Chicago Extremes: Cold

It is another frigidly cold day here in Manhattan, the kind of day where total strangers bond in line at the deli and say camaraderie-like things like: “Woah! It’s cold, isn’t it??”

Having spent many winters in Chicago, my idea of what “cold” actually means is a bit different.

I was thinking about that this morning, as I struggled through the freezing wind to the bus, and remembering the coldest winter I ever experienced – which then made me think about the opposite – the hottest SUMMER I ever experienced. Chicago was the locale for both.

Read on, Macduff, about Chicago extremes. I go off onto long tangents during these stories. I do so, because it pleases me.

The first one is the Cold Extreme.


The Cold Extreme
It was the winter of 1993. I lived at a drafty apartment on Ashland, with my dear friend Mitchell. A 3rd floor walk up, with hard-wood floors, big old windows, on the corner of a big brick building – Our windows looked out on the endless expanse of Ashland, which appeared, during winter, to be a snowy wasteland, with stoplights changing for no cars. It was from this apartment that we witnessed, as though it were a movie, the destruction following the Bulls’ “3-Peat”. Riots of joy broke out, stupid idiots went around smashing windows and tipping over cars. Everyone was told by the Police Chief to stay home, and then Michael Jordan came onto the television and said, “We’re all really glad you’re happy we won, but please stop destroying the city.” Mitchell and I watched wild groups of boys prowling around on Ashland, restless with blood-lust, ignorant, tipping over Port-a-Potties and smashing windows. Idiots.

The temperature began to drop in January 1993. And drop and drop. Add to that the wind chill factor. I come from the Ocean State. I had never experienced such cold in my life. It was a whole other animal. First: you have your basic cold days. Everyone knows what those are like. Today in NYC is one of those days. Then you have your days where it suddenly becomes clear, like an ice pick on your spine: “I am in danger. This cold will kill me. This cold wants to kill me.”

The cold of the winter of 1993 was of the second variety.

Radio announcers filled the air with warnings: “Do not go outside unless you absolutely have to. If you have to go outside – then make sure that no skin is exposed.”

Eskimos wrapped up like cocoons staggered against the wind up and down Ashland. Everyone became sexless. The entire city was caught up in crisis mode. Which … as I said … having never experienced the “I am in danger” kind of cold, I only paid attention to half-heartedly.

I was working as a temp at a security agency down in the Loop, which was one of my favorite assignments ever – not because my job was great, I was a secretary. I answered phones for a bunch of cops, who worked as bodyguards (Donny Osmond was one of our clients), who escorted millionaire’s little kids to school … It was the best job ever because of the cops, who were great. Just GREAT guys. On their lunch breaks, they would teach me self-defense techniques. One of them in particular I befriended. He was a little leprechaun of a man, tough as nails. He said to me once, “Part of my job description is that I will take a bullet for Donny Osmond. That’s it. I accept it.” He was Irish, I loved him. He would talk to me over the receptionist’s desk. Once, we were in the middle of a conversation, talking about movies or something, and he stopped suddenly, looking at me as though something new had occurred to him. “What?” I asked. He hesitated, and then said, “I had heard people talk about ‘pheromones’ before. But I didn’t really believe they existed. Until now.” This became one of our jokes. I paged him once to let him know that I had spoken to “Mr. Osmond”, and had a message to pass on. Leprechaun-cop called me back, I gave him the message, and before we hung up he said joyfully, “I had no idea that pheromones could come through a phone!”

On the coldest day – I wish I could remember what the temperature was. With the wind-chill it was something like 40 degrees below zero. Perhaps more. The radio chanted dire warnings. I bundled myself up, as though it were a normal cold day, not an “I AM GONNA DIE” cold day, and trudged to the L station.

The walk to the station was 10 minutes long.

I cannot describe the agony. It was cold which was so cold that it burned. It felt like burning hot spikes. Nothing I wore kept that burning cold out. Only my eyeballs peeped out from the scarf wrapped around my head.

The bottom of my right earlobe was exposed for that 10 minute walk. The scarf slipped, and the hat did not cover the lobe.

But everything was so freezing – there really should be another word for cold like that – that the agony of my exposed earlobe did not register. Or, it registered – but it was just another item on the list of the agonies.

Frightened by the weather, in a state of advanced agony (saying to someone in a jovial way “Wooh, it’s cold out!” would be unheard of on a day such as that one – because nobody was outside to begin with) – I sat on the train. Feeling like I would never thaw. The cold was in my bones.

I did not unwrap myself on the train. I sat there, a sexless Eskimo.

Suddenly a woman across the aisle spoke to me. Sternly. “The bottom of your ear is exposed, ma’am. You have GOT to cover it up.”

“Oh … thanks.”

I covered up the lobe – which, if I had really paid attention, had started to throb and burn.

For the morning, I sat at my desk at the security place. I felt as though the winter were pushing against the walls of the building. The Loop was deserted, a maze of concrete canyons, filled with wind which would rip your face off. Lake Michigan heaved with ice at the edge of the city.

I had no business going to work on that day. I had no business being outside.

I answered phones. My earlobe had begun to feel very uncomfortable – but I ignored it – for a while. I adjusted. I put the phone to my left ear. The burning intensified. It ached. The ache started to spread … into my head. I had to take my earring out. I thought that maybe my lobe was infected, because of the earring and the cold or some such stupid nonsense. Finally, I was reduced to sitting at the desk, in a mute state of pain, holding my palm firmly over the burning earlobe, trying to cool it down.

When I finally got my act together and went into the bathroom to see what was going on with my ear, I burst into hysterical sobs at the sight.

My earlobe had swelled to the size of a broccoli blossom – a big broccoli blossom. It was a violent burned red, the skin was puffed out, and it was enormous. It looked ready to explode.

Fear. Finally, I felt fear.

What is going to happen? Am I going to lose my ear? How bad is it?

I had never had frostbite before. I had only heard horror stories. And my ear looked like the star of my own personal horror story.

I wept in the bathroom, gibbering like a lunatic. I suddenly LOVED my ears, with a passion beyond belief. I CHERISHED my ears, and I didn’t want to lose them.

“Oh my God … please stop burning … please go down … please go down…”

I came back out into the bleak little security office, ravaged by fear and tears.

The “pheromone” cop, dressed up as a bodyguard but a bodyguard who was also dressed up as an Eskimo, came into the reception area.

I was a mess, and I trusted him. I turned my head – “Oh my God – look. Look at my ear. Am I gonna lose my ear? What should I do?”

He took one look at my ear and said, like a stern leprechaun, “Call the hospital right now.”

So I did. He waited as I called, staring at me with those dead-on eyes that so many cops have. They do not panic. They do not freak. They take action.

The harassed nurse who answered the phone at the Emergency Room could not have cared less about what ended up being a mild case of frostbite during an enormous city-wide disaster where many people died of the cold.

She said to me, “Ma’am – people are dying in the other room right now. I have got to go.” She briefly told me what to do for frostbite, and hung up.

I left the office immediately. I was so wrapped up (the “pheromone” cop had given me an extra fur hat he had, to put on over my other hat) that I could barely walk. I set my teeth, and got back onto the L, which was filled with other grim-faced Eskimos.

I got off at Ashland, and endured – that’s the only word for it – endured the walk back to my apartment. Only sheer force of will got me there. I wanted to lie down and give up. I had to get my keys out, which I could not do with my mittens on my hand – and now the fear of God was in me, and instead of an earlobe I had a broccoli – but I took my mitten off as quickly as I could to grasp my keys in my purse. Instantly, my fingers froze up into little ice-sticks. I couldn’t control them. They started to burn.

I thought: Holy SHIT. I am going to die. I am going to lose my ear and my fingers, because of 10 minutes of exposure.

Finally – I got inside (the lock had frozen, too… I had to jiggle the keys inside to get things moving) – and sat in my apartment for three days, ministering to my ear.

The swelling did go down, and the ear eventually looked normal, but the damage to my skin tissue was irrevocable. To this day, I have to be extra careful of that ear, even on mildly cold days.

I still think fondly of that “pheromone cop”, by the way. What a nice man.

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23 Responses to Chicago Extremes: Cold

  1. Dan says:

    I’m a naitve New Englander, born and bred. I like winter.

    But I hope I am NEVER that cold.

  2. Dan says:

    I meant native, not an exotic spelling of naive.

  3. red says:

    I love winter, too, in general.

    But my definition of “cold” was WAY too limited.

  4. red says:

    I’m a very “naive” New Englander. I didn’t really believe that 40 below zero was any different from 15 degree weather.

  5. Emily says:

    A friend of mine moved from LA to Chicago, and I swear, every time I talked to her for the first year that she lived there, the first ten minutes of the conversation were reserved for her complaining that it was either too hot or too cold. I don’t know how people can stand it.

  6. red says:

    Emily,

    One possible explanation is that, for the age group of 25 to 35, there are something like 10 single men for every female.

    If, as a female, you didn’t have a ragingly interesting social life in Chicago with those odds, then you had to assume that it was all your own fault.

  7. David says:

    Sheila,

    I had a similar experience in Chicago several years ago involving a very, very bad decision to visit the Shedd Aquarium in early January. The temperature was 10 below, and, as usual down there, the wind was howling about 50 MPH off Lake Michigan. I was with a friend of the female persuasion. We parked, and started out that road to the Aquarium. We got about half way out there, and the FEAR you so accurately described hit us–”We could die out here.” Mind you, this was about a two minute walk. We reached the Aquarium, and it was closed! Now, I was really worried, and my friend was in a near-panic. Fortunately, there was a man polishing the floors inside the building, and he let us in. “It’s too cold to be out here, today,” he said. No kidding. It took me a week to feel normal again.

  8. red says:

    David,

    You are not kidding. Cold like that is not to be messed with. The woman on the train was MAD at me for not taking it seriously enough – and it wasn’t like I was sitting there in a bikini – My earlobe was exposed.

    Damn!

  9. MikeR says:

    Oklahoma has all the wind of Chicago, but it’s generally not quite as cold. We do, however, frequently get the “whipsaw” effect. It can be calm, 65 degrees and sunny one minute, 30 degrees and sleeting sideways with a 40 mph wind the next. Usually we have some bitterly cold (e.g. 10 degrees, -25 degree wind chill) days during the year, but the last few winters here have been ridiculously mild.

  10. red says:

    Mike – I suppose we’ve been a bit spoiled here in New York. The winter after Sept. 11 was, categorically, about 60 degree weather every day. It was freaky. The whole world seemed wrong.

    Last year we had some nice good cold weather.

    The snow is coming down – it’s real sticky snow, too. It’s piling up.

    I imagine Oklahoma is very flat – is that true? I know it’s bleak and all – but I do like flat windy wintry landscapes. There’s something I find so satisfying about it.

  11. Laura says:

    I grew up in Green Bay Wisconsin (mock me, I am used to it), right off of Lake Michigan. I know all about that frigid cold. I worked for a delivery company and one day the temperature was about -15, take into account the windchill and it was about -50. I was loading up my van, and it took a good 20 minutes or so to get everything in, and naturally I had to do this all outside. I had a hat, and a scarf wrapped around my face with just my eyes exposed. A bit of the scarf slid down and exposed the skin below my eye, for much of the time. I got in my van and was like “okay this isn’t pleasant” and went on my way. Before I knew it, vision was really impared in my eye. I looked in the mirror and my eye was almost swollen shut. The sensation is something I will never forget. It was about 3 days before it was back to normal. Where I live now it gets cold, maybe -15 wind chill. There’s varying degrees of cold: cold, really cold, damn cold, and oh my God it’s f-ing cold…which is what you’ve explained. Until you live it, you can never fully understand what it’s like.

  12. red says:

    Whatsah mattah with Green Bay? Why do people mock that? It’s a perfectly nice town.

  13. MikeR says:

    The terrain here is more variable than most people would think. A good percentage of the eastern half of the state is hilly and tree-covered, with even a few small mountains. The western half is considerably flatter and more in line with the common perception. We used to have cold spells that would keep snow around for several days or weeks at a time in winter, but it’s been too warm for that in recent years.

    I’ve never liked the cold, but there is an aspect of beauty to it. And I think enduring cold winters does give you a much deeper appreciation of spring and summer.

  14. BSTommy says:

    I don’t know if you’ve read any Lewis Grizzard, if his column was printed much north of the Ohio River. He was from Atlanta, but worked for a while for the Chicago Tribune (I think). And he hated Chicago, and for the very reason that you mentioned: The bitter, evil cold that his rural Georgian mind could not even begin to comprehend….but also the summertimes that were so ridiculously hot he had to move back south just to get away from them…..

  15. Betsy says:

    So this morning, Chelsea (12) will not put a hat on to go to the bus! After I finally get her out the door with a hat and warnings of the terrible things that can happen to one who is cold, she gets to the stop and promptly takes the hat off!!!!! And all I can think is…”fine – get a broccoli ear and see if I care!”

  16. red says:

    Betsy -

    Ha!!!

    It’s now a medical term. “I saw a terrible case of broccoli ear the other day…”

  17. Laura says:

    Oh it is a nice town, I love going back to visit, they’re just a “wee” bit obsessed with their football team (and drinking mass quantities of beer). Bill has seen it, and still talks about how the fire hydrants are painted green and gold.

  18. jackie says:

    reading your descriptions of Chicago makes me so sad…I could smell it. There’s no place like it.

    J

  19. red says:

    Oh Jackum. I know!! Chicago is the best place on earth.

  20. David says:

    We’re about to get a day like that here. Tomorrow’s wind chill’s are expected to drop 30 to 40 below. For Christ sake Sheila cover up that Goddamn ear lobe!! Record’s will be set! The thing about Chicago was the stretch of days like that, crazy cold, yet, I miss it.

  21. red says:

    David,

    Well it was always warm at Cafe Avanti.

    Earlobe is obsessively covered. No worries.

  22. David says:

    now…you hurt.

  23. bluebell says:

    Thank you! That is the best description of that frigid winter in Chicago I’ve read–I also lived in that neighborhood during the summer insanity and cold season stir craze.

    I live Down Under now, and trying to explain to my new Australian friends the meaning of cold has been a communication disaster. I say, ‘Chicago’s so cold that you feel like you might die’ and they all say, ‘Yeah, like when it gets down to 4 degrees [Celsius--that's about +40F] overnight ‘ and I say, ‘No, I mean that you put all your clothes on and two pairs of gloves and three pairs of socks and a ski mask and you still can’t get the chill out of your bones for three days after a five minute trip to the corner shop for milk’ and they say ‘I hear Melbourne’s like that’. Melbourne? With a winter like San Francisco’s? Huh?

    Now all I have to do is point them to this URL. Sorry you caught frostbite but your description is much appreciated. :-)