This story appears in Tales of Two Cities: The Best And Worst Of Times in Today’s New York (edited by John Freeman)
The vast white tent had mullioned vinyl windows cut into it as a design feature, so the guests at the outer, less expensive tables could see the snow coming down heavily through the spotlights outside. But no one could hear anything, not even during the speeches – it was silent, it made silence, the way all major snowfalls do – so they were slow to take it seriously. As the wait staff stared up nervously at the shifting depressions in the tent’s ceiling, the head of the party-supply rental company got off a phone call and took the evening’s MC aside to whisper in his ear.
“Folks, we are going to have to wrap it up here a bit earlier than scheduled,” the MC said into the microphone on the dais. Sounds of confusion and irritation. He realized he was scowling and forced a smile. “Some of you may have noticed that it’s snowing out there. We need to get off the island while the roads are still clear. Order of the Parks Department.”
Victoria turned upon her husband Chris a look of skepticism. “Randall’s Island is technically a park,” he said.
That everyone was suddenly in a hurry meant they all wound up waiting an extra twenty minutes for their cars to be brought around. Inefficiencies, Chris thought. He was hoping to avoid an argument with Victoria about the storm; he’d warned her it was supposed to be bad, but she’d said the forecasters always had a stake in predicting the worst, and in any case the notion of having to reschedule on short notice an event that involved gathering four hundred very busy people under a tent on Randall’s Island was one that she, as a member of the benefit committee, was not even going to entertain. If he failed to resist the urge to remind her of that now, she might counter by citing his insistence on driving rather than calling a car service, as almost every other guest had done. He hated being driven anywhere, he thought it was unmanly. So it would be a good fight not to start. But his mood was darkening, and they were liable to be alone in the car, in trying conditions, for a while.
She pulled her dress inside the door of the Expedition and they took their place in the long, slow, single file of black vehicles on the ramp that led from the island to the toll plaza on the Triboro Bridge. Only two lanes of the plaza were open. Snow jumped in the headlights, and fell into the ambient glow over either side of the bridge before disappearing in the darkness of the water.
“They should have a priority toll lane,” Victoria said. “Like at the airport. This is ridiculous.”
The bridge beyond the tollbooths looked like it had been plowed fairly recently, but snow was already encroaching on the center lanes as they watched.
“You think all my ideas are stupid,” Victoria said.
Actually, he’d been thinking that it wasn’t a bad idea at all: pay a higher toll, move through faster. More revenue, and value added for those willing to pay a premium not to waste time. Win win. He was a little surprised no one had thought of it before. But you’d never get something like that passed in New York now, no matter how much sense it made. Not in this climate. God forbid we interrupt the great race to the mean.
The benefit had been for a charter-school foundation, the pet project of an acquaintance who ran a monster hedge fund called Erewhon Partners, named after his old summer camp. Why were all these hedge-fund guys so obsessed with public education? Chris was all for charitable endeavors if they actually improved anything, but this was like throwing your money into a wishing well. Yet over the last decade the school system had become like Moby Dick to a certain brand of macho guy: the ultimate inefficiency, its very existence taunting men who loathed inefficiency too deeply to leave it alone. The man from Erewhon had probably poured upwards of a hundred million dollars of his own money into the situation by now, and nothing about it was any better, or any worse for that matter, as a result. Not that he couldn’t afford it. But the hard truth, which they all knew but which no one was willing to express, was that a problem created by democracy could not be solved by democracy. If you couldn’t make people accept that as a first principle – and you couldn’t — then however much money you threw at the problem would just disappear into its maw.
Still, you couldn’t judge the guy too harshly. He could have spent the money on hookers and yachts. And it had been a fun evening, until the city had kicked them all out into the snow.
“Finally,” said Victoria. They rolled across the bridge – frustratingly slowly, because it was down to one clear lane, the other drivers in which were, in Chris’s estimation, timid pussies who didn’t understand the simple calculation that driving a little faster now meant getting off the road before conditions got even worse – and had only to take the FDR four exits before they were as good as home.
But there were cop cars and sanitation vehicles parked sideways across the southbound FDR just a few feet past 96th Street, forcing them to take the exit there.
He inched west on 96th and eventually took a left on Second Avenue. It was getting hard to see, even with the height advantage the Expedition gave him. The problem, though, wasn’t visibility, it was that you would turn down this or that street and suddenly find yourself not moving at all. Past 94th he came to a stop, and then watched the smudge of light on his soaked windshield go from green to red to green again without anybody in front of him moving a foot.
“This is outrageous,” Victoria said. “Do you see a plow anywhere? Because I don’t.”
He said nothing. He realized, not for the first time, that he really only felt like talking to her when he thought she was wrong about something. The smudge went green again, and they did not advance. Some idiot ahead of them took a right turn to try to get up the hill at 93rd St, and a few seconds later his car slid backwards into view again, all the way through the intersection and into a parked car, which let fly with one of those grating alarms that everyone had learned not to pay attention to.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Victoria said. “It’s a message.”
“A message from whom?” Chris said.
She turned to face him, and even in the darkness of the car he could see her roll her eyes. “How many hours ago did this storm start?” she said. “How many days have they been predicting it? Plenty of time to prepare.”
“We didn’t prepare.”
“But their job is to prepare. What do you want to bet the streets are clear in, I don’t know, Flatbush? Or East Harlem or Bed-Stuy, or any of the other places that voted for him. You know it’s true.”
In front of them was a yellow cab with its Off Duty sign lit. Chris] couldn’t see or hear inside it or any of the other cars surrounding his, but he began to feel incensed at them anyway for doing nothing, for feeling fine about doing nothing, resigning themselves to it. Inside the Expedition it was dry and quiet and seventy-two degrees but he felt the need to get out of there in the worst way.
“It’s a slap in the face, is what it is,” his wife said. “I don’t know why you refuse to see it. It’s just the leading edge. He really thinks all neighborhoods are the same, that some of them aren’t more vital to the economy of this city, this whole city, than others? You bet your ass his predecessor knew better than that.”
Up ahead of him, on the left, there was a break in the line of slowly disappearing parked cars: an active driveway. He could feel something stir in him. If you drove enough, and well enough, your sense of what the car could and couldn’t do became a matter not of calculation but of physical instinct.
“Look at tonight. What were we doing tonight, and for whom? You know how much money we raised? For whom? The ingratitude is stunning. They want to teach us a lesson about how we’re not just no better than the people we try to help, we’re somehow worse than them. There’s no logic to it. I understand he had to play a certain fashionable card in order to get elected. But there is a reality, a social reality, that you can’t pander away. I don’t know why you don’t see what’s coming as clearly as I do, as clearly as a lot of people do by the way. It’s not the symbolism that’s upsetting to me. It’s what’s being symbolized. He is intentionally putting us in harm’s way. You think it’s a world gone mad now?”
He spun the wheel all the way to the left and made for the driveway. Having cleared the front of the parked car, as he knew he would, he kept going, stayed with the turn, until he’d done a 180 and the Expedition was facing north on the empty sidewalk, patches of which were salted and clear; he drove back to the intersection and nosed his way into the astonished westbound traffic toward Park Avenue, away from home, but where he thought the roads might be clearer.
“My hero,” Victoria said.
Two hours later, they had made their way, as through a maze, up and down whatever plowed streets they could find, to 50th Street and First Avenue, less than a block from their townhouse just off Beekman Place. They could see it, in fact. But the dead-end street was not only unplowed: the parade of plows clearing First Avenue had raised a wall of snow, ice, rock, and other street detritus that was now higher than the Expedition itself, at what should have been the entrance to their block. It was impassable.
Victoria, after a brief and ominous lapse into silence, had begun to panic. Their children were in the house. It was well past their bedtime, and they had been told Mommy and Daddy would be home to tuck them in. The sitter was with them – she could not have left for her own home even if she had wanted to – but safety was no longer Victoria’s concern. She had moved into a realm of emotion. The artificially raised wall of snow between her and her children had undone her.
“Call them,” Chris said placatingly. “FaceTime them.”
She did, and when their two faces appeared cheerfully on the bright screen of her phone, she went to pieces. They were in pajamas and their cheeks were touching. They were excited by the storm and its laying waste to the conventions of bedtime, and they would probably be awake for hours. Chris saw the flashing lights of a plow in his rearview again, coming up First, and he put the car in gear to drive around the block rather than get caught in its path. Victoria continued declaring her love for the children as if she were speaking them from a hijacked airplane rather than the family SUV a couple of hundred yards away. She hung up, and rested her head in her hand. Chris completed his circle and observed that the barricade of snow was now marginally higher than it had been a few minutes ago.
“I don’t want to sound like my dad,” he said. “But in my day, there would have been some enterprising local youth out here with shovels, looking to earn a few bucks.”
“In your day,” she repeated witheringly. “This is your day, genius. Nobody wants to earn anything.“
He put the car in park again. The solution on one level was simple: get out and walk. It wouldn’t be pleasant but it was probably less than a hundred and fifty yards. Still, she was unlikely to agree to it. And even if she did, it meant leaving the car on the street, to find it tomorrow buried or rammed into by some overtime-weary sanitation driver with an invincible plow-blade on the front of his truck. Or, worse, just gone. Disasters like this were prime time for thieves and looters and others who knew – as Chris knew, in a very different context – how to profit from chaos.
He could send her on her own and stay with the car. It wouldn’t take all night. Every house on the block was occupied by millionaires; somebody still had to have a friend somewhere who could call in a favor as simple as re-directing one snowplow.
But she’d never make it on her own. Short as the trip was, she wasn’t outfitted for it. He’d wind up going after her anyway.
He turned off the car. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll carry you.”
She lifted her head and regarded him, letting herself grow amused. “You’ll carry me? Over that cliff or whatever?”
“You don’t think I can do it?” he said.
“Okay, well, this is all getting weirdly hot, but no, Galahad, I don’t think you can do it. You’re wearing pumps, for Christ’s sake. You’ll slip and drop me and then we’ll both be dead in the street.” She laughed, not unkindly, and wrapped her coat more tightly around her. “You come on,” she said. “I can walk. We’ll just do it. The first step is the hardest.”
“That dress will be ruined,” he said.
“I don’t care about the dress. I do care a little bit about the shoes. But mostly I care about the import of this whole evening, which you absolutely refuse to see.”
There was no wind now, but the air was still a shock, as was the cold that immediately penetrated their flimsy shoes. Snow continued to fall heavily. He let her go ahead of him, resisting the instinct to put his hands on her ass and push her up the barricade. By the time they were both on the other side, he couldn’t feel his feet. Their block was utterly silent. Lights blazed in every townhouse. Victoria, after just a few tottering steps, reached down, took off her heels, and threw them back over the snowbank. She lifted her dress – the snow was nearly up to her waist in places – and struggled forward. For Chris, who had about seven inches on her, the going was somewhat easier. Still, it came as a surprise to him to consider that the physical risk to them both was, though temporary and contained, not unreal.
He’d bought this townhouse in large part because it had that rarest of Manhattan amenities, its own garage. Paying someone else to park your car was borderline effeminate, to say nothing of the inconvenience of having to call ahead, to walk a few blocks, every time you wanted access to it. Someone – the babysitter presumably, unless he or Victoria had done it by accident – had switched on the light over the garage door; he could see it. In front of the garage was an electronic gate; the snow had drifted too high against it for the car to drive through, even if the gate itself could still go up. It would have to be cleared. And that’s if he could magically get the car itself over or around or through the snowbank that now hid it from his view. In a hurry suddenly, he took Victoria’s arm. She shook it away from him, but not before he felt how violently she was shivering.
“I can’t believe this,” she said. Her breathing struck him as too fast, as if she were in some sort of shock. “I can’t believe it’s come to this. And you won’t do anything.” He didn’t know what she was talking about. “What’s that?” she said, more urgently. “Christopher, what’s that?”
His feet were so numb they felt huge. He looked up from them and saw what she saw: a figure walking across the street at the dead end of their block, a soaked hood around its head, dressed in what looked like a hundred thin layers, dragging something behind it on the snow.
“It’s nothing,” he said, “let’s just hurry.” When they were almost at their door – when they could see, but not hear, the children at the front-parlor window, jumping up and down in excitement – he turned again and saw the figure, a man, gaining on them. Lifting his knees high, he made straight for their house, and Chris could now see that what he was pulling along behind his back was a snow shovel.
“Go on inside,” Chris said. “I’ll be right there. I think we may have lucked out.”
Victoria looked at him oddly but went through the front door without hesitation and let it shut behind her.
“Good evening, sir. Shovel your walk?”
“Could have used you a few minutes ago,” Chris said. “But now we’re here.”
The man smiled. “Your driveway, then? Have a hard time getting the car out of there tomorrow, especially after the plow comes through.”
“Car’s not in there,” Chris said. But he was feeling charitable and tired, enough so to let go of his instinct for negotiation. “How much, though?” he said. “To clear the driveway.”
The man cast an eye over it. The distance from garage door to curb, Chris had reason to know, was a scant six feet. “First driveway I’ve seen,” the man said. “Don’t really have a set price for it.” Then he looked back at Chris, in his sodden tuxedo and ruined shoes, for at least as long as he’d looked at the driveway.
“One hundred dollars,” he said.
Chris laughed. “Good one,” he said. “Seriously.”
The man took another moment and then nodded soberly, as if he had just re-calculated and come to the same sum.
“A hundred dollars?” Chris said. Just like that, all the outrage his wife had been asking him to feel was right there in his chest, in his fingertips. He laughed again. “Fuck off, a hundred dollars! It would take you five minutes max. You really think your labor is worth twelve hundred dollars an hour? That’s your price?”
“Ain’t about that,” the man said.
“No? What’s it about, then?”
“It’s about I got the shovel,” the man said.
Chris smiled and shook his head. He could feel that his anger was about to take him someplace unproductive, so he made one last attempt to head it off. “You’re clever,” he said. “I should give you a job. I mean like a real job.”
“Already got a job,” the man said patiently. “Got two jobs.”
Even at this close range, little about his face, deep inside the hood, could be gauged. He had a dark beard, and the streetlight, itself under an eight-inch cap of wet snow, caught points in his eyes. Chris had stopped shivering. The greatest compliment you could pay another man, he felt, was to get interested in defeating him.
“This is like first-year b-school,” he said. “Like a word problem. I love it. The thing is, though, your whole model falls apart if I have a shovel too. Right? Inside that garage, let’s say. In that case, I really am offering to pay for your labor, and you overcharged and blew it.”
“But you don’t own no shovel.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look at you,” the man said.
With that, the civility of negotiation was pretty well shot. The possibility, even, of a more physical resolution seemed to Chris to have been suddenly introduced. And, shovel or no shovel, he had reason to feel confident should things take that turn. But he knew he couldn’t let it play out that way. Not only couldn’t he instigate it, he couldn’t even defend himself, couldn’t pop this lowlife in the jaw no matter how legitimately threatened he might feel, on his own doorstep no less. Because he knew how that could all be made to look. Poor people lived for the opportunity to sue you. It was just one more way they tied your hands.
“So it’s robbery, then, is what this is,” he said. “Let’s just call it by its name. You’re a fucking thief. No different than the rest of them.”
“It’s called the marketplace, bitch,” the man said. “It’s called knowing what your customer will bear.”
“You know what’s the really galling part? The only reason we were out tonight at all was because we were doing something for charity. For you, basically. And it’s not even like I’m asking for charity in return. I’m willing to make a fair transaction. But to you it’s just an opportunity to steal whatever I haven’t already given away. She’s right. You do hate us.”
They stood in their deep footprints for what seemed like a long time. They could see each other’s breath. At the end of the block they heard another plow pass by.
“Two hundred dollars,” the man said.
He looked like the reaper, in his loose dark clothes, his hood, his long-handled tool of his trade. Chris no longer had any idea what time it was. Most of the lights on the block had gone off. It felt like the night might never end unless he took some step to end it. He reached into his vest pocket – the man took a half step back – and pulled out his wallet; he took every bill out of it, and counted, leaning toward his garage to get into its light.
“Nine hundred and thirty-seven dollars,” he said. He held it folded between his fingers in the light, closer to him than to his adversary. When the man finally reached toward it, he pulled it away.
“For the shovel,” he said. “Nine thirty-seven for your shovel.”
The man cocked his head, but he had no great interest in the metaphorical qualities of whatever was going on; he held out the shovel handle with one hand, an open palm with the other, and the transaction was completed. Chris weighed the shovel in his hands, looked back at the hooded man, then stuck it blade-first upright into the deep snow. He reached into his pocket again, took out his phone, dialed 911, and waited.
“Yes,” he said, “there is a very suspicious looking black man going from house to house on the block of East 50th between First and Beekman. I know the weather is crazy, but could you please send a patrolman right away? He is acting erratically. I live here and I definitely do not recognize him. Thank you.”
He put the phone back in his pocket. “Better move along,” he said. “Unless you have a legit excuse for being here.”
The man shook his head and exhaled a great cloud; then he began plucking at his sleeves and his pant legs, brushing the snow off of them, preparing to go, making a display of how little hurry he was in. He pulled down his hood, flicked water off of his hair with his fingertips, then straightened and looked squarely into Chris’s eyes. After a few breaths he pulled his hood back up and started down the center of the street toward First Avenue.
“Bad move, dipshit,” Chris called after him. “Now I’ve seen your face.”
His footprints already filling in behind him, he clambered over the frozen wall of snow and was gone.
Chris’s initial plan, once in possession of the shovel, had been to break it over his leg, but the moment he’d weighed it in his hands he knew that his femur probably would have snapped before that handle did. It was a quality shovel; he was glad to own it. He looked up and saw his wife staring at him without expression from the parlor window, wearing a bathrobe. He waved to her. Then he put his head down and cleared the driveway; as he’d estimated, it took him five minutes tops. His feet were so cold he felt like he was walking on the stumps of his legs. He shouldered his new purchase, turned away from his house, and headed down the street, in the direction of First Avenue, to liberate his car.
Jonathan Dee is the author of five novels, including The Privileges, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and A Thousand Pardons. He is a Contributing Writer for New York Times Magazine, a frequent critic for Harper’s, and a former Senior Editor of the Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and The New School.
John Freeman was until recently the editor of the literary magazine Granta. He is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle. His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of The Tyranny of E-mail and How to Read a Novelist.