In downtown Boston, the calm comes not before the storm but during it.
Thursday’s snow kept away most of the commuters who bustle daily into Boston, leaving downtown eerily empty, but for the parts of the city designed to function autonomously, like a heartbeat, regardless of whether anyone is there to see them.
Street lights swayed over empty intersections, cycling mindlessly and counting down walk signals for no one. Workers in alien-green vests took on the Sisyphean task of brooming every quarter-inch of fallen snow off sidewalks, in front of closed stores and office towers with few workers. With heavy snow swirling, as soon as they finished one pass, it was time to start again. It is not work that can be done logged-in from home.
Salt crystals were scattered on steps in front of businesses locked shut, where no one would have a reason to slip.
The sound of the abandoned city is the growl of snow machines, clearing sidewalks few people were outside to use, in sideways-blowing snow that stung your eyeballs.
At the Loews theater on Tremont Street, a worker cleared a snow drift from under the marquee, beneath a crawling announcement on the video board that the theater would be closed.
Nearby, in a vast empty section of Boston Common, Geary MacQuiddy sat alone on the ground. Her big dog, named Tagliatelle like the pasta, laid nearby in the snow, gnawing on a koala bear chew toy. A sprinkling of white had gathered on the dog’s black coat.
“It’s a really calm, quiet time to be on Boston Common,’’ said MacQuiddy, who had walked from Beacon Hill to enjoy the park in a rare stillness. “The city can be so hectic and busy, and when nature gives you a chance to slow down, it’s a blessing.’’
Snow began falling in downtown Boston shortly after 7 a.m. On Beacon Hill, the dominant colors were white and gray, black and brick — the colors of the snow, the sky, the bare trees, the sidewalks. A woman’s red umbrella stood out like a beacon, as did a dog’s yellow vest.
Outside of the Old State House, there was no sign of tourists. No Freedom Trail guides dressed in 18th-century costumes, no vendors hawking Harvard sweatshirts. The Boloco burrito shop across Congress Street would open late Thursday, according to a sign on the door, which betrayed a sense of guilt.
“Sorry to let you down,’’ it read.
Inside Quincy Market, almost every eatery was closed. Outside, Edwin Morales multitasked, a cigarette in one hand and a plastic shovel in the other. The storm was a chance to earn some extra money for Morales, 30, who cuts wood and helps build coffins in East Boston. He had brought an extra coat for what he expected would be a long day of shoveling.
Nearby, David Brown, 41, and his daughter, Emily, 10, wondered what to do next on their big trip to Boston. They came from Dallas and were witnessing their first Boston snowstorm.
“It is what it is,’’ Brown said with a shrug, channeling Bill Belichick while wearing a New England Patriots knit hat. He glanced around at the shops, which were all but empty. Brown and his daughter had planned to do some shopping, but lights in many stores were dimmed.
“We didn’t think everything would be shut down,’’ he said.
On Essex Street downtown, Allen Hatchet, 27, a supervisor at Patriot Parking, stood sentinel in a little heated booth over a nearly empty parking lot. On a normal day, he’d have checked in dozens of cars. Today, he had just three.
“Real light day,’’ he said. But unless an emergency is declared, he’s going to be at work.
A few blocks away, at a snow-swept, nearly abandoned Downtown Crossing, a woman lifted a cup.
“Spare change, sir?’’ she asked. She was young, bundled up, with a pale, hollow look about her. Outside, seeking money in a storm, when there was almost nobody around to give it.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.