Polar Vortex, Schmolar Schmortex

I am the first to admit in many areas I am a huge wuss. In many facets of life, I am just a fantastic pansy. I am not afraid to admit this. But it should also be noted, especially for the purposes of this blog entry, that there’s some areas of life in which I am a total fucking champ. I suspect this dichotomy is true of most of us. My champings do happen to include working my ass off,  functioning amazingly on very little sleep, and successfully and with very little comment braving the elements. Granted, I complain about the cold a lot and how much I dislike winter, but a brief review of my record I am sure would show I am usually a pretty big champ when it comes to the cold. I begin with these caveats in order to illustrate the true gravity of the story I am about to relate to you. This morning was one of the more terrifying moments of my life.

As most of you know, even if you don’t live in the Northeast, or Midwest, today was one of the coldest days in history of the entire world. (sarcasm, but only kinda) Something called the “polar vortex” snuck down into our region bringing with it arctic temperatures. Now, every winter we are used to seeing a few days of single digit or even negative degrees. What made this day unique was that unlike usual, the temperature was never going to climb into the teens. Today’s high was forecasted to be somewhere around nine, with a low around three. That is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Depending on where you live, wind chills were forecasted to make the temperature feel in the negative 20s all the way up to the negative 50s. I wasn’t too worried about this. This is not the sort of thing I’m ever too worried about. However, there was one small hitch: I was scheduled to open my store today.

Now, I haven’t been opening the store very much lately. For the past five or six months I’ve been working mostly evenings. This has not really been by choice, but a necessity born out of the availabilities of my employees. I’m currently very close to getting back to being able to work daylights, even though I am a night owl by nature, my role as the store manager dictates that things would go easier for me if I was there during the daylight hours. Nonetheless, I am still very much in the nighttime sleep pattern. This morning marked only the second time since I moved to Philadelphia a month and a half ago that I actually worked an opening shift. Now, I did not work extremely late last night. I got home around seven last night, so it wasn’t a brutal turnaround. But nonetheless, my sleep pattern lately dictated that I still didn’t fall asleep until almost 2 AM, so when my alarm went off at 4 AM, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Of course, I saw all this coming. For quite a few days we had known that Tuesday was going to be the most frigid day in the history of the known universe. And of course, I could do nothing but shake my head with grim resignation knowing that that would be the day I would have to pedal my bike 2 miles in the city at 4:30 in the morning. But what can you do? This is not the sort of thing I dwell on, because what was done was done, and I was going to have to do it. I knew that I would not get much sleep. I knew that I would be very very cold. I knew that I would be very very tired. I knew it was going to suck.

Let me now say also, it has come to my attention over the past month and a half that while it may not have been a problem when I was younger, riding my bike in any serious fashion in the extreme cold is not nearly as easy as I expected it to be. Even before the polar vortex showed up in Philadelphia, winter has not been an easy time to be a bicycle commuter for me. My leg muscles simply do not want to work as hard as I need them to work in subfreezing temperatures. I know that it is the temperatures causing it, because any day there is a brief and sudden warm-up, I ride my bike like a champ again. But once again, this was not something I was going to worry about. What can I do about it? Sure, I could’ve looked into taking a cab or the buses to work, but at that time of day that sort of thing seemed almost as much of a pain the ass as actually writing my bike there. So while there was certainly some dread on my part going into the commute, it was just one of those things that I do. Brave the elements, and just fucking do it.

So I begrudgingly rolled out of bed after two hours of sleep. I was really really tired. But this is not a sensation that is new to me. Working as long as I have in the service industry, one becomes accustomed to such turnarounds. Sometimes we called them doublebacks, some places refer to them as Clopens (close+open, get it?), but nonetheless, they will always happen occasionally. They happen to me much less now in my capacity as a Starbucks manager than they did in my capacity as a restaurant manager, but they are still an occasional fact of life. The sensation was not new to me. I got out of bed, and not having left enough time for me to take a shower, pulled on some fresh work clothes and quickly walked down to my living room. I hadn’t planned what I was going to wear. I just knew I had to wear a lot. The news had been talking for a few days now about how easy it would it be for people to get frostbite in these temperatures. It wasn’t something I worried about too much, but I couldn’t have avoided thinking about it even if I wanted to, with all the media coverage. I figured I would just bundle up, go outside and ride to work and I was going to be really cold. But it hadn’t escaped me that I needed to have all of my extremities as covered as possible, and the media stories had made it very clear that no flesh should be exposed for even a few minutes in such frigid temperatures. Overtop of my work clothes I put on a hoodie, followed by my winter coat. I put the hood up over my head, and then put on my big fuzzy extremely warm Eagles hat. Then I wrapped a scarf around my face, put on some gloves, and that was that.  I got my bike and took it out of the house and locked the door behind me.

At this point I will detail for you the two major mistakes I made before I even left the house. On this particular morning, I was opening the store with two other employees. Usually a manager only opens the store with one other employee, but one of them today is a trainee who I am on my way to getting trained to be a manager, so that I can work a better schedule my own self in the near future. And the other one is a normal opening employee. As happenstance would have it (and when I say happenstance I mean my own poor planning) these are actually the only two employees whose phone numbers I don’t have stored in my cell phone. That was a major error.

Just yesterday I had told both of these employees that they should not be in any way early. I instructed both of them to show up right at 5 AM, or later if need be. The idea being that I was going to do I best to show up exactly at 5 o’clock, and as cold as it was forecasted to be, I didn’t want them waiting outside even for a few minutes before I got there. The second major error then would be that I did not leave with more time than normal for me to get there. It takes me about 20 minutes to get from my apartment to where I work on my bicycle, I usually leave about 25 minutes before I want to get there, owing for some time for red lights or cars or whatnot. I did the same this morning, leaving my apartment at about 4:35, to get there at 5 AM. That was my second major error.

When I first walked outside with my bicycle, it seemed cold, but not anything out of the ordinary. Just really cold. I said to myself, I can handle this no problem. I got on top of my bike and started pedaling, and rounded the corner of my block onto Front Street. It was immediately apparent, immediately, that this was not normal. Within moments of being outside and pedaling , the bone chilling cold was absolute. I hadn’t put on any layers on my legs, I was only wearing my work slacks, and I could feel the skin on the tops of my thighs begin to sting within 30 seconds of riding my bike. I hadn’t gotten 100 yards away from my house before I realized that I had fucked up a lot.

My employees were going to be outside the store in 25 minutes as per my instructions, in this freezing ridiculous cold. I had to pedal 2 miles to get there, in conditions that were inhospitable after 100 yards. I could not turn back and look for an alternate way to get there, such as a bus or a taxi, because I had not left myself enough time to search for an alternate way. I could have backtracked and looked for an alternate way and opened the store late, if I had the cell phone number of even one of those two employees, so I could instruct them to stay home or seek shelter somewhere. But I did not. I had no choice but to ride my bike there and to do so in the normal amount of time.

After a few blocks on Front Street, I then turn left onto Snyder, which is a main thorofare and hence much wider and open. It is here that the wind started for real. This wind would be prohibitive to riding a bicycle in 70° temperatures. As soon as I started down Snyder my progress almost completely stopped. The wind was blowing directly against me, and I had to work with all my might to move the bicycle. Neverminding for a moment the cold, this is where the fact that I only got two hours of sleep the night before, and had just rode home from work less than 12 hours ago, comes into play. The cold was restricting my muscles, they hadn’t rested, I hadn’t had time to recuperate from my previous ride, etc etc.  There were just too many factors working against me.  I had yet to travel even 1/16th the length of my journey, and with every cycle of my legs, I was grunting out loud.  Oof, oof, oof. I was almost immediately desperate. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It became abundantly clear that I might not get there in time, and it is something that is rare for me to do, but I began to panic. Started breathing heavier, my breath making the inside of my scarf against my face moist, and ironically hot. I was grunting and yelling with every cycle, I couldn’t even move this bike faster than I could walk it. The wind started to make my eyes dry up, maybe even freeze a little bit. I could feel the cold on the tops of my thighs like pinpricks, and I began to suspect I might get frostbite through my pants. I veered off the street and onto the sidewalks, thinking if I got closer to the buildings the wind might be lessened. There were absolutely no signs of human beings about at this point in time. No cars, no pedestrians, not even lights on in houses. The wind did not seem lessened on the sidewalks, but I continued to ride on them anyway. After about a quarter of a mile on the sidewalk on Snyder Avenue, I was passing under a tree when somehow, someway, a bunch of branches hit my bicycle. I wasn’t sure what happened at first, except that I noticed that my pedaling was causing a noise that had never happened before. It was like that moment when you know that something is wrong with your car. I couldn’t imagine actually stopping to look at what was happening. The bike was still moving, but it was even more labored than before, and there was this sawing kind of noise. After three minutes or so of continuing to ride, and weighing what appeared to be incredibly difficult options, I decided to stop my bike and get off and look at it. This might not actually seem like a huge deal to read, but at that moment, making the decision to stop the bike and get off and look at it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I could feel my body starting to get colder than it has ever been before, and I was still well over a mile from my destination, with no options for help, and time running short. Stopping my forward motion was not an easy decision. But I was afraid that whatever was wrong with my bike might get worse, and then I would be in an even bigger world of hurt.

I plunked down my kickstand and disengaged myself from my bicycle. There were not incredibly bright streetlights around, but I began inspecting my chain housing for any sort of foreign bodies. The chain around the rear wheel had something poking out of it. I couldn’t tell quite what it was. It looked at first glance like some sort of man-made object, a cigar length rigid piece of plastic. I couldn’t be sure, in the light and in my panic, if it was a piece of the bike that had come off or was in some way damaged, or was some foreign body that had become attached to the bike. I remembered the branches hitting the bike, but wasn’t sure what that had caused. I looked closer at it, but still couldn’t tell in the light. I have very little time to figure it out, and I knew that I had to either keep going or fix it quick. I put my hands down to feel this thing, but through my thick winter gloves, I still couldn’t tell what it was. I knew that taking my gloves off was going to be a huge mistake. There was no way that I wanted to expose my extremities to the direct cold. But I saw no choice. So, despite all my thinking screaming otherwise, I took my gloves off, both of them, and reached out for the object. It was in fact just a stick. It had somehow gotten lodged inside the chain mechanism. I wrapped my already freezing hand around it and pulled, but of course it would not come out easily. I had to try for a good 30 seconds of swiveling it, turning it, and bending it before it finally broke free of the chain. I attempted to put my gloves back on, but found that my hands were already so numb that putting the gloves on was difficult. I was looking at the gloves but could not feel them. After slowing my breathing down and concentrating, I got both back on and mounted again on my bicycle. It was only when I was back on my bicycle seat that I realized that in my panic with the stick, I had actually taken my scarf off. I had draped it over my handlebars. I have no memory of doing it, nor am certain why I thought it necessary subconsciously, but there it was. It wasn’t until I saw the scarf that I realized the entire front of my face was now exposed to the wind and cold, and as soon as I realized it, I felt it.

It was a sudden, jolting pain, like having a face covered in hair, and having them all suddenly and simultaneously plucked.  I groaned, loud and suddenly and without any thought for who might hear.  I now had to get my scarf back onto my face–with hands that had gone numb and were inside bulky winter gloves.  It soon became completely evident that I needed to take the gloves back off in order to get the scarf on.  What followed–including then getting the gloves back onto my hands–was a flurry of disbelief and trauma beyond what I could describe.

I do understand that if one is reading this account from a bit of a remove, it might seem a bit tedious and overwrought; yes, here is a man trying to put his gloves and scarf on in the cold.  Yawn.  But understand: this felt very much like a life or death situation to me, and I’m confident that is exactly what it was.  Here I stood, at a time that is basically the middle of the night, on a dark city street with no humans around me, in temperatures that are lethally cold, in turns again and again exposing my extremities to the air, in a position in which I am responsible for the well-being–some might even say the lives–of two other human beings over a mile away from me, whom I have no method of contacting, who will soon be waiting outside a building which I have the only key to, and the only way I can get to them in time is to stop this foolhardiness and somehow make my bicycle take me there, using my own physical movements to power the bike through astonishing wind.

Add to this maelstrom of physical and psychological plight the fact that my cell phone is the only way I could tell time during this ordeal, and there was no real way for me to get it out and look at it, and so I couldn’t really tell how much time had passed and how much I had left.  Obviously, if I was a few minutes late, these employees were not going to die, but they’d be far from happy, and it was no doubt dangerous to make them stand out there.  And God forbid I would be more than a few minutes late.  I had no was of knowing how well they were dressed, how prepared they were, how desperate their own situations were.

Somehow, someway, I got back on the bike with gloves and scarf on and started pedaling.  But the damage was done.  My hands and face were the coldest I’d ever felt them, and the gloves and scarf were not going to warm them back up now.  For the rest of the trip, my extremities will exist in a realm of frigid pain that I can’t come close to describing, but I was almost certainly close to frostbite.  Add to that the continuing deterioration of the tops of my thighs—getting so cold they felt like they were on fire–and you have a definition of a certain kind of misery.

Now back to pedaling, I had been counting on my adrenaline to kick in to at least power me there, but it was not to be.  My body had withdrawn from the race.  Each pedal was the hardest thing I could remember doing.  For over a mile, I yelled/ screamed/groaned with every single downstroke of my legs.  At some points I even resorted to very dramatic, pathetic cries of “Why?!” or “No!” and other sad things of that nature, and I became more and more certain I was imply not going to be able to continue.

But I did start getting closer.  Finally, somehow only 5 or 6 blocks away, I allowed myself some positive thinking–and my scarf promptly flew off my head.  I have no idea how, or where it went.  It just flew off and my face was now fully exposed.  I didn’t spend any time debating whether to stop and look for it and try to put it back on.  I was very well aware that riding the last six blocks with no scarf was incredibly dangerous (especially since I was actually going quite slowly), but I knew without a doubt that stopping to look for it and then trying to get it back on would be even more dangerous.

(I have skipped over quite a few things, really—run-ins with a car or two, skidding on some ice, a child watching me out of a ground floor window, etc)

I did make it, obviously.  I pulled up to the store door at what turned out to be 4:59, to the sight of two bundled-up employees who were very cold.  As I stepped off my bike and fumbled numbly in my pocket for the door key, I managed to utter to them both, That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to which they chuckled, obviously assuming I was exaggerating.

We walked inside, and began our workday.

 

5 Responses to “Polar Vortex, Schmolar Schmortex”

  1. oh my

  2. Fucking hell! You rode home in that too. I’m sure daylight made things a little easier, but it still must have been torture! Take a damn Taxi or have someone pick you up until your wacky weather passes. I know you don’t take well to people giving you unsolicited advice and you know not to have a repeat of this morning, but don’t have a repeat of this morning. Do everything differently!

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Oh, worry not sir, the lesson was WELL learned. Luckily the temperatures are back in the 20s tomorrow (still horrifyingly cold, but not nearly as fatal!), but I won’t let something like that creep up on me again.

      The ride home was, in fact, pretty horrible, yes. But the sunlight did help a lot, plus the psychological bonus that the world was awake, so help was available. Mainly the problem on the return trip was how perfectly exhausted my legs were. It was pretty hard.

  3. This may seem odd to you: Biking to work under normal circumstances may be quicker and easier. When faced with extreme weather conditions, I would rely on two feet I can trust. Apologies for the pun and another piece of unsolicited advice. I’m glad you are safe.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      I don’t think it’s odd at all! This has definitely occurred to me, and if it had been just a LITTLE less cold, I probably would have just walked. But it was just too cold for me to take the time it would have taken to walk (I did it once last week when it snowed, and it took about 45 minutes)…it just seemed to me that, given the danger of the elements, being in that situation on foot might have been even more dangerous (especially considering that, on my bike, I can also be on foot at a moment’s notice by leaving the bike behind)

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