Monday, December 30, 2013

the ice storm: my first day in Ottawa

I was at our last party of the night.  People were dressed in bathrobes, drinking white Russians, living out a movie scene from the Big Lebowski. I was tired and waiting for the party to wind down. We had gotten up at 4AM that morning to fly into Ottawa that day.

One of the party guests was complaining about a previous party he had attended earlier that night. It had been boring, and he was now looking for an adventure.  "Come on," he urged us. "It's time to do something crazy.  Let's do something wild!"

But the night was ending, and eventually the party guests left to go relieve the baby-sitters watching their kids. We left too, but the adventure was just beginning for us.

First there was the ice storm.  I hadn't realized what my friend had been talking about when he asked me, back in Yellowknife, whether I was going to be flying into "that mess down South." I realized now that what he had meant was the massive ice storm moving into hit Ontario and knock out the power in Toronto. Ottawa had power but was getting massive amounts of wet wet snow.

Flashback: I have no memories of surviving the great North American Ice Storm of 1998, which led to, according to Wikipedia, the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War. I was thirteen years old.  My entire family had the flu for the whole time. We slept through the whole thing.

In the midst of that snow storm, I had received a parking ticket, which was buried under several inches of snow forming on the dashboard. The parking ticket was for $85. This in itself was irritating, but what was more disturbing was the fact that my car was not unlocking.

This car is old; we were driving it back when I was still in high school. Parts of it don't work anymore. One of the parts that don't work are the manual locks. Now we can only use the remote locking function on our key. The remote locking function was a cool feature in 1999, as were cellular phones, but now it's a total pain in the butt, especially when, as it turned out, the car battery was completely dead. This meant we couldn't even unlock the door to get into the car to pop the hood to jump start the battery. We were kind of screwed.

We called CAA. As it turned out, we weren't the only lost souls in the snow storm.  It was going to be an hour's wait. In the snow.  We went back to the party, but everyone was asleep. We went back to the car. We couldn't even wait in the car. I passed the time by periodically brushing the falling snow off my windshield, but it seemed like a futile Sisyphusian effort. By this time, my hair was completely white, covered in snow.  Luckily, there was the Kettleman's Bagels nearby, Ottawa's bagel shop open twenty-four hours a day for some reason. We waited there.

Eventually the tow truck that CAA sent arrived.  "The battery's dead," we told him. "So we can't open the door."

The tow truck driver - let's call him Jeff - fiddled around with our car using a long wire.  "I can't open your door," he announced. "Your battery's dead."

Jeff told us we needed a special tool that he didn't have. He'd call CAA to find another tow truck with the special tool.

We went back to Kettleman's, bought a bottle of water, and waited. "Can you believe it's going to take two tow trucks to fix the car?" we mused. By this time, it was about 3AM.

Eventually a second tow truck arrived. "This must be our tow truck!" we figured, and left the bagel shop to greet him.  Instead, we watched as the second tow truck driver (let's call him Bunny) backed his truck right into the first tow truck, Jeff's.  There was a loud boom.  Oops.

"ARE YOU SERIOUS?" screamed Jeff.


Bunny got out of the truck and nonchalantly walked up to the parking meter to pay for parking. Now that I think about this, this is what we should have done in the first place to avoid our parking ticket, the first of our problems.

Jeff jumped out of the car, stalking after Bunny. "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO THAT FOR?" he shouted. "YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO HIT MY TRUCK."

"What?" said Bunny.

Then ensued the fight of the tow truck drivers.

In the midst of the  "I always knew you were trouble, you and your father" and "I've never seen you in my whole life before" and "I'm going to punch you right in your face", it dawned on us that this second tow truck was not going to be able to fix our car either.  Back to the bagel shop.

lonely view from the bagel shop

From the bagel shop, where I watched a teenager in a t-shirt wipe the snow off his car while eating a bagel, and Jeff and Bunny continued to go at each other in the adjacent parking lot, I talked on the phone to CAA.   "Can you send another truck?" I asked. "These first two seem...busy."

The CAA dispatcher sighed. "We don't have any more trucks," he told us.

Why would anyone sit around a kitchen island, pining for more adventures? Adventure seems to follow me around and nip me at my heels. And they are not always good.

fuzzy photo of a teenager in a t-shirt, wiping snow off his car while eating a bagel

Eventually CAA told us we'd have to go through a private tow truck company that we'd have to pay ourselves and hopefully get reimbursed for it later.

And so a third tow truck arrived.

Let's call the third tow truck driver Walter. Walter was a different breed of tow truck driver; the kind of rugged tow truck driver that didn't have a contract with CAA and roamed free.  He wore no gloves in the snow; gloves are for wusses. He used his cell phone as a flashlight. He pulled out the exact same kind of wire that Jeff had used and managed to unlock our car door.  Before I had a chance to blink, he also jump started our car, and all of a sudden our car was running.  Walter was impressive.

I pulled out my credit card to pay him. It was a massive fee for about ten minutes' worth of work, but I was just glad that the car was running so we could finally go home and put this whole adventure behind us. It was now 5AM and I had been up for more than 24 hours. I needed to get the heck out of here, and never go back to Kettleman's, now that it was all over.

 "Your credit card's been declined," Walter informed me.


Back to Kettleman's. I withdrew some cash from the ATM there and paid Walter off.

(As it turns out, Walter had just been entering the wrong expiry date, but I'll forgive him because he magically got the car working after two failed attempts.)

Now we could head home. In the middle of a snow storm. Twenty-five kilometres down a completely unploughed highway where 10 centimetres of snow was piling up. With a car that still had a few things wrong with it, such as a non-functioning windshield wiper fluid mechanism.  Also, I then discovered that the gas needle was hovering just above empty.

Flashback: I was eighteen years old when I crashed my car. I was driving home from work with my fifteen year old sister, in the middle of a severe snowstorm much like this. We came upon a curve on the road. We hit black ice and I felt the control of the car slipping from my fingers. "Stop!" my sister said, and obediently I slammed on the brakes. We spun out, flew off the road, and into the fencing.  I distinctly remember stepping out of the car while Coldpay's Parachutes album continued to play. We were all right, but the car was wrecked. Ever since then, I have learned to never slam on the brakes on an icy road, even if my sister tells me to.

(Years later, Coldplay curiously put out this dramatic music video about a car crash)

Back to the story. I drove 40 km/h the entire way home, even down the Queensway highway.  By the time we got home, it was almost 6AM. I went to bed and fell into a deep coma.  By the time I had slept enough to get out of bed the next morning, it was 1:30PM and the whole world was covered in snow and ice. Parts of Toronto were out of power for two days. I had to spend another half hour chiseling a thick layer of ice off the car.

"Life in the north is so much easier," my friend commented.