a true tale of the blizzard of '96

It was T Black who provided the motivation for the trip. Left to my own devices, I would have stayed at home. The thought of driving all the way to New York City daunted me. But when I told T Black about the Low Res Film Festival, and how ROX had been specially invited to be a part of it, he was eager to make the scene. And his enthusiasm was infectious.

So, at 6:45 on a Friday evening, we rolled out of Bloomington for an all-night drive. We set the cruise control for 71 mph, and we only stopped three times, for gas. We smoked a bowl of the good stuff as we sped across Ohio on Interstate 70. The first full moon of the new year lit our way.

The tollbooth workers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike asked the typical questions about T Black's nose spike:

  • "Did that hurt?"
  • "Doesn't it get cold?"
  • "Why'd you do that?"

We drank coffee and cola. We popped ephedrine tabs. We passed the flaming shell of a car on the Jersey Turnpike. At dawn, the NYC skyline came into view.

It was bitterly cold in the city. We crashed at a friend's Chelsea apartment and slept 'til noon. Later, when everybody woke up, we cashed the bowl and went out for beer.

(Note of little consequence: I was surprised at the primitive climate control system used in the first bar we visited. All the heat was supplied by a big fireplace, and the windows were left open to clear the smoke! I had expected something more sophisticated in the big city. We left because I was freezing my ass off.)

That night we went to the Kitchen for the Low Res Film Festival. It was sold out. There were about 200 people there, and they all looked like they'd fit right into Bloomington's bohemian set. We felt at home.

The festival itself was comprised of 30-odd entries, all shorter than five minutes. They showed a clip from ROX episode #62, "XY in NY," about my wife's trip to New York City. It got a great response from the audience.

The highlight of the festival was Emergency Broadcast Network's "Electronic Behaviour Control System." If you've seen EBN's stuff you can pretty much imagine it: tons of video samples cut together at a bone-jarring pace, designed for maximum sensory overload.

The lowlight of the festival was the world premiere of Sofia Coppola's short film, "Bed, Bath and Beyond." They showed the entire thing, which was probably about 15 minutes long -- but it felt like hours.

Sofia and her entourage ducked out as soon as the show was over, flaking out on the "Q'n'A with the Directors" session. It was just T Black and the EBN guy and me. No one really asked any interesting questions, except "What's the best place to get clam chowder in Providence?" (We did get our picture taken for the L.A. Times, though. It appeared on the front of Wednesday's Business section.)

We woke up at noon on Sunday, and the snow was already falling. The Weather Channel was calling it the "Blizzard of '96."

TRAVEL ADVISORY: don't unless you have to.

We were on the road by 1:00. Soon we were leaning out the windows every ten minutes, beating ice off the wiper blades.

SPEED: 20-30 mph

The radio was a never-ending litany of school closings, work closings, airport closings. Everything was closing, it seemed, except the Farm Show in Harrisburg, PA, which had never been shut down by weather, ever.

TRAVEL ADVISORY: don't, period.

After six hours we were only as far as Harrisburg, smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania. We gave up and stopped at a Best Western hotel, conveniently located beside a Western Sizzlin' restaurant.


I balked at the price. The clerk reminded me that the Farm Show was in session.


  1. What is there to do here in Harrisburg?
  2. Well, there's the Farm Show.
  1. I went to the Farm Show yesterday. Isn't there anything else to do?
  2. No.

Someone explained that Harrisburg was trying to be a big city, but it still hadn't figured out how.

There was no liquor at the Western Sizzlin'. So, while I red boxed some calls back home to Bloomington from the pay phone in the lobby, surrounded by farm boys in overalls, T Black sat in our room and painstakingly scraped our pipe out with a safety pin, collecting all the resin into one fat black button of skunky goodness.

We smoked the resin and watched the James Coburn _Flint_ movies on our room's big screen TV. (Flint is a cryptofascist version of 007.) Next morning I found a letter that had been slipped under the door in the wee hours of the morning. It was on Best Western letterhead.


"At this time, the Harrisburg area and all surrounding areas are under a State of Emergency. All highways in and out of this area are closed to all but emergency personnel. We ask that if you have any questions regarding closures or updates to please tune to Channel 4 on your TV."

We tuned in just in time to hear the Governor announce that the highways would remain closed until 6 A.M. the following morning.

But there was no more snow falling. The highway looked as though it had been plowed. T Black and I could see occasional vehicles driving past. They didn't look like emergency vehicles. We decided to take our chances.

We were lucky -- there were some cars in the lot that were completely covered under huge mounds of snow. We were able to dig ours out with a broom. It almost got stuck, but I put the broom under the wheel and we got some traction. As we drove out of the lot, a man informed us that the highway patrols were issuing fines of up to $300 and confiscating vehicles.


What the hell did we care? We drove down to the highway in spite of these ill tidings, only to find that the on-ramps were not plowed. At last we realized the truth: we were stranded in Harrisburg. And as the hotel clerk at the Best Western had warned us: "Your room won't be waiting for you when you come back!"

(Actually, I'm sure it WAS waiting for us -- although no one was leaving Harrisburg, no one was entering, either. But we were too embarrassed to go back.)

So we drove around town for a while. The main roads were quite clear, but almost everything was closed. Troops of cheerful citizens were swarming the sidewalks with snow shovels and six-packs.

We acquired a couple of six-packs ourselves, at Angie's Family Restaurant and Lounge. The lounge was closed, but they were doing a booming business in cold carry-out. We were offered our choice of Coors in a can, Bud in a can, or Rolling Rock in a can.

"What about that Sam Adams over there?" I asked. I had unwittingly violated Pennsylvania state law by stepping behind the bar. But we didn't care. We bought two sixes and split. (T Black wanted to buy three, but the cooler head prevailed.)

We checked into the Budgetel, which sounds like a rip-off. And in fact, it was a rip-off, being only $10 cheaper than Best Western, for a room much smaller, with only one bed and only five channels on a crappy TV.

We drank a couple beers and went out for dinner at Bob Evans. On our way out a cop stopped us and harassed us about whether or not we'd paid our bill. I showed him my receipt and he left us alone. Back at the hotel, we drank beer and watched a three-hour documentary about Nixon on PBS. I asked the desk for a 5:45 wake-up call.

The wake-up call never came. Oops! Just a part of the Budgetel experience. We got up at 9:30, swore a lot, loaded up on biscuits and gravy at Bob Evans, and got on the road at 11:00.

We had severe visibility problems on the highway, not from snow but from the grime thrown up by other vehicles. And the roads were still dangerous in some places. We passed plenty of cars which had spun out into the deep snow and gotten stuck.

A hawk swooped down directly in front of us and snatched a smaller bird right out of the air as we watched. Neither of us had ever seen such a thing except in nature documentaries.

As we drove we discussed anarchism, the philosphy of punk, and the origin of Satan. We finally arrived home in Bloomington at 10 P.M. It had taken us 12 hours to get to NYC and 57 hours to get back. My visions of hot enchiladas fresh from the oven and fully packed bowls of kind dissolved into the mundane reality of microwaved leftovers and a wife who'd already gone to sleep and didn't want to get up. Ah well.