Sounds of winter in Southwest

Jan. 12: January

It’s so loud when it’s cold, every sound reflected from the frozen earth until it crescendos into cacophony.

Engines clatter wheels whine bus exhaust wheezes quick shoes crunch snow car horns howl tree branches clatter bus-waiters chatter doors clang the tintinnabulation repeats repeats repeats becomes a treble-stricken roar larger than the sum of its noise.

I step outside into this discordant symphony, these quarreling melodies, and I am so disoriented by the cold and the noise and the everything that I sit down on my doorstep and pull my cap deep over my head and take a few breaths. I stand, I am responsible for the first few steps, I take them, and then allow my memory to carry my body the rest of the way downtown to work.

There’s a bitter electricity in the air.

The reclamation of winter has begun.

Later that morning it begins to snow. In the afternoon the snow subsides and the wind rushes in. I walk home along Hennepin Avenue near dusk and as I approach the art museum I allow myself to raise my head and for a moment not consider the cold or the iced sidewalks before me or anything at all.

And I see it, just visible above the metallic skyline, and I stand motionless and watch until I can no longer feel my feet.

Did you see it that afternoon, behind the patterned snow adrift in the sky: The sun, ochre and pale, as if the world was afire and dying.

Jan. 3: The birds

Today the urban birds struggle.

I call them urban birds because I don’t know what they are, there are many things I know nothing about and ornithology is one of them. They are small and grey and brown and social, and cluster in side-lawn hedges and at fast-food restaurants and appear to favor burrito beans and French fries.

Today the wind is cold and furious, wrapped around and in everything, and it’s caught a half-dozen of the birds in a small wind tunnel in the corner of my building near the dumpster along 26th Street.

The birds are trapped in a transparent cage, held hostage by this untamed classical element.

They chirp and cheep at each other, they try different tactics, one hops up on the chain-link fence and tries to squeeze through but the wind blows it back to the ground, where it flaps and flutters and finally rights itself.

Cars pass. The traffic light changes, changes back. It’s nearly dark.

The birds now huddle together and do not move and continue to chirp and cheep at each other, subdued now.

I want to tell them to hold on, that this isn’t forever, that patience will bring them again to freedom and, eventually, warmth. But of course I say nothing at all, just continue to watch them as the wind blows, fierce and unrelenting.

Jan. 1: Passing

I’m standing on Lyndale Avenue at a little after 6 in the morning, having left, for a moment, the last stragglers and best friends at my New Year’s Eve party still upstairs in my apartment.

The intersection is silent, save for the newspaper trucks idling along the avenue. I welcome the absence that comes in the hours that precede dawn. For years now, when I have not been able to sleep, I walk the streets during these hours and marvel at the city’s ability to welcome daily this brief reflective silence.

I welcome it now. Tonight, three of my relationships have suddenly and sadly and beautifully come full-circle and come to pass in ways I’m just beginning to understand.

In the distance I see a man stumbling south along the sidewalk. I wait and watch and soon he approaches the intersection.

I recognize him, I know him well enough to say hello, and I nearly call out, but then I close my mouth. I want to respect his silence and his space and his uninterrupted journey.

At the intersection he stops, looks around wildly as if lost, then nods his head and settles again into his stumbling. As he crosses 26th Street, he stops again and looks up and down the avenue. And then he walks into the street.

I worry about a car hitting him, and I nearly call out, but then I close my mouth. Not a single car has passed along on the avenue since I stepped out onto the street 15 minutes ago.

I watch as he continues south in the middle of the two northbound lanes. His stride becomes more confident, he stumbles less and less, and by the time he reaches the intersection of 25th Street he is walking quickly and purposefully home.

I continue to stand on the sidewalk and watch him until he disappears down the avenue. Still no cars have come. For a moment I consider following him, tracing his footsteps along the pavement just to see where they might lead.

Then I remember why I did not call out to him. And I choose my path: I turn, open my door, and walk up the steps to my apartment and rejoin the friends still here.

26th & Lyndale is an attempt to capture life at a busy Southwest intersection, through essays, observations, conversations, overheard dialogue and other storytelling forms. To check out Brian Voerding’s blog, go to