I love bad weather. Not earthquakes and mud slides, just garden-variety awfulness. It's handy that I feel this way, since I live in Michigan, which actually has less bad weather than I expected when I moved here six years ago. My preparations for life in Michigan were based almost entirely on a Gretel Erlich essay called "The Smooth Skull of Winter." Erlich's essay is about winter on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, but as a Floridian I couldn't differentiate between Ann Arbor and somewhere-hours-from-Laramie. I took to heart her descriptions of sheep frozen in place, car batteries which must be brought inside every night, snow-blindness. I also spent a lot of time remembering the Little House on the Prairie books I'd grown up with, especially the one where Pa ties a rope from the house to the barn so he can milk the cows during a blizzard. From childhood on I've been steeled for worst-case scenarios, sure that if I'm only ready for them, they can't happen: cancer, rape, nuclear war. I approached my move up north the same way. I bought an enormous Eddie Bauer parka and expensive gloves. I promised myself I'd find a hat I could stand, and that I'd learn to recognize my car battery and maybe even to remove it.
It didn't take me long to figure out that Michigan is not Wyoming, and that Ann Arbor, bless its heart, is not really Michigan-if the roads are slick and you can't get to the mango-fontina quesadilla, well, just call Food by Phone and the quesadilla will come to you. Yes, it's cold and dark and snowy, but somehow groceries get bought and movies seen anyway, and I have never once had to tie a line from the house to my cow. Somewhere along the line I did figure out how to change a car battery, but I didn't mean to. Still, the weather is plenty bad enough, and whenever I ponder why people up here are, for the most part, so much nicer and more decent than folks from my home town of Boca Raton, I come back to the idea that bad weather is a great democratizer. We're all in this together, so we might as well play nice.
I actually started forming this theory back in Florida, during my first hurricane. Now, Boca Raton is a fairly horrific place to grow up, tinsely and cutthroat. It's all about whose Mercedes is newest and whose sweater most covered in appliques and sequins, and there's a desperate grabbiness for the best parking spot, the next turn in line, the biggest ring. It's a hostile, frantic, overtanned town. So 1978's Hurricane David should have sent everyone over the edge--there was, after all, limited preparation time and only so many batteries and gallon jugs of water in the city. But Erlich says that the ache of winter is "also a softness growing," and David opened us up in the same way. Standing in endless supermarket lines, strangers talked to one another about how to put masking tape on the sliding glass doors and speculated as to how long we'd be without power. Even at the age of nine, I felt the thaw, though I didn't understand it. As it turned out, Hurricane David was a bust, little more than a day off from school and a few downed power lines. (South Florida has had so many near-misses that Andrew was more of a shock than it should have been; we'd felt charmed, the Land of the Lame Hurricanes.)
In Michigan, bad weather is a state pasttime. The TV news programs have storm teams which they trot out whenever things get dicey outside. A storm team consists of the usual anchors looking a little more excited than usual, plus some poor rookies who stand by the side of I-94 to report that the roads do, in fact, suck. Just this year one station was forced to broadcast by the light of a generator, its storm team hunched together in the spotlight and working without teleprompters. I loved it. I love lining up to buy 10-pound bags of salt for the driveway. I love being treated like a hero simply for showing up at work. And bad weather brings unexpected kindness, too, like the morning I woke to find that my neighbor had brushed six inches of snow from my car as well as his own. I was living in the country then, where people with tractors and snowplows looked after those of us with small laughable Japanese cars. Even in the city, though, my walk is sometimes mysteriously, anonymously cleared of snow.
But it was the Ann Arbor serial rapist, of all people, who gave me real respect for bad weather. It was the spring of 1995, and he'd been at it for a while. This guy was a pro. He would knock his victims out with a blow to the back of the head before they'd even really seen him, so that when they woke up hours later (and one never did wake up, and in that way he became a murderer too), half-naked and badly beaten, they were unable to give any but the most basic description of the man who'd made them that way. The worst thing about our rapist was that he didn't just prey on women who'd practically asked for it-you know, the kinds of brazen hussies who want takeout Chinese food after dark, or decide to take a short cut through an alley because it's twenty degrees out and their ears are numb-although he got them too. No, the worst thing about our boy was that he didn't follow the rules. He attacked women who were walking their dogs and riding their bikes. He attacked at two in the afternoon on well- traveled sidewalks. So even those of us who made a habit of safety-what we thought of as safety-couldn't feel safe. And month after month they couldn't catch him. He began to seem supernatural, a creature who took form, raped, and dissolved.
This being Ann Arbor, a group of Wiccans decided to put a spell on him. All over town signs were tacked to telephone poles telling him he'd been released from harming the people of Ann Arbor, freed to meet his fate. I wasn't sure what this (or the Latin words which followed) really meant, but it sounded good. I saw the sign on my way home from the corner store one afternoon. I was feeling optimistic that day, believing that the tulip bulbs I'd planted in the fall would probably bloom, getting in the mood for ice cream and mystery novels. I put my groceries in the apartment and had just gone out to overwater my little garden when my neighbor said, giving me the same look I used to give Yankees frying in baby oil under the noon sun, "Kristi, we're about to have a tornado. Don't you hear the sirens?"
So there we were-thirteen women, a Yorkie, and two very antsy rabbits-hanging out on the washing machines in the complex's underground laundry room and peeking at the yellow sky, which was both beautiful and scary. When you've been through hurricanes, tornadoes seem very specific. The odds that a tornado will light on your house out of all the houses in the world are pretty slim. But it could. And I started thinking that our lives were just like that lately, that we were all hiding from something which would probably never get us, but could. Then I thought that women's lives were like that to some extent all the time-that's why more of us don't walk to the takeout place at night, don't jog in the woods, keep custody of the eyes as though we'd vowed to. Which is why it felt so good to realize he was out there somewhere. Maybe he was hiding, or maybe not. Maybe, like me, he'd tuned the sirens out, or thought they didn't apply to him. But he was as helpless in the face of bad weather as the rest of us.
The tornado never touched down in Ann Arbor, and Ervin Mitchell was nowhere near released from harming us. They didn't get him until Christmas, when a cabbie spotted him walking over a bridge two blocks from my house and had what proved to be an excellent hunch. But on that day in April I knew there was something bigger than him, that he was only a man and not some sort of malign Power Ranger. On that day Ervin Mitchell and I were intimate, and our bond was smooth-skulled.
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: March 1, 1998