Imagine a day that was so cold that when the temperature rose to -20 c (that’s -4 degrees F) three days later, it felt like a heat wave. A day that produced multiple states of emergency for much of the country. A day where you windows had thick sheets of ice on their panes, and your breath turned into icicles before you started to take in air.
I’m remembering a day fifteen years ago exactly like that, not too much different from the current cold snap across much of the Northern US right now. Except that we live in the DC area today, not in Pittsburgh. So 8 degrees F isn’t so bad. Fifteen years ago, the Midwest and Northeast were in a major, major cold snap that would’ve disproven global warming in the minds of most outside those with scientific backgrounds. Torrents of snow fell in the ‘Burgh, in New York, in Chicago and DC. So much snow fell in Pittsburgh that both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon shut down — something that only happens on near apocalyptic days. There were at least two days in early January ’94 where Pittsburgh received at least two feet of snow. By the end of that month, the city had already set a seasonal record for snowfall at 93 or 96 inches. Of course, that was nothing compared to Chicago, Cleveland or Buffalo that winter.
What made it worse was the record cold weather. Any records set by the blizzards of ’77 and ’78 in New York and Chi-town, or with surprise snow that hit DC in November ’87, were pretty much met or reset in this chilly tale. Over the course of nine days, between January 10 and 19, the temperature fell from a bearable 15 degrees F to 10, 8 , 5, -2, -10, -15, and to -22 on Wednesday, January 19. The wind chill that day made it feel like -50 degrees. New York was -15 that day, and DC a balmy -11. Only Chicago had it worse in terms of major cities, a -26 degree day with Lake Michigan wind chills of -70. It snowed on most of those days, making conditions about as bad as living in Fairbanks, Alaska in the dead of winter.
My story became all the more bizarre because I had my dreaded historiography course with John Modell that day at Carnegie Mellon. I was in my second semester as a transfer doctoral student there, and had just barely survived the previous semester. Not academic survival, financial survival. My meager resources had been stretched to the limit by my transfer to the elitist university. Not elite, elitist, which I defined and still define as a “wannabe elite school.” Yes, most folks see Carnegie Mellon as one of about 180 or so elite institutions. But there’s elite and then there’s elite. Carnegie Mellon comparing itself to even, say, NYU was laughable to me, forget about the Ivy Leagues or U Chicago, Stanford or MIT. I felt like I’d made a mistake transferring there, interacting with the neo-con, monolithically white and Asian campus and my out-of-touch with reality professors. There were so few people like me on campus that I spent more time on Pitt’s campus than I did at Carnegie Mellon.
So I awoke to a cold studio apartment on Wednesday, January 19, even though the heat was at full blast and I’d sealed my windows with plastic. I turned on the TV, and found that the governor had declared a state of emergency because of the cold and because the state’s electrical grid was on the verge of collapse from the strain. All businesses, schools, and colleges, as well as all non-essential state work, was to stop that day to preserve energy so that we wouldn’t freeze to death. To a business, everyone complied with the governor’s order.
Everyone except Carnegie Mellon, that is. They cited the fact that they a private and not a state institution as the reason for them not shutting down that day. Never mind that students who lived off campus would have to brave the killer temperatures to come to class. Or the fact that Pitt, a private institution with far more students than Carnegie Mellon, only two blocks away, was completely shut down. Or the fact that Carnegie Mellon, like the rest of the state, relied on the same overloaded power grid and was stretching limited resources.
So I prepared to go to my 2 pm course. Normally I would’ve walked the 2.75 miles from East Liberty to campus. Even I recognized that -22 was too cold for me to be out in for more than a half-hour, and this a forty minute walk for me in the ice and snow. I wore long-johns and sweats, two layers of socks insulted in plastic Giant Eagle bags that I’d put in my high-tops. I wore six layers of upper body clothing, snapped my hood on my winter jacket, pulled down my wool cap to my eye lids, and wrapped my blue scarf around my mouth and neck.
I tried to time the bus so that I wouldn’t outside more than a few minutes. With the twenty mph wind gusts, it was like someone was trying to suck the life out of me. It hurt to breathe. Yet I found it funny to feel the icicles forming on my nose hairs and mustache. I took the first bus that came, the old 71C, which didn’t stop close to Carnegie Mellon, did stop right across the street from the Cathedral of Learning, about a half-mile from Baker Hall and my class.
There were only a half dozen folks on the bus, all cold and looking like they would’ve preferred 120 degrees in Death Valley than our meat locker conditions. I got off the bus at Fifth and Bigelow (?) and walked the fastest walk I could muster to Carnegie Mellon. But as anyone knows in cold weather, the muscles fibers can’t fire as fast, and I was stuck going at a normal person’s pace, counting my breaths and pissed off that Carnegie Mellon was still open. Pitt, meanwhile, was a ghost town. The only people I saw outside were Pitt Police and grounds folk putting down salt in a vain attempt to melt the ice on the sidewalks. Oh yeah, on the bridge that connects Pitt to Schenley Park and the southern entrance to Carnegie Mellon, two idiot joggers passed me, proving once again the dominance of brave Alpha males in controlling the world.
Upon entering Baker Hall, I was told by security that Carnegie Mellon was closing after all. I learned from the departmental office that the governor had personally called the president of Carnegie Mellon and ordered the closing under the threat of a $1 million per day fine, or something pretty close to that. So the elitist university was shutting down after all, at 2 pm. We could all go home. Or so we thought. John Modell decided that our classes were too precious to cancel over a little thing like a state of emergency. Now I knew that the man had taught for years at U Minnesota, so -22 for him was just a normal winter day.
I thought, though, that this was ridiculous. Carnegie Mellon’s compliance with the state of emergency meant that at 2 pm, the heat and much of the non-essential electricity would go off at any time. But I was a third-year grad student in sea of seven first-years who had the backbones of clams being added to clam chowder. They said nothing, leaving me the only one to lodge a complaint. Modell said, “We’ll leave before it gets too cold. Nothing to worry about.” What a crazy ass!
An hour later, with the heat off, we could all see our breath as Modell yammered on and on about cultural anthropology and the meaning of objectivity in that discipline. It didn’t seem to dawn on the idiot that no one wanted to participate in discussing the nuances of objectivity, or the falsehood created by cultural anthropologists about their objective work. All I know was that it was way to cold to sit in a classroom wondering what would kill us first, Modell’s disjointed diatribes or the bitter cold classroom. If we had been ten years younger, Modell would’ve gone to jail.
Finally, Modell released us from his professorial grip, around 3:20 pm. He even acknowledged that is was just too cold to continue class. “We’ll make this up next week,” he said. Yeah, as if he couldn’t have said that an hour before.
We all now needed to brave the cold to get back home. Carnegie Mellon, in its wonderful wisdom, had so completely shut down the campus that we had no other options besides public transportation. Even the university bus wasn’t running. So we walked to our respective bus stops on Forbes and Fifth Avenue. Luckily, PAT was running buses as much to keep folks from freezing as they were to make money. I caught a bus home after waited at a stop for only a few minutes, the old 71B, which dropped me off right in front of my apartment building. I went upstairs, turned on everything that provided heat, and went to sleep.
It was a bizarre day, to say the least. Between the joggers, Carnegie Mellon and John Modell, I realized that people with power were willing to act capriciously with that power, especially when they did understand the consequences of doing so. If our grades hadn’t depended on it, we would’ve all left as soon as we learned that Carnegie Mellon was closing. Matter of fact, we probably wouldn’t have even been on campus to begin with. It was unbelievably cold that day, but not hardly as cold as the minds and hearts of the people of power on Carnegie Mellon’s campus.