Changing Seasons

Spring arrives to a troubled climate and strange sights on the streets of Hartford.

 

This story was published in “State of the Capitol,” a former weekly blog about urban life and culture from my year living in Hartford, Connecticut.

~~~

Hartford gets snow on the first day of April. Morning is rainy and humid, and the sense of expectation brought by the day’s forecast slumps towards letdown by mid-afternoon, but then, around 4pm, the falling raindrops thicken. Precipitation slows, meanders, drifts towards the street. There’s no more than an inch on the ground by midnight, but it’s enough to blanket the lawns and the rooftops, enough for a final glimpse of winter, the earth’s most beautiful season. It’s ten days late for the equinox, but what the hell. April fools.

The snow is more than enough for me, watching the stillness outside from my living room window. I was born one of those odd humans who, though happy in sunlight and summertime, privately mourns the coming of spring, if for no other reason than the trickling away of winter’s last snow. Even other New Englanders, supposedly hardy, at peace with the cold, find this attitude strange, if not a mark of insanity. It’s one thing to wake on the first crisp morning of autumn and think, “Yes! Sweaters!”, but quite another to look forward to the three looming months of cold, dark winter—and its calm nights, its crystalline mornings, its burnt sunsets and clear, invigorating air—as I do.

Nothing strange, though, about spring snow in New England. Children are taught that my corner of the world has four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall, as we used to sing in class—but not the trickier fact, learned by experience, that the seasons here can come at more or less any time of the year, give or take flowers and foliage and perhaps snow in July. Increasingly, that is when they decide to come.

The new snow conjures memories from the last three months. When winter was on time this year, Hartford was beautiful. On the first heavy snowfall, in January, I took a taxi to Union Station downtown for a night train to New Haven. The driver took Farmington Avenue at a carriage’s pace, passing beneath Victorian-era streetlights pixelated in the falling snow. The ghosts of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe lingered in the faux-candlelit windows of their houses on the hill. The next morning, Hartford was new.

On another one, in February, a friend and I woke up to the brightest day that either of us had ever seen. Every window was white, blinding, completely blank—my neighborhood had disappeared in the snow. The blizzard shook the house, battered the windowsills, and flung snow halfway down the hall when we tried to peek outside. Then, in an instant, it stopped. All was quiet. We stepped out into snow up to our thighs on my front steps; the sun was shining in a deep blue sky. Soon the plow came, burying our cars, and then the police, breaking the stillness. “MOVE YOUR VEHICLES,” boomed the officials’ megaphone, “PARKING BAN IN EFFECT.” (Heard unofficially: “GOD DAMMIT.”) Twenty minutes later, we’d met all of my neighbors. We finished the night with a walk around the block.

There were a few more snows before spring came, always followed by a stretch of days just as beautiful, when the snow was still clean and piled high and glowing blue at sunset. But not enough, I think. By early March, this winter was already one of the hottest winters ever recorded. Hartford’s daytime temperatures dropped below freezing on only six days in January. In February, two. The snow never lasted long. Six more days in January hit temperatures above fifty degrees; the next month, eight; of those eight, half were in the sixties. Another day, February 24th, was 75 degrees and sunny. The sun still set early, the leaves were still gone, but for wearing clothes, driving cars, and all other human purposes, February 24th was a summer day. Possibly some schoolchildren somewhere are getting very confused. Maybe their teachers, too.

Maybe this April snow is stranger than it looks.

*

It’s 68 degrees on the morning of Sunday, April 9, not partly but completely sunny, with a mild breeze that feels like the stuff that t-shirts were invented for. While I cook my late breakfast, the people of Hartford—Hartforders? Hartfordians? we haven’t decided—are already out in the streets of the West End, on the patios, in the bike lanes, walking their dogs and spouses. It only seems wise to join them.

Early or late, spring never arrives at a bad time. For a person who feels most at home in the winter months, springtime is as good a consolation as you could hope to get. The loss of the snow, ice, and subtle magic of winter, a painful reckoning for some insane souls, is at least soothed by the promise of the longer days, the gentler sun, and the fresh-faced flowers of the coming months. The alternative, experienced by those adamantly summer-loving, cold-shunning, well-adjusted people, must be quite grim. I never truly feel homesick until August—at most, late July.

It’s enough for now that Hartford is beautiful again. Eating on the balcony, I hear my neighbors playing music from their open bay windows—old soul-music hits—while their children run around in the backyard, laughing and screaming. The seasons make sense!

Soon I’m back on my front porch, stepping out (up to my head) into unimpeachable spring sunshine. Besides the weather, there’s an additional cause for excitement: I moved to Hartford in June. If today is the first “real” day of spring, then it’s also the first time that I’ll experience the arrival of spring in this city. The last first time. No big deal? What difference is there, after all, between spring in April and spring in June? Nothing except the sights, the smells, the look of the gardens, the songs of the birds—but for now, more urgent dilemmas need attention. Somebody wants to grab a beer on the patio at the Half Door. Walk, or bike?

Cars whoosh up and down Farmington Avenue, stirring the breeze at the crosswalk. The light goes red, and I’m downwind. Ah—that smell. Sour rubber and gasoline. In winter you could only see the exhaust. But at least it’s nice out.

A group waits at the bus stop by the laundromat, swallowed by the crowds on the sidewalk. I smell the baking concrete, sizzling Ethiopian wot, beans and rice at the taqueria, pizza grease. A passing car plays music loud enough to hear from an airplane, and I notice a man crossing the gas station parking lot on the corner. He appears to be wearing, on his head, his arms, and his legs, dozens of brightly-colored children’s shirts, or spandex rags, or store-bought Halloween costumes, or all three—floral prints, graphic prints, sequins, silks, plaids, patterns, protruding from under his t-shirt, his shorts, and his tall leather boots, flapping as he sways. The man is shouting even louder than the music. Screaming. I make out a few phrases. “FUCK.” “GONNA GET SHIT.” “YOU’LL KNOW.” “NOT ME.” “GOD DAMMIT.” He disappears down a block of square apartments.

We can still hear him, or fail to hear him, as we sip our beers on the patio. A breeze flutters the umbrella. Perfect weather for jeans, a shirt, rolled up sleeves. No need for a coat, no need to think of all the fuss in the reflections of our sunglasses, of the tumult on the streets, of the last months’ troubling weather. We talk of other dilemmas to solve, such as: Elizabeth Park will be blooming soon. Soccer, frisbee, or tennis next weekend?

*

Sunday, April 16th: I wake up an hour before my alarm with a headache, soaked in sweat on a bed without sheets. By 10 a.m., the thermostat hits 80 degrees and keeps going. I open every window in the house, but there is no breeze. I dig the rotating fan out of the back of a closet, where it sat underneath ski goggles, a snowboard, and two electric heaters stashed away in the first week of spring. Or was it winter?

My friends and I cancel our games in the park. Much too hot. My bike rests on the beams of the front porch, maybe forever, as I opt to drive down the block on my errands. A few very dedicated or very desperate pedestrians roam the streets, but the rest of Hartford is in a car, windows up, air conditioning on full, subwoofers muffled behind glass. The screaming man is back at the gas station, still wrapped in clothes. Still screaming. I’d never seen him before this spring, but now he’s always there.

Is it possible to call this kind of weather “spring”? From my personal, limited, meaningless experience, absolutely not. If this were spring, I’d be debating whether it was early or warm enough for shorts, or whether I ought to bring along a jacket, not sweating shirtless on my couch at 6:30 in the evening. That’s a summer pastime. If it were up to me I would log April 16th, 2017 as the second summer day of the year. But I demand a rigorous, satisfactory answer. I need data.

According to the records kept by Hartford-Brainard Airport, the historical average temperature in Hartford on April 16 is 57 degrees—an average that includes temperatures from the last 16 years, which happen to rank among the 17 hottest years on record since 1880. In 2017, the daytime high on April 16th is 87 degrees. If 2017 had been an average year, Hartford would not hit 87 degrees until the middle of July.

So, is April 16th still a spring day? No. Maybe. Whatever it is, no one is about to revise the days of the seasons after a single freak weather event. I understand that there are things like the tilt of the earth and the course of the sun through the sky that have a say in those decisions. In any case, living beings on earth have never gotten to choose their weather. If the northern spring becomes more like summer, so be it. Life, some say, will simply have to adapt. Evolution will work as it always has—right? Well, it might help to have air conditioning.

*

A few days after the heat wave, rain comes. Hartford returns to the morning before its last snow—overcast, damp with chill, grey from street to sky. It could be any season now.

In the New England of my childhood, rain came often and without any need for explanation. It was always familiar. In spring, the rain sent mist rising from the pavement, washing out the last of winter’s chill, and hung thick and heavy on the flower petals. In summer, it poured down in waves from deafening thunderstorms, and could come and go in an instant. In the fall, it glistened over leaves of crimson and gold, painting the earth in deep watercolors. In winter, it mostly turned to snow. Winter rain, of course, was dreadful.

I’ve never loved rain, but I don’t mind it now, watching it fall from my living room window. Birds chirp outside. Most of the trees have not yet bloomed, but some of the flowers in my neighbor’s garden have begun to show their colors. Their tiny heads nod slowly beneath the raindrops, relieved and refreshed. Whatever season this is, it looks like a spring. It also happens to look a lot like this past winter—when not occasionally wintry, or summery, most of the days in January and February had brought rain—but I’ve given up trying to tell one season from the other, at least for today. I will always fall back on what I first learned in school: that winter means snow, that summer means heat, and that April means spring, no matter how much the changing seasons test my knowledge or my memory.

I’m still learning, too. Through most of the last summer and fall, the state of Connecticut was hit by a drought, moderate near the coast but quite serious in the populated northern cities of Waterbury, New Britain, and Hartford. Over the dreadful winter, though, persistent rains—or, really, foiled snow—had been enough to fill most reservoirs to at least 85 percent of their carrying capacity, up from the dangerous late-summer low of 60 percent. By March, Connecticut’s status was officially downgraded from “severe drought” to simply “abnormally dry”—evidently, an improvement. Perhaps, in the unpredictable years and seasons to come, I’ll learn to stop worrying and love the rain.

But more than the winter? More than fresh snow, icicles, parking bans, nighttime strolls in a life-sized snowglobe? I doubt it.

The truth is that every city looks better in winter. Paris, London, and New York, the world’s three great cities, have earned half of their charm and their poetry from just three months of the year, in the twinkle of streetlights on snowy avenues and quiet parks. Life in Phoenix or Miami may be nice, sunny, perfect, and yet every year the vast majority of sun-loving, cold-hating Northern Americans decline to U-Haul their lives down to the tropics for good. Summer is nice, but summer all year would be odd indeed—a mark of true insanity. Winter, though sometimes long, dark, and cold—and even beautiful to some—does not last forever.

Besides a few Cézannes, all that Hartford shares with Paris is our winter. For now, winter is nine months away, if not more. There’s no chance of this rain outside turning miraculously into snow. After so many strange seasons this April, I’d be even more worried if it did. Tonight, I only feel homesick.

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