Snow in the City

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Published on 02/25/2011

A quick and heavy snowfall has a strangely magical effect on the city. Our little blizzard in Pittsburgh the other day brought everything to a halt. The streetcars kept rolling, but most of the buses gave up, and there were abandoned cars here and there on major highways. And when everything stopped—when people gave up trying to be anywhere but where they were—then came the silence.

It’s very hard to describe in words, this surreal acoustical change that comes over the city when the snow is thick on the ground and still falling. But everyone who has heard it remembers it. The absence of the usual urban background noise is what you notice first. But there’s more than silence: the sounds you do hear seem to come from another world, or from inside your own mind. The usual reverberation from paved streets and brick walls is gone; the snow absorbs every sound, so every sound you hear comes directly from its source. Conversations from far away are impossibly distinct; no echoes muddy them up, and no constant hum of traffic obscures them. They’re as frighteningly clear as voices in your head.

The morning after a heavy snow is a sneak preview of that new heaven and new earth we’ve been promised. Every ugliness and imperfection is covered in flawless beauty, freed from every stain and blot. But the greatest miracle happens as the human population of the city wakes up and starts to dig out. Now you see neighbors being neighbors—the strong pitching in to help the weak. This is the life of the New Jerusalem. The old heaven and earth have passed away.

Of course, in a few days it all melts, and then we’re back where we started.