The Secret's in the Shovel

Northeast discovers warmth and community spirit amid a blizzard

NOBODY asks Jeff Nolin for advice about footwear. And he freely admits that his repertoire of show tunes is about as long as an eighth-note.

But when it comes to snow shovels, he's an authority. By 8:30 on a hoary Boston morning, hardware ace Mr. Nolin has already sold half a dozen.

"A shovel reflects individual style and technique," he says, walking past aisles of light bulbs and antifreeze to the tool section of his store. "I stand by the old square-ended steel shovel myself, but most people seem to like these broad plastic doohickeys."

A trek across town during the first great nor'easter of the season confirms not only Nolin's expertise but that you don't need Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich to shut down Washington ... or Pittsburgh or Trenton or Hartford.

The storm dumped roughly a foot of snow on a swath of the country from Missouri to Massachusetts, shutting airports, closing schools, and forcing many workers - in the private and public sectors - to stay home.

In Indiana, where seven inches of powder coated the ground, state offices locked up early in 19 counties. In western Ohio, 60,000 people went without electricity. Courthouses in the Boston area closed, relieving jurors for a day.

While local TV news stations warned of angry coastal tides, something different was happening on the blanketed cobblestone streets of this old town.

Here in New England, where folks often bow their heads to avoid eye-contact with strangers, a sense of community poked through the winter layers. Men helped women over snow banks left by truck plows. Platoons of hearty souls, including one man dressed in lime-green bermuda shorts, swung their plastic-doohickey shovels.

Four young men stood on a Boston street corner watching a Japanese woman try in vain to roll her car out of a snow bank. A quiet request for help produced a wholehearted response as the four dug, pushed, and coached her out of the bank.

"It's great," enthuses John Malster, awaiting a bus near Harvard University. He shakes a layer of snow from his hair adds: "Snow as compared to rain? It's like - empowering. If it were raining right now, people would be huddling beneath their umbrellas. I'd rather have everybody up than down."

Northeast ski-slope managers saw dollar signs as the flakes fell. With limited snowfall in the West and the whitest autumn in New England in decades, skiers snatched up lift tickets twice as fast as this time last year.

Parents stayed home to bake cookies with the kids - who were elated to see their schools on the TV list of cancellations. Flexible Flyers were hauled down slippery stairs, leaving meandering tracks for only moments before downy flakes covered them again. City dwellers abandoned their Rollerblades in favor of cross-country skis.

It wasn't all fun in this winter land. Airports in the Northeast turned into frustrating slumber parties for holiday travelers. Homeless shelters were packed. "On a night like last night, we just don't turn nobody away," says David Bell, a resident aide at the McKinney Shelter in Hartford.

The storm also threatened holiday mailings and canceled many seasonal parties and pageants. But New Englanders are a strong stock, persistent and practical when the going gets tough. In a pastry shop, a cashier mulls the sales like a warm cup of cider.

"This morning?" he asks, the snow falls outside. "People are going for bagels."

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