IF FURTHER proof is needed that this city is not accustomed to walloping snowstorms, consider the public reaction to the man and wife who went skiing through the streets of South Baltimore Sunday afternoon, at the storm's peak.
It seemed a natural way to explore the transformed neighborhood. However, to most who saw them, they may as well as have been invading Vikings complete with horned helmets, such bewildered looks did they receive.
"Are you skiing?" the 8-year-old boy on his sled near Southern High School shrieked, as if refusing to believe the evidence he saw before him: two people with long slats stuck on their feet, with poles in their hands, coming down the middle of Covington Street.
"Stay there," he ordered the skiers, worried they might vanish into the whiteness, an illusion that everyone would later claim he was making up. He scooted around the corner, and again shrieked, "Mom! There's skiers!"
As the skiers headed down Fort Avenue toward Locust Point, a young man leaned out of a bar and, in a boozy bark with language foul enough to blacken the snow, asked the couple what the heck they thought they were doing. The enlightened fellow had retreated to the dark saloon before the husband could think of a good rejoinder; gliding down the avenue, he thought he finally understood why Olympic cross-country skiers carry rifles.
The startled looks were understandable, of course. Skis are not supposed to be a form of transport in a city that takes fright at the prospect of the merest snow squall, that in most years has its air conditioners in place by April and that generally experiences winter less as a true season than as a couple dull months between football and Opening Day.
But skis were appropriate Sunday, for the storm altered Baltimore to the point where it became someplace entirely different. At the Inner Harbor at mid-afternoon, the white gusts had all but obliterated the downtown skyline and drained all color from gaudy Harborplace, so that the half-frozen inlet seemed to have reverted to its former status as a gritty working port.
Seen from Rash Field at the inlet's southern edge, the city looked smaller, and much more northern; it could have been Riga, Halifax or Helsinki, but not Baltimore. The huge concrete block of the Christ Church apartments opposite the harbor on Light Street, normally so out of place beside the glitzy hotels, looked suddenly very much at home in its East Bloc grayness.
To be sure, identifying signs still peeked through the blur. Where else but South Baltimore would the first response to a blizzard be to rev up your three-wheeler and charge through the piles of snow as if they were so many sand dunes? The ATVs whined around the skiers in Locust Point, breaking the quiet, filling the air with thick fumes and, to the three-wheelers' credit, leaving enough of a trail in the deep drifts to make the skiing smoother.
And where else but a city unused to big snow would there be such total resignation about clearing any streets beyond the main arteries? A northern town would have the stuff pushed aside in hours, stubborn as a wartime city clearing away its rubble after an air raid.
Here, the snow's allowed to pile up without shame. For anyone trying to get on with normal life, it's a problem. For anyone lucky enough to have skis buried in the basement, it's a boon.
Alec MacGillis is a reporter for The Sun who covers higher education. He lives in South Baltimore.
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