Dam Snow

Of trenches, civil engineering, and poor use of a snow shovel.

I stepped out my front door into the frigid air and the sound of a heavy metal shovel scraping across pavement.

“Hi, Chuck,” I called to my next-door neighbor — 60-plus-years-old with a bad back, wearing a T-shirt and no coat, huffing slightly and clutching the plastic tip of a Black and Mild in his teeth — as he continued shoveling ice out of my parking spot.

“Anything I can do to help?” I offered.

“Nah, almost done,” he answered.

My wife and a kid from the neighborhood had cleared most of the snow soon after it fell a few weeks ago, but Chuck was out there continuing the job. He was clearing a path along the curb to the storm drain, he explained, so the melting snow wouldn’t pool and turn the parking space into a skating rink.

“You should see it out back, in the alleyway,” he continued. A storm drain back there was buried so deeply in crusty snow that a small lake was forming, and even Chuck wasn’t going to attempt to drain it.

I thanked him profusely for his work and picked up my own lightweight snow shovel, resolving to return his favor.

The spot where our alley meets the street — which typically floods a bit when it rains — was submerged under at least four to six inches of impenetrably murky water, a thick suspension of slush, salt, grime, and road tar. Passing cars occasionally sloshed through the mess as I surveyed the situation. And the closest storm drain was it was well, it must have been over here somewhere, though frankly I could only guess at its location. The snow-covered ground and pavement offered no clues, and my memory wasn’t sharp enough to place it. I started hacking away at a pile of snow and ice that vaguely resembled the spot where the curb should have been.

Lacking Chuck’s ice-breaking steel shovel, I quickly gave up and decided to puzzle out a better solution. After all, I’m the guy who single-handedly once moved a filing cabinet — which weighed at least twice as much as me — down two flights of stairs using only a working knowledge of high school physics and maybe an old towel. Surely I could figure this out.

I began digging a trench in the dense snow, from the sludgy water’s edge to where the gutter probably used to be. The liquid water must be warmer than the frozen snow, I reasoned, counting on the physical properties of water and my armchair civil engineering skills to see me through. But the shoveling was still slow-going. So, to speed up the melting process, I started scooping up the dank water and pouring it into the trench.

That was two days ago. Our new pond at the end of the alley has a nice, icy glaze on the top, and my attempted trench appears to be frozen solid and several inches thick.

Maybe Chuck will let me borrow his shovel.

Article © 2011 by Michael Duck