My Thai friends are always surprised when I tell them that New York City has the worst weather in the world. They see these Chamber of Commerce photographs and tourist brochures and it all looks very nice. Well, they take those photos on nice days, but New York only gets about forty nice days in a year. The remaining 320 days are problematic. The problems include, but are not limited to, the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s a city of extremes, weather included. You like hurricanes? (Typhoons.) Try a blizzard sometime!
Thailand is hot, but New York is more uncomfortable. It’s all about the humidity. Thailand gets high temperatures, but the humidity is generally between sixty-five and eighty-five percent, seasonally. Humidity in a New York summer can get up to ninety-eight percent. There’s a difference.
Yes, New York is hot. How hot is it, Johnny? It’s too hot to have the lights on in the house. If you walked around my town in Queens in the Fifties or Sixties after dark, the houses all had every window and door wide open and the only electric thing that was on was the TV. It’s too hot to sleep with your head on a pillow. Too much heat build-up. You’d sweat to death if it didn’t wake you up first. Ditto, sleeping on your side, that’s out too.
There’s a lot of air-conditioning now, but that’s a recent development. I lived in New York to the age of twenty-seven, and I never had air-con. Usually not even a fan. Hot, hot, hot.
New York is slightly less cold than cities further inland, but the dampness in New York compensates nicely. The dampness intensifies the cold in the same way that the humidity intensifies the heat in summer. New York is surrounded by water; most people don’t realize that it’s a city composed of islands. That North Atlantic is a cold ocean, too.
I remember walking around on days that were so cold that I had to put my glasses in my pocket and cover one eye at a time with a gloved hand. My eyes were so cold that they felt like they were going to crack open like eggs. New York is full of skyscrapers like the ocean is full of salt water, and the big buildings create a “canyon effect” that can really drive the wind right through you.
Snow has one thing in common with war, at least one thing. Those with no experience of the thing are the most enthusiastic about it. Snow, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, if I never experience snow again, it will be too soon. Snow is only fun for children. Even I will admit that snow was a real treat when I was a boy. We little brats had a lot of fun. Then you grow up, and snow becomes a nightmare. Snow makes it harder to get to work; harder to shop for food; harder to dress your children; snow complicates everything.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have awoken to find that fifteen or twenty inches of snow has fallen overnight. Well, get busy Charlie, you’ve got work to do. You look out the window and see a car-shaped pile of snow where you parked last night. Digging a car out of a blanket of snow is something that the snow inexperienced never consider. Here’s how it goes:
First, clear the snow off of the trunk. In the trunk you have brushes for use in clearing the rest of the car, small pieces of heavy rug to use for traction, one or two ice scrapers for the windows, and a snow shovel. Snow is a lot heavier than it looks in pictures, and all of this shoveling and brushing and scraping is hard work. At some point, you need to get into the car, which is also a lot harder than it sounds.
The door lock, of course, is frozen solid, and the key will not rotate. Now you must have a lighter handy. Hold the key in the fire for a while and put it in the door. It will not open the first time. Wait a moment for the heat to transfer to the lock. Repeat, many times. Try to rock the key around as you go. Eventually the door will open.
Success! You’re out of your parking space! And it only took a half hour! Now all you need to do is slip and slide your way to work! Have a nice day!
Even worse than snow is a freezing rain. Rain!
Rain is a constant companion in New York. The whole year is the rainy season. Everyone has several pairs of rubber overshoes, waterproof shoes and/or boots. Everyone has raincoats, maybe more than one. Everyone has a collection of umbrellas. It’s never enough. The sheer volume of rain and wind will overpower everything. Some days, you get soaking wet in spite of it all.
The worst weather that I have ever encountered was a day in New York that I call a “Thirty-Thirty-Thirty” day. You’ll have to suffer through a few of these every year. It’s about thirty-three degrees outside. Just above freezing, so it’s not snow coming down. The rainwater itself is about thirty-four degrees, just this side of being ice, and it’s pouring down like there’s no tomorrow. Add to this a thirty-something mile per hour wind. That, my friend, is enough to make a grown man cry. There’s nothing that you can do to stay dry. Your pants are so wet that freezing water is running down into your shoes. Your umbrella, if you can keep it from collapsing in the wind, is only a small advantage, because the wind is blowing the rain right up at you, up, down and sideways. Water is blowing up under your raincoat; it’s running down your neck and up your sleeves. I’ve gotten to work or school so wet that I could take a bill out of my wallet and squeeze water out of it. By then you are miles from home, and it will be a long time before you can get into a change of clothes.
What can you do to protect yourself? Wool, dear reader, wool is your friend. One of the natural properties of wool is that it retains the ability to contain heat even when wet. So woolen hats are a must, and woolen anything helps. Ever see those pictures of Irish kids playing outside on rainy days, all wearing those nice Irish woolen sweaters? Warm as toast.
Best advice: if you can keep your head warm, and your feet dry, you probably won’t die. (Antibiotics help, too. It was a Thirty-Thirty-Thirty day that killed my grandfather, but that was before penicillin.)
And it rains all year! It’s horrible. Springtime can be nice, but when that will happen is anybody’s guess. Either April, May, or June, it will probably rain almost every day for the entire month. I was a letter carrier in 1972, and in June it rained twenty-eight out of the thirty days. And hard rain, too, none of this sprinkling. Up through the teen years none of this really bothers you, but once you are officially an adult it starts to get oppressive before long. I lasted in New York until the age of twenty-seven; by then my wife and I couldn’t take it anymore. We moved to Los Angeles and never looked back. Well, almost never, but that’s another story. The weather in L.A. is like a wonderful fairy tale with a happy ending, and we enjoyed it very much. It was like surviving the sinking of the Titanic.
Ice Storms. These are very dangerous, and very beautiful. Overnight the temperature is just above freezing and there is a mist falling. Not real rain, but mist. As the mist settles on the surfaces of the world, it turns to clear ice. Clear, smooth, shiny ice. The ice covers every contour of every tree, every building, and yes, every street. It’s hell to try to drive in, but it’s swell to see. It’s always gone by about nine a.m.
Atmospheric Inversions. These are supremely uncomfortable and annoying. Some kind of bubble forms over the area, like a hundred miles in diameter or something, and the air doesn’t move in or out for about a week. For all of that time the sun just makes the air get hotter and hotter, and it always seems to start out hot to begin with. There was a good one in June, 1973, and it was as hot as I’ve ever been in my life. It was almost 100 degrees, and almost 100% humidity. And zero movement in the air, for days! I’d sit under a tree reading, and not one leaf moved one millimeter. There wasn’t a single sound coming from the trees. Boy, June really is like a box of chocolates . . . you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Sudden Developments. Another terrible feature of the weather in New York is the profound unpredictability of it all. No one on the earth has a clue what the weather will be tomorrow. The worst thing about this is that they try, and they guess, those TV weathermen, those so-called meteorologists. It’s a mischief.
How many times did I hear them predict that the next day would be a beautiful day, a perfect day, mild and clear, only to be subjected to a barrage of terrible weather. Before bed, the weather man says: great day tomorrow, great weather. When you wake up, the radio weather guy says: perfect day today. And when you look out the window, it does look perfect. So you go to work in shirtsleeves, wearing your good shoes. You go to work by taking a twenty-five minute bus ride, followed by a forty minute subway ride, and a couple of long walks are involved. All morning it’s a beautiful day, and you might even have lunch in the park or something. But during the afternoon, something happens.
By two p.m. it’s cloudy. By three p.m. it’s dark, and a wind has come up. By four p.m. it’s raining. By the time you leave the office at five p.m. it’s like Noah’s Ark out there, you’re walking in a driving rain and the temperature is fifteen degrees lower than when you came to work.
It gets worse. You’re soaked to the skin before you get to the subway, and you stand there dripping wet on the train for forty minutes. Now you have to catch your bus. Traffic is a mess, and there are fifty people on line for the bus, which will hold about thirty of them, if you’re lucky. (People are on the bus already.) More people are coming out of the subway all the time, and getting on the line. If you try to hang back, under an awning or in a building, the line keeps getting longer and you never get on a bus. So you must stand on the line in the rain, for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, in the pouring rain, in your shirtsleeves and you good shoes, with no umbrella, trying desperately to get home from work. Oh yeah, New York weather is a blast.
It’s crazy how the weather comes up so quickly. When I was sixteen years old I had a summer job working in a defense plant in our town. I walked to work. One morning, one beautiful morning, when the weather prediction for the day was “perfect,” I got to the gate and the guard was looking at the sky. Somebody said, “nice day, eh?” and the fellow said, “okay now, but it’ll be fucking murder later on.” Wait now, what do you mean? “See that?” He pointed at the sky. “Pink at night, sailor’s delight. Pink in the morning, sailor’s warning.” We didn’t think too much about it. The fellow at the gate had sailed the seas of the world for twenty plus years with the merchant marine and it turned out that he knew his weather. At about two p.m. it started to storm around like nobody’s business. Rain and wind like we thought that the windows would be smashed, and black as night.
Anything can happen in New York, weather wise, and it probably will happen, too.
The Blizzard. And now, the coup de grace, ladies and gentlemen . . . The Blizzard! If you think that you like the hurricanes of the world, the typhoons, well just try them with sub-freezing temperatures, and snow instead of rain, but with the same high winds and all of that lightning, too. Now that’s a party!
There’s nothing like trying to make your way home by car after work, and having the time stretch way out as the snow piles up, and having to cross huge suspension bridges while periodically having to get out of the car and join a group of drivers trying to push abandoned cars aside to make a pathway, and all the while it’s snowing like mad, blown by a strong wind, and there’s brilliant lightning flashing in the sky, in the clouds and the snow, and everything is punctuated by terrible thunder. If that’s your idea of a party, maybe you should move to New York.
New York is a great place, no doubt. Best museums in the world, best restaurants, best pizza. It’s a great place for music and art of every kind. It’s a tough place, though. It’s very stressful, and the weather is only part of it. “If [you] can make it there, [you’ll] make it anywhere.” Try it if you want to. Good luck! I handled it okay when I was young, strong and foolish. I wouldn’t even try it again at this point.