It's not even winter yet. There's still another two weeks left to autumn. Yet the snow doesn't care about the calendar; it's going to fall regardless. And this first significant snowfall of autumn for our little city of Rochester has the same effect as all first snowstorms: everything and everyone hunkers down, pulling knit caps over ears, wrapping scarves around necks, and craning heads downwards while awkwardly shuffling to and from cars, houses, and other destinations, over slick, snow-covered walkways.
The sky, filled with monochrome clouds, drop wet New England snow. Under this slate-sky people look at each other differently than they usually do. It reminds me of how we all look at and talk to each other after something particularly tragic happens in our country: people make tentative eye-contact, filled with a kind of hope, something child-like or defenseless, knowing that we're all in the same boat, that the snow is "part of it all", and being the harbinger of winter, no one's ready to gripe, like we New Englanders can, about being fed up with the white stuff, just yet.
After a brisk walk filled with boyish enthusiasm to Rochester Common, I wrestle with a fancy-pants digital camera; my partner’s camera. There’s a statue in the park that I know will make for a terrific picture. It’s a man from the civil war era standing on top of a monument that puts the soldier well out of reach but close enough to see the details in the sculptor's work. The snow covering his shoulders and union army infantry hat as he stares unblinkingly into the storm seems the perfect sight of a stalwart and true man doing what he hopes is right, and doing it with conviction. But since I have no idea how to work the damn-fool camera, having just barely done more than read the first few pages of the owners manual, what my imagination sees and what pictures I get are worlds apart. Turns out, a cell phone camera, while not as artistically satisfying, is much more forgiving. The civil war soldier still proves too challenging to capture in image, but with a tilt of the phone to get an interesting frame, the historic bandstand with its 100+ year old roof (the rest of the structure has been rebuilt) makes for a dramatic photo.
The snow, like most snowfall in New England, is wet. The sea of frozen water flakes stick together making for quick snowballs or, if a greater amount were to fall, the iconic snowman. Sticky snow has also made for a ridiculous situation, one in which my cheap-ass, flat-soled shoes don’t shed the snow with each step. Rather, snow gathers under each shoe, one step at a time, forming snow clumps under the arches of my feet. With each step, and growing clump of snow, I grow taller while my feet, without touching the ground, rock over the snow-clumps.
Marking the transition from day to evening, a blueish hue colors the previously gray sky. Walking as best I can up south main street towards downtown, I watch oncoming headlights cut through curtains of snowflakes as tires of those passing vehicles part and throw the slush coating the road.
I stop into my favorite little independent eatery, Fresh Vibes Cafe, owned by a young woman who took a huge risk to follow her passion by opening her business. At this point I’m covered in snow, much like the civil war soldier in the Common, perhaps wearing a look less of conviction and more of childish wonder. Snow covers my shoulders, hat, and my beard, and looking the way I do draws some looks of interest from the owner and her family members that run the restaurant with her.
The snow on my face and coat melts making me look like a haggard old dog. I relish the moment. Stepping inside from the cold, and gray, and falling snow, and into the warm, welcoming, well-lit cafe feels right. It’s New England, man. And this building, like most of the others in downtown Rochester, is old. It’s historic. The ceilings are high; the floor boards are gigantic, old wide pine boards; solid, plump posts wrapped with red and gold ribbon bookend the balusters on the stairs, and windows much taller than my 6 foot 3 frame, one with a holiday tree festooned with deep-colored blue, red, and gold bulbs, open up to the winter-like scene outside.
I go to the lineup of coffee urns to pour myself some of the precious black gold inside them. The coffee is hot and dark, as it should be. I reach for the collection of homemade baked goods and grab the first sugary delight to catch my eye; a soft gooey, marshmallow treat, that pairs perfectly with the Italian roast coffee, and friendly conversation. In this storm downtown, nearly no one is out and about. The few who are, are nestled into their respective shops, gathered together, looking out the windows wistfully, and carrying on with quiet storytelling. The storm outside and the warmth inside foster this environment where the few gathered look to each other for human connection. I guarantee under most circumstances that the few of us in Fresh Vibes would be less inclined to strike up conversation out of the blue. But this storm, and warm, welcoming downtown storefront creates the communal feeling to turn to each other and share stories, as if we’re turning to each other in a time of need. It feels really good.
And that’s living in a small city: people seeking human connection, gathering to protect each other, to comfort each other, to hunker down and wrap each other in neighborly blankets, and huddle around the fire of community.