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Friday January 30, 2004, 01:22

After spending nine months of the year talking about how the thing I love the most about winter is the fact that it's so much easier to get warm when you're cold (just by adding layers) rather than getting cool when it's hot (there is only so much skin that polite society allows uncovered), I find myself curled up with wool socks, slippers, a sweatshirt, and an incredibly strong desire to turn on the heat, which I am not about to do for fear of embarrassing my father who, living in the suburbs to my frigid north (about forty-five minutes away), is most likely in his slippers and a robe, surfing the web, with the heat turned down far lower than mine (which is not on but which probably leaks a fair amount of heat from the vents anyway).

I am always so torn in the winter. On the one hand, there is the matter of cold, exacerbated by my own stubbornness in finding a winter coat that suits me Just So and has left me with a mere shell of a coat intended more for London autumn than New York winter. There is the skin on my face, dry and requiring constant care and there is the skin on my back that I can't moisturize for fear of breaking my elbows. On the other hand, there is snow.

Snow in the city is one of the more magical experiences that a person can experience. To dispel with some of the more common, but irrelevant, facts about snow in the city, I would first like to address the fact that I know that city snow is dirty, and that it is most likely covering up some nastiness that I would rather not think about, and that it makes crossing the street a trial explained with only the word "tundra" and that about twenty minutes into the morning rush hour the entire world of snow has been reduced to a dirty, slushy mess. All of that aside, only snow has the ability to take everything that is quintessential city — the grime, the cars, the noise — and subdue them all. After the first dusting, the sidewalks are changed from a drab grey to a pure white. A couple of inches renders mountains of trash indistinguishable from a piece of shrubbery, cars become dunes. But it is the expulsion of noise that is truly the snow's greatest power.

A snow storm muffles a city. It keeps people inside who might otherwise go out. The cars drive slower due to lousy road conditions. And the snow itself blankets the world, providing a layer of insulation and removing all of the hard edges that amplify the aural energy of the city into a feeling that stays with us as we go through our days. Instead, we are left with soft corners and a world that just eats up sound and never lets it go.

Walking down an unplowed side street in a city in the middle of the storm can be one of the more isolating experiences one can have in a city. While the snow is still falling, the street will be relatively untraveled. The snow will have covered the street and sidewalk in such a way that the two have become one and the loudest sound will be that of each individual snow flake hitting the ground. There will be a muffled clap as each one is absorbed into this second skin growing on the surface of the city.

People will gather and watch at windows, breath fogging up the glass as the snow falls in the city. They will speak in excitedly hushed voices about how pretty it is, as if there is no other beauty that can be found in the city. The will laugh nervously as they make their ways out into this foreign landscape and most of them will be ill prepared with precariously tall heels and shoes made of leather. They will curse the snow and praise it all the same. Then they will get into taxis and subways and think of hot chocolate and sledding, even if they've experienced neither in their lives.

And finally, when the snow does melt, all of the energy that had been submerged beneath the storm will be let loose in one great gasp. The car horns will start blaring, the venders will start hawking, the tires will start squealing and the people will start yelling. All at once the collective energy of the city will be released back into the world and a balance will be restored.

And a child on the sidewalk will stick his tongue out to catch one last snowflake before the winter flies away for the year.

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