Over the Snowbank

ONE advantage of working at a newspaper with international distribution is a broader perspective on the weather. By now, even our readers in Australia and South Africa know that the whole US East Coast is blanketed in record snow.

But we know that those of you in, say, San Diego, are sunny and 68 - and even the Sierras to the north are bereft of the white stuff. That helps us see above the snowbanks.

But about those snowbanks. Snowstorms of the magnitude we've been experiencing inevitably make everything more difficult: stores and factories forced to close or shut down operations; airline passengers stranded; shelters overwhelmed with homeless people seeking refuge; thousands of households without electricity.

To be sure, blizzards - and to a much larger degree earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters - present multiple challenges. New Yorkers and Bostonians, for example, won't soon forget standing on packed train platforms, watching one full train after another pass them by.

But they also will remember the restaurant Au Bon Pain serving free coffee to stranded air passengers in New York, city buses in Boston giving free rides, National Guard troops in ''HUMVEE'' all-terrain vehicles helping with emergency medical transport, and plowmen working through the night to keep roadways clear.

And what they may remember best was not unique to this storm: how urban areas suddenly seem more like small towns, with strangers talking to each other in passing or helping to dig out a buried car. So yes, they may tell tales about getting stuck at the Philadelphia airport, but don't be surprised if they also talk about the people they met there.

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