Diamonds of the Winter Streets by Nathan Kamal
450 million years have led to this moment. A half mile below the surface of the earth, five bearded men in construction hats and safety glasses drill several dozen holes, each two inches in diameter and ten feet deep, into the wall of the Cayuga Salt Mine in Lansing, New York. Dim, yellow, incandescent lamps cast light on the mineral for the first time in a geological eon.
Salt mines are a result of the earth’s era-long fluctuations in sea level. When portions of the ocean evaporate over the course of a few million years, their salt remains on the earth’s surface and consequentially percolates into the ground, forming colossal mile-deep deposits. Salt mined from these deposits is used to melt ice on highways, city streets, and sidewalks.
Each ten foot hole is filled with explosives that, when detonated, shatter nature’s meticulous life’s work. Salt shards of about twenty pounds fly in every direction. The salt is then hauled away and ground into smaller pebble-sized crystals. Some of these pebbles will finish their journey by providing traction for eighteen wheelers on I-95. Some will end up on side streets in Hoboken, and some will end up pulverized under the feet of Manhattanites as they rush to catch the uptown subway.
Sometimes I picture this journey when I lay awake at night. I watch the freshly cut rock salt traveling miles on conveyer belts, being ground up incrementally by two or three phases of granulation, the dust from the explosion finally settling when the miners pack up after a long day.
My “salt-neurosis” of recent months is a reawakening of a childhood phase of “salt-intrigue.” My dad would warn me that “it’s not the same as what we have in the kitchen,” and if I put it in my mouth I would burn myself. This was the worst thing anyone could have said to my six-year-old self. One afternoon my curiosity reached its apex. I spent the day sitting quietly downstairs, waiting for a moment when both of my parents would be upstairs. The moment came, and without making a sound, I delicately opened the white plastic gallon bucket of rock salt by the front door. I took out a single piece of salt, a particularly grey and dusty one, and brought it, for an instant, to the tip of my tongue.
My childhood inclination toward rock salt developed into a full-on love affair and matured into my antidote of choice for the unique longevity of New York winters. It was bound to happen at some point. I spent thirty minutes a day walking between class, work, and home and needed something to distract me from unshakable thoughts like I should have worn gloves today. I navigated the icy streets of Manhattan, eyes fixed on the sidewalk ahead of me, hopping between dry spots so that I wouldn’t slip in my twenty dollar flat soled shoes from the DSW clearance shelf.
Road salt is a common eyesore for city dwellers. Its grey residue streaks the sidewalks and subway cars, and somehow makes its way onto every apartment floor in the city. This year, due to the winter’s high snowfall, New York faced a scarcity of it. The city usually uses approximately 300,000 tons per winter, but in the winter of 2013-2014, that number almost doubled. In January, the Northeast scrambled to stock up, but faced slow outputs from salt mines that raised prices due to high demand. Although the city is relatively close to several salt mines, like the Cayuga, mining companies can only produce several thousand tons a day and could not keep up with the furious winter.
The temperature hovered in the twenties through February. As winter deepened, so did New York’s rock salt shortage. Business owners got creative with keeping their front sidewalks safe for pedestrians. A restaurant worker near my home poured beet juice on the sidewalk before a snowstorm. Other substitutes include sand (which does not melt ice, but will provide substantial traction) and non-chloride based salt alternatives like magnesium acetate and potassium acetate (which take the form of blue or green crystals).
In early March I walked to a performance in the West Village during an evening when the temperature had risen above fifty degrees for the first time in weeks. I saw something that made me stop on the sidewalk of 6th Avenue for a full minute. The whole block was completely coated in the most white, finely ground salt I had ever seen. Billions of crystals sparkled in the final strands of daylight, which had forced their way through a dense layer of late-winter clouds. I choked up. I squinted and each sparkle magnified– the sea of tiny lights melting into one luminescent layer. I was standing on a beach in the middle of Manhattan, a beach that was glowing.
But now, weeks later, the longest winter in memory has come to an overdue close. The final chunks of salt are whisked away by street sweepers, and all that remains is the occasional white stain on the sidewalk, where the last of the salt dissolved during the first spring rains. Dregs of New York City’s winter are washed away through the city sewers, which return the salt to its native sea.
The vast underground walls take on human characteristics. Salt deposits are old souls who emanate ancient forms of wisdom. They embody patience and transcendence; they are 450,000,000-year-old monks who have dedicated their lives to the mere act of existence.
How easily that peace is shattered. With a few pounds of ammonium nitrate and a spark, the work of a half-billion years vanishes. The production and implementation of road salt is a monumental attempt to control our environment, fighting nature with nature, deterring the inevitable. If every sidewalk in New York was thickly blanketed with the same powdery salt from that March afternoon, maybe winter would stop existing all together, and fall would slip right into spring.