By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It was nearly midnight Friday when I remembered the precise reason I moved from Chicago back to Kansas.
Unbearably cold winters from which there is no escape.
My original moment of clarity arrived as I waited at a Chicago Transit Authority bus stop, just a block or two west of Lake Michigan. It was November, and while the winter of 1990 wasn’t the coldest on record, it was close. I’d gotten off work a bit after 8 p.m. Night had arrived, along with a nasty, whipping wind off the lake. And the bus was not on time.
Huddled in my three layers of clothing, scarf, hat, gloves, boots, I started to cry. It hadn’t been a horrible day, or even a bad one. It was just so cold, waiting in the dark for the bus, and there was no way I would fork over $20 for a taxi to my sublet studio apartment in Edgewater. Crying in cold Chicago weather is a lose-lose deal. Tears don’t freeze, but they cause a person’s face to feel colder. So does a runny nose. Gloves make it impossible to address either problem effectively.
The bus arrived, and I fumbled up the three-step entrance, shiny-eyed, my drippy nose on display. Who cares about manners at such a moment?
“I am moving back to Kansas,” I thought bleakly. “I have had enough of this vertical snow and wind off the lake.”
What I really meant was, at least in Kansas, I would have insulation from the things that made winter so horrible. Instead of opening double locks on a dark, solitary apartment, I could rely on smiling people to welcome me when I arrived at the door. Instead of the hollow sound of metal radiators hissing to life while I peeled off my damp socks, I could live in a place with central heat. My mother baked bread and made soup and smiled when she served those things to the people at the table in her warm kitchen. I could also ride from place to place in a car, rather than having to rely on the CTA and its slushy, screeching bus service. And, since I would no longer be a single woman living in a huge metropolis in a pre-cell-phone era, I wouldn’t have to worry about personal safety and security issues on top of 20-inch drifts of wet snow.
Such thoughts occupied me on the drafty bus, and the list of reasons to leave the city acquired a golden glow. I wouldn’t say I felt comforted, but a sense of resolve toughened me.
It’s been more than 20 years since my eureka moment, but the ghost of unbearable winter returned as I drove to pick up my husband from work late Friday night. It was past midnight. Something was wrong with the fan in my rusty little station wagon, so that after I scraped the frost from the windshield, my fingers numb in less than a minute, I had to scrape the inside of the windshield, too.
I realized the notion that the car would warm up was just a hollow fantasy, so I resigned myself to driving while partially frozen. Halfway to the pick-up spot, I realized I had switched to bus-stop mode. My teeth chattered intermittently. I hummed and muttered under my breath, trying not to exhale too vigorously because that would create more frosty stuff and it’s hard to scrape the inside of the windshield while driving. I also had a vague craving for a cigarette — which makes no sense, since I haven’t smoked for more than 20 years. I remembered that smoking is one of those things a person does to pass the unendurable-seeming time while waiting for the bus.
I shared these cozy thoughts with my husband, who had also defaulted to teeth-chattering muttering by the time I arrived. It didn’t seem to make a difference that he’d been able to wait inside a heated building; the mere thought of having to emerge into the icicle air was enough to trigger bus-stop behavior in the man.
He laughed while I reminisced about my epiphany. Who decides to move halfway across the country, leaving behind a hipster life before the term “hipster” was even in vogue? What crazy 22-year-old willingly opts to live in a place that does not yet sell whole-bean coffee or provide statewide access to public television? This was back in the day, mind you, before the Internet was a thing, when Amazon did not exist, and many people in rural Kansas assumed vegetarianism was an exotic religion. What foolish writer would prefer prairie blizzards to what is sometimes called Chiberia?
I’ll tell you who leaves Chicago in the dead of winter: one half-frozen Kansas girl.
“It looks like the cold finally caught up to you,” my husband observed. “Now what?”
I didn’t have words. Once we reached the driveway, I parked the car, unlocked the door to our house-with-central-heating, pulled on two layers of pajamas along with a knitted hat and fuzzy socks, and found my rightful place — in the bed, under four heavy quilts. I’ll come out when spring arrives.