Photo: TravnikovStudio/Shutterstock

What's Up With New Yorkers and Winter?

New York City
by Colin Heinrich Nov 2, 2013

New Yorkers can’t wait to put on their winter wools. That’s the first thing I noticed as I shuffled along 7th with the legions of bundled zombies, pulling their scarfs tighter around their necks as they popped out of subways and the towering facades that lined the street. I didn’t get it. The temperature would soar past 70 within the hour, and it wasn’t even 8am yet. I was wearing a t-shirt, arms bare in the October sun. Alone in that fashion. New York City has a special way of making you feel like you’re doing something wrong at all times.

In Los Angeles, there’s only one real season. Our “winter” is a five-day stretch in January where the temperatures dip below 60 degrees and the local news channels wonder aloud to a terrified population when the arctic blast will end. It’s equal parts apocalyptic and embarrassing. We’re the first people to put on sweaters. We’re so inept at dealing with cold weather that the prospect of a place that does it with pride is as preposterous as it gets, and yet there I was. The only one around with fewer than four layers on. Welcome to New York City: where they not only don’t shirk from sweater weather, but jump the gun awaiting it.

New York has a special relationship with winter. It thrives off the cold. The marriage of city and climate is so ingrained into the world’s idea of the place that any depiction of it — not involving aliens smashing the shit out of it, anyway — usually comes with a dusting of snow and a merry Salvation Army worker jingling a bell outside the Waldorf Astoria. The city’s biggest and most famous traditions — the New Year’s ball drop, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and ice rink, carriage rides by gas lamp through Central Park — are all tied to the cold. This is how the city is portrayed to those outside it.

It was Rockefeller’s ice rink that drew me to New York this time. It’s been an annual tradition of the plaza since 1936, and since then the rink has become one of the most famous skating ponds — assuming they actually rank those things — in the world. This particular Monday was the seasonal opening, and in the early October sun the top layer of ice melted and refroze, creating tiny crystal hills that refracted the light into sparkles. It would have been a winter wonderland, were it not for the golden autumn heat. Hordes of children laced their skates, ready to dance and slip and fall and rise again.

Abigail greeted me wearing the kind of coat I’d come to know as a New Yorker’s winter uniform.

The press release promised a grand event featuring world-champion figure skater Elvis Stojko and the Rockettes. For a skating rink so revered, only titans of the ice would do. The press was currently mauling Elvis and the girls, the tight skating outfits standing in stark contrast to the jackets of their fans. It was a celebration far outpacing the square footage of the venue. The tree wasn’t even going up yet, though I suspect the day is rapidly getting closer when it becomes appropriate to put up Christmas decorations prior to Halloween. They’d do it now if they could get away with it.

The welcome banner called the rink “New York’s oldest harbinger of cold weather to come.” Greeting the season like an old friend when most of the world dreads its arrival.

It’s one of the few times the stereotypical New Yorker is portrayed as friendly, like there’s a sine wave of cheer that peaks with every December and falls into a valley of bitterness and frustration towards tourists by snowmelt. At its zenith, rather than bark at visitors for stopping to photograph a building, they usher them along while sinking into their own Brooklyn bagels and coh-ah-fee.

Maybe they need it. That yearly dose of cheer as an alembic to the grind of the other three seasons. I won’t presume to know what the average New Yorker feels throughout the year, and in a city of over 8 million people, there’s no such thing as an average New Yorker anyway. But the rent for a puddle here is the rent for a lake anywhere else. Horns honk so often it’s unnerving when they go silent. The hustle and bustle of life in New York is famously fast, and the attitude famously present. So maybe that’s why they crave winter. The blanket of snow dampens the pace of life, if even just a little. Those gas lamps and quiet carriage rides in Central Park harken back to a simpler time of cobblestones, when the only way to complain about somebody holding up traffic was to shout forward and hope they heard you. Romance in the air.

I watched the skaters in the rink for half an hour, declining to take to the ice myself. Of course, I wasn’t wearing warm enough clothes.

Soon after, an old friend called me, a college girlfriend from USC, currently living in New York and attending Columbia Law. By the time I made it to her apartment in Harlem, the skyscrapers were casting their final shadows over each other and the sky turned fiery orange. The air that had been so warm all day started to develop a crisp bite, and Abigail greeted me wearing the kind of coat I’d come to know as a New Yorker’s winter uniform.

As we walked along a path through Central Park, I asked her if she missed Los Angeles.

    “A little,” she said. “I miss being laid back.”

Her first few months in the city took some acclimation. It’s a different animal than any on the West Coast, a caged lion too big for its bars. In the summer, when the heat is comparable, the pace of life in New York is tiring. Los Angeles doesn’t crave winter because they don’t need to slow down. New York? Not so much.

The last light started fade, and the orange of the sky became purple and then dark. For the first time, I thought I saw the breath of a jogger nearby. Abby pulled the collar of her coat up, an Angeleno still not quite used to the chill.

    1. “I didn’t like New York so much when I got here,” she said again.

“But now that it’s getting colder? It’s growing on me.”

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