Note: this is the fourth in a series of memoir pieces I’m writing. The series is titled “Busting Out of Buffalo.”
It’s called “The Lake Effect.” There is probably a science experiment you can do at home to watch it bury civilization. You need a refrigerator, a freezer, an electric fan, and a big tub of water. Right on one edge of that big tub of water, arrange some plastic Monopoly houses and hotels to look like a city. Get creative and use Lego blocks to build a little downtown near the water. Next, refrigerate the water to somewhere in the high thirties, and freeze the land you’ve build your little city on, down to about twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Put the fan at the opposite edge of the water from your little plastic Buffalo, point it straight across your miniature Lake Erie toward downtown, turn it on and watch the shit hit the land. In gigantic frozen piles.
That is how, if I understand the science correctly, one would create a model of the environment in which I used to drive around the city, delivering pizza. Except for late January, 1977. To recreate that one, freeze your little Lake Erie solid and dump a copious helping of icy fairy dust on the lake’s surface before turning on the wind.
Dad trusted me with one of the company delivery cars, an old Plymouth Valiant that doubled as his personal vehicle. It may also have been his way of getting me out of the kitchen. I’d walk in at 4 P.M., loaded down with schoolbooks, to start my shift. The keys were already flying toward me when he’d confirm his wishes with the simple words: “Davey. Delivery.”
It had its advantages. For instance, the girls at D’Youville College (yes, it really is called that) liked our food, and one never knew, walking into the high-rise female dorms at this Catholic institution of higher learning, whether the security desk on the first floor would be manned. If not, there was no one to stop me from going up to the room that placed the order. One never knew how friendly she might be. Usually I never found out, either.
I loved to drive in the snow. The winters of 1976-77 and 1977-78 were two prodigiously snowy winters in a row. During both, Dad tossed the keys at me a couple of times per week. I’m sure it was because he was counting on my extraordinary ability to safely rush through the white powder. I was a hero – a professional blizzard driver. Never mind the four-car chain reaction at the slushy intersection of Main and Hertel when I chanced through a stale yellow. Good thing I knew the cop who saw it all happen. Or the time I lost control on Bedford Avenue and buried the front end of the Valiant into a snow bank that was taller than my six feet, two inches. I worked feverishly that night to un-bury the car, which was stuck and getting stucker as the storm dumped at the rate of about two inches per hour. Never mind the ass-chewing I took that night when I finally freed the vehicle and returned to the restaurant thirty minutes after closing.
I was good.
On nights I didn’t work I’d go with some buddies to Hollywood Huge’s Haven, a tavern that was an easy walk from my house. On good nights, we hit the “Trifecta.” That meant hockey on TV, a cheap deal on draft beer, and young ladies of graceful appearance. We hit the Trifecta on one particular Wednesday night in late January, 1977. Chicken wings and beer, a hockey game, and attractive partners with names like Jennie and Jan to play billiards with. A few innocuous snowflakes fluttering past the window as we watched from within the warmth of the tavern. This was about as good as it got.
It might have been about 8:30 that evening when someone noticed that the innocent flurry had been replaced by an all-out squall, and that the traffic outside was crawling. The two dozen or so bar patrons turned to look out the window and let out a collective gasp.
“Crap,” said one girl to another, “I can’t drive in this if it gets any worse. I’m going home now.” The other girl nodded. And with that, Jennie and Jan, or whatever their names were, were out the door and out of our lives.
“Don’t you wimp out on me, too!” my buddy said. “It just means there’s more beer for us.” We agreed to stay, along with a few other hearty souls, until the hockey game ended.
By then, the few remaining cars out on Hertel Avenue were stuck in the snow. In an all-out Buffalo storm when you see a car stuck in snow you get behind it, encourage the driver to gently rock back and forth, and then you push, thus enabling the car to progress to the next point where the ritual will be repeated by a different set of passers-by. I did my part four or five different times as I slogged through deepening iciness.
The last snowfall had been a couple of days earlier and most everyone had shoveled their walks since then, so my walk to the bar had been a nice fifteen minute stroll. But by the time I was done pushing cars, the snow was almost up to my waist. The squall was in full rage. It took over an hour to get back home.
For the next four days, a high-pitched whistle more convincing than any special effect Spielberg could create whipped through our wooden frame house. Sometimes, the windows showed us only a tempest of pitch white. I knew I would remember this storm for a long time when I noticed Friday night, that our six-foot backyard fence was completely covered.
In Buffalo, we wax philosophical about weather. The Midwest has tornadoes; the tropics have hurricanes; Italy and California have big earthquakes. What’s a little snow every so often? Then on Saturday, we began to hear that frozen bodies were being pulled from cars that had gotten stuck on highways and streets that the police, fire and rescue services couldn’t reach in time.
Plows came in on trains and cargo airplanes to help. Nowhere to put all this snow except to turn the city’s largest golf course into icy piles that evoked the Himalayas. The first tee time of the season came around Memorial Day.
Thirty years passed before another storm like that came. By then I had already left the place, so I experienced it through my friends’ unbelievable pictures. But I believed. Because I was once a professional blizzard driver.