New Englanders buried in wool and polar fleece

An unusual cold snap in Northeast endangers the homeless, boosts the sales of mittens, and gives Charlie Higginson a chance to try his skates.

Four pairs of socks, two pairs of flannel pants, three shirts, three sweaters, insulated boots, and a thick hat.

That's what Gary Risutto is wearing. But he's still stomping around behind the newspapers he sells at the corner of Washington and Temple Streets in Boston, in a losing effort to stay warm.

It's been that kind of winter in New England. First an onslaught of snow and ice that's never gone away. Now just cold and colder. And the National Weather Service promises days more to come.

"Forget about 'Survivor,' " says Scott Goodwin, selling newspapers along with Mr. Risutto. "This is the original one. Those guys get to take breaks."

These days, an eight-minute walk across the Boston Common can feel like a feat of endurance, especially once the sun sets and the wind picks up. Never a particularly fashion-obsessed set, Bostonians are barely visible beneath the layers of down, wool, polar fleece, and thrice-wrapped scarves.

You can see the cold in the way people pick up their pace as they leave the subway, their breath floating upward. You can see it in the way the man selling sweatshirts by Quincy Market stamps his feet. In the crush of shoppers in the mitten section at Filene's department store. And in the bodies of homeless men who sleep head-to-woolen-toe on the floor of the Pine Street Inn.

Of course, weather is always relative. Statistical nuts will tell you this stretch of teens and 20s is nothing compared to the Arctic blasts that paralyzed the East Coast in the winter of '99. That would be 1899, when ice floated in the Gulf of Mexico and temperatures well below zero swept the East. And 5,000 miles to the Northwest, at KBRW radio in Barrow, Alaska, Bob Sommer bursts out laughing when he hears about "cold" in New England.

"Here, we're going through a warm spell," he says. "We're 10 above. Which is better than the 40 below we had last week."

Real cold, he'll tell you, is when you throw a cup of boiling water in the air and it comes down as ice crystals. When it takes an hour to start your car - even with three heaters under the hood - and you leave the engine on all day.

Don't tell that to Rosemarie Messina, working a toll both at an exit on I-90 in Boston. Even with the heater going in her tiny booth, and layers of thermal underwear and insulated jackets, she has trouble staying warm. She coats her hands with vaseline when she goes to bed, salving the cracks. "It's no fun," she says.

IF outdoor workers like Ms. Messina and Risutto are having trouble staying warm, it's even tougher for the city's 6,000 homeless - and the families with homes who can't afford to heat them. "There are thousands and thousands of households, many elderly and children, who have no more benefits or money to pay for heat," says John Drew of Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit that distributes federal fuel aid to low-income families. The maximum ABCD can give is $545 - enough to help most families through a few weeks of cold weather.

Already 15,000 households have used up the allotment, says Mr. Drew. He is lobbying President Bush to release emergency fuel-assistance funds soon.

For those who have no home at all, there's the Pine Street Inn, a local shelter. Once its 420 beds are filled, men sleep in the overflow room, a grim space that looks barely big enough for 50. Tuesday night, 165 slept on the floor. "I'm not sure what we'll do if more show up," says Lyndia Downie, the Inn's director.

Still, she hopes they'll come rather than take their chances on the street, where the cold can be deadly. Pine Street's two vans, which roam the streets nightly, counted 85 people Tuesday who chose to remain outside. "You watch everybody complain about the cold," says the shelter's Shepley Metcalf. "Yet most of us are living somewhere with heat and going to offices that are heated."

Of course, not everyone is complaining. New Englanders are famous for their hardiness, and at least a few feel winter isn't winter without a little less mercury.

"I look forward to this all year long!" says Charlie Higginson, a retired diplomat from Cohasset, Mass., as he straps on skates at a skating pond in Hingham. The pond was open only six days last year. Now, Mr. Higginson and other residents revel in the crisp, clear days, when the only sound is the slice of blades on ice.

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