Current Conditions

Current Conditions


ast May, I gleefully barreled out of Austin on a humid afternoon, relieved to avoid another blistering Texas summer. Having finished my writing degree (but not my novel), I was headed northeast and would eventually make my way to an artists’ colony at the very tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After complaining about the heat for three years, it occurred to me as I rolled out of town, that someday I might just miss it. That someday is now. Since October, I’ve been living in Provincetown on the Outer Cape. I’ve grown to love its eclectic diversions: drag karaoke at the Governor Bradford bar; weird bric-a-brac for sale in the local shops; art galleries and sex shops side by side; shops with names like “I Used to be a Tree.” (The day after the election, there was a sign on the door of “I Used to be a Tree” that read, “Sorry America: We Tried.”) I love the strange “year-rounder” population of drag queens, artists, wannabe artists, bohemians, fishermen, and businessmen brokering deals for luxury homes in nearby Truro. I love the dunes and the beaches that shift with the seasons, the wind, and the storms. It’s a three-minute walk from my front door to the beach. There’s a sense of freedom about this town at Land’s End. Same-sex couples walk freely down the streets, holding hands. There’s a place on Route 6 where wooden summer cabins look out over Cape Cod Bay to spectacular, Texas-quality sunsets. Someone once said that standing on Herring Cove Beach, you can put all of America behind you. (In light of the election, P-town felt like the perfect place to be.) Dancers cut a rug at the A-House and the Vixen, where-aside from the music and the largely gay clientele-you might think that it’s just another night of two-step at the Broken Spoke. Well, maybe not. In any case, P-town has real spirit, and I love it. The Mews Restaurant hosts open mic nights featuring earnest performers who will break your heart with their sad-sack stories about lost fishing boats and lost lovers as they play the banjo, sing along to electronic music, or recite their poetry from memory. You can spot Norman Mailer, walking his dog in the East End. My geriatric Saint Bernard, who wears a doggy diaper, is welcome in every public space in town, including the bank. Whatever your past sins or future dreams, this is a landscape weathered by salt, grit, and most of all, stories. This year, people are trading storm stories, and there are plenty to be had. he Fine Arts Work Center-the artists’ colony where I am happily ensconced-offers seven-month fellowships to 20 artists and writers. We’re here to work and to commune about the creative process. We also spend a lot of time playing ping-pong in the Common Room and drinking cheap red wine. All in all, I’ve loved the tolerant atmosphere where nothing is too weird, little is taboo, and creativity is the currency in which we all trade. We’re here to do our work and that’s it. But by the end of December, the “buffer” money that I earned temping last summer in New York had noticeably dwindled. Visa and Verizon could care less about the potential of my creative endeavors. They wanted money-and they wanted it NOW. So, when an opportunity arose to join the Center’s shoveling crew and earn some much-needed extra cash, I signed up. “I’m stronger than I look,” I said, lying. My friend Carrie, a printmaker from rural Pennsylvania, also responded to the call. We promised to have “good snow energy” and to take breaks when our toes got cold. We pulled out our silk long underwear and boiled wool mittens. We were ready. I had been warned that the winter was long. “It gets grim,” previous fellows had told me during our phone conversations last spring, when I was still in Austin, throwing my tank tops into a box cheerily marked “storage.” “Everything shuts down and the snow…” “I’m a winter person,” I chirped back. For the most part, I am a winter person. I grew up in Wyoming, where high cross winds and heavy snowfall during fall, winter, and even spring are considered normal. As a college student in Minnesota, I survived a brutal winter with record temperatures of 80 below zero; people were forbidden to drive for fear that if their cars died, they, too, would perish. I sat in the dorm, drinking Sloe Gin fizzes with my friends and listening to the whirr of snowplows and the industrious scrape of snow shovels pitching ice off the doors. I lived through two winters in a poorly heated apartment in Boston; my roommates and I slept in down sleeping bags that we placed in the one room that had the one functioning ceiling heating panel in the entire house. I always thought winter made people more closely knit, and of course, more resilient. I scoffed when my landlord in San Marcos brought insulation for the pipes when the temperature dipped below 40. She was wearing gloves and a sweater. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. “She doesn’t know winter,” I thought, as I stored the insulation in the closet. And sure enough, the first snow here was glorious. Snowflakes sparkled in the moonlight like glitter thrown haphazardly into the air. The white stuff carpeted the quaint seaside shacks. The one straight bar, the Squealing Pig, was blanketed with a soft dusting; Provincetown looked even more bucolic than ever. The fellows at the Work Center had a snowball fight. One of the artists built a snowman, complete with arms made of bright red and yellow buoys he’d collected at Herring Cove Beach. But the next morning, it took me several minutes to force open my iced-over front door. My old dog, a native Texan, stumbled off the porch. Standing neck deep in snow, he began to whine. It was so cold that every five minutes Carrie and I had to take breaks from shovel patrol. The office manager brought us tea. We were miserable, but after three hours, the snow was shoveled and the pathways were safe. Working on the shoveling crew, we decided, was not only important, it was also empowering. Then-just to make myself miserable-I checked the Internet and looked at the weather in Austin. A balmy 69 degrees. Sunshine. Once again, I put on my boots and headed out to face the drifts. And face the truth, which is that, after a lifetime of coping with “inclement” weather, Austin had spoiled me: the Mexican martinis on the deck at Trudy’s in November; Goliath burritos and never-ending baskets of tortilla chips at Polvo’s outdoor tables; January walks at my friend’s ranch in the Hill Country; avocado margaritas at Curra’s and outdoor concerts in March. I had become what I had long detested-a cold weather wimp. fter our first day of snow patrol, Carrie and I went to the mall to prepare for the next storm. We purchased an entire box of ToeWarmers, little adhesive packets that stick to your socks and actually do what their name suggests. Without them, standing in snow for up to three hours digging out a tunnel would be unthinkable. “The sky looks mean,” she said on our way back home. We were in for it, and we knew it. The first few flakes began to fall in careful, slow spirals, skittering off the windshield and melting on the ground as soon as they made contact. Even the sea looked scared, bracing itself to be swept up in the storm that would batter the Cape with drilling rain, sea-soaked snow, and-just as the impossibly cheery weather people on the local television station had predicted-70-mile-an-hour winds. This, my Texas friends, is called a nor’easter. That night, Saturday, January 22, the Blizzard of ’05 hit and it hit hard. Eighteen inches blanketed the Cape. The Plymouth-Brockton bus from P-town to Boston’s Logan airport stopped running, barring access to the mainland. Mayor Menino slept in a chair at his office in Boston’s City Hall. Snow emergencies were declared across Boston and the Cape. Schools and business were closed. Reporters descended upon the streets of Boston, working their way through tunnels flanked by six-foot-high drifts. The west wall of the Work Center’s Common Room looked like something out of The Shining. The normally easy-going, tolerant residents of Provincetown began brawling over parking spots that they had shoveled out and then tried to save, ironically, by staking a claim with a beach chair. Interviewed in front of a massive snowdrift, one woman simply said, “Make it stop.” Thankfully, we still had power. The first storm was difficult. The second storm felt personal. I had forgotten how much physical effort it requires to walk through waist-deep snow. Midway across the parking lot on Sunday morning, I tumbled over into the snow and start calling plaintively for Carrie, who was making her way down ice-covered stairs. I knew snow, right? I have vivid memories of skipping school for days and building snow caves with my brother. I’d been downhill skiing since I was six years old. I am a winter person, I repeated to myself, and struggled upright. But the last time I had an encounter with a nor’easter, I wasn’t on clean-up duty. This time, I was the one with the shovel, balancing precariously on an ice-covered step, pushing an icy clump of snow off the balcony and onto the ground, using a “cut shovel” to slice through layers of icy, wet drifts so that the piles are easier to pick up. (A shovelful of nor’easter snow feels like lifting a bathtub full of water with your hands.) My wrists and my back ached. My face was wind-burned and numb. Twice a wicked gust of freezing wind knocked me over. Drifting snow quickly filled the tunnels we had cleared just a few minutes before. In the Common Room, folks who wisely hadn’t signed up to shovel, watched with pity as Carrie and I fell backwards, our shovels lifted into the air like stiff and ineffective flags. We saw some of our friends with their faces pressed to frosty apartment windows, waiting to be shoveled out. “It’s never like this,” a member of the Center’s staff later told us. Yeah, right. On Sunday, grumpy and stir-crazy, the fellows gathered in the snow-cave, formerly referred to as the Common Room, either playing ping-pong or plowing through the stash of alcohol that was left over from New Year’s. Some watched the Patriots-Steelers game on television. Someone made lasagna. The wind howled. Windows rattled. The last time people were this depressed was during the election, when we watched the returns with the hope that the Red Sox triumph over the Yankees in the World Series would somehow translate into Dubya’s defeat at the polls. he storm was one of the worst in Massachusetts history, with several deaths attributed to its fury. This fact was not lost on me as I hacked away at the black ice coagulated on the doorsteps of our modest living accommodations. A dead body was found under two feet of snow in Chelsea, a suburb of Boston. A Boston Globe reporter had a heart attack while shoveling snow and later died. A young boy died after sitting in an idling car with its tailpipe packed with snow. Even after the plows had come through the main streets of Provincetown-and the sanders after that-drivers were still doing soft, slow 360-degree turns down the hill. The outsides of houses looked like the insides of freezers, crusted over in bumpy snow. The icy tide in Provincetown harbor nearly covered the town pier. The Cape got “thirty inches plus” of snow. The wind, which gusted at 80-miles-per-hour, had formed meringue-like drifts that completely submerged cars, doorways, and driveways. On Monday, blue sky finally emerged. Birds chirped merrily. With nowhere to put the snow, plows left six-foot-high drifts in front of shopkeeper’s doors. Parking? Forget about it. To avoid flooding during the eventual thaw, snow was loaded onto dump trucks; we wondered wistfully where it was going. (Some Boston suburbs have their own snow dumps. The “snow farms” and their locations, like mass-mobster graves, are as yet undisclosed. A headline in the Globe grimly stated, “Snow’s final resting place yet unknown.”) A poet from Houston said flatly, “I hate it here.” On Tuesday, word went around that another 10 inches were expected. By noon on Wednesday, the snow was falling heavily and the ground was covered. Carrie called to say she was having a meltdown. “I don’t feel like I can do this any more,” she said. “It’s interfering with my work.” I knew what she meant. “I need to finish my book,” I said. (Knowing, of course, that my departure from snow patrol would not guarantee that I would actually finish the damn thing.) And so we resigned our shovels to the next hearty duo, whom the Center will pay to ensure that I don’t break my neck stepping out of my house the morning after a snowfall. It will be someone else’s job to bust the ice at the bottom of our doors and sweep the drifts outside the Center’s Common Room. I can’t say that I’ll miss it. But there is something about extreme weather-both of the Texas and Provincetown variety-that appeals to me. There’s something satisfying about making it through one of those July days when the temperature is over 100. And there’s definitely something about the sound-halfway between a crunch and a mellow squeak–that rubber-soled boots make over packed snow on a paved road. It inspires a weird happiness in me. I love the soft crash of boots through the breakable surface of soft snow. And I’m sure that I’ll miss it. Someday. Emily Rapp received her MFA at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin last spring. She reports that the current Provincetown temperature is 25 degrees, with scattered sunshine, clouds, and-of course-snow showers expected.

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Published at 12:00 am CST