Just before 9 p.m. outside the Durham YMCA, a sudden snowfall has transformed our world. The sky is a jigsaw puzzle that's flying apart--tiny, frosty pieces break off and hit us in the face as they fall.
Although we can't see each other very well through the swirl, there's an instant fellowship among the hunched figures hoofing it to their cars. Hulking ball players and martial-arts students fall into polite single-file in the parking lot.
But as soon as we reach our respective vehicles, the lines get drawn. The native Southerners jump into their cars, gun the motors and zoom out without bothering to remove any snow. Their cars trail white vapor and the smell of burnt rubber. We transplants move more slowly, and while we warm up our engines, we carefully brush snow from the tops and sides of our cars with tools we carry for just such an occasion.
I learned to drive in the hills of New Hampshire in pre-global-warming days when big snows were commonplace. So I know all about staying in low gear, turning into the skid and tamping down the will to accelerate.
As I head out onto Foster Street, I can see that few here have learned those lessons. Two pickup trucks are at a dead stop in the middle of a hill. Another car is fishtailing wildly across the center line. Their vehicles sport piles of snow like frozen hood ornaments.
As I grit my teeth and prepare for a long ride home, I'm thinking I never feel less Southern than when it snows in Durham. There's so much I love about this region. But tonight, you can keep your barbecue, gentility and gift of gab. I'll settle for my ice scraper and my all-weather tires.