Why Washington Is a City of Snow Wusses

Neither Southern nor Northern, we freak out every time the flakes fall.

On Tuesday night at 9:30 PM, after listening to news reports that Washington, D.C., where I live, was due to get its first snowstorm of the season, I went to the Safeway. Despite the hour, the parking lot was full. Like the rest of the scared citizenry, I stocked up on milk and bread. I don’t drink milk. I can’t remember the last time I bought bread. My refrigerator was already stocked to feed a small Albanian village.

In addition to all of its other problems, the capital has become a city of snow wusses. I’ve become one, despite having grown up heartier in New Jersey where it snows more, and in the 1970s when it came more frequently. Panicked over reports of snowfalls, Washingtonians prepare like they’re readying to climb Everest, but without the quiet determination of a mountaineer. There’s more anxiety, drama, and acting out than a teenage girl exhibits in a tiff with one of her friends. There’s food panic and commuter anxiety even though SUVs are ubiquitous. The Range Rover set comforts themselves with the illusion that they needed a car designed for the Serengheti to handle a pothole on S Street.

A city of transplants, D.C. brims with native Midwesterners and New Englanders who roll their eyes at the snow panic that sets in each time the forecast predicts a bit of the white. I sniffed too when I first arrived here years ago. Now I have a loaf of white bread I’ll never eat.

Why? I’m not entirely sure how it got this way. John F. Kennedy famously said that Washington was a city of “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” And, in a way, that betwixt-and-between quality of the Mid-Atlantic states applies--although the good citizens of nearby Baltimore, with their "we’ve-been-through-hard-times-David Simon" bravado seem to cope better with nearly identical weather. Southern cities like Atlanta don’t have the plows and salt and budgets to handle their twice-a-decade snow. They have cause for anxiety. Yes, some Bostonians stand in breadlines like Soviet babushkas, but they seem to do less of it when the snow hits. They’re stoic, and they see plowing and shoveling as their grim duty. I asked my brother in Maine how he dealt with a 3-foot dump recently. My tone conveyed concern. He responded like I was worried about his dry-cleaning. “We’re fine,” he assured me.

We, on the other hand, are drama queens. We get enough snow to be anxious but not enough to face it with equanimity. 

One theory might come from social scientists. (Allow me a David Brooks moment.) Martin Seligman, the great professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered in experiments with dogs that when they were subjected to pain, they became defeated. They stopped resisting the pain and declined opportunity to escape entirely. The theory has been applied to human depression, too. It’s called “learned helplessness.”

In the 1980s, the criminal and inefficient--as opposed to Chicago-style criminal and very efficient--the District of Columbia had massive snow storms where the plows simply didn’t roll. The city’s legendary crack-smoking mayor, Marion Barry, was out of town when it happened, adding to the sense of woe. I suspect that in some sense traumatized the region, making us resigned to pain and prone to anticipate more than actually comes.

Of course, other cities have their snow woes. Even hearty Chicagoans tossed out a mayor, Michael Bilandic, in the late '70s for responding poorly to a blizzard. But they get enough chances to reset their internal panic meter. Every city has a news-panic infrastructure of local TV stations that see a ratings bonanza with inclement weather, although D.C.’s somehow seems worse. Last night the weatherman on the CBS affiliate here showed a chart with loaves of bread--a measure of how much you needed to stock up. This wouldn’t be as bad as Snowmageddon in 2010, he said, but pretty bad. 

Ironically, when the snow does fall, the panic subsides. As with much of life, reality never matches the fear. The blizzards and Snowmageddon were magical here. Twitter led to flash mobs gathering in Dupont Circle for massive snowball fights. A rogue cop got disciplined for waving his guns at mirth-makers who hit his Hummer with a snowball, but that was the only real drama. Work stopped. Smiles appeared. With roads impassable, my son and I hurled snowballs at each other and walked with the Monty Python style that comes when your foot sinks two feet into the crunch and you try to regain your balance. As best as I remember, no one ran out of bread.