The Blizzard of ‘96

blizzard 1996

I realize that re-hashing all of my failed friendships on a comedy blog might not be the most hilarious weekly column. Like I said before, I’m not friendless. I didn’t spend my childhood holed up in a bedroom by myself. I actually used to interact with humans on a regular basis… and it was enjoyable.

Hanging out with my little brother Matt and his friends wasn’t always gender wars and bullying. We had a lot of unsupervised fun back in the ‘90s. Playdates and helicopter parents were not a thing where I grew up. We would spend a considerable amount of time outside running around my neighborhood. As long we hauled ass back home when my mother yelled, “MATTHEW! JO ANNA! DINNER! NOW!” out the back of my childhood home’s kitchen window into the Philadelphia sunset –she was fine with us.

Everyone that grew up in Philadelphia probably remembers one magical event in the winter of 1996. Something so unique that it would never again repeat during my childhood years. The city shut down, exams were canceled, and the social constructs of school were set aside to make way for the Blizzard of ‘96.

What makes this blizzard stand out? Sure, we got a shitload of snow–it dropped 30 inches on Philadelphia from Jan 6-8. But this storm was more than just flurries and missed school. The stars aligned to form a trifecta of snow day luck that felt personally granted to me. For instance, the timing of this blizzard couldn’t have been more ideal. My birthday is January 5th, and almost every year–without fail– my birthday landed around the time people returned to school after their long Christmas break. It was a bitter pill –but the glaze covered munchkins I brought in for my birthday usually helped take the edge off.

In 1996, my birthday landed on a Friday. My classmates were still reeling from their Christmas vacations, and the short school week did nothing to reduce their vacation buzz. By the time I was handing out my munchkins that afternoon, my classmates were already planning their sledding routes. The news of a big storm left us hoping for a three day weekend.

The next day, January 6th, was (is?) my father’s birthday. I would imagine that, in 1996, his birthday in wasn’t as jovial as mine, because 27 inches of snow fell on Philadelphia that day. While I shoved munchkins into my classmates faces the day before, my dad shoveled the snow in our walkway and our neighbors’ walkway for hours. Happy Birthday, indeed.

That snowstorm felt like a second Christmas gift with a side of never-ending birthday. The streets were covered in snow, and every kid in the neighborhood was outside. The city was completely shut down, and the only thing responsible people could do was dig themselves out and study for exams. We went outside to play.

The plows were hitting the main roads, but the side streets (where we lived) were forgotten. As is Philadelphia tradition. A giant mountain (It was probably 4/5ft tall. I was a tiny child.) of snow blocked the entrance to our street. Between the snow piled onto the parked cars on the street and the barricade at the end of the block, no one was going anywhere for a long time, which meant no cars on the road. To a city kid–this was heaven. It meant we ran the streets…and we did. Remember, we were still reeling from our Christmas high.  NO ONE was going to tell us what to do! Snow Day, bitches! As far as we were considered this was Christmas Part II.

The snow continued to fall, and the mountain at the end of my street grew larger. Before we knew it, 31 inches of snow had fallen on Philadelphia. The Blizzard of ‘96 was the biggest snowstorm the city had ever seen. The snow situation was so bad, my Catholic School had to cancel the following week of school…as well as exams. You heard that right. The Blizzard of 1996 canceled my exams.

I told you it was awesome.

So, as the block continued to shovel out, my brother, his friends and I perched ourselves atop the giant snow mountain at the end of the block. Some of us dangled our feet over the side in a Humpty Dumpty-like fashion, while others straddled it like a giant horse. We watched as neighbors on foot, skis, and even via jet ski walked back and forth from the Acme down the street. The city may have been snowed in, but it certainly was not dead.

Since we’d been out of school so long, the social hierarchy of Catholic school fell to the wayside. It wasn’t there to impede on my social skills, or make me feel obligated to present myself in a certain way. I was just…hanging out in the snow. Being myself. I remember having fun with my friends and not being worried about what was expected of me. It was nice.

Christmas continued on our mountain, but no one told my cranky neighbor we were still on vacation. Mrs. K was a biology teacher that kept to herself….except when she wanted something. She was very picky about her parking spot, and if you’re from Philly you know how important a parking spot is. (I’ve seen grown men fight over the location of a Harley Davidson. It’s not pretty.) Mrs. K was one of those famous Philly parking spot squatters and the whole neighborhood knew it too.

Let me explain something. You see, during a snowstorm in Philadelphia, when someone dug their car out of a parking space there was a certain…code. The Philadelphia police department has tried to curb this behavior, but the gist is, after you’ve dug your car out you place a cone or a piece of patio furniture in place of your car in the spot… Making it, therefore; your parking spot. A broken folding chair also sends the same message. If anyone dared to move the placeholder, or even worse, ignored this unspoken law– well, I really don’t know. No one has lived to tell that tale!!!!

Mrs. K was the kind of person that left her patio furniture in her spot all year. She didn’t need a snowstorm to call savesies. She kept dead cats in her garage for her biology class–so she needed the spot outside of her house. If you took it from her she reamed you out….or left a passive aggressive note…I really can’t remember. I just know she was a pain in the ass.

I remember Mrs. K angrily approaching us as we sat perched atop our snow wall. “Are you going to just sit there?” she asked,”or are you going to help me dig through it?”

We looked at each other, then back at Mrs. K, then back at each other– and laughed. “Sit here.” we shot back as we cackled like a bunch of wicked hyenas. The snow made us cocky, and I don’t think Mrs. K was expecting that response.

What did she expect? This giant mountain of snow was giving us the street freedom we needed. Why would we clear a path for cars to get through? Pfff. We loved this new power, and we wanted to milk it for as long as we could. “Stop laughing and dig my car out.” she pointed to her old cruiser covered in two feet of snow. We laughed some more. Then, one by one, we left the wall to make our way back to my house where we would continue our lawless winter wonderland while we still could.

Snow was a wonderful thing when you were a child. You see, when you’re a kid, and there’s snow on the ground…danger is not a thing. No, really! You could jump from unsafe heights into a giant pile of the stuff without worrying about breaking a collarbone. Who thinks about pneumonia when your friend dares you to run into the snow in your underwear for 10 seconds. Go ahead! Sled into oncoming traffic. It’s a snow day. You’re untouchable.

During the Blizzard of ‘96 there was so much snow on the ground that my brother, construct a long snow tunnel that ran along the wall of a long “driveway” located out the back of my childhood home. It was a shared driveway used by a number of neighbors and led into each of their private garages.To us, it was our giant back yard, but it was a pretty high trafficked area. We figured this was the best place to build a snow fort.

My brother was a very small child. So, he could easily squeeze through the shotty made tunnel system to make room for the bigger kids. No need worrying about the ceiling collapsing around him–the thought didn’t even cross our minds.

As the snow melted, we’d take icicles off of rusty car bumpers and eat them. Did it bother us that the ice had a slight discoloration? No. If anything, it just made the crystal taste a little bit salty. Yes, everything seemed much safer when your neighborhood was blanketed in fluffy white stuff.

The snow did melt, and we did end up going back to school. Eventually, the social hierarchies took their toll on my neighborhood friendships, and I was back to the outsider role. But I think I’ll always remember events like The Blizzard of 1996, because when the world shut down, and we were allowed to just be ourselves, that’s when my social skills shined the most.

Here’s to more snow days.

Jo Anna Van Thuyne is an actor, comedian, and producer residing in New York. Her column, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, posts every Thursday. Check her Snapchat/Twitter/Insta @JoPincushion.

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About Jo Anna Van Thuyne 16 Articles
Jo Anna Van Thuyne is an actor, comedian, and producer residing in New York. Her podcast, Apocalypse...Now?, starts September 5th. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Check her Snapchat/Twitter/Insta @JoPincushion. Learn more at joannavanthuyne [dot] com

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