight, and any time we could move our cars even half a length was an occasion for hope. To let another driver in front of you became a truly fine gesture.
Certainly, there were moments of anxiety; there were people who had children stranded in day-care centers, whose cars had betrayed them. But there were moments for others of us when we could feel grateful and even lucky. It was a time to appreciate the spouse who got the snow tires on the car and kept it oiled and gassed and maintained so that the heater and battery didn't give out as did so many other people's.
It was a time when we could appreciate the friends in the suburbs who had gathered our children up from schools and day-care centers along with theirs and taken them home for the evening, who told us on the phone not to worry, the children could stay overnight if necessary. This was a time to appreciate the emerging teen-ager at home by himself, able to care for himself, and who later said that if I hadn't gotten home by midnight he was going to take off into the night to find me.
And for many of us headed out to Maryland and Virginia and Northwest along the Whitehurst Freeway, it was a time to appreciate the people stuck alongside us, the people who gave us room to maneuver our cars, the people who gave us a push uphill. Drivers weren't honking their horns and gesturing Monday night. They were courteous and generous, merging back and forth from single to double lines, avoiding stalled cars, and taking turns with each other. People weren't trying to pass each other, they weren't cutting each other off, and they weren't trying to get whatever little edge on the situation they could no matter what it cost the other driver.
Monday night was a night for anger and frustration and sitting in cars wondering what had gone wrong, and many of us had plenty of time to think terrible thoughts about snow plows and police and weather forecasters who had failed us. We were impatient and disgusted and there were times around town when people lost their tempers, and there are stories of fights breaking out and people behaving dreadfully.
It was the kind of night that brings out the worst in people, but that's not what happened to the people where I was. It was the kind of night that brought out the best in them.