I've now got a well-documented, well-tweeted habit of heading out into blizzards and major snow storm aftermaths to prove I can make it, get exercise, share fun stories and help people. Several times in New York, I've suited up in my Asolo boots and Gore-Tex gear on what I refer to as Snowtorious Hikes (#SnowtoriousHike on Twitter). Pushing cars, digging people out, walking dramatically across the middle of the Manhattan Bridge and occasionally converting these hikes into pub crawls.
When I packed for my current stay in Chicago, I knew the snow situation was going to be serious, so I packed my light-but-effective Snowtorious gear (layers!) and landed in the City Of Wind prepared to bring my one-man, Cory Booker-inspired, questionably-sane activity to a city which should know how to handle such events.
So it was that at midnight last night, I suited up, left my hotel and headed north on N. Clark Street from Hotel Felix. My approximate goal was to reach Lake Michigan near Fullerton or North Aves. I'd heard there would be 18-foot waves made of snow, ice, water and God's wrath slamming against the coast. A friend strongly advised against it, reminding me of the 60 mph gusts, but she underestimated my determination.
The first magic moment came at Clark and Division. A large delivery truck was stuck outside of a Dunkin Donuts. He'd borrowed the store's shovel, but could use some help, so I went to the CVS, bought my own shovel, and helped him finish up. It was always my dream to do these Snowtorious Hikes with an actual shovel slung across my back like a gleaming sword of justice, and last night, I got to do most of that.
Once the delivery truck was freed, I knew I'd made the right decision, and I pursued my northern path with renewed energy. The type of snow falling at the time was more of a frozen mist that the big, juicy flakes I was used to, and in moments, little funnel clouds would whip across the road. I like to call these Snowrnados!.
My next rescue came two blocks east of Clark on North. I'd just paid a creepy visit to an old Catholic cemetery, and the wind off the lake nearly knocked me over several times. I kept heading east, able to see only about 1/8th of a mile in front of me, when I was able to help dig out an SUV driver.
Then I reached Lake Shore Drive. Snowly canoli!! It really did look like a scene out of Stephen King's The Stand. As far as the eye could see, there were cars on the northbound side trapped as if trying to escape a plague or Cloverfield monster or horribly-corrupt municipal government. I found an underpass to get me to the northbound side, and the cinematic-ness (yes, cinematic-ness) of the moment was not lost on me.
From the western side of LSD, I couldn't really hear anything. As I walked through the tunnel, again near-total silence. As soon as I emerged on the northbound side, however, there was a roar of audible activity like that moment just after the plane crash on Lost, episode 1 when Jack emerges from the woods: car tires spinning, people yelling, an EMT callout out to see if people needed help and drivers confusedly milling about, many having abandoned their cars. I think I saw Hurley! It was a snowpocalyptic parking lot.
At this point, in the midst of chaos and despair, I knew I'd found my true Snowtorious mission.
I headed for the exit ramp onto LaSalle Drive which seemed to be the cause of the standstill. I wanted to know what these people were in line for and if there was an actual way out or if I should find someone to deliver last rites. The authorities were shutting down northbound LSD above LaSalle. There had been an accident earlier in the day, and they were redirecting traffic westward on LaSalle underneath the LSD overpass. Problem: lots of snow drifts had built up, preventing these little front-wheel drive cars from getting off the ramp and onto a relatively-clear LaSalle. What lay beyond that, I could not tell.
So I set about trying to clear the bottleneck at the foot of the ramp, shoveling more driveable lanes for the car tires and coaching drivers out of the snow banks. It was a lot of shoveling, but I was grateful that the snow wasn't my sopping wet, heavy, back-breaking east coast variety. This stuff was fluffy. After getting about eight cars off the ramp and onto LaSalle, I felt great. This was beyond my highest hopes, and I was ready to clear the entire ramp. One man. One shovel.
Then, a major setback. Some low-riding early 1990s looking 2-door Nissan Sentra-looking car was next on my list. He had nothing but clear road in front of him and was at the front of the exit ramp line. He had a completely flat tire and was riding on his front left rim. Fuck. I saw my own mission thwarted, and I knew we'd be stuck for a while.
I dug and dug to try to help him drive to the right side of the ramp so others could go around, but that was a total failure. The minivan driver behind him offered to push, and just as we were setting that up, a police officer appeared nearby! I gave him a status update, and he radioed for a tow truck, but none could get there immediately. He advised against the minivan-pushing-disabled car plan and had us wait. And wait. And wait.
By now, all the tracks I had cleared with my shovel were getting filled in with snow, and I had to change the mission: tend to the trapped drivers behind the disabled car.
I started walking back up the ramp, clearing headlights and tail lights, breaking ice off of windshields and talking to the drivers. I told them about the situation ahead, gave out some water and let one driver use my cell phone. This was an entirely new phase of the operation and was fun and gratifying it its own way. I probably checked on four or five cars behind the flat tire dude and returned to the front to check on the status of the tow trucks.
The officer told me there were plenty of tow trucks further south on LSD, but it would take a while to get one around to the front. In the meantime, that minivan behind the flat tire? Her battery died. So we had TWO disabled vehicles at the front of the line. Aye, Dios mio!
I resumed my information-dissemination and car snow removal campaign up the ramp. People were generally incredibly grateful, and I saw every type of person. A young Caribbean woman had invited an East African cab driver into her car after he ran out of fuel. A father in a Nissan Juke-looking car took everything in stride and was just happy his two sons were peacefully sleeping in the back seats. An asian woman behind the wheel of a Pathfinder was desperate to pee. An older white man told me "God bless you," at least three times and said they'd been stuck on this road since 3:30pm, nearly 12 hours prior.
Out of the roughly 15 cars stuck on that ramp, I only had one negative experience. I was clearing off the headlights on a Honda and had worked my way to the windshield. The driver, a mid-40s bald Caribbean man opened his window and said to me, "Young man, I do not need that!"
"Ok, what do you need?" I asked, thinking he might require water, phone, medical assistance or something else.
"What I need is for these people to follow my instruction. If they would follow my instruction, we would not be stuck here like this!"
"And what are your instructions?"
"These people--the police, the road workers--they are the worst human beings. Thank you, you have a good night."
And he rolled up his window.
At the very top of the hill, where I had begun some 2.5 hours earlier was a CTA bus. He was stuck but had plenty of fuel, and his heat worked. I camped out the bus updating the driver, getting his story and thawing my frozen beard and eye glasses for about 10 minutes.
When I headed back out, gloves made toasty by the bus's heating vents, the tow truck had arrived at the bottom of the ramp! I was back on my original mission, OPERATION: CLEAR THIS RAMP!
I jogged down the ramp and reconnected with the police officer from earlier. He had company: another officer joined him. More importantly, an EARTH MOVER! Oh man, I jumped for joy, in part for my muscles but mostly for the people I'd been around for about three hours. The earth mover was clearing the ramp approximately 50 times faster than my one-man-one-shovel technique, and we started working together.
The operator would clear massive amounts of snow, and I would dig around the lead car's front tires, and the officer and I would coach the driver into the clear zone. We worked our way up the ramp, rapidly freeing batches of cars five and six at a time and reached the top in about thirty minutes.
At the very top, I was joined by two massive energetic men. One was a freelance tow truck driver. The other was Sgt Eagen (sp?) with the Chicago PD. They took the lead in pushing cars off Lake Shore Drive, and I helped with what energy I had left.
These two men continued on their merry, powerful way. We shook hands. They thanked me for my help, and I jumped over the barrier, down the hill and returned via the underpass I'd last seen four hours earlier.
On my walk back to the Hotel Felix, I ran into a young man who, like me, just wanted to experience this. He had a camera; we shared greetings and smiles; and each of us continued on his path. Back at Chicago & Division (where I'd bought my shovel) I stopped at a gyros shop which was miraculously open. As the cooks made my two-for-one gyros and fries special, I chatted up two likely-homeless men taking shelter from the storm.
One used my cell phone. The other asked for my fries. I gave them to him and continued, exhausted, hungry and satisfied all at once, back to my room.
I don't write this story to make myself out like a hero. Clearly, I'm a little crazy. I tell this story (and did what I did last night) mostly because this is how I entertain myself. This is cheaper than a gym membership, and this is a great way to give back. Even when I wasn't able to physically get people out, they and I both appreciated the human connection. Many of them had been trapped for 10 hours or more, alone, with no visibility and no information about the world a few yards beyond their car doors. I loved playing the part of physical communications link: BaratundeNet? Ultimately, I get excited when folks like Cory Booker set powerful examples of civic engagement and this was my little way of being the change I want to see.
Oh yeah, I got interviewed by a local TV cameraman! Near the end of Operation: Clear This Ramp! (exclamation point mandatory), I was approached by a cameraman who emerged like a phantom from the storm. "Is your car stuck back up on Lake Shore?" he asked.
"No, I don't have a car!"
"So what are you doing out here?"
"I'm just a man from Brooklyn with a shovel."