White Out

Matt Wan

The snow is no longer news. Lake Shore Drive is again clear for cars, schools are back in session, and the stores on Michigan Avenue are operating as usual. For the last couple of days, the sun has been shining, temperatures have risen, and skies have been blue–nobody noticed the snow’s exit, but few will forget the entrance it made.

The storm, which began when cold air from the north collided with warm, moist air from the Deep South, did its damage across the country. It rolled across the Midwest in the direction of New England, leaving feet of snow and bitter cold winds in its wake. It sprinted through Chicago around 4pm last Tuesday, catching each of us in the middle of our routines and turning the next few hours into a shared memory of isolation and awe. It ground our city–which stops for no mere blizzard–to a halt, and covered our tracks with layers of perfect and indistinguishable snowflakes. For some, the whiteness offered freedom from responsibility; for others, it meant inconvenience, anxiety, even pain.
What we have now, in addition to the enormous snow formations in our unplowed alleys, are the stories of where we were and what we were doing that we will pass on to our grandchildren. For days we were quite literally trapped within these stories–here are a few we’ve uncovered. (Kelsey Gee)

Kim Buisson

It felt like one of those times when only a few students have arrived early for class and sit quietly around a classroom table, occasionally trying to make conversation — except that class had been canceled, and the students had met up outside, on the University of Chicago’s main quadrangles, knee-deep in about two feet of snow. Last Wednesday at 3pm, around 30 students showed up for the official start time of an unofficial event: “The Epic Inter-Class Snowball War.” Some students picked up icy clumps of snow and tossed them at their friends giggling. This was not a war–it was just awkward.

“Honestly, I thought it was going to be lame,” said Kaushik Vasudevan, a first-year who helped organize the event. “The whole upperclassmen-versus-underclassmen, color-coding thing was iffy.” He was referring to the Facebook event page, which invited 3,429 students to show up that day — in red and blue clothing if a first- or second-year, and in black and white clothing, if a third- or fourth-year. The event page also emphasized: “igloos, defensive structures and trenches are all permissible.”

Slowly, around a hundred students gathered on the central quad, rather appropriately in front of the administration building. After a few hesitant tosses and meek laughs, they threw caution to the wind–which was now much calmer than it had been in the storm of the night before. Groups that arrived together broke up in order to scavenge for the best pre-made snow-chunks along the half-heartedly plowed paths. Packs of fraternity boys that stepped onto the battlegrounds, shouting war cries, dispersed to find other friends amongst the now 200 students. The color-coding battle of the classes simply did not happen. Students instead threw snow at their friends, roommates, classmates and random acquaintances. Students rammed into one another, relying on the thick layer of white fluff to cushion their falls. They scooped and slashed at the snow in broad breaststrokes, the truce lines between makeshift clans of students getting blurrier all the time.

As students, reporters, and innocent passersby stood watching the fray, it became clear that this “war” was more a celebration of class cancellations, the postponement of midterms and assignments, and the sight of other UofC students immersed in snow. No’am Keesom, a UofC second-year and Collaborative Learning in Chemistry (CLiC) team leader unexpectedly got hit with a snowball. “What the hell?” She turned to identify her attacker. “That kid is in my CLIC discussion!” From the puns and personifications (Snowpocalpse, Snowzilla, Blizzaster etc.) of the storm emerged a latent class spirit and sense of camaraderie. Having arrived apathetic (if a bit curious) the students left wet and cold, with potentially lowered CLiC grades, but happy.

Says Vasudevan, “It was cool to see everyone out, away from their work and in the snow. We really do know how to have fun.” (Nani Ramakrishnan)

Kim Buisson

The residents of Pierce Tower, a University of Chicago dorm at the corner of 55th Street and University Avenue, have a love-hate relationship with the building’s small rooms and windowless lounges, but when trapped inside by the storm, all came to realize the value of its downstairs cafeteria, and especially the dedicated staff that runs it. “The managers talked to us about the situation, about the weather, and told us that we needed an action plan,” explains chef Pedro Delgado. “We discussed what we needed to do in order to continue to serve food to the students.” Some of the staff had already gone home when the worst of the storm hit, braving the severe weather, but basically guaranteeing that they would not be able to return in the morning due to the condition of the roads.

“We made the choice to stay because we didn’t want to get involved in a car accident,” recalls worker Alma. “I live about 45-50 minutes away.”

“The storm was life-threatening,” adds co-worker Hope. “My daughter, who works at South Campus, got a ride home with someone. She called and talked about how the car she was in almost got hit–the car in front of her did. The whole thing was scary, just scary.” There was not much time to work out accommodations on Tuesday night when the blizzard began–Hope and Alma ended up sleeping on couches in the Pierce Tower downstairs lobby. “We stayed up for a while, me and Alma, talking to our boss Tom. We had some hot chocolate. We were making fun of each other, like, it’s our first time sleeping together!” laughs Hope. “We were able to shower, too, which was good.”

Hope, Alma and their bosses had a long day of work ahead of them on Wednesday. Even though the dining hall was not as full as usual–most students who live in other buildings but eat at Pierce were absent–all three meals were served. Because they were understaffed, students ate off paper plates. The staff ended up working all day, before staying the night again. “I understand it, though,” says Hope. “Since we’re here already, might as well keep us here. They would have had no one else.” The accommodations for the second night were better, as well. On Wednesday night Hope said, “Tonight they’re giving us a room to sleep in. And our bosses brought us toothpaste, toothbrushes, and deodorant.” Some Pierce residents made and signed a “Thank you” banner and hung it by kitchens. “The students made me cry with this,” said Alma. “What happened, happened, you know. It’s alright. We’re staying the night again just in case.” (Rachel Lazar)

Kim Buisson

On the Sunday after the storm, snow began to fall again. Gently adding a fresh white layer to the piles of grey and brown snow piled on the sides of 53rd Street, it was a welcome addition to the scene. As I stepped out of Valois, my appreciation was tempered. “I don’t like it,” said the gravelly voice of a middle-aged homeless man, looking at the white flakes hitting the cement. He was tall and his black jacket was wet. He shivered slightly as pedestrians enjoyed the temperature–over 30 degrees for the first time this week. “Snow is snow,” he said, frowning. For this man, who wouldn’t tell me his name, the past week’s blizzard meant a lot more than canceled work or a long commute. Huddled up in a waiting room beside the Metra Tracks, he endured the storm with about seven others. “I sometimes sleep there alone, but this time there were more.” I asked him if he considered going to a shelter, to which he simply replied “No.” With the storm forcing all those without homes to take refuge, a shelter might not have been much better.

An employee at You Can Make It Emergency, a shelter in Back of the Yards where homeless youth can find long-term housing, explained the severity of the situation in a conversation over the phone. “We had about eight people come in, five or six more than usual,” she said. Regarding supplies, she sighed deeply and admitted, “We have food here for the boys that live with us, but with more people, we mostly ran out. And you couldn’t run to get more.” I asked her if she had tried to convince her regulars that a severe storm was approaching, to which she replied, “Oh yes, we tried… But some came in late, and we could only just tell them, ‘told you so.’”

A mix of extreme poverty and snow can often be fatal. As the snow and wind combined into a single frigid force this past week, a homeless man was found frozen to death on the North Side. Shelters were open, but crowding and a lack of supplies discouraged those in need. Speaking with two South Side shelters three days after the storm, I was told twice that they were still too busy to talk. In a city with an estimated 17,000 homeless, I couldn’t blame them. (Tyler Leeds)