I write to you today from the heart of the Polar Vortex.
That sounds more impressive than it really is. On the national weather map Buffalo is in dire straits, but outside of my window it is sunny and not snowing and I wonder why schools are closed. It is a bit breezy, I guess.
For geographical reasons I’ll explain in a moment, my island is a sanctuary of clear skies while the southern Buffalo suburbs get the healthy dose of snow today. Forget the vortex shtick, by the way, the National Weather Service has finally called my breezes a blizzard. The Blizzard of 2014, the first in Buffalo in 21 years. So much for the city with the awful reputation.
The local paper put together a list of bad storms; looks pretty thin to me. Only two official blizzards in the last thirty years, 1985 and 1993. Some early and late snow that surprised people. The only Big One, the only storm worthy of reverence, was the Blizzard of ’77. I was conceived in that storm. Was that too much information? Don’t worry, I don’t know any more. It’s not like my folks gave me any details or anything. It’s just that I can do math, that’s all. Plus a lot of my friends growing up had similar birthdays – there was a mini baby-boom that fall.
In the midst of that deadly winter storm in January of 1977, Buffalo became the focus of Johnny Carson’s opening monologue for a whole week, and the laughs continued into July. Today such a thing is inconceivable. Buffalo doesn’t have the prominence to rate such national-level mocking; instead of being a prominent butt of jokes we get largely ignored. But Carson’s badgering, intentional or not, took its toll, and the city remains snow-bound in the American subconscious ever since.
The reality, of course, is more complicated. The Blizzard of ’77 really was that bad, a true once-in-a-century catastrophe, but the average winter in Buffalo is far less severe than even that storm’s pale cousin. Sitting at the end of a relatively shallow warm lake, Buffalo’s weather is moderated all year, cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. It has never hit 100 degrees in recorded history, and many years I can barely get my backyard ice rink to freeze. When the January winds blow from the west they do form snow bands from the lake effect, but through a quirk of geography a line ski-able hills rise right in the average bull eye of such gusts. So locals here are used to driving to winter, taking a day off of work after a storm when fresh powder fills the ski resorts. No, when the Weather Channel rushes reporters to provide satellite feeds standing in front of Buffalo snow banks, they are often south of city, since the downtown gets a dusting, and my town to the north is spared completely. Think I dost protest too much? No sir. I wish it snowed more on my island; I have snow shoeing to do.
Yes, Chicago and Milwaukee and Denver might be colder, Syracuse and Vermont snowier, Florida full of hurricanes, but such defenses (even this post) can eventually feel unbecoming. One gets sick of explaining Buffalo weather to out-of-towners, a hazard of being a traveling author. (I once did an event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the winter with a foot of snow on the ground, and the crowd all said “how can you stand the snow in Buffalo!”)
No, why constantly dissemble and apologize, especially when the Blizzard of ’77 has embedded itself, for better or worse, in the subconscious of Buffalo as well. It spawned board games and a misguided (and now-mocked) retaliatory city slogan. It launched the career of the city’s greatest modern mayor, Jimmy Griffin, an Irish Catholic from South Buffalo who famously told everyone to stay home with a six-pack when it snowed too much. Griffin was elected to four terms, swore and fought, made more enemies than friends, and if he didn’t like your neighborhood’s councilman he made sure the snow plows missed your streets. He loved baseball and blue-collars and ran for President of the United States in 1992.
In Buffalo they don’t make mayors like that anymore, nor storms either it seems. All I have to show for the Blizzard of 2014 is an ice jam in the river surrounding my island, a warning about localized flooding. Flooding in a blizzard? Just doesn’t seem right.