At the moment it is unusually cold here in Southern California.
The other night, up in Ojai with my wife, we could hear the sounds of the wind machines in the orchards, chuk-chuk-chuking like not-so-distant helicopters to keep the citrus from freezing. When we got home I stood for a moment and looked up at the stars. They were so clear, like pinpricks in heaven's fabric. It was beautiful, but the cold palmed my face and wormed through my jeans like a damp, seeping liquid. I tried to watch the stars, but the cold stole my attention. I went inside.
Yesterday morning our neighborhood kids poured from their homes and headed off to school. It was still, by Southern California standards, cold. A glaze of ice coated the roof of our car. The coating was quite beautiful. It shone in the early morning light, a delicate weave of imaginative patterns, Nature's cold doodlings. Because the elementary school is around the corner, our neighborhood kids walk to school. Today they walked to school dressed in down coats and wool hats and mittens. Some wore scarves. The littlest ones looked like wobbly marshmallows. Now and again their parents took their hands, possibly because they were unsteady on their feet, possibly because they couldn't see where they were going.
Just past the school, a man leaned against a sign. First the man caught my attention, then the sign. I was running an errand, driving with the heat on.
If you are reading this somewhere else in the country, no doubt you are finding this mildly amusing. As I write this much of the rest of the country is being bludgeoned by a real deep freeze. I saw a picture of a man in Wisconsin with a beard of icicles. Here in Southern California we are, to a degree, weather dilettantes. Several months ago I watched a newscast about high winds in San Bernardino, a reporter on the scene conducting interviews with several stalwart San Bernardinians. "Usually I drive with one hand, but I had to put my other hand on the wheel," said one. "My lips are so dry," said another. One can only imagine the mid-West's laconic reaction.
Still, it is quite cold here. Here in Ventura, the other night's low was thirty-two degrees. Last night's forecasted low is twenty-seven.
I don't know if the man leaning up against the sign knows this.
I have never spent a seriously uncomfortable night outside in my life. The closest I came was a night in Bar Harbor, Maine. For reasons that involve the utmost stupidity (and so, bear no explanation), the van I was driving slid off a backwoods road into a ditch. The van slid into the ditch because it was March in Maine and all of Bar Harbor and environs were a glazed wonderland. My van -- its driver swearing wildly behind the wheel -- slid into the ditch at three in the afternoon. All night long, there were accidents everywhere. This is one reason why, though I called for a hoped-for tow at three in the afternoon, the tow truck did not arrive until seven the next morning. When the tow truck did arrive, I got out of the van and moved stiffly toward it, as if auditioning for "The Walking Dead." My jeans made odd crunching noises.
The tow truck driver rolled down his window.
I may have nodded
"Hey Ron," he said, "this is Paul. We got that guy that's been out here all night."
Slowly I realized he was speaking into a radio.
"You got a scraper?"
Slowly I realized he was speaking to me.
I walked back to the van and found the scraper. I scraped, but it was useless. I couldn't get the damn ice off the windshield.
The two truck driver was suddenly beside me. He gently took my elbow, stopping my sawing.
"The ice is on the inside," he said kindly.
In the end it was all very amusing.
But I remember that night now and then. I remembered it one night last week when I exited the freeway and dipped beneath the overpass and looked up to the top of the towering concrete embankment. Tucked directly beneath the freeway underpass was a man in a sleeping bag. Like a bird's nest.
And I remembered the Maine night again when I saw the man leaning against the church sign, just away from the bundled children, a man with no woolen cap and, judging from the hefty bags at his feet, no place to go.
The sign read, "We Are All Men."
Where do these people go?
Some of us have chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Others have Jack Frost nipping at their nose. And not every mother's child is going to spy to see if reindeer really know how to fly.
As I write this, it is nearly night again. Outside, the wind gusts. Someone's loose shutter bangs. No doubt the stars are beginning to sparkle prettily, but I am inside, with the heat on.
As I said, it is unusually cold.