When I was in primary school, all the kids generally enjoyed long exposure to cold weather. If there was a difference between the way the boys and girls enjoyed it, the girls seemed to have the option of saying it sucked while boys expected other boys to enjoy it. Our parents or guardians did not keep us from the cold but simply told us to dress properly, to wear layers, hats and gloves.
In Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s, most kids walked to school. My mother guided me to kindergarten on my first day, September of 1978, but on my second I was on my own. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, the streets surrounding our school saw processions of kids. Some loitered around the yard of the sheet metal plant or in front of the corner store waiting for friends. But the boys proved their worth by waiting outside.
On especially cold days, boys who got rides from parents—an event of profane exception—faced certain ridicule. You could get away with it if you had a sister, especially a younger sister, and the whole family got the ride for her benefit. But if a parent drove a pair of brothers three blocks down the street to keep them from negative temperatures, they’d face a whitewash. That meant they’d get dumped in a bank, snow rubbed in their face, possibly an icicle shoved down their backs. This is how you dealt with the bourgeois.
Of course, getting whitewashed was actually rather fun, a source of pride, at least up to a point. There were kids in the neighborhood, the toughest ones, who’d even dare us to whitewash them. Whenever we got enough snow for the plows to pile into massive banks along a particularly wide sidewalk, we’d play King of the Mountain, essentially a wrestling free-for-all in the snow. We did it happily, whitewashing each other, and we’d come home sopping wet from sweat and dirty slush.
Following a snowstorm, a Chicago boy went out with a friend or a brother to shovel, and to earn some money in the process, hitting up all the old widows first, working all evening as the temperature dropped. You proved your value and validity in two ways: by the length of time you stayed outside and the amount of money you earned. It did not matter if you couldn’t feel your hands or feet, and you never admitted it. In fact, if your hands were numb, you knew you were doing it right. You stretched whatever curfew your mother had established, and you worked frantically, knowing that the Molina brothers or the Stanislaw cousins were out there along with older kids, the Lamberts and the Bertollis, bastards with wider shovels.
You were hardcore if you worked until the evening news came on and had over a hundred bucks to show for it. And you were also hardcore if you could take and give a quality whitewash. But the most badass kids were the few—and as the neighborhood fat ass, I was not one of them—who went garage hopping on frozen, icy rooftops.
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You need to imagine a Chicago alley to understand the concept: the garages are arranged in neat, parallel little rows, and they are all the same height, the sidewalks between them the same distance, about eight feet. You’d climb onto one garage at the end of an alley, run up to its peak, slide down the other side, then jump to the next garage, repeating until you got to the end of the alley (or fell, usually onto a fence or rose bush). It was daredevil in the summer but suicidal in the winter. The risk, however, is what made winter garage hopping, performed by a skilled hopper, an act of urban eloquence: a boy rising gracefully over gangways between snow-covered garages, his dexterity feline and fear completely invisible.
Did anyone ever fall? You know the answer. When Frankie Sanchez ruined a rosebush that had been growing for decades, planted by someone’s dear late aunt, Old Lady Paciorek came out in slippers to yell at him as he lay bleeding, entangled in thorns.
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These memories came up today when I stepped outside to an unseasonably cold November morning, the temperature around 20 degrees (-7 C). My first reaction was, “Fuck, it’s cold,” and I felt the temperature attack my knees and hips; I grew oddly aware of the insides of joints, now tingling as if rubbed with mint balm. I inhaled the frigid air and felt it burrow up my nostrils, deep into my sinuses, the scent of frozen moisture that, for me, always announces the true onset of winter. I used to welcome this onset with excitement.
Today, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of lethargy. I imagined all the snow I’d need to shovel in coming months, and I thought about the gutters—I had not been up there since the spring, and they were probably clogged with a pulp of autumn leaves and maple seeds, now frozen solid. I’d have to take care of that, or I’d have to call my guy and pay him to do it.
None of it proved anything at all. It just seemed like crap you dealt with if you were stupid enough to live in a place where the temperature fell to 20 degrees.
Photo by Rene McGurk.