Ice Dreams

Jan 16, 2009 by

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

— One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

34,  Ice, 34, Ice, 34,  Ice. The little display in my car’s rear view mirror was incessant today,  as if I didn’t know it was very cold, warning me of Ice.   I had not seen it flash that warning in three years, since I had last driven it on the streets of Fargo, North Dakota. Thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit would be a nice day that far north, where the weather frequently turns aggressively arctic,  dropping “below the donut” as the iconic local weatherman “Too Tall Tom” loved to say when it dropped below zero.

In New Orleans its an Odd thing to be so cold. Winter here is so much gentler than it was during my decade a little more than halfway to the North Pole. Perhaps it is to gentle; not assertive enough . Summer is liable to show up again and again on winter’s stoop like a bad old boyfriend, insisting they get back to the old times, to 85 and humid and January be damned.

Awful heat waves (awful for Christmas) roll through more often than a real arctic front.  No, it’s not 98 and 101% humidity, but its certainly not a White Christmas down here where my neighbor hangs festive rope lights on his palm tree. Cold fronts have mostly played themselves out by the time they cross Lake Pontchartrain, sometimes bringing torrential rain but little cold. Then they roll back like a wave that has broken on the shore, and as they retreat: up from the Gulf comes the warm moist air of the subtropics, like Carmen Miranda popping onto your TV while your nurse a bad hangover,  searching for the soothing green noise of a golf tournament to ease the pounding.

This, now, is the real deal. A steady week of cold solid as ice.  Mindful  of the madly blinking blue Ice warning, I  finally broke down and pulled on gloves for the first time since arriving back in New Orleans. Ten years in the real winters of Washington, D.C., and more than a dozen in the far North and I had toughened up.  Up in Fargo I would routinely roll the garbage out in a t-shirt on nights colder than this, the 20-something concrete burning my bare feet through thick callouses.  I had learned to take it. Cold here? Nah, not really.

But the cold of New Orleans can be nasty and damp. As we packed my wife’s clothes for New Orleans she looked through a huge hope chest of sweaters, thick mounds of Norwegian and Irish wool, the best and warmest with the oily smell of the sheep about them. She lamented that she would probably never get to wear them again. Just wait, I told her. You’ll get your chance.

We may not seen sun dogs on the Gulf Coast or find ourselves stranded by white out blizzard conditions or sheet ice on the streets,  but the combination of chill and damp can be awfully uncomfortable.  A good pea coat or car coat of wool will get at least a few weeks of wear. I knew that my wife’s flock of sheep skins would not rot away in that chest unused, food for the roaches.

I do miss a good fire when it gets this cold.   Up north the fireplaces worked, and I had a huge brick hearth in the basement in Fargo.  Here I had one apartment with a working coal fireplace on Carrollton Avenue, in which I could  burn the smallest of the pressed wood logs. I wish the fireplaces on Toulouse Street worked, but they do not. There are small ducts joining floor to flue where someone had put in vented gas burners. There are times when I miss the singing of the gas in an old ceramic grate, the blue night light of a hundred long winter’s naps, the psychological warmth of an open flame.

I know it won’t last, that I’ll soon pull out the extra shorts and t-shirts I insist my wife leave out when she starts her Midwestern habit of  seasonal wardrobe exchanges (weeks too soon, I always tell her). The thermal ankle boots I kept for some reason still sit in the box they traveled down in while I have two pairs of sandals at the ready onthe floor of my closet.  I know it will be cold again before winter relents.  Last year I survived marching Krewe du Vieux because under my costume were the warm under layers I used to wear snow shoeing.

But this is not a winter place.  In Fargo my mostly perennial garden was a brown field by September’s end. Down here it is  green all year. Even our oak trees don’t shed their leaves.  Before I go to bed I need to move or cover my tropical plants, the tender ginger and plumeria most of all. Once all the plants are tucked in, I will probably need drag out a proper blanket for the bed for the first time this year.  Everyone comes to New Orleans sometime, and after a week of hard work socking the northern states in with subzero cold, old man winter can’t resist a chance to stop in for a stiff and warming drink down on the bayou.

Mark Folse, Toulouse Street — Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans

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