How to survive a Chicago winter

Dress in layers. Lots and lots of layers.

To go to the office today, I add a pair of wool tights under my slacks, and put on my warmest sweater (the one with both wool *and* Angora in the yarn) over a turtleneck. (Turtlenecks were very popular at the office today.) Over my tights, I put on a pair of thick wool hiking socks just for the commute. Before going outside, I add the outer layers: a wool/cashmere blend cowl pulled up over my mouth, 3/4 length down coat, shearling hunter’s hat with ear flaps down, and a pair of thrummed mittens. (If you’re allergic to warm animal fibers like wool, alpaca, and Angora, I feel very sorry for you.) Pull up your hood if you have one; you want to block out as much blowing cold air and snow as possible, but also be careful when walking with your hood up as it limits your peripheral vision. (And as a driver, be aware that people bundled up so much have issues seeing you, so slow down!)

Wear sturdy, water-resistant boots that cover your leg to mid-calf (at least).

Unless you are a small child and can be carried around, you will need to deal with this when you encounter it.

Slushy street

A minor bit of street slush.

Not all taxis or cars pull up flush with the curb. If you’re taking public transit or spend any time at all walking anywhere, you will undoubtedly ruin your expensive fashion boots in a month. Forget Uggs (or Ugg-like footwear) and dressy “riding boots.” Think Bogs, Kamik, or Sorel. Tuck your pants into your boots so they don’t get wet and salt stained. Stand back from the curb when there is a pool of slushy water near it. Passing cars and buses have been known to splash that junk over the lower portions of pedestrians who are standing close to it.

In the neighborhoods, beware the sidewalks.

Some property owners are jerks and don’t ever shovel their walks. (Yes, it is the law but there is no enforcement of the fines.) Others are not able to shovel early in the day, so you will likely need to slog through snow on your morning commute. Even attentive shovelers can’t always keep the sidewalk clean enough that it doesn’t have the occasional icy patch. Freshly fallen snow over ice can lead to some really ugly consequences, so learn to shorten your stride and distribute your weight more evenly over each step. In other words, walk like a duck.

I left the house at 6:30 this morning and only one place had its sidewalk clear at that hour. I mostly walked in the street, despite the traffic. Chicago’s major streets are *always* well attended because we kick people out of office if they don’t keep the streets clean in winter. (Too bad we are inured to corruption and don’t demand more honorable behavior from our politicians, just snow-free streets.)

In the business district, beware the buildings.

It’s uncommon to get hit with ice falling from the tall buildings, but there have been enough incidents that these signs spring up all over the Loop during winter.

Caution falling ice

Litigation deterrent…er, I mean warning sign.

Take enjoyment from simple outdoor activities, like shoveling.

Maybe you are a renter or live in a condo so you think you won’t need to clear snow. If you own a car, though, you will need to shovel at some point. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to have indoor parking. You can still get stuck driving down a side street before it’s been plowed or getting out of your garage into the alley. (The otherwise excellent street plowing crews deal with side streets last, and don’t do alleys at all. Chicago instead lets the garbage trucks “press” the snow down in the alley as they collect trash, which is the closest they come to plowing them.) Or maybe you’re tired of hearing someone spin their wheels helplessly over and over and over again as you’re trying to concentrate on a book or go to sleep, so you throw on your many layers and water-resistant boots, and go out to help. Either way, you may need some ibuprofen and Icy Hot (and perhaps a slug of whisky) at the end of the day.

Learn about “dibs” and be wary of those who tenaciously cling to it.

Yeah, it’s not legal but you don’t want to be the victim of retaliation. This could include getting chased by someone wielding a shovel if you so much as touch the stuff marking a dibs spot. More ominous things like a busted windshield have been known to happen.

Look for the “silver lining” in the weather.

“Six more inches of snow on the way? At least it’s warm enough to snow!” (An actual quote from a friend.)

“Single digits and below zero wind chills? At least it’s sunny!” (A quote from another friend.)

“The temperature is going to be 3 with a wind chill of only -20 tomorrow morning? I can deal with that.” (I said this to B last night.)

“It’s above freezing AND sunny? OMG, it’s a miracle!!” (Or it’s April…possibly both.)

Move to California.

And although it’s not strictly about winter, there are many winter anecdotes on this list.

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The blizzard post

Unless you’ve been out of the country over the past few days, you know that most of the U.S. experienced pretty severe weather recently. In Chicago we had the third worst blizzard ever (well, since weather records have been kept, at least).

View of blizzard in the morning

Morning of February 2, 2011

We get one of these big blizzards about every 10-15 years, so long time Chicagoans are prone to compare the blizzards and discuss how horrible they were. In Chicago, blizzards have had a huge impact on politics and elections so they are serious business. I’ve lived here most of my life so I have personal recollections of the blizzards of 1979 and 1999. (I was still in utero for the 1967 blizzard, the biggest of them all.)

What I remember most about 1979 was that the snow was up to my waist (of course, the height of my waist was a bit lower then it is now) and that we had a day or two off from school. There was some shoveling involved, but I don’t recall it being onerous. My dad was doing most of it, I’m sure. After that blizzard we bought a snowblower.

In 1999, I was scheduled to move from my apartment of the previous six years to a condo purchased by my husband and I. We had canceled our telephone service (and also our Internet service, since back then we had dial-up like most people…and were probably pretty lucky for having it in the first place), and had all of our possessions in boxes. We also had no fresh food in the fridge and minimal food provisions, in general. I think it’s obvious that our move was delayed. Luckily, I had some good neighbors in the apartment building who fed us and let us hang out with them in their much more hospitable apartment until the movers could get down our street.

For this blizzard, I was well prepared. I had plenty of provisions (even under normal circumstances, I have about a one month food supply on hand, it seems), two shovels, a new bag of ice melting compound, and a high speed Internet connection. My office closed early on Tuesday, but I had slipped out about an hour after the snow started and missed the big crush of commuters at the rail stations.

I actually worked through the beginning of the storm. I had to finish up something and deliver it to my boss, so I worked until about 8:30 pm. Then I sat back with some wine and enjoyed the social media blitz, monitoring the #snomg trend on Twitter. I experienced thundersnow for the first time. It was pretty fun, actually.

Shovel in the deep snow

The digging out begins

The next day when the snow stopped falling and the winds had died down (gusts were clocked at up to 70 mph in some areas) the clean up began. This is where neighbors helping each other becomes important. (Yes, its another instance where community has perks!) From my household, there were two folks with shovels: me and my roommate/tenant, Dave. We had to clear the following places of at least 20 inches of snow (more in some places because of drifting): front sidewalk, front steps, back steps, path to rear of yard (for trash removal), and driveway (so we could get the car out…not that it’s used every day, but it will be needed eventually).

It took us about 1.5 hours to do this. I had to go back inside to attend a conference call meeting (the office was still closed, but I still had to work *sigh*). About two hours later we got back out again because we realized we’d need to clear out a portion of the alley in order to get to the street with the car. At this time there are many others out clearing the sidewalks and digging out their cars before the sun sets.

People with shovels, snowblowers, and a frontend loader

The many ways to clean up after a blizzard

Another hour of shoveling goes by. Then a guy with a small front-end loader just shows up. Really. No one knows exactly why he was out there, but people started approaching him and offering cash for him to clear some the snow. A portion of our street was cleared, the parking lot of the neighboring condo building gets cleared, and part of the alley gets cleared, too. By the time he was done (at least $250 richer) those of us living on the east half of the block were able to access the main arterial street (which the city was keeping clear of snow as a priority).

I headed back into the house, shared with my roommate some of the beef stew I had started earlier, and had a bit more wine. Then I took a hot bath with lots of Epsom salts and went to bed.

Things could have been much worse. And the city really did a great job warning people and keeping the main streets clear, overall. We had power (and Internet!) throughout the entire storm and helped each other out. I got lots of exercise shoveling, and am only a bit sore. Not a bad experience, over all.

Car buried under lots of snow

Really, really buried

(If you’d like to view more photos, go to my Flickr album!)

Chocolate Breeze

There’s this chocolate factory just west of the Loop (business district) in Chicago. Every once in a while — if the wind is just right and they’re working on a fresh batch — the aroma of chocolate envelops you as you walk across the river from the commuter train station. I think it smells like baking brownies and it is a delicious way to start your day.

When I bike into work, I ride right by the chocolate factory and always get to catch that heavenly smell. Just a few minutes away on my bike route is the bread factory which smells equally delicious. Bread and chocolate in the morning…sounds like a great combination to me.   

The chocolate factory is on the west side of the river, and for some reason the smell doesn’t seem to make it across the water. Maybe it’s all those tall office buildings in the way. Whatever it is, by the time you get across the river, the smell is gone and you’re back to the usual urban sensory data: cars, buses, and all of their attendant sounds and odors.

I often enjoy my short walk across the river and wish I had a camera handy. The sights are usually quite pleasing: commuter boats (yes, during the warmer months here you can complete your commute via boat to the east side of the Loop instead of walking it), ducks, sculling crews, barges (reminding us that the river really is still used for commerce and not just pleasure), and patterns in the current. I guess since I usually can’t juggle a camera, a loaded backpack, and a cup of coffee, these sights, sounds and smells will remain my private pleasure. But you can imagine you’re here, walking next to me, enjoying them, too.

Snow Day

Snowy morningYay!!! It’s snowing!

Just when I think I can’t stand anymore winter, something like this happens to make it magical again. I love the snow. It quiets the city beast and forces everyone to slow down and respect nature for a bit.

This snow started yesterday and has just steadily continued for the past 12 hours. I think it’s supposed to stop this afternoon. So far, we seem to have about 5 inches of snow here, but it’s hard to tell due to the blowing and drifting.

Take another look at this scence (minus the pretty snowflake reflections from the flash).

Where's the Eglu?

 I think you can see my dilemma. The Eglu is nearly buried! I had to carry a shovel out with me to dig out around the entrance in order to open it up. I learned from the last snowfall that I need to cover the entrance to keep snow from blowing inside the run, so I added some sheets of cardboard across the front.

Buried Eglu entrance

It may look as if the snow nearly comes to the top of the Eglu, but it’s not quite that bad. I had placed some bags partially filled with leaves in front of the cardboard to keep it in place, so the snow has built up on top of that. 

Once I got the Eglu entrance dug out, I was able to add fresh provisions of food and water for the ladies. Here’s a peek at the results.

Excavated EgluI highly doubt that the chickens will be roaming the yard today! The door to the run is open in case they choose to venture out, though.

Inside the run it’s sort of dark with all the snow covering it, but at least it is dry and snug.  

I’m not really on a snow day. I still have to work, but thankfully I am employed by a fabulous, progressive organization and am able to telecommute today. So, I’ll have a chance to go out and check on the ladies during the day. Maybe I’ll slip them a bit of black oil sunflower seeds to brighten their day.

While out digging out the chicken coop today, I heard one of my neighbors across the alley digging out around his garage. At one point, he seemed to be in a jam (based on the expletive he let fly), so I asked if he needed a hand. He couldn’t really see me through the fence that well; there was a bit of head bobbing and waving I had to do so he could see me and not think he was going a bit nuts. After he acknowledged seeing me and nicely declined my help, he paused for a moment. “Hey, are you the lady that was in the paper about a month ago?,” he asked. Yep.