Diary of a snowman

It was a real-life disaster movie. Then cabin fever set in. John Carlin survives Washington's 'Apocalypse Snow'
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The Independent Online
Saturday 6 January

THE weathermen have taken over the airwaves. With fabulously interesting satellite radar maps as their backdrops, our modern-day soothsayers predict that Washington will be struck overnight by a spectacular snowstorm. "Stock up, folks," they warn, "for the big chill."

The moment I set foot in the supermarket I know it is going to a be a great week. It's pandemonium. The queues at the cash registers stretch back to the meat counters. They - or rather we - are clearing the place out. That's what's great: it's us not them. In this most alienating of towns, where the tone is set by android politicians and their humourless hangers-on, impending crisis has restored our humanity.

OK, so it doesn't stop one man from piling up his trolley with what must have been 40 cartons of milk. Solidarity would be too much to expect. But we are united by a gritty common purpose: to survive the catastrophe; to avoid starvation.

As we empty the deep freezes of gourmet diet chow meins and low fat doggy dinners we nod grimly at our fellow shoppers, regarding them with a new compassion and respect. We are having a taste of what life must be like for the wretched of the earth, for the besieged citizens of Chechnya, Sarajevo. Hitherto crises were things we experienced vicariously, on the television screen. Now we are entering that most blessed state of grace: we are stars in our own movie.

Late at night, irritatingly intruding on the meteorological melodrama, President Bill Clinton announces that he's broken "the budget impasse" with Congress. The government, partially closed for three weeks, will re-open on Monday.

Sunday 7 January

I wake up to hear on the radio that because of the weather impasse government workers have been ordered to stay home on Monday. I look out of the window and discover that the world has been transformed into a great big white cake. Snow is like icing. It covers up nature's lumpy imperfections and makes everything look uniform, pristine and smooth. I spend most of the morning watching the 24-hour Weather Channel. Yes, Americans are even more obsessed with the weather than the British. And with good reason.

In Britain weather is about nuisance, about drizzles or showers, partly cloudy or partly sunny. The weather in America is, like everything else, big and extreme. We have hurricanes, floods and tornadoes here; heatwaves like the one in Chicago which one weekend in July killed more than 500 people; and Arctic chills.

It snows all day Sunday, and all through Sunday night. The weathermen says we should not drive except in an emergency. We obey. I stay home and watch, of all things, Doctor Zhivago.

Monday 8 January

It's still snowing. Two feet deep now. My weatherman of choice, Pfister on Channel Eight, says the snow will stop at 9am. It stops at two minutes past. The street returns to life. A neighbour dressed like Scott of the Antarctic starts shovelling her path. A man glides down the middle of the road on skis. I see my first car in 36 hours. It is a four-wheel drive and it is moving.

Tuesday 9 January

I remain a prisoner in my own home. Pfister, a large, wonderfully expansive fellow towards whom Channel Eight's "Storm Desk" anchors defer, had failed to forecast it would start snowing again. Which was reassuring. I had begun to find his omniscience a little unnerving.

A black Jeep drives down the road from right to left; and then back again two minutes later from left to right. He's showing off, flaunting his roadworthiness. (If ever there was a moment to justify owning a Jeep in Washington, this was it.) A neighbour suggests we should stone it if it passes again. (Resentment: the first symptom, I am told, of cabin fever.)

An "expert" on the news says the birth rate will go up in nine months' time. I'm not so sure. Telephone conversations with my neighbours suggest husbands and wives, unaccustomed to spending weekdays and nights together at home, are beginning to drive each other mad. Never mind the birth rate. It's the divorces that will soar.

I glance out of the window and see four people walking down the middle of the road carrying suitcases. Fellini come to Washington. Late at night the snowploughs - rumbling like tanks, yellow lights flashing - hit my street. It's the liberation of Paris. I resist the urge to rush out and hug them, slip a frozen asparagus into their exhausts.

Wednesday 10 January

Big Brother Pfister announces that "the Big Dig" has begun. I scratch around for an implement and stumble across a child's plastic spade thoughtfully bequeathed - I have no other explanation - by my landlord. The path from my front door to the road is 30 yds long. It is six degrees below, but by the time I'm done I'm sweating heavily. A neighbour takes pity and lends me a giant Big Mac of a snow shovel. The mighty task ahead is to excavate the car, a problem compounded by the snowplough's efforts the night before. In clearing the middle of the road they had caged in my car, a white shape wrapped in an immaculately ironed sheet, with a tall barrier of now compacted ice.

I ask my kindly neighbour where I should dump the snow, what the etiquette was. "The first rule of etiquette," she replied, "is every man for himself. The second rule is to try, if possible, not to make things worse for other people's cars." I followed rule two, adding virtuousness to my sense that, for the first time in years, I was engaged in some good, honest, manly toil.

Thursday 11 January

I drive downtown, discovering along the way with guilty delight that my road has been blessed. The snowploughs, most of which are falling to pieces in the nation's capital, have left all but a handful of side streets and secondary roads untouched. Most people are still trapped at home. Those fortunate enough to have broken free have left dustbins and garden chairs in their parking spaces and, in one case, a sign on a stick that reads: "If you didn't dig it, don't park it!"

I return home a couple of hours later in high apprehension, wondering whether someone might have stolen my space. As I turn the corner into my road, I speculate as to what I might do to someone who has. Murder is on my mind. But no, the space is empty. I drive on to the supermarket. More hysterical scenes: Pfister has issued a second "winter storm warning": 4-8ins, he says. It'll stop at noon on Friday.

Friday 12 January

It stops snowing at 12.09pm. About 6ins. A headline in the Washington Post reads: "Apocalypse Snow". The neighbour who lent me the shovel phones to say that some woman had taken her parking place the night before. "I couldn't sleep," she says, "thinking how much I wanted to go out and slash her tyres." I suggest next time she uses a key to scrape the bodywork. She thinks that is an excellent idea.

Saturday 13 January

We are snowed in again and the spirit of comradely love is fading. Another Big Dig, then slush and icy roads beckon. Already cars are smashing into each other all over the place; 50 shovellers have had heart attacks; the weather between North Carolina and Maine, the Storm Desk announces, has killed 89 people. The snow has moved north and the hangover has set in. The movie's over.