The Cryin’ in Winter

In early December, in the midst of what was supposed to be Philadelphia’s first, purportedly major, winter storm, Channel 3 aired a story on its 11 p.m. newscast that summed up, with unintended precision, this city’s tortured relationship with winter. As a camera panned over empty shelves and naked bread bins at a local grocery store, a reporter told a familiar winter tale. In anticipation of the blizzard, local residents had made a run on shovels, boots, milk and bread. But when the station cut to the obligatory live shot of the reporter bravely enduring the elements outside, it was impossible not to notice the obvious. Behind her lay an idyllic tableau: a meager sprinkling of white-dusted cars. The road was clear. Winds were calm. It was barely snowing.

TV news exists to lend apocalyptic weight to even the most prosaic information, of course, but Channel 3’s delirium is hardly unique. The week before, even the normally restrained Inquirer had warned that travel during Thanksgiving might turn out to be “unforgiving” because two inches of snow could possibly accumulate … in the Poconos. It had come to this: A few inches of the white stuff two hours away was cause for alarm. Philly — city of mythically tough lawyers, politicians and sports fans — had become the winter wuss capital of the U.S.A.

I’m not exactly objective on this topic. It’s not that I’m anti-wuss. I can wuss out with the best of them. A hangnail can put me out of commission for weeks. It’s just that I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where snow, ice and teeth-shattering cold were — along with feigned sociability and a dearth of decent Thai food — simply facts of life. Indeed, the state’s official motto should probably be, “Thou shalt not bitch about the winters. You betcha!” In the Far North, you’re brainwashed into believing that weeks of sub-zero weather are, yes, normal. The city of St. Paul actually holds something called a Winter Carnival each year, which includes an inexplicably popular half-marathon usually run in arctic conditions. Growing up, I thought every kid in America went to school in a snowmobile suit.

Still, it doesn’t take Woodward-and-Bernsteinian levels of digging to figure out that something odd happens when even a rumor of snow hits Philly. The same storm that spurred Channel 3 to report on the fallout-shelter-worthy stockpiling of winter boots, for example, also prompted the Bensalem School District to cancel all evening activities. The announcement was made before any snow had started to fall. Dr. David Riggs, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, says that his center’s specialty is usually seen as unhealthy when it causes someone to have fears of a situation most people find reasonably safe. By this definition, the entire region has an anxiety disorder when it comes to snow. “I don’t really understand why, though,” says Riggs.

What with his Ph.D. and his fancy professorship at Penn, it’s understandable that Riggs might not be willing to stake his reputation on speculating why we’re so snowphobic. But that’s okay; that’s why we have television personalities. Channel 6 weathercaster Dave Roberts argues that the city’s problem is its benevolent geography. Roberts knows from bad geography. Not only is he a weather guy — he grew up in Buffalo, a place that makes Minneapolis look like Scottsdale. According to Roberts, as much as people in Philly like to kvetch about the weather, most of us forget that the city actually enjoys a rather uneventful climate. No tornadoes. No hurricanes. No sandstorms or mudslides. None of the really fun Biblical plagues. “Aside from some bad heat spells in the summer, we don’t get anything too unpleasant,” Roberts says. “The one thing we do have every so often is snow.” Because things are usually so copacetic, he adds, we tend to overreact to any conspicuous weather we do get. If you’re in a desert, even a squall feels like a flood.

Within the small circle of experts dedicated to studying why Philly is so chronically weird, there is another, equally powerful theory about the snow phenomenon: pure laziness. “My belief, based on nothing but my own hunch, is that people view it as an opportunity to not work,” says former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg, who, after 20 years at the People Paper, has a doctorate in the city’s peculiarities. “If snow were more a part of life, if it happened more often, we would have to deal with it, but because it doesn’t, we see it as a chance to blow everything off. All people care about is, ‘Do I have to get up in the morning?’”

There may be an even more obvious explanation, though. In Philly, memories are longer than the checkout lines at Genuardi’s after a Hurricane Schwartz snow report. And 10 years ago, we got hit with one of the worst snowstorms in our history. More than 33 inches fell over a two-day period, and the city went into hibernation. Businesses, schools and government offices, including the post office, all shut down for days. Some side streets went unplowed for weeks. Perhaps our craziness is simply the upside of prudence; we don’t want to get caught unprepared again.

Whatever the reason, there’s little doubt that the flaky phenomenon exerts an insidious draw, even for those who once proudly sneered in winter’s face. It’s part of Philly’s DNA to freak about snow, and not doing so feels like a betrayal of our finest traditions — like not booing at Eagles games. And so, on a clear morning in mid-December, I have chosen to write this from home. Though I live but a 10-minute walk from the office, I’ve decided to stay here and e-mail it in. There’s no way I’m going outside. Near as I can tell, there’s almost half an inch of snow on the ground.