Why Cold Weather Makes Me Think About Masculinity

Photo by Gianni Cumbo

“Baby, it’s manly outside.” Gint Aras reflects back on the ways he was reminded that he needed to take the cold weather like a man.

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When I was in primary school, all the kids generally enjoyed long exposure to cold weather. If there was a difference between the way the boys and girls enjoyed it, the girls seemed to have the option of saying it sucked while boys expected other boys to enjoy it. Our parents or guardians did not keep us from the cold but simply told us to dress properly, to wear layers, hats and gloves.

In Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s, most kids walked to school. My mother guided me to kindergarten on my first day, September of 1978, but on my second I was on my own. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, the streets surrounding our school saw processions of kids. Some loitered around the yard of the sheet metal plant or in front of the corner store waiting for friends. But the boys proved their worth by waiting outside.

On especially cold days, boys who got rides from parents—an event of profane exception—faced certain ridicule. You could get away with it if you had a sister, especially a younger sister, and the whole family got the ride for her benefit. But if a parent drove a pair of brothers three blocks down the street to keep them from negative temperatures, they’d face a whitewash. That meant they’d get dumped in a bank, snow rubbed in their face, possibly an icicle shoved down their backs. This is how you dealt with the bourgeois.

Of course, getting whitewashed was actually rather fun, a point of pride, at least up to a point. There were kids in the neighborhood, the toughest ones, who’d even dare us to whitewash them. Whenever we got enough snow for the plows to pile into massive banks along a particularly wide sidewalk, we’d play King of the Mountain, essentially a wrestling free-for-all in the snow. We did it happily, whitewashing each other, and we’d come home sopping wet from sweat and dirty slush.

Following a snowstorm, a Chicago boy went out with a friend or a brother to shovel, and to earn some money in the process, hitting up all the old widows first, working all evening as the temperature dropped. You proved your value and validity in two ways: by the length of time you stayed outside and the amount of money you earned. It did not matter if you couldn’t feel your hands or feet, and you never admitted it. In fact, if your hands were numb, you knew you were doing it right. You stretched whatever curfew your mother had established, and you worked frantically, knowing that the Molina brothers or the Stanislaw cousins were out there along with older kids, the Lamberts and the Bertollis, bastards with wider shovels.

You were hardcore if you worked until the evening news came on and had over a hundred bucks to show for it. And you were also hardcore if you could take and give a quality whitewash. But the most badass kids were the few—and as the neighborhood fat ass, I was not one of them—who went garage hopping on frozen, icy rooftops.

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You need to imagine a Chicago alley to understand the concept: the garages are arranged in neat, parallel little rows, and they are all the same height, the sidewalks between them the same distance, about eight feet. You’d climb onto one garage at the end of an alley, run up to its peak, slide down the other side, then jump to the next garage, repeating until you got to the end of the alley (or fell, usually onto a fence or rose bush). It was daredevil in the summer but suicidal in the winter. The risk, however, is what made winter garage hopping, performed by a skilled hopper, an act of urban eloquence: a boy hopping gracefully over gangways between snow-covered garages, his dexterity feline and fear completely invisible.

Did anyone ever fall? You know the answer. When Frankie Sanchez ruined a rosebush that had been growing for decades, planted by someone’s dear late aunt, Old Lady Paciorek came out in slippers to yell at him as he lay bleeding, entangled in thorns.

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These memories came up today when I stepped outside into an unseasonably cold November morning, the temperature around 20 degrees (-7 C). My first reaction was, “Fuck, it’s cold,” and I felt the temperature attack my knees and hips; I grew oddly aware of the insides of joints, now tingling as if rubbed with mint balm. I inhaled the frigid air and felt it burrow up my nostrils, deep into my sinuses, the scent of frozen moisture that, for me, always announces the true onset of winter. I used to welcome this onset with excitement.

Today, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of lethargy. I imagined all the snow I’d need to shovel in coming months, and I thought about the gutters—I had not been up there since the spring, and they were probably clogged with a pulp of autumn leaves and maple seeds, now frozen solid. I’d have to take care of that, or I’d have to call my guy and pay him to do it.

None of it proved anything at all. It just seemed like crap you dealt with if you were stupid enough to live in a place where the temperature fell to 20 degrees.

 

Originally published on Liquid Ink

Photo: gianni_cumbo / flickr

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About Gint Aras

Gint Aras has two decades of experience teaching, over ten of them in a Chicago-area community college. He writes a weekly column, True Community, about young men and education. His writing has appeared in St. Petersburg Review (forthcoming, 2014), Antique Children, Criminal Class Review, Curbside Splendor, Dialogo, Šiaurės Atėnai and other publications. He's a photographer and the author of the cult novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar. Check out his website, Liquid Ink. Follow Gint on Twitter @Gint_Aras and "like" him on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Sounds like good hard fun. I am afraid that kids today can’t have the same experiences. We live in a time when safety is everything and risk of any kind is removed from their lives. I doubt many kids today walk to school. I know in my neighborhood in sunny Texas kids are driven to school on beautiful days and on brisk mornings wearing Parkas like they are Climbing Everest.

  2. toula kelikian says:

    How about skeeching, that was for only the toughest “Chicago kids”. I of course took great pride in the fact that I was the only girl that would skeech, and secondly almost always beat everyone in terms of staying power. I could skeech for a good 2- 3 blocks relentlessly!!! The other thing I remember every first cold day is the utter torture that was experienced when snow got on the inside of your wrists, the area between the coat sleeve and mitten cuff!! It was so cold that it felt hot, if anyone has ever had the pleasure of that sensation you know what I mean. Lastly, to this day when my feet get cold there are a few toes that become totally devoid of feeling, that is the result of walking tot high school in the freezing, snowy crap but being way too cool to wear appropriate attire! Thanks for the memories!!

  3. Skeeching was cut from the article for reasons of length. I’d like to write an article on the subject by itself. Skeeching was a mentality as well as a skill, and it required physical as well as mental toughness. I judged the best skeechers no on how long they lasted but on how well they took turns when the UPS truck hung a right on the 16th Street service drive. I attempted to hold on once and was thrown to the train tracks.

    • toula kelikian says:

      Agree, skeeching like most things in life, was a mental test more than anything else. I’m attempting to hold on every day and getting thrown all over the place, but then it becomes resilience that weeds out the “real’ from the weak. The real skeechers jumped on the next vehicle that came by without missing a beat. How’s that for a frickiin metaphor!!!!!

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