Riders on the Storm


If you live in the northern half of the United States, or grew up there, you understand what the phrase “digging out” means. I grew up near Buffalo, New York, in a corner of the world formed by the proximity of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

That made it one of the snowiest parts of the country, and the winter storms of my youth were legendary. Sometimes the drifts swelled up over the doors and windows, and everyone was literally trapped inside their houses until they could dig their way out. Then we would take pictures of ourselves standing next to the snowbanks.

There were two very important factors that you needed to go your way during a blizzard. One was that you hoped the pantry was stocked up (which any real northlander would always bear in mind in winter) and the other was that the power stayed on.

We had pilot lights in those days, so the furnace and stove might work without electricity, and the back porch served pretty well as a backup refrigerator. Candles, kerosene lamps and fireplaces were available if needed.

The thing we really couldn’t manage without power was the television. Back then there was no cable or Wi-Fi required, but unlike our transistor radios, TVs didn’t run on batteries. Without electricity, we were faced with several days of dealing with each other.

Over the past year I’ve given a lot of thought to those snowstorms and how it felt to have our lives suspended by an act of nature. There was a certain sense of resignation involved, an acknowledgment that it didn’t matter how important you thought your plans, responsibilities, or activities were. They weren’t going to happen.

When the viral blizzard struck last March, coincidentally around the same dates as some of our greatest winter storms, we were all told to go home and shelter in place until we got the all clear. I can remember sitting in a restaurant in Geneva with my wife on the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day, as a few stragglers finished a last drink at the bar before heading for home.

It was eerily quiet in a normally bustling place, with that ominous air of calm before a storm. It was the last time I’ve been inside a restaurant.

From a business standpoint our company was pretty fortunate in the timing of the pandemic, at least in the short-term. The first quarter of 2020 was very strong for us, so we had a backlog of orders, new projects underway, and money in the bank. The pantry was full.

That changed, of course, as the weeks of shutdown dragged into months of struggling to run a depressed business in a nearly comatose economy. Without public assistance, I don’t know whether we would have survived or not.

In that respect my metaphor does not quite hold up, as we never experienced an endless snowstorm. The worst one that I recall was in March of 1971, and it took about a week to get all the downed trees cut up and cleared out of the way. The pandemic has now gone on for a full year, and it’s not done with us yet.

One thing for sure, the power definitely stayed on. When everyone was sent home last March, we suddenly had to figure out how to run a business without actually being there. Our forebears would have considered such an idea ludicrous, but then they could not have conceived of the tools we have available.

Most of us hadn’t even given it much thought ourselves. A year ago I had never heard of Zoom conferences. Now Zoom is a noun, a verb, an adjective, or whatever else you need it to be.

For office-based companies like magazine publishers, the pandemic served as a gigantic experiment in management, an experiment that no one could have afforded to conduct if they had any choice in the matter. If you had asked business executives whether or not their companies could function with the entire staff working from home, they wouldn’t have known. Now they do.

Other types of businesses have faced more existential questions. That restaurant for example, remains open at least according to its website, but it is severely restricted in its legal capacity. I drive by it quite often and it always looks deserted, which makes me wonder what became of the wait staff, the cooks and the bartenders.

We have an eight-screen multiplex movie theater here in town, which has been closed now for almost a year. It is part of a small chain of theaters in Upstate New York, and although I don’t know anything about its finances, I can’t imagine that they’re very good.

Then there are the stores. Like my own business, retailers had been operating under a great deal of stress for more than a decade, and a lot of observers didn’t think they could survive a shutdown, particularly one that benefited the very competitors who had already taken so much market share.

Walmart, for example, was allowed to stay open because it sells things considered essential like groceries and hardware, but it also sells many of the other categories, like clothing, that were not. That hardly seemed fair.

In June of 2020, after nearly three months of near total closure, most retailers in New York State were allowed to reopen. It was a celebratory moment, but stores were not quite the same.

First of all, there were strict limits on the number of customers allowed in the store at the same time. Suddenly every little shop was like an exclusive nightclub, with a bouncer at the door keeping a head count and waving in those who were acceptable.

Second, everyone was masked up, which in some cases may also suggest a nightclub, particularly one in New Orleans. It may not be true everywhere, but in the rural area of the country where I live, people simply wear masks in stores. It is not considered a political statement, nor a mere request one can choose to ignore.

I don’t know how everybody came up with it so quickly, but every store in town has a Plexiglas shield at checkout and a lot of them have stickers on the floor showing us where to stand. (If we’ve learned nothing else in the past year, we should all have a pretty good idea how far 6 feet is.)

Somehow, all the local stores that I shop at have managed to stay in business through the whole ordeal, and I believe that may generally be the case through the U.S.  Just yesterday I read an article in the Wall Street Journal which claimed that the expected retail extinction of 2020 did not happen. More stores were actually closed in 2019 than in 2020.

So now we dig out. There is still a lot of snow on the ground, but we can get out of the house and make our way around town. Others, everywhere, are doing the same thing, and we will start making new connections and renewing old ones.

We are all a year older, sadder but wiser, yearning to breathe free.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com

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