Every summer I think Chicago’s great. It’s sunny, warm, the beaches are filled with people, the city is bustling with activity, and the lake is beautiful and inviting. I am convinced that it’s the greatest city in the world. Then winter hits (in November, or perhaps October or maybe even in September some years!) and I start whistling a different tune. Chicago’s a great town with tons of culture, activities, and fun, but it is also a harsh and forbidding wasteland for many months each winter.
I started freelancing in September of 2000, having graduated from Northwestern University that same spring. Luckily, I had won several contracted positions in regional orchestras that year, including a position in the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. Although Milwaukee is close to Chicago in the eyes of U.S. Midwesterners, it was still a 166 mile round trip for me each day I went up there. You do the work you can get, however, and I thought that it was an OK job for someone just out of school.
The centerpiece of the Milwaukee Ballet’s season is, like most ballet companies, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Milwaukee Ballet was doing 23 performances that year, which added up to a considerable chunk of change even after subtracting gas, tolls, and parking. I was pumped to play that long run of Nutcrackers. I would quickly become unpumped.
December of 2000 turned out to be the snowiest December in Chicago history. I am no stranger to driving in snow, having grown up in South Dakota. Still, this was a December unlike any I had seen before or have seen since. We got 40 inches of snow in 3 1/2 weeks, which is bad enough, but we also never had the temperature go above freezing. The problem of having that magnitude of snow becomes 10 times worse when it never melts, because there is no place to put all of that snow. One week it snowed four times, and each snow was 4-5 inches. Highways had no shoulders anymore–the snow was packed too high on either side.
People from warm places like California, Florida, or even Tennessee and Georgia may not realize the horrors of snow driving. I have driven down the interstate and sometimes seen taillights in the ditch every 2000 feet from people spinning off of the road. You can get in situations where it is actually impossible to get off of the interstate–all of the ramps are snowed in, and doing anything to change your course will land you squarely in the ditch. You drive on, at 5 miles per hour, white-knuckled, praying that something changes. Other times you get stuck in situations where there are semi trucks whipping by you far too fast, only to wind up in the ditch miles ahead themselves. These semis splatter your windshield with snow, slush, and salt. A trip that can take 1 1/2 hours (like the drive from Chicago to Milwaukee) ends up taking 4 hours and feeling like 18 hours.
My December started out fine–no snow fell at all for the rehearsals. The first matinee performance was at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning, and it snowed 12 inches the day before. I went out several times to clean off my car on Sunday (I parked on the street at this apartment), trying to get ready for the Monday performance. Nowadays I would have told management that I wouldn’t be in, but I was young and broke and didn’t even think of that as an option.
About 11 p.m. I was cleaning about 8 inches of snow off of my windshield when I heard a SNAP! I realized that, in my vigorous cleaning, I had broken one of my windshield wipers completely apart (the driver’s side wiper–the important one!). Cursing, I took the broken wiper into my apartment to try to think of a solution–I didn’t like the idea of a metal arm scraping across my windshield as I was trying to drive the next morning.
My roommate at the time had some advice for me:
“I would suggest socks,” my roommate said.
“Socks?” I asked.
“Yes, socks. And perhaps some rubber bands.”
I took an old Dampit (a green rubber double bass humidifier–kind of like a small green hose) and cut it apart. I then took an old sock and some rubber bands outside. I put the green rubber hose on the metal arm, put the sock over it and put rubber bands over the whole thing.
The next morning I started driving up to Milwaukee. It was still snowing and everything looked like a soft and fluffy war zone. I delayed putting on my wipers for as long as possible, not having much confidence in my cheezy sock/Dampit/rubber band wiper creation. Finally my windshield got too covered with snow and I hit the wiper fluid button to give it a try. My wiper fluid came out and my improvised wiper went *SMEAR* smack dab across my entire field of vision. Now totally blind and cursing, I frantically tried to get the snow and ice encrusted driver’s side window open. At last I got it open and started hacking at the icy smear with my wooden windshield scraper while driving down the highway.
I somehow made it to Milwaukee, played the matinee, and got the wiper fixed later that day.
There is a tradition in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods when it snows to shovel out one’s spot and then put old lawn chairs, bags of trash, stepladders, or any other such debris in the street to “reserve” that spot. This is illegal but frequently done when it snows six inches or more. Of course, if everybody would simply shovel out their car when it snows and not put any debris in the street then the next day there would be no problem.
If you park in someone’s “reserved” spot you may get your tires slashed, your windshield smashed in, or your antenna broken off by the psycho “reserver”. I do not believe in this practice, so I shovel out my car and leave the spot open when I leave, then park in another open spot when I come home. One morning I got up to find this note on my windshield:
Behind each of my tires was a piece of wood with a sharpened screw pointing up, and my hood was dented in (like someone was banging on it with a shovel) and a headlight was broken. This psycho had come out and stuck boards with sharpened screws behind each of my tires in the middle of the night, smashed in my hood, and left a crazy person note. There had been no debris in that spot when I pulled in the night before. Someone else must have thrown his contraption out of the street earlier the day before. I then parked in the open and clear spot.
Never mind that this “reserving” practice is totally illegal in the first place, and I didn’t touch this idiot’s stupid reserving contraption.
I was on my way to the Nutcracker again (like always). I briefly considered throwing the boards with sharpened screws through the guy’s glass door, then thought better of it and tossed them on his lawn. I headed to Milwaukee and called the Chicago Police. I think the exact line the police gave me was, “It’s a tough time of year. You shouldn’t be parking in people’s spots.” Thanks, cops. They weren’t interested in the address on the note or the note or the boards with sharpened screws though them. Maybe psycho man’s still got them in his basement, waiting to pounce on the next person to unwittingly park on the public street in front of his house.
December of 2000 was a rude introduction to the world of freelancing in the upper midwest. I have had many nasty drives since then–returning alone at midnight in rural Wisconsin in a whiteout coming home from teaching at UW-W, driving home from Elgin in 8 inches of freshly fallen snow, or driving to Memphis in the middle of an ice storm. I have never, however, had a snow spell as prolonged as that horrific December. In fact, every December since then has been pretty mild, but every year I brace myself for the worst. Sometimes in June as I walk along the shores of Lake Michigan I suddenly have a winter freelancing flashback, and I’m back in my car with semis passing me on either side while skidding around on a few inches of snow and ice.