Thursday, January 9, 2014

Frozen rivers and meditating hobos

It's getting a little warmer, so I wanted to share a few pictures before the polar vortex heads North and everything melts.

Ice has formed on the insides of the windows in our apartment, and different rooms have generated different ice formations.

The ice is nothing, however, compared to a tale that a fellow dog walker told me today about his father-in-law's house in Wisconsin. He lives in a hemicycle house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and underfloor heating. On very cold days, the ice on the inside of the windows can be up to 4 inches thick!

Cambridge looks beautiful in the cold. The River Charles has frozen: milky white ice reflecting a low winter sun. It's a shame in a way that there aren't more tourists here to witness this transformation of the Harvard buildings: the few people who are outside are hurrying towards their destinations, wrapped in layers of hats and scarves.

Every generalization, of course, has an exception. I met a boy called Ezekiel today. He's dreadlocked. A traveller. He told me about how he's been Kerouac-ing across the States, finding rides on freight trains and hitch-hiking. He pays his way through selling hand-written books of his poetry.

Ezekiel - 'call me Zeke' - sat down on the kerb to dig a book of poems he had written from his bag and, almost instantly, a police car pulled up and a cop wound down his window to ask Ezekiel if he was ok. Having been assured that there was no problem, the cop drove away.
'Do you get much trouble from the police?' I asked.
'Man, it's like you wouldn't believe some days. Like yesterday...' Ezekiel paused and coughed. 'I was having a great time. The sky was so beautiful, man! I was on my back on the Common - meditating and everything - and the next thing, there were cops and an ambulance and all that shit.'
'Were you ill?' I asked.
'I don't remember anything about it,' he grinned, standing up with his poetry book in his hand.
He read me a couple of poems, swaying slightly from the effort of staying upright. His poems were good. I bought myself a copy and recommended he sold some of his work to Spare Change News, the homeless newspaper. As we said goodbye, I thought about advising him to keep warm, but realized how useless such advice would be.
'Go to California,' I said. 'The skies are meant to be even more beautiful out there.'
He grinned, shook the dreadlocks out of his face, and raised a hand in farewell.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Iced coffee

They're calling it a "polar vortex", which sounds more like a new type of ice cream than the current weather. While it is nothing like the images being shown on the news for the MidWest, the temperature in Cambridge this morning is around 11F (about -12C) and the windchill (a really mean NorthEaster) is bringing the 'Real Feel' down to -16F (-26C). However, the schools are open, the roads are passable, and two cyclists passed me on the school run this morning  (which does seem a little keen even by my standards).

The most challenging aspect of the New England winter isn't the temperatures, as much as the length of the season. The first year we were here, there was no real winter: November was bright and sunny, we had a little cold weather in December and January, and spring arrived early in March. That's atypical. Last year, winter lasted a full six months with the first snow fall in November and the final snow dump in April. Even we - bright eyed and enthusiastic little Englanders - were bored of snow by April.

At the start of winter, everyone is excited by snow - especially on weekends, especially if you have children, and especially if you enjoy tobogganing, skating, skiing, or snow-shoeing. We've not been skiing yet - a matter of time and money both being in short supply - but snow means people snow-shoe and Nordic ski around the local golf course, skate on a nearby pond, and toboggan down every slope in Cambridge.

And at the start of winter it doesn't seem too arduous to dig out the front of one's house. In fact, Nathan and I are so enamored by snow that we also dig out our more elderly neighbors on each side of our house. The city places legal responsibility on householders to keep the sidewalks outside their properties free of snow, and a plethora of small local businesses are paid by the council to clear and grit the roads. If you don't keep your sidewalk free of snow, you are fined by the city. If the roads aren't kept relatively free of snow, I suspect that people start to sue the council.

The major challenge for us is keeping the house warm. I'm writing this  now in fingerless gloves, several sweaters (I've been Americanized enough to no longer say 'jumpers') and a hat. I fixed a cup of coffee to drink when I sat down at my desk, but it's already cold (I love iced coffee in summer, but I can't quite face the idea at the moment!) I could turn up the heating, but our oil bill last month cost $800. We keep the thermostat low, but the apartment we live in is part of an old wooden house. Earlier this year, I convinced the landlord to have insulation put into the walls (the previous two years we lived here there was nothing between the external aluminum sidings and internal plaster board walls), but the windows don't comfortably fit into their frames and, at the moment, there is ice on the inside of the glass in most of our rooms. It seems strange that such an extreme climate (in summer, the temperature can peak above 100F) can generate so little interest in insulating and weather-proofing one's property. The city has been advertizing a few funding schemes to support people in better insulating their homes, but there has been little uptake and, despite the lack of insulation, it is normal for people to talk about keeping their thermostats around 70F during the day, 65F at night. We live in an area where people have a ridiculous amount of disposable income, but the wastefulness shocks me.

Of course, we're lucky to have a house, even if it's cold enough to freeze my coffee and make me wear a hat indoors. In Harvard Square, there are a few homeless people who have not managed to secure places at hostels and who continue to sleep rough. Alastair, for example, had a bed in the local Harvard University hostel for two weeks over the Christmas period, but is now back on the streets. It's bearable, he says, as long as you have enough corrugated cardboard between you and the ground and a really good sleeping bag. The girls and I like Alastair: we always stop by for a chat when we're in Harvard, and buy him a bowl of his favorite broccoli and cheddar soup. He says it warms him up far better than a cup of coffee. We take him hand warmers and Iola has decided to save up her pocket money to buy him a new fleece top. Once you're on the streets, there aren't many ways to get your life back on track. The safety net of the welfare state might have increasingly big holes in the UK, but in the US it doesn't really exist at all.

A few days ago, we became very concerned about how Alastair would manage when the weather was so cold that it made the inside of our noses hurt when we breathed. Throughout the day we kept thinking about him sitting there on his cardboard box, hoping that the day would bring him enough money to keep him keeping on. Eventually, I jumped into the car, drove down to Harvard, parked in the bus stop and ran across to Alastair's pitch. It was so cold that my fingers started to hurt before I crossed the road, and I realized that I should have put on a coat before rushing out of the house.

'Hello,' he said, raising an eyebrow at my coatlessness.
'It's really cold.' My ability to state the obvious sometimes surprises other people as much as it surprises me.
'The girls and I.... we were thinking... do you want to come to our house for a bath?'
From the stories I have heard Alastair tell, I know that he has been propositioned in many ways over the years. He used to work as a roadie for a couple of punk bands in the 70s and 80s, and has told me stories that stretch my imagination beyond anything I have read in books. But, despite his many varied experiences, the look on Alastair's face clearly told me he had never before been invited to have a bath by a shivering English woman in the middle of a polar vortex.
'Errr, I'm fine here,' he replied.
A long pause stretched out between us. I wrapped my arms around myself to try and keep the last bit of warmth in my sweater and fidgeted from foot to foot.
'You were in your house thinking about me out here,' he said more quietly.
'It was more the girls really... it's really cold... they were worried about you.'
He gave me one of those smiles which look sad even though they reach the eyes. 'Thank you.'
'You're welcome.' (Iola has taught me to say 'you're welcome' every time someone says thank you).
Alastair coughed lightly. 'It's really cold,' he said, looking at me standing there shivering. 'Go back home and get warm.'