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Secrets of the City


By Anne Roiphe


In Chapter 57, positive feedback flooded in after the Mayor’s radio broadcast.

* * *|

Early in the morning, the weather reports said, a small storm that perhaps would leave an inch and a half by the following dawn was approaching over the mountains. “Wear your boots,” said the weather girl, waving cheerfully at the camera. By noon the weather channel was purring about possible ice patches as the snow turned to rain around midnight. But by the evening rush hour the first flakes had in fact begun to swirl around the lampposts, thick and fast. The ice skaters in the park circled the rink with snow gathering in their eyelashes, sticking to the ice in clumps, shining under the lights of the office buildings beyond, dusting the trees with white and the railings and benches in the park where each flake with its own lace crystals that had once been mere moisture was now floating in the westward wind promising renewal, glory. The evening news, repeated again and again in the crawl under the talking heads on TV, contained a report of a real storm, the kind that closed schools and clogged up roads, paralyzed neighborhoods, caused babies to be born at bus stops. “It’s coming,” said the weather girl, wearing a parka and waterproof mittens.

In the subway there was a smell of wet wool and a certain giddiness among the crowds that pushed through the waiting doors. The trombonist who every afternoon serenaded the downtown riders at the midtown stop, his fedora on the ground like an open hand waiting to clasp good fortune, was throwing his head back and blowing his horn as if he were an angel announcing a truce between Lucifer and God, which would have been good news for the citizens of the city certainly.

There were rivers of water in the center aisles of the buses. The litter cans at the corners were filling up with snow, and the parked cars with white roofs with each passing hour seemed to sink further and further into the snow like ships going down. The traffic lights were blurry as the snow passed their lenses, and the brake lights of those cars still moving dotted the streets with red smears.

The snow fell through the night and on into the morning. When Mel woke it was still coming down strong. When Ruth saw the snow out her window she smiled and went back to bed. When Ina saw the snow she snuggled her little girl and promised her son a snowman as large as he was, which wasn’t very large, but he didn’t know that.

Kim would not make her doctor’s appointment, which did not please her. Brooke considered how to pass the day with her children. Her boots all had high heels and were not well-suited for sledding in the park.

Leonid had made an appointment with a hat manufacturer to discuss his design, his original design for a woman’s hat, but that appointment would have to wait. In his small apartment at the far end of the city, Leonid was impatient. He drank three cups of coffee but didn’t have a cigarette. He had quit at his brother’s urging.

The behemoth snow remover-salt scatterers moved out from the city garages and began their stately parade down the streets, pushing the snow to the sides and creating tunnels in the center. The salt flew in the air and settled on the curbs, and the dogs on leashes burned their feet in the innocent-appearing snow and whimpered and limped in the cold. Minutes after the snow removers had passed, the snow piles had piled up again. This was a blizzard, a blizzard perhaps of record depth. Was the city prepared?

Mel made his way to his office with the help of three police cars, all moving at 2 miles an hour through the blizzard. His staff was not in. But the phones were ringing. Where were the snow removers, had they slighted the African-American neighborhoods? Had they forgotten the Caribbean immigrants? Didn’t they know that Pakistanis and refugees from Bangladesh needed their paychecks? Why weren’t their streets cleaned?

Reverends sent e-mails, and pastors of storefront churches who couldn’t open their doors because of the high snow called the emergency hotline, and there was an angry conference call from the rabbi who headed a large Orthodox group whose students could not get to school. He had given a significant donation to the Mayor’s campaign and expected at the very least that his streets would be given equal treatment. The Mayor soothed and sweet-talked. He suggested to the rabbi that the students of the yeshivas go into the streets and shovel. He hummed anxiously to himself. He called his Parks Commissioner, who was in his command center. “We don’t have enough trucks. I told you so last summer,” the commissioner said. In the summer snow removers did not seem high on the list of necessities. The financial district was closed. The market did not go up or down, it hovered where it was, a ghostly voice over the white city. And still the snow fell.

Commerce may have been stilled, but art was undaunted. Leonid with paper and pen redesigned his hat. He took a piece of felt from the arm of his couch and cut it, then took glue from his neighbor and made a red pompom from wool torn from a pocket of his cardigan. He tried again and again until he got it just right.

The bridges were uncrossable, the docks unreachable; the universities had neither students nor professors. The entire city was holding its breath waiting for the snow to stop. Soot was falling from chimneys but not fast enough to stain the city, which for the moment seemed to be an innocent place made for children — one almost expected candy to be hanging from the branches of the trees in the park.

Then a snow remover, a large yellow truck with big wheels and a plow pushed down the avenue and turned up the snow and an arm appeared, an arm in a blue jacket. A head followed. They were attached to the body, but just barely.

“For God’s sake,” yelled the driver as he pulled over to the side of the street and saw in front of him several other hands and heads and half-buried bodies sticking out of the snow. “What the hell,” he yelled into his phone. He got out of his truck and wrung his hands. “I didn’t see them,” he said to the police who arrived 40 minutes later. But he hadn’t run them over with his plow. They were all Jews from the neighborhood, black-coated Jews with their black hats and beards and curls and tallit still on in the snow, frozen to their skins. What had happened? Who did this? By the time the news trucks got there the bodies had been stacked up and covered with blankets borrowed from homes down the street. The neighbors had gathered at the curb, many of them with tears in their eyes. “A pogrom,” said one. “A pogrom,” said another. Who did it? They knew who did it.

Next week: Ina tells Sergei her big idea.

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