NOTES ON THE FIRST FREEZE IN DALLAS

 

It got down to 27 the other night, the first freeze of the year in Dallas. The next morning all the puddles were covered in a thin layer of ice. I tapped one with the toe of my shoe and it shattered. Then I went around shattering puddles. It was 6am and dark. No one was around. I was walking from my apartment to Starbucks, over the Mockingbird Train Station and down into the shops. My scarf was covering up my mouth. I couldn't find my fingerless gloves so I wasn't wearing any gloves. My hands were out in the cold. I've heard that people in Chicago get mean when the temperature drops but I think the opposite thing happens in Dallas. Everyone falls in love with each other. The weather is all we can talk about.

I sat in Starbucks and watched people's glasses fog up when they came inside. It happens instantly. I’m sure it’s the most basic science but I have no idea what’s going on. People walk in and their eyes flash bright white. I wonder, though, if there is such a thing as simple science or if everything that happens is deeply tied to the grand mystery of the universe.

It's a wonderful time to be a Christian in the south although I'm not one anymore.

The shop windows fog up too. Translucent grey. Maybe it's from everyone breathing inside, their breath sticking to the windows. Or maybe it’s just us being here on the warm side of the glass. Droplets form and slide from the tops of the windows down to the bottoms, tear streaks through the fog. All the windows are covered in shaky lines.

“It's a real biter out there today,” some man said to me on the train. He was wearing a long black coat.

“I wasn't prepared,” I said. “My clothes aren't rated for arctic temperatures.”

“You won't survive more than a few hours in that coat,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I'm in a precarious situation.”

“Stay close to buildings,” he said. “Don't go wandering off.”

“I wasn't planning on it but that's a good reminder,” I said.

The man got off the train at CityPlace Station, one hundred feet underground. It felt warm down there. After he was gone, I thought, Biter?

Janessa and I turned on our heater for the first time and we set off the fire alarms. The whole apartment smelled like smoke for a while. The dust in the vents had caught, briefly, on fire. We opened up the front door and the back door and let the air blow through. 20-degree winds. We dug ourselves under our comforter and laid there until the smoke was gone, two lumps in the bed.

We have a fireplace this year. Three fake logs behind some glass. We turn the fire on and off with a light switch on the wall. The glass gets so hot though I'm worried it's going to explode. We only keep the fire on for a few minutes at a time.

The vines Janessa planted on the patio have stopped growing. It's like time doesn't count as much in the winter. Everything, even biology, is at a stand still. I asked Janessa if the plants were dead and she said yes but they would come back to life when the time was right. I asked how they would know when the time was right. She said: “If you're asking me how plants work then you're asking a very big question.”

Downtown: People walk around with grande-sized Starbucks coffee cups in each hand. One for them, one for somebody else. Steam coming out of the mouth holes and trailing behind them for a second before it disappears. Downtown: Men can pull off a knee-length black jacket without looking creepy. Downtown: Our hands are so cold our phones don't recognize our fingers as being alive.


Concerning the Bright White Color of the Season:

The cars' exhaust is bright white. People's breath is bright white. The tops of coffee cups are bright white. The fur along the edges of women's coats is bright white. Our glasses, when they fog up, are bright white. Bright white clouds rise out of the tops of buildings and float up toward the bright white sky. If there were a color that perfectly captured what Dallas is like in the winter it would be bright white.

The cops in Dallas wear thick black winter coats with zippers up the sides for quick access to their guns. They wear earmuffs that wrap around the backs of their heads. There's this one cop who looks down on the Saint Paul DART station from the fifth floor of the parking garage. He leans over the edge and drinks coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.

“Look at this guy,” a man at the DART station said to me, a stranger. He looked up at the cop and shook his head. 

“At least there's someone up there watching over us,” I said. “Especially these days.”

“What's he going to do? He's five stories up.”

“Maybe he's got somebody on the ground.”

“He doesn't have anybody on the ground. He should be on the ground.”

“I don't know,” I said. “I don't mind.”
     

Downtown safety workers put orange cones on top of the frozen puddles. If you watch long enough though you're bound to see somebody fall. Their hands go up above their heads. A horrifying moment of weightlessness. The puddles are traps. The people are prey.

I tried a new soup place called Serj. The walls were unfinished wood and there were books on the walls. The Letters of TS Eliot, the Letters of Allen Ginsberg, a Visual Guide to Colt Handguns. I said, “I'm here for the soup,” and the girl behind the counter said, “Which soup because there are three.” She gave me a sample of each and the only one that tasted ok was the chicken poblano so I said I would take one cup of the chicken poblano soup. She asked if I wanted a corn muffin and I said ok. My total was nine dollars but when I looked at my receipt later she'd charged me nine seventy-five. It was hard to enjoy the cup of soup then even though it's the perfect weather for eating soup. It’s always hard to enjoy a nine-dollar cup of soup.

I watched a man putting Christmas lights in the trees in front of the Gables building. He was balancing on a ladder and the lights were wrapped over his shoulder like a climbers' rope. I couldn't help feeling that he'd been caught. For the most part Christmas lights spring up spontaneously around the city. They spread from one building to the next like pollen. For a long time there was only one patio in my apartment complex with Christmas lights. Now there are two. One of them is neon blue and the other one is bright white.

People on the train ride home with crockpots in their laps.

I walked to Klyde Warren Park after work but the park was empty. It was too cold for anyone to be out there. We've dipped below the threshold. Everyone was walking with their hands in their pocket and their hoods pulled over their heads. Their mouths covered in scarves. It's the most anonymous time of year in Dallas. We could all be anyone else. “That's why people are so mean to each other up north,” Janessa said. It was later and we were sitting by our fireplace with our hands against the glass. “They're all in such a rush to get back inside they don't have time to be nice.”

“Don't you think people in Dallas are nicer when it gets cold?”

“I think we're all always exactly the same.”

“I think people get nicer for awhile.”

“They don't, but it’s romantic that you think so.”
         

A Brief Anthropological Study of the Way People in Dallas Tie Their Scarves: 

By far the most popular method of tying a scarf in Dallas is to double the scarf over the back of the neck and then pull the two ends through the loop. Other popular methods include: the single wrap, the multi-wrap (popular with women), the knot in the front, and “The open and casual,” a scarf hanging uselessly over the shoulders. I once saw a man do a single wrap but trail both ends behind him, a look I named “The Professor.”

Oh, and my point about people riding the trains with crockpots in their laps is that the subtext to everything I see is “togetherness.” Coffee in both hands, etc. While I walk around I listen to Thelonious Monk, Paris 1969. I love the music but what I love more are all the voices in the background talking and yelling, clapping, scatting along with the saxophone.

After a week they turn on the heaters in Klyde Warren Park, ten-foot tall glass canisters filled up with flames. They put off a small but intense radius of heat. People take off their gloves and hold their hands up to the glass. They hold their gloves under their arms and sometimes in their mouths. Their faces are all fire-lit orange. Behind them it's completely dark. I stand there for a long time watching people come and go. They cluster around the glass for a few minutes until their fingers are warm enough to work their phones. They rub the blood back into their fingers and blow through their fists like trumpets. A man standing next to me says, “'Tis the season, eh?” and I do a little tap dance to the jazz song that’s playing in my left ear.


Mike Nagel’s essays have been published by The Awl, Apt, Curbside Splendor, Switchback and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas.