The first snowfall, the morning there is frost on the window, when you decide to pull out your down coat. These are all indications of winter, but the universal signal in Chicago is when the heat lamps begin working at the L stop. There may be a cold snap in October and you can press the button all you want, but nothing will happen because it’s not really cold enough until November 1.
Usually train riders spread out across the platform according to the laws of normal distribution – gravitating to where the middle train cars will stop. However, once the temperature drops, people cluster around the heat lamps, in one small area of the platform. We look like a penguin colony. Bundled in coats and hats, I wonder if the heat even penetrates, or if it’s just a shared delusion, a distracting game we play when it’s 17 degrees below zero with windchill and there’s no train in sight.
A few of the busiest L stops in the Loop have large areas of the platform devoted to heat lamps. Though meant for big rush hour crowds, in winter, people have competition from pigeons for the prime heated spots. Approaching the pool of warm golden light, I see a dozen fat, puffed out birds, holding their ground. As people edge in around them, there’s a bit of cooing and shuffling, but the pigeons aren’t leaving. They know with the next train, we’ll be gone and they can resume their spa-like experience.
Of course, in Chicago, seasons are rarely just one thing. Temperatures spike and plunge year round – thank you, global climate change. This winter we’re having 50 degree days paired with 30 degree nights. But with a weather system from Canada, we could go back into the deep freeze. Mother Nature may not cooperate, but after March 31, the CTA says it’s spring. That’s when the heat lamps are switched off and the pigeons have to find a new way to survive.