Chicago Winter for Professionals Only



I always say Chicago winter taught me what cold is. In a New York winter, you don’t go out if the mercury drops below 20. In Chicago, when it rises to 20, you open your coat to let in the heat wave. Once during my first full winter here, I expressed shock to my then-coworkers that the day’s high was going to be zero. Where were the headlines? Where were the emergency management office bulletins? Where were the warming buses?

They had no idea what I was talking about.

People from the coasts always think it snows a lot in Chicago, but that’s a red herring. Most of the snow socks the opposite shores of Lake Michigan. Not that we’d care. Obama’s amusement over D.C. closing its public schools for a dusting of snow in 2009 was well founded. Schools don’t close in Chicago for less than eight inches. And that’s only because we need the kids at home to guard the dibs chairs.

No, the thing is the cold for Chicagoans. It’s why we roll our eyes at newcomers who say they’re freezing but refuse to dress in layers. It’s why we yell at the screen on New Year’s Eve when we hear Ryan Seacrest in Times Square grouse about “frigid weather” in the 30s. It’s why our heads explode when we see news reports of Southern Californians donning hats, gloves, and earmuffs when the weather dips into the 50s.

In Chicago, cold happens. Not the persistent Arctic freeze of Minneapolis or Montreal, cities where fallen snow has to be removed by truck because otherwise it will remain in place until spring. But we do have our moments.

Take the next few days. (Please.) This morning, Friday, it’s one degree below zero. The mercury will rise nonstop for the next 33 hours until we reach above freezing on Saturday afternoon at 3. Then the temperature will drop nonstop for 43 hours until Monday morning at 10 when we’ll hit minus 11. Where we will stay for 48 alarming hours until we climb mercifully into the teens on Wednesday afternoon.

At which point we’ll all thank our personal Deities and head out to enjoy the heat.

The buried lede is that we really did just have one of our rare, big snowstorms. It snowed persistently for 48 hours. Flurries. Snow squalls. Lake-effect snow. There’s somewhere north of a foot of the white stuff covering parts of Chicagoland today. The local papers and TV newscasts reported on it like it was the end of the world, because snowstorms have been known to topple Chicago mayors who don’t send the plows out in time.

But our upcoming “Arctic blast” is another matter. You can’t plow the cold away. You simply have to face it. That doesn’t make much of a news story. So why get overwrought about it? Just get longjohns.

After 11 years here, I don’t bat an eye with the best of them. It’s just the way the middle of a continent rolls in winter–the temperature tossing and turning through huge peaks and troughs. In Chicago, phrases like “high temperature will occur at midnight” and “mercury will steadily fall for the next 24 hours” aren’t lines from a B movie where the earth has suddenly been launched away from the sun. They’re just things Tom Skilling says. Often. (And even if I wanted to complain about them I couldn’t because Tom’s really nice and lives downstairs.)

I may end up in Los Angeles before the next winter sets in, but I’m going to make the best of it while I’m still here. Like my fellow Chicagoans, I take pride in my cold-weather hardiness. I know that when the wind chill is minus 38–for example, next Monday morning at 11–my breath may freeze my glasses to my cheeks, but my thermal underwear and Michelin-man layering will keep the rest of me warm.

While the paramedics are trying to defrost my face.

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