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Commentary: Summer could be just around the corner

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: It wasn't just the weather that made this winter difficult
  • He says the economy's painful collapse cost many jobs and provoked fear
  • Summer offers the promise that we may encounter better times, he says
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose current book is "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

Bob Greene says the financial crisis and other grim news made the winter seem endless.

Bob Greene says the financial crisis and other grim news made the winter seem endless.

(CNN) -- The two guys were wrestling the heavy glass-fronted cooler from the back of a Pepsi truck.

This was near Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois; the truck had pulled up behind a restaurant/bar/music complex next to the beach. The two guys -- one had driven the truck; one had ridden in the passenger seat -- eased the tall, boxy, empty cooler to the pavement.

This was transpiring on a recent weekday morning; the air was chillier than you'd like it to be in May, the ground was wet from a recent rain shower, and there were no customers at this establishment. It's a summer place, and it wasn't open for business.

With the cooler now sitting steadily on the blacktop, its shelves visible through the glass, the older of the two men said to his colleague, "You got the paperwork?"

The younger man did not have it. He went back into the truck to search for it.

The cooler didn't look like much now, just a large vertical metal container with a see-through door, waiting to be hosed down and scrubbed and then plugged in to an electrical socket. Come June, it will be constantly filled and refilled. Hundreds upon hundreds of hands will reach into it all day and all evening, week after summer week; frigid cans or bottles will be yanked out and carried into the heat.

It has been a long American winter. Whether you live in Florida or Minnesota, in New Mexico or Maine, the winter has at times seemed endless, and it has had little to do with the literal weather.

We've been in official spring for well over a month now, but this has been the year when spring hasn't quite seemed to happen. Layoffs (539,000 jobs lost just last month) and bankruptcies and bailouts and bank failures ... every time there seemed to be a glimmer of hopefulness in the air, something else managed to arrive to ratchet up the tension.

Just when the country appeared poised to take a breath of relief, along came more pieces of unexpected gloom: One week it was the rising river near Fargo, North Dakota, and the fear that a town would be lost. When that didn't happen, there was a lull in the grimness, but then out of nowhere came the warnings about, of all things, a swine flu pandemic. Winter began to feel like a full-time season, divorced from any rational calendar.

But it always does end, or at least it always has. At a downtown drugstore in Chicago, next to the cash register, was a bin filled with white surgical masks, $3.99 each. The hand sanitizers had all sold out in the first burst of the swine-flu scare, but as the worries subsided a little, the masks were still in stock, positioned next to the checkout lane like cheerless candy bars, intended for jittery impulse purchase. Yet elsewhere in the same store, a clerk was placing garishly colored tubes of sunscreen onto a shelf, in case any far-sighted customers wanted to get a jump on summer.

At a bike-rental place in town, same thing: Employees were checking the tires and gears of the fleet of bicycles, knowing that when the sun is, very soon, beating relentlessly down, business will be brisk. Still a little sharpness in the air right now; still more than a little damp. Yet even the longest winters always die of their own exhaustion.

The greatest gift of summer has eternally been that it is the time when you can will yourself into thinking there just may be something good around the next corner. Whether it is true or whether it is an illusion, we can use that right now. We can use the promise that something good awaits.

In the financial markets, the analysts speak of futures and derivatives, as if life -- economic life, real life -- can be plotted and planned. But what summer has always taught us is that the future, precisely because it is unknowable, has the potential to provide us with moments that can turn into our most cherished memories. Those are the moments that, at their best, derive from nothing. They are the opposite of derivative; they are right now not just unformed but undreamed of.

Think back to a year ago, in your own life and in the nation's life, when we all were on the cusp of a different new summer. We had no idea what was approaching. What loomed around all those corners, back then, is now history: actual history, personal history.

And what we need, now as always, is the belief that around the bend there may be a bright and unclouded patch of sidewalk, the belief that we can be blindsided by wonder.

For now the grayness, in many ways, is still with us. We don't know what is coming. Yet straight up ahead, washed in hope and the best kind of mystery ...

"You got the paperwork?" the experienced worker, the old hand, had said, and his young colleague by now had retrieved the necessary slip from the soft-drink truck. Someone was going to have to sign for this thing. Someone was going to have to officially take receipt for the summer of the large and empty cooler. The two men rolled it into the building, a quiet place now.

Not for much longer. Soon enough the sun will be higher in the sky, and people heading for the water, heading for warmth and laughter, will turn a corner, seeking something after a long and exceedingly cold season.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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