The Weather Next Door

In a snowstorm, everyone lives in a small town.

I was ten years old when the blizzard of ’96 hit, burying Virginia under feet of ice and snow. My father, who spent every snow day out on the road, fixing people’s phones, took my mother and I down to the river to see what the winter weather had done. As many of the roads were made of red clay, plowing and shoveling was difficult, and many of the residents of the nearby beach area were elderly and infirm. My father felt he had a duty, no matter how tired he was of traversing the county on barely drivable roads.

When we got to the beach road, a group of men my father knew well stood around a small car, buried up to the axels in snow and ice. The driver, an out-of-towner (a “come-here," as we “from-heres” call them), was trying to drive out and got stuck. The men were devising a way to pull him free, wondering if a tow rope was really necessary. They were rocking his car back and fourth and encouraged him to get in and gently press the gas.

As the man got back behind the driver’s seat, he unlocked the door with a *beep beep* and sat at the wheel. The men rolled him forward a few feet and he seemed to come free, but quickly got stuck again. He climbed out from behind the wheel, closed the door, and locked it again with a quick *beep beep*.

This perplexed everyone standing around the tiny, crummy car. What was this guy’s deal? Why did he keep locking the door? Did he think we wanted to steal his seemingly useless car? Everyone around him had a Ford F-150 and drove it more capably than he drove his very tiny car. Why was he locking and re-locking his door?

His problem was quickly diagnosed: he was “city folk”. No more needed to be said.

I’ve lived in the Northern Virginia area for years now. People with no sense of obligation call it “The DC Metro Area,” but as a Virginian, I call it “Northern Virginia.” Most Southern Virginians hear “Northern Virginia” or “NoVA” and might as well hear “New Jersey.” They think of it as a world apart, and they aren’t necessarily wrong.

In the years I’ve lived here, we’ve had a handful of Snowmageddons. The first was in 2010, when I shared an apartment with three other people, including my future wife. We didn’t have to shovel much, just to unbury our cars. I didn’t really know many of our neighbors and they never sought me out, so I never really felt like I had to account for anyone but my roommates and then-girlfriend.

On my way home one day, a radio PSA instructed listeners to “check in on elderly neighbors.” I knew there was an elderly lady living downstairs so I thought I would do my civic and Christian duty and see if she needed anything.

I knocked on her door one day and she gave me a loud “WHO IS IT” without opening the door to me. I said I was her upstairs neighbor and she only opened the door a crack, with the chain locked.

Clearly, she was suspicious of people coming to visit her. I could see she had an oxygen tank so I asked if I could help her shovel or clear off a car or anything. She told me no and thanked me for asking, then closed the door.

I saw a few guys in logo jackets digging her out over the next day or so. She had outsourced the job. Fine by me, less digging I had to do.

I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for about three years now. I’ve come to know my neighbors pretty well. They suffer me with a degree of dignity, at least. When my pipes burst a few years back and a river of water came flooding out of the house and froze on the sidewalk, they didn’t come with pitchforks. They jumped in and helped, to their credit, or at the very least, didn’t make it worse by yelling at me.

The last few days have been a repeat of the 2010 Snowmageddon. The Weather Channel called it “Winter Storm Jonas,” which nobody I know bothered calling it. I made it my personal mission to keep the sidewalk from freezing over or sitting under three inches of hard pack. I shoveled and scraped and salted every few hours, even as the snow was coming down. Every time I felt like stopping, I reminded myself that there were people around me that needed the work done.

“Jack and his wife have a baby to carry.”

“Lonnie has her dog and her knees aren’t very good.”

“Celia is getting up there in years and she can’t get out of work, even with the weather.”

Nobody paid me. Nobody even asked. I just did it. I kept thinking about how much it was needed and how little we can ever count on the HOA to do their job and do it well.

My next door neighbors, Samantha and Sandy, saw my good efforts and came over last night with a fresh-baked loaf of bread. Just their small way of saying thank you. It meant so much to me. My wife was beyond thrilled.

“You must have really impressed them,” she said.

“It was nothing,” I said. It really wasn’t. In the end, all the snow will melt anyway, I’m just telling it where it has to sit until it does.

Where I live is not a town unto itself. It’s just another hunk of Fairfax county, a field of ticky-tacky townhouses stacked row on row. Proximity is the only tie that binds. But we all talk to each other, look after each other, see to each others’ needs. We are not friends, but we are good neighbors. That means a lot to a small town boy living in a big town.

In a snowstorm, people may live by themselves, but that doesn’t mean they’re alone.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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