Ah, February. That notoriously bleak sludgefest, bone chilling and impenetrable. It’s Chicago’s annual postholiday hangover of ice scrapers and road salt stains, of moldy boots and slippery driving, parking skirmishes and lumpy gray snowdrifts punctuated by flaxen splashes of dog piddle. And we love it.
We’re supposed to, anyway. Chicagoans are hardwired to accept—nay, welcome—an extended arctic interval so hostile that the rest of the world would likely consider it punishment. But let’s be honest: Our attitude toward the nadir of winter is not love or even resignation. It is fear. Fear that we will be exposed as ordinary people who, beneath the civic chest thumping, dread the dehumanizing grind of cold weather.
“Chicago ain’t no sissy town,” said the infamous First Ward alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. That was in 1907, and a century later most of us still cannot imagine a crueler insult than being called a sissy. Deep in our hearts is a vague anxiety that someone, somewhere, will declare us spineless, so we do not allow ourselves to lament the one built-in buffer against that slight: our weather. To do so would be admitting we are not tough enough for a city that has never shouldered weakness. So we live a lie together, pretending to enjoy what no one could possibly enjoy. And to convince ourselves, we regurgitate hoary variations on the same five themes.
1. Bragging rights. For some reason Chicagoans believe they are superior to everyone else because they suffer so uniquely. (“You don’t know what cold is! I just sealed plastic wrap to my windows with a hair dryer!”) People still trade tales of woe about Snowpocalypse 2011, when Mother Nature turned the city into her own personal icicle and Lake Shore Drive into a car cemetery—but we act like last year’s freakishly warm winter never happened. Instead of savoring the pleasant reprieve, we awaited our inevitable fate that never came. Above all, Chicago must uphold its image as a martyr, and comfort is the enemy of martyrdom.
2. You can’t appreciate the warm unless you endure the cold. Right. And the only way to judge Citizen Kane is by watching Weekend at Bernie’s II. Nevertheless, this is my wife’s favorite defense; something about her body needing the purifying chill and changing seasons to set her internal clock. “Tulips can’t grow in the spring,” she says, “unless they’re cold in the winter.” My wife sleeps in a hoodie. She is not a tulip.
3. Eggnog and fireplaces. Also known as the Let It Snow defense, this one trades on cozy, turtlenecky indoor images that rarely exist in reality. For a few snuggly days before Christmas, maybe. But by Groundhog Day, when Yuletide cheer turns to black ice, the only chestnuts anyone wants to roast on the open fire are Jack Frost’s.
4. It toughens us up. A friend on the North Shore gets up at 5:45 a.m., puts on two ridiculous layers, and runs through ice patches and tundra slush—just to show he can. Worse, he thinks he has to. He needs that badge of honor, even if he has to thaw it out on the radiator for 12 hours. School cancellations, or CPS’s stubborn lack thereof, seem to be the barometer for toughness, but all that does is foster another generation in denial. “Chicago knows how to handle winter,” says Rob Lentini, a former Evanstonian who now lives on the Atlantic Coast. “Other places, which won’t be mentioned—Virginia!—collapse into a fetal position when it snows.”
5. Winter separates real Chicagoans from the phonies. The lifers claim that February’s desolation is the price you pay to live in this fine city, a test of inner strength that proves whether you belong. In other words, if you can’t deal with a little frostbite on your eyeballs, move your candy-ass to Florida. These are the same people who, during vacations in warmer climes, obsessively check the weather back home.
So come clean, Chicago. No one will think any less of you. Listen to my friend Jon Bifro, a North Center resident since 2005, who loves the hot chocolate cheer of December and leaves it at that. “Then the holidays end and it just gets colder and grosser,” he says. “I hate February. @#$% February.” Finally, someone honest enough to declare the truth. Then again, the guy’s from Cincinnati.
Illustration: Marc Rosenthal