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The Blizzard of ‘47

By Alfred Barten

Let me tell you about the Blizzard of '47. I'd like to start out by saying something catchy, like "It began quietly, almost imperceptibly, with a few flakes of snow falling from an ashen sky...", but the truth is I don't remember. I was barely 8 at the time, living on the 9th floor of an apartment building at 90th and Lexington in New York's Borough of Manhattan. What I DO remember is that there was a lot of snow. No, let me put it another way: There was A LOT OF SNOW!!! So much snow, 4 feet by one account, that there was nothing moving on Lexington Avenue or any of the cross streets except for the dump trucks hauling snow (to the East River, I suspect).

On the day after the storm, which began December 26 and lasted two days, my mother read a report in the newspaper saying that men hired to shovel snow from the streets would be fired if they were caught standing around, leaning on their shovels. In a spirit of community-mindedness, I took my little beach shovel and went down to the street to help. Imagine, if you will, men everywhere on Lexington Avenue, shoveling snow; and in their midst an 8-year-old boy with ski cap, mittens, and puffy coat stabbing away at the compacted snow IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AVENUE with his beach shovel. Foremost on my mind was to not get caught "standing around, leaning on my shovel."

The next day I arranged to visit my friend, David Freeman, who lived on 34th Street. Being a bus fanatic, I seized upon this opportunity to ride the bus all the way from 90th to 34th. Any sane person would have opted for the IRT subway, which ran under Lexington Avenue. I could catch an express at 86th Street and be down to 34th in a jiffy. In fact, as a family, we seldom used any public transport other than the subway, and at that we only took it when our destination was at least one express stop away. Otherwise, we walked. But this was MY day and I was free to do as I liked. So I opted for the bus.

I climbed aboard the green and cream colored Lexington Avenue bus at 90th Street. It was one of the new GM buses with inward tilting windshield and gracefully curved edges and corners all around. (There was an older style of bus - not by GM - that was being phased out and rapidly disappearing. As an 8-year-old I had no other way of identifying it than by imitating its sound: zzzzzzzzz. I called it the Zzzzzz-bus.)

Slowly we made our way downtown, stopping at every even-numbered street corner and any odd-numbered major cross-town streets, such as 79th and 57th. I had a great time, studying the bus' interior, the crosswise pairs of seats that were turned lengthwise over the front and back wheels, the overhead interior rails from which the hand straps were fastened for the standees to hang onto, and the fare box, which I had built a simple model of out of cardboard for use when I converted my bed to a bus (I'll save that story for another day). I was especially interested in the advertising panels above the standee windows. Most memorable was the Bengay ad, with a little devil jamming a three-pronged pitchfork (aka trident) into the shoulder of some poor guy who was holding his shoulder and wincing in pain. (I don't really enjoy pain. It's just that the ad was so understandable.)

I watched people get on and off. I saw the bus fill increasingly as we approached mid-town. I also watched the many shops - the flower shops in New York are always bright, colorful, and cheerful - go by, interrupted now and then by a church, and less frequently by a special building such as an armory.

Finally - and I do mean FINALLY - we arrived at 34th Street. I got off and headed west along 34th to David's house. There was still an enormous amount of snow everywhere, and most of the cars were still buried. They appeared as so many mounds of snow, variations in the otherwise snowy landscape. At one point I took a slight detour from the sidewalk and simply walked up, onto and over a snowbound car.

"Get off that car!" yelled a man nearby. Without looking to see who was yelling, I jumped back to the sidewalk and continued on my way.

Later in the day I retraced my steps - except for walking on the cars - and took the bus back up Lexington to 90th. (Unlike today, Lexington was then a two-way avenue.)

The long, boring trip home concluded a VERY LONG day. I understood then why my parents didn't ride the bus very often, if ever. What I've never understood was why my parents were so willing to let me travel alone around New York City at such an early age. I guess times have changed. You can bet no child of mine would ever have that opportunity. Sorry, kid!


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2006 Alfred Barten. All rights reserved.