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IT'S NO SNOW JOB: SEASONED RESIDENTS HANDLE WINTER'S FIRST

SO I LOOK out the window Monday morning, and I notice it's here.
It's on the ground, it's falling from the sky. It's everywhere. Seems like it has been a long time since the hands last wrapped around a snow shovel, clutched the trusty windshield ice scraper (scraping device on one end, small broomlike fixture thoughtfully affixed to the other). Memories. From the corners of my mind. Frozen, white-colored memories. Of the way it was.

I don't care what the calendar says, it's winter. Monday, we got our first taste. There's no turning back.

I'm glad. Not glad that it will take three times as long to get to work. Not glad that cars will slide into each other.

I'm glad because there are many things that separate Buffalo from other places, one of the biggest of them is winter, and we do it so well.

Chamber of Commerce, hold your calls. Do not mistake this writer for the man from the National Sports Daily, who recently wrote of Buffalo: "There can't be a bleaker place on the continent to spend a winter."

That is the voice of someone who never has wintered in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or Bismarck, N.D. I have a sister who lives in Madison, Wis. She says the tires on her car sometimes freeze to the ground.

One must admit, however, it gets dicey around here. And that it will be a long haul until the next time we see 60 degrees. And that, when the first blast hits, one mentally shifts into Low Expectations, in preparation for any of the various possibilities between now and April.

"It's like sleeting out now," says a guy in the elevator Monday afternoon. "But it's supposed to warm up and turn to rain, then get colder, so it will all freeze up."

There are two other people in the elevator, but there is no panic. This is the sort of report they have heard many times before. Buffalo means never being intimidated by a forecast.

Surprise quiz. The optimum vehicle for navigating on winter roads is:

a) A foreign car

b) A pickup truck

c) A four-wheel drive vehicle with waffle-iron tire treads.

d) A large, heavy, hopelessly out-of-date American sedan

The correct answer, as anyone who has ever driven on Route 400 in January realizes, is d.

We're talking a Delta 88. A Bonneville.

You can have the four-wheel drive with the anti-lock brakes, fog lights, hip-high tires. No machine ever built better handles a straight stretch of frozen highway than a big, clunky, gas-chugging American sedan from the late '70s with excessive body rust, piloted by a guy who looks like he hasn't slept in three days or shaved in four.

He's 20 pounds overweight, has a salami hero in one hand, the other is draped over the wheel, Bob Seger blasts out of the dashboard radio. He's wearing a camouflage jacket over a white T-shirt. The car weighs about 10,000 pounds and some obscure law of physics prevents it from doing the twist at excessive speed on an icy road.

Everyone is white-knuckling it in the right lane, trying to keep the wheels aligned with the two grooves of pavement where the snow has worn off. This guy is eating up the passing lane -- all white, no trace of asphalt -- like A.J. Foyt on a Pennzoil run. Do not get in this man's way. A flash of his brights, a blare of the horn, and you are spinning off onto the shoulder as he wails by, offering a single-finger salute. This is one image of winter.

There are more pleasant reveries. One of my favorite things is watching the national TV news after a freakish twist of the jet stream sends a blast of cold air below the Mason-Dixon Line.

See the tanned, languid residents of Charlotte or Atlanta startled by an inch or two of snow. See them play bumper cars with their $15,000 automobiles, twisting the wheel and spinning about. See their lives thrown into hopeless disarray by a meager flexing of nature's muscle.

Such pleasant visions almost make up for the idiots from elsewhere. The ones with the odd notions about how we live in this neck of the woods.

True story. A few years ago, a sporting event here attracted residents from other parts of the state. Among them was a middle-aged man from New York City, a newspaper reporter.

Now, one would assume he had seen something of life, had at least a loose grasp of basic geography and weather patterns. Yet, upon arrival at the designated site, he voiced surprise at the warmth in the Buffalo air. He said he had seriously considered bringing his winter coat.

It was late August.

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