By Naphtali Hoff
I remember the ride as if it was yesterday. It was a cold January morning back in 1996. Over 20" of snow had descended on New York City and its environs, effectively shutting down the entire area. I lived in upper Manhattan at the time and had spent the evening in nearby Riverdale. There was no bus service that day, so I did the unthinkable. I started walking south on the Henry Hudson Parkway, a road with practically no shoulder. Few roads were shoveled at that point, but the highways were an exception. There were no cars on the road in either direction, so it offered me the easiest and most direct route home.
After a few minutes a Range Rover came driving by. The driver pulled over and gave me a ride all the way to midtown, where I enjoyed some quiet shopping time at Macy's before heading back home in the subway. During the ride, we made small talk about the weather and some other things that I no longer recall. Two people who likely would not have any reason to converse were now enjoying a scenic, surreal, slow drive along what was normally one of the island's busiest roadways.
(Similar displays of municipal camaraderie were on display 10 months later, when the Yankees brought home their first championship in nearly two decades. People that would never have reason to speak with one another were high fiving in the streets in shared jubilation. I joked at the time that the only things that could bring New Yorkers together were snow and sports. Sadly, 9/11 added a most tragic third item to that short list.)
I was reminded of this wintry incident recently during a recent snowfall over the Big Apple. Having since lived for 15 years out of the area, in Chicago (12) and Atlanta (3) respectively, I had become accustomed to a kinder, gentler form of driving. Car horns were rarely heard in those streets, and were used primarily to avoid accidents, not to express annoyance. Rarely was I cut off while driving and accidents were fewer and farther in between, which helps explain why my premiums were about a third in Georgia as they now are in the Garden State. Upon my relocation to the New York area, I was quickly reminded of why local motorists had developed such notoriety throughout the country and beyond.
But all of this changed during last week's 10-inch snowfall. Suddenly, local drivers were kinder and gentler. Horns were muted and motorists seemed to demonstrate an uncharacteristic degree of patience.
What was it about the white heavenly powder that completely transformed local driving habits? For one, I suspect that we became more cautious out of fear. Drivers were more defensive in their quest to get to their destination without the angst, cost and time loss associated with a fender bender. They also worried more about inflicting injury, to others as well as themselves. While such considerations do not prevent many of New York's finest from driving recklessly year-round, it does give us collective pause as roads become particularly slick and treacherous.
I suspect that there's a whole other element to the transformation that I observed. During periods of heavy snow our expectations change. The hour-long commute automatically doubles or triples in our minds before we even hit the road. We budget for expected delays and slow going. The paradigm shift adjusts our mindset towards the road and those that share it with us.
Another factor may be the common burden that we share during times of challenge. Under normal circumstances, other drivers are viewed as nuisances, people to avoid and blow by as we seek to arrive more quickly at our destination. On snowy days, however, we're all in it together. We develop a greater degree of connection and compassion with one another as we venture out together on a dangerous path. We relate better to one another and extend ourselves, much as we would want for someone to do for us.
Lastly, the snow itself has a calming effect on us. The purity of fresh whiteness, the softness expressed by a blanket of white over trees, streets, roads and waterways shifts us down a notch. We are touched by the beauty that surrounds us and are in better spirits, even with the inconveniences that it invariably causes.
Like most extreme manifestations of nature's power, snowstorms carry a powerful message, bringing with it joy, peace and newfound camaraderie, as well as challenges to be overcome. Here's hoping that such expressions of civility and care will carry over long after the winter frost has melted away.