Polar Vortex Dispatch: A San Francisco Reaction to East Coast Winter

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Photo: Accuweather
Photo: Accuweather

Somewhere between climbing over a frozen-solid drift to get into the lobby of a building on Houston and having to swim back to Williamsburg through six blocks of the ice cold slush that flooded every curb and sidewalk, I knew I had to call my grandmother. After a girlhood spent thawing herself at regular intervals on the great Ohio tundra, Grandmother Evelyn got the hell out of dodge before my father was born into a legacy of down outerwear and brought the entire family to sunny California. I think of her now as a kind of Joan of Arc figure, but instead of helping free the people of France from English rule, she liberated her descendants from ever experiencing another true winter.

That is, until I headed back into the storm to cover New York Fashion Week during one of the worst winters on record.

I'm not exactly the guy you send into extreme weather conditions. When it dips below 65 degrees, I shiver and have been known to sleep in a flannel vest. When it reaches above 75, I require a constant stream of cold compresses and Evian misting. My grandmother's Ohio endurance aside, I suspect I don't exactly come from what they call "hearty stock."

Actually, I don't blame my lineage or myself, when it comes to my lack of tolerance for real world temperatures. I blame being a born and raised Californian. We have it so good that, when we leave our perfectly mild bubble, we go into shock. San Francisco is so advanced that, if you don't like the current weather in one neighborhood, you can micro-climate hop around the city until you find something you're more suited to.

And this is why I went into shock when I touched down in Snowmageddon this month. My flight had already been delayed by a day due to a sudden storm that closed JFK airport, so I knew to expect the unexpected when I finally was able to fly in. It had been six-ish years since I experienced a real New York winter, but, since then, it seems winter had gotten so much...more so.


In spite of the previous day's snowfall, the weather didn't seem that bad during my first few hours back in New York. Yes, it was coat-over-jacket weather and you could only avoid gloves by jamming your hands in your pockets, but it wasn't that much worse than the bone chilling wet fog of the Sunset District in December. Then the ice storms hit around 7:00 pm that evening.

"It's not an ice storm," a native Brooklynite at the grocer corrected me that evening. "This is just freezing rain."

What's the difference, I thought. Both are a super cold and hard form of an element that hurts like you wouldn't believe when it hits you in the face. And where does hail fit into all of this? My questions about the weather betrayed my West Coast status, as did my horror at the many different names for ice falling from the sky. It was almost a relief that first night when it began to snow. At least I understood that. The only time snow really hurts is when it's being blown horizontally in your face with great force, which it started doing after about two hours.

This was not even one full day in the life of East Coast weather. All these occurrences were within eight hours of each other.


Every New Yorker I befriended assured me and the other out-of-town journalists that it wasn't usually this bad. They kept apologizing, which was a pretty marked difference from the tough-as-nails-step-over-your-body stereotype of New Yorkers. At the same time though, these people didn't complain. I suspect they apologized to us because they knew the California-based writers were babies when it came to this kind of exposure. We had to be handled with the care reserved for infants because we hadn't calcified against a lifetime of even normal winter.

Within a few days of being out in the streets that at times were piled with unshoveled snow, frozen slick and solid (you should have seen my "Bambi learning to walk" impression) or being drenched in brown slurpee-like meltdown, I began to clumsily acclimate. I figured out the right balance of jackets to scarves and moved quickly enough to keep the blood flowing, while still avoiding gutter sludge puddles. I also started to get a little snippy with friends back home who complained about how they were "freezing" at 66 degrees and how inconvenient (if needed) the rain was.

"You have no idea what inconvenient means," I remembered thinking, as I prayed to survive the aggressive snowstorm piling onto the roof of the Lincoln Center tents, shaking up even the locals in the press box. I realized I had nothing to complain about back home where even the most uninsulated of Victorians can never compare to the cold of a brick row house with the radiator on the fritz. Our summers might be wet and misty, but at least our Februarys aren't trying to freeze us off until only the well conditioned and wealthy survive the mini-ice age.

I wanted to go home to overcast and foggy but rarely deadly San Francisco. People shouldn't have to live like this. I began to think of East Coast natives as Stockholm Syndrome victims who had been taught to accept this weather as their fate. All I wanted to do was get them to freedom from winter in the sunny states. If everyone in San Francisco could let a New Yorker crash on their couch for a couple months between December and March, we could get through it together.

"Well, I think I learned the difference between an ice storm and freezing rain this fashion week," I said to my grandmother from the shelter of the apartment I was staying in. "Freezing rain is a little bit like a frozen daiquiri getting squirted in your face, but an ice storm is like getting hit from the shards from a block of ice a bartender is picking too aggressively."

"I moved to California so I wouldn't have to make comparisons like that," my grandmother laughed.

I laughed too, until I looked down at the boot I had just pulled off to see that the sole had a chunk of ice frozen to the heel.


I counted the days until I could fly back out.