July 27, 2013

7 for 7: Working in a Winter Wonderland

[This is day six of 7 Posts for 7 Days. With Detroit making headlines for its bankruptcy, I'm spending the week sharing my Detroit experience. I lived there from mid-1997 to mid-1998.]

Having spent about the first 26 years of my life in Florida, I decided to shake things up and trade in the sunny, sandy beaches of pleasant places like Palm Beach and Tampa-St. Petersburg for the cold, mean streets of Detroit. (Actually, I kind of hate the beach, but it sounds more dramatic this way.) This wasn't actually my first foray into true wintry weather. But it was the first time experiencing a "real" winter as an adult. And that made a big difference.

One thing that worked in my favor was that I moved in June; so I thought, hey, I don't even have to worry about dealing with the snow for many months. But those cold months came quickly. As is often the case, the first snowfall of the year was very pretty and fun to play in. But then morning came, and I had to drive to work!

It wasn't actually too bad. I lived about 15 miles from the TV station, and I had the option of taking (pothole-riddled) highways or well-traveled city streets. On the snowiest days I usually opted for the city streets and never had too many problems. And since I worked a 2 - 11 p.m. shift, I didn't have to tangle with rush hour traffic in the snow.

I really only remember two terrifying incidents while driving in wintry weather. On one occasion, I was taking a vacation and needed to drive to the Detroit airport early the next morning. There wasn't any snow on the ground when I went to sleep, but it was one of those dreadful times when a big overnight snowstorm was in the forecast. So when I woke up, it was a big snowy mess outside and still snowing.

I got up obscenely early so I could made the 30 mile drive to the airport. I put on my heavy winter parka, scraped the snow off my car and tossed my suitcase in the back. But I made a huge rookie mistake: I left my parka on when I started driving. Sure, it was cold when I first got in the car. But the heater did its thing quickly, so I was stuck wearing a heavy coat for what ended up being about a two hour car ride on snowy highways.

Why didn't I just pull over and take off my coat? No way! The center lane of the highway was the only lane that was slightly drivable, and I was barely crawling along in my car while the winter driving experts were passing me on both sides. There was no chance I was going to risk pulling over into the snowier lanes or shoulder and risk getting stuck or hit.

Why didn't I just take my coat off while I was driving? Obviously you've forgotten about the scene in Planes, Trains & Automobiles where John Candy's character tried to take off his parka while driving. (It's safe to turn up the volume; it's a family friendly clip.)

(Right after this he had to steer with his knees, but I'll spare you that part and the profanity that went along with it.)

Nope. It would have been to risky to do anything other than keep both hands tightly gripped onto the wheel. By the time I got to the airport (and I wasn't so sure I'd actually make it), I took off my jacket and my shirt was completely soaked with sweat.

The other scary moment is simpler to explain. I was going somewhere overnight (perhaps the grocery store) after a long day at work and was taking an unfamiliar road. The traffic light ahead of me turned red, so I casually applied the brake, but the car wasn't in the mood to stop. So I skidded right though the icy intersection, kind of like in this clip from the same movie:

Or maybe my skidding was more like this scene in National Lampoon's Vacation, also edited down to be family-friendly. (Skip ahead to 1:30 for the skid.)

Well, actually, my skidding wasn't anything like that one either. I basically skidded in a straight line through the intersection and recovered nicely and kept going on the other side. I handled it the same way you would handle it if you accidentally trip while you're walking. You just keep going and hope nobody saw you. The reality is, I was darn lucky there was no cross-traffic.

I thought there were plenty of snowy, icy days during my one winter in Detroit. But apparently, the winter of 1997-1998 was considered extremely light for the region. In fact, we had a wet Christmas rather than a white Christmas.

My favorite part of snow was always the quietness. Rain is loud, but snow is peacefully quiet if there's not much wind. And I also really appreciated the arrival of spring like never before. Those days when the forecast called for a high in the 40s seemed so exciting.

When the temperatures rose even higher and things started turning green, I really enjoyed spring like never before. But soon after that, the career ladder was calling again, and I headed back to Florida for a new job. I haven't had a full-fledged "up north" winter since.
Preview: Tomorrow is the high-anticipated last installment of 7 for 7 which will be a random compilation of anything else about my Detroit experience that I couldn't fit into the first six posts.

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