ABOUT A WEEK after a superblizzard roared through earlier this month, I awoke again, as most people around Boston did, to howling wind and swirling snow. The first thing I did was look out for our neighbor. There is always at least one neighbor whose approach to shoveling is more than efficient and closer to maniacal. It’s beyond traffic-cone-and-lawn-chair maniacal. It’s grab-your-hot-chocolate-and-pull-up-a-chair-’cause-this-is-more-interesting-than-Facebook maniacal.
I do not know this neighbor. Our apartment complex is large and provides a lot of temporary housing for corporations. While everyone is friendly, not everyone stays long enough to forge the kinds of bonds the term “neighbor” evokes.
This particular neighbor is new. She dons a full ski suit and ski mask while shoveling. The outfit she wore after the blizzard stood out enough for each of my kids to ask why she was dressed like that, if she was not playing out there. “Because it’s cold” was the obvious answer, but I knew the real one: She was going to be out there the entire day.
Since I am in my 30s, I am among those Bostonians who compares every snowstorm to 1978. Ten inches? Not as bad as ’78. Three days off school? Not as bad as ’78. Thirty inches and trapped inside with a 3- and a 5-year-old after just proclaiming new family rules about no Disney? Not nearly as bad as ‘78. No power? What about ’78, when everyone was stuck in their cars on the highway?
I’ve romanticized the Blizzard of ’78, in part because that was when I learned how lovely being neighborly can be. In the days after that storm, my family, just moved back from out of state, met some of the neighbors who grew to be lifelong friends. It may have taken 30 minutes to walk the 50 feet for a visit, but it was worth the effort of getting there and bringing food. A little part of me hoped we’d make some of the same kinds of friends during this month’s blizzard. I had plans to deliver homemade-during-the-storm cookies and share sleds to Shaw’s down the hill.
But by the time the shoveling began after the storm, my hopes were dashed as I watched Ski Mask shovel out two large SUVs — presumably hers.
She began early. We noticed her during breakfast. By the kids’ morning snack she was still out there, getting visibly agitated on the few occasions when plows came and pushed more snow her way. As she dug out her vehicles, she committed the faux pas of dumping snow behind other people’s cars. True, there were very few places to put any snow. But some of us did protest (unsuccessfully), and there are few excuses for brushing off or yelling at a neighbor who asks, “Can you please stop shoveling me in?”
By 5 or 6 that evening, she’d snowed in five or six cars. If you left for an hour to, well, not shovel for an hour, your car would be next. As we sat to eat dinner, the tally grew, and my kids asked more questions: “Is that being nice?” “Why is she dressed up like that?” “What about other people’s cars?” “Why is she dressed up like that?” “When did she eat her lunch?” “Wait, is she being nice?”
Over dinner, we talked about being a good neighbor and helping others, but there were few examples to point out as we watched Ski Mask labor on at others’ expense. That is, until another neighbor — an even newer neighbor— began shoveling out cars that were not hers, cars now blocked in by 5-foot piles of snow because of Ski Mask. That neighbor’s plates are from the Midwest.
After dark I delivered our cookies. One apartment wouldn’t answer the door, but another sent a thank you note the next day. I am pretty sure they are not from here.
But it is not just Boston. In a culture where we commiserate virtually about snow and crazy lines at the supermarket in front of the warm glow of our many screens, we have lost the urgency to venture out and connect actually. We are only slightly different from Ski Mask, whose gaze is so inward she couldn’t care less about the 5-foot drifts of snow behind her neighbors cars, as long as her own cars are free to drive when she wants.
I miss neighbors. And I miss ’78.