When Snowy Weather Makes Downtown a Simple Neighborhood

It was forecast days in advance. Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned not to put a lot of stock in predications of snow. It’s the meteorologists’ version of crying wolf, and the more insistent they become, the less I believe it. But when footage started coming in from Nashville and Chattanooga of actual accumulation, it seemed they might be right for a change. Maybe this time it wasn’t a drill. So I set out to make the necessary preparations.

I’m not sure why, but any time someone says the s-word, we descend on grocery stores for the mandatory purchase of milk and bread. It is conventional wisdom in these parts that has been handed down for generations: If it snows, you must have milk and bread. So I went out to get mine at the local grocer (with a quick stop by the liquor store for good measure).

Back home, as tiny pellets of ice started pelting down outside my window, I felt fully prepared. I was stoked and stocked, ready to weather the icy onslaught. As a bonus, e-mail arrived indicating that I should have a couple of DVDs awaiting me in my mailbox. So by early evening, I was settling in as news reports of slick roads with shots of snowy lawns flashed on the television. The Gay Street Bridge had already been closed. And I was ready for a night of flannel, foreign films, and firewater. With everything in order, I went to the lobby to get the mail. I retrieved the promised movies from the mailbox and was about to head back to my cocoon when I saw the sidewalk. Big, fluffy flakes had replaced the icy grains of the afternoon, and the walkway was a blanket of white. Heading back down the hallway to the condo, those best laid plans began to change. I had to get out in this.

A few minutes later, I was bundled up and headed out the door. It had been a long time since I had the pleasure of a snowy stroll along Gay Street. Traffic on the roadway was almost nil, as expected. But I was far from alone on the sidewalk. Tracks in the snow and silhouettes in the streetlights marked the way. This was not a night to be driving. But that was kind of the point of getting out. It was a rare white night. And this meant that downtown would simply be a neighborhood for a change. Don’t get me wrong—I love that so many people have come to enjoy the place. But on isolated occasions, it’s nice for those of us living here to have it all to ourselves.

A couple of blocks up, a wave of warmth flowed over me as I swung open the door of the brewpub. I brushed off the snow and looked around the mostly empty room where, any another night, a vacant barstool would have been hard to find. Without fail, every face I saw belonged to someone I knew who had walked there. The neighborhood bar that we have largely relinquished to downtown’s growing popularity was, for a night, a neighborhood bar again.

That evening, tracks in the snow led from lofts along Gay Street, condos on Union Avenue, down staircases from Union Avenue, and out of apartments overlooking the river. Every time a blast of wind from the front door hit the back of my neck, I turned to find another scarf unwrapping to reveal a another familiar face. It was the first night in years where everyone in the room knew everyone else’s name. While snow drifted down on high rooftops, an impromptu gathering of neighbors shared cold beer and warm conversation. As the evening wore on, both the flakes and the crowd began to thin. And after a while I found myself once again bundled up crunching fresh footprints onto the sidewalk on the way home.

By morning, it was apparent that the forecasters had missed the mark. What had been widely predicted as a foot or more of snow turned out to be only a few inches downtown. The morning news was full of pictures of suburban kids sledding and standing next to snowmen. By afternoon, most of the main roads were getting the all-clear from the talking heads on TV, and traffic had returned to Gay street.

I thought about venturing out again that night. But I knew that it wouldn’t be the same. Cabin fever would be running high and empty barstools would be running low as people made their way back downtown. I popped in a DVD, got out some bread and milk, and settled in for the evening.

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