The feeling of your tires losing traction on an icy road is hard to label. You’d think it might feel like falling, a sudden stop or start, a gut-twisting vertigo as the ground drops away, but it’s not that dramatic. Instead of physics slapping you with your own momentum, you feel, perhaps, like the road has just started lying to you. The motions of your hands and feet, something you’ve felt so very confident in for years, aren’t following through on their promise. You’re clearly steering in one direction, applying just so much pressure to the pedals, but the road is picking motions at random.
I lost control of my car once during the Snowpocalypse. It isn’t much of a story and played out in a little more than a second. I was slowing down ahead of a red light and hit a patch of ice near the curb. For a moment my car was pulled in two different directions, the brakes and tires tug-of-warring against the car’s own forward motion. Momentum won and my tires slipped, but I ended up stopping just short of the crosswalk.
Like I said: not much of a story. I was lucky, I know. This was the day after the snowfall and Midtown had recovered more quickly than other parts of the city. While I was driving down an empty street past blocks of dark storefronts, the gridlock on the highways was just starting to thaw, drivers finally trickling home to warm their bones and vent their anger. At the time, though, I gave myself a little more credit. You see, I’ve lived Up North.
After finishing college in Memphis and starting work there, the company I was with posted an opening at a new office in Massachusetts. I applied immediately and then decided I had to explain to people why I was picking up and shipping off. It shouldn’t have been hard. I was dissatisfied with my job, my relationship, my overall sense of self, but those are hard facts for a brain that was just starting to dip its toes into adulthood. Instead of stumbling into a moment of maturity and introspection, I invented a dozen flimsy reasons and wore them like blinders for the next four years.
Once I arrived in Massachusetts, the act running off to the big city should have been a rude awakening. In some ways it was, but it was also Boston! I was falling into a thick, tangled-up mess of a city, full of people my age and my political leanings, riddled with one-room pubs and half-acre parks, and I had fallen in love with the dream of a fresh start. I moved there in June and stayed for a month with an aunt who lives in Arlington, one of the dozen towns that fan out from Boston proper. By July I’d moved into a four-bedroom duplex with three roommates all around my age. That summer, when I wasn’t working, I was exploring the city. If I wasn’t tagging along or exploring with roommates I was catching up with the family I’d only ever seen at Thanksgiving. I volunteered for any extracurricular I heard a coworker mention. I went whale watching and joined a kickball league (rule of thumb: any group activity you were forced into as a kid is now a great excuse to drink on weeknights; trivia, for example, is a group project you do at a bar). Public transportation introduced me to the belief that I loved walking everywhere, and June to September put more miles on my feet than an entire childhood of Boy Scouts. Every inch of the city was crowded, and I felt the momentum of it in my arms and legs and lungs.
Then in October it snowed, and the snow didn’t melt until April.
This might sound like exaggeration, and it is, but that’s because I’d grown up with a wildly different experience of snow. In Atlanta seeing snow is like walking into a bar and bumping into that friend from fifth grade that you ditched because his parents wouldn’t let him play Mortal Kombat. A flash of panic hits you in the chest, but when nothing awful happens you relax into nostalgia. A few drinks later, when the conversation starts stalling, they fly back to Minnesota or Alaska. Awkward is the best word to describe a man sledding in Piedmont Park wearing pajamas under jeans, because why would you buy snow pants here? It still gets cold, I’m not pretending it doesn’t, but without the threat of snow everyone just piles on layers and rushes from heated space to heated space until the sun rolls up one day and drops a steaming pile of Summer all over our nice, new Spring.
On a Sunday in late February the temperature outside almost hit 70. Piedmont Park blossomed with crowds. Kids rolled down hills and people lounged on the grass and dogs barked and sprinted mad circles around owners who all agreed that, yep, it’s pretty nice out today. Whenever we mentioned wintry weather it was a retrospective: can you believe there was ice last week? I had a jacket and a sweater on, like, Wednesday! And if some obsessive skeptic offered the polite reminder that there’s still plenty of winter left, don’t get too used to this, we might have nodded politely and gone back to talking about Ukraine or Justin Bieber. But what else could we do? Winter here can’t hold its own against Fall or Spring, so a few days of bitter cold here and there are only trials on our journey back into to the sun’s good graces. With so few days spent below zero, Atlanta could serve as a handy benchmark for determining just what the snowball’s chance would be.
Winter in Boston and Atlanta are not the same season. During January in Boston the sun rises around 10 and then checks its watch and remembers it has a thing out in California to get to. The thermometer outside your window confidently announces high-thirties, but by the time you get to the door the air has had a change of heart and so no, you can’t get away with just putting on two layers to go check the mail. The streets and sidewalks are mostly clear except where us out-of-towners announce ourselves by aggressively ignoring the shovel and salt leaning next to the front door. The snowplows begin their work before the first snowflake has touched the ground, and the mountains of salt inject themselves into the streets like morphine burning through veins. I was almost six months into my life in Boston and was just starting to lose steam when the clouds dropped a pristine blanket of picturesque winter all over the city. I went sledding! I made snow angels and threw a few meager snowballs. I tromped and stomped in the yard and laughed the first time Tobie, my dog, chased after a snowball that vanished the moment it landed. Tobie filed snow in its own category, between Toy and Ground, and so she spent most of the day like a mad snow-blower, tossing clumps in random directions, watching them fall, and then diving into the drifts to hunt them out again.
The snow was still on the ground a week later, but my enthusiasm had petered out. Instead of smooth white surfaces we had brown and black mounds of slush or ice. I’d wake up, follow Tobie outside in pajama pants and a jacket, stamp my feet in untied boots against the cold, and puzzle through the daily realization that life was back to routine in spite of the mud-splattered winter wonderland all around me. The thrill of the new buckled under the weight of long johns, underwear, undershirts, outershirts, sweaters, jackets, hats, caps, mittens, scarves, wool socks and snow boots. My instincts told me to curl up in bed and sleep till the sun got its shit together, but Boston hardly noticed the change.
This, I think, is the key difference in how Atlanta handles the snow. Up North, and even (so I’ve heard) in places like North Carolina or Virginia, snow is just something that happens. It’s not fodder for conversation in line at Starbucks or We’re Surviving emails to family. Snow is like the flu or traffic: occasionally it gets out of hand and the local news tells you it’s going to affect mostly old people and children. It’s just background noise.
In Atlanta, any snow is too much snow. The local weather teams break out their party hats, the ones they usually save for hurricane season. The city drains every local Kroger and Publix of bread and milk. People talk about it, email friends about it, go get drunk about it. We gather outside and take pictures and clap our mittens together and witness the spectacle. The swirling, white chaos rolls through the city and a week later the only evidence is a mess of sand along the streets that washes away with the next rain. Snow in Atlanta isn’t actually weather. It’s a poorly-planned parade.
I endured four winters in Boston. That first was the most severe, mostly because I was unprepared but also because, it seemed, everyone kept pointing out how much it had snowed. That October snowfall and the months of darkness that followed became a pseudo-myth to me. The words snow and cold bring back flashes of that duplex in Somerville. I can’t watch the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back without thinking that I need to stockpile some more firewood. The needling discovery that the bitter cold wasn’t just going to flit by like an angry hornet put a crack in my rose-colored glasses that tainted even Spring and Fall. Every day seemed to carry the threat of winter: in mid-August I would find myself wondering if I might need a jacket. After three more seasons in Boston I threw in the towel. I was no longer with the company that had shipped me north and the idea of writing a story, maybe even pursuing writing as a thing, was just starting to congeal. Those are, you’ll notice, only reasons not to be stationary. I returned to Memphis in December and met a girl who, exactly one year later, led me back to Atlanta. In talking about her childhood in the Midwest, she gave me a perfect summary: she described waiting for the bus in the middle of winter, face stinging from the wind, and announcing, “People in other places don’t live like this.” And now we’re those people. We live in Atlanta.