Frozen Pandemonium

A couple inches of snow, and Seattle flips onto its back, belching catchy spin-words like Snowpocalypse and SnOMG! to describe our plight; our witticisms inspired, perhaps, from being contained and super-caffeinated.

Last year, upon moving to the south-facing slope of Queen Anne hill, I invested in a pair of Yak Trax, hoping never to use them. We dodged the snow that winter, but knowing this is a La Niña year, I anticipated trouble—just not so soon.

Heading home on the Sunday afternoon train from Vancouver, Washington, where there was plenty of snow, I hoped to make it back in time to beat the weather. After all, there were groceries to buy in preparation for Gravypalooza, the theme for this year’s thanksgiving meal, which features roasted duck with duck liver gravy—and a luscious cherry and prosciutto dressing. As we sped toward Seattle, half of my attention went towards my shopping list while the other half suspiciously eyed snowflakes swirling around us.

Suddenly —inexplicably— we ground to a halt just shy of Tukwila.

A squawky voice said that we were waiting for an Amtrak train to depart from Seattle and pass us on its way south. With a huff, I continued making my list: Jerusalem artichokes, check. Rosemary and sage, check. Brussels sprouts, check. Pumpkin pie to from Macrina, check. Olives and pappadew peppers for antipasti, check.

Glancing around, I saw passengers squirm in their seats. The wait was becoming too long. Every so often, someone sighed loudly. Once, I think it was me. I was tired of smelling the stale train air, that dry odor laced with the aroma of dust burning on electrical cords and skin cells clinging to polyester drapes. I contemplated lifting my head off the head rest, remembering an earlier discussion about bedbugs and lice on public seats.

We all sat taller, premature in our relief when the squawky voice came back over the loud speaker; the conductor informed us that we were not proceeding as planned. The southbound Amtrak train had struck and killed a person on the tracks. All trains were stopped until the police could examine the scene and a new crew could be assigned to the other train.

The sighs then became blustery.

Anticipating our reaction, the conductor continued, steady and even. “When this happens, folks, the police need to conduct a thorough investigation and ensure that all trains are running safe. Typically, I haven’t seen this take less than an hour, so we’re going to have to ask you to be patient. Someone’s lost a life tonight, folks, and we want to respect what that means.”

I could hear everyone gulp down their guilt; our first reaction was selfish irritation rather than respect or reflection. “Was it suicide?” my friend, Kim, asked. I hadn’t considered that; I assumed that it was a homeless person jumping the tracks to make his way to a warm shelter in advance of the weather.

As we finished our phone conversation, the woman in the row across from me limped on her crutches toward the bathroom where she became violently ill. Everyone cringed at each thundering retch, which cut through the pressure door until it was clear that she couldn’t stomp vomiting.

The squawking voice returned over the loudspeaker, requesting that passengers with medical training come to the woman’s aid. One of several physicians on board deduced that she was having a bad reaction to pain pills, though whether it was the type of pill or the amount, none could say. Thirty minutes later, she was stabilized and escorted off the train via a mucky drainage ditch on the side of the road where paramedics carted her off in an ambulance.

When the diversion over, we found ourselves waiting again.

Two teenage boys snapped their gum and made irritating plucking noises with a comb, breaking the silence that grew more tense as minutes passed. From time to time, a laugh escaped from someone tuned into the movie, Toy Story 3, which I couldn’t bear to watch.

Finally —hours after we had stopped— we were given the all-clear and eventually pulled into Seattle. Exiting King Street Station, I thrust my hand firmly in the air to hail an oncoming cab that dropped me on my doorstep after 9:30 pm—in time to see snowflakes beginning to stick. It was too late to drive to the store; I couldn’t chance the little traction that my tires have against the steep incline.

After being cooped up in bed yesterday with a touch of cold, I was determined to overcome my fear of doing a face plant. Driven by an equal need for groceries and freedom, I strapped my Yak Trax onto my hiking boots for the first time, realizing that it’s all about trust. Could the metal coils under my boots make that much difference?

Emerging before noon, I found a scene that might have otherwise required police tape. Abandoned vehicles were strewn across the road in 3 and 4-car collisions; others were pulled over sideways. A gray 4-Runner was parked where it jumped the curb and nearly smashed into the sign for a retirement home.

In spite of all this frozen chaos, there were people and dogs —even babies in strollers— everywhere.

As I gingerly stepped downhill, I enjoyed the satisfying crunch of the metal rings on snow and ice; walking was actually fun, thanks to the traction, which I was growing to trust step by step. Like an explorer, I began to notice everything in detail: the uneven path to the bank, the lucky heads-up penny on the ground, the cute hat worn by a girl in front of Caffe Ladro, colorful strings of holiday lights that had appeared out of nowhere.

On the way back up, carrying two densely packed sacks of groceries, I recalled how it felt to strap a bag across my chest on my way home to Il Nuovo in Civita, carrying vegetables from Maria Grazia and sliced meats and cheeses from the Mancini sisters. I pictured Sandro passing me in his red tractor, mouthing the words, “Piano, piano,” reminding me to enjoy each sure-footed step.

Kids on sleds rocketed past me at lightning speed. I was so intrigued that I came back to watch them after stowing my groceries. I found myself climbing to the top of the hill, piano, piano, to observe their games, laughing with strangers as a crowd gathered. Later, I tiptoed down the half-melted sidewalk on Queen Anne Avenue N., talking a left on my street where I ventured through powder, smiling and waving back at neighbors I’ve never met.

We were all so cordial, so pleased to explore a sunny winter wonderland where there was no school, no work—where all the rules had changed, and where we were suddenly more obvious to each other.

These circumstances —small spaces, death, illness, a city-crippling snowstorm— are experiments in humanity. They reveal how we react to change and loss of control, made more extreme when they happen in our home environment, which we know well enough to ignore and shape to our liking—most of the time.

Talking with Lori this afternoon, I picked up on an overarching phrase that describes it all—trapped in a train, reflecting on illness and fatality, and dealing with the effects of snow: these events are a kind of bootcamp for staying present. The more familiar we grow with anything —friends, spouses, jobs, neighborhoods, our daily routine— the less present we risk becoming. A kind of atrophy, it’s easy to slip into ignoring details: ones that we see every day or that seem under our control.

We pass people without saying hello because we already know that we don’t know them. We hop in the car, which almost drives itself; often, we’re so distracted that we forget making turns, yet we still manage to show up at work or the grocery store. We take for granted things like health, or a speeding train, or any of the exquisite details that make up life.

When I offer thanks this Thursday, a gathering that will likely involve a foray into the snow, I will mention my gratitude for being enlisted into this bootcamp of the present—and, of course, for my Yak Trax, which have helped to secure the way.

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