Philly’s Snow Panic Brings out the Best and Worst

Over the recent weekend, Philadelphia got its second-worst snowfall ever (since they started keeping such records in the early 19th century). If forecasts are correct and we get another foot or more today, we’ll be on track to break a record for annual snowfall.

So, we pull on our boots and dig ourselves out.

With only 14 feet of sidewalk in front of our house, it’s no big deal to shovel and salt our walk and the neighbors’ on either side. On Sunday, half a dozen people on the block took up their shovels and started hacking at our tiny, narrow street. There’s no chance of getting a plow around the corner, so it’s down to us.

There was some real community spirit out there for a few minutes. I didn’t know anyone’s name, and we didn’t even all speak the same language, but we all had a common purpose. Kids were bouncing around like puppies. Neighbors were talking.

There are not many places you can shift two and a half feet of snow. There’s only so much room between the snowed-in cars parked along one side. We were forced to dump a lot of it on the curbs, knowing we’d have to tidy up the sidewalks again.

And then the daisy chain was broken.

When we reached the street in front of her house, one of our more plaintive neighbors began furiously tapping at her front window and pointing down to the snow dusting her recently cleared sidewalk. The neighbor I was shoveling with started arguing with raised voice and exaggerated arm gestures: clear sidewalks vs. clear roads.

On the outside of the window: People have to get to work on Monday!

On the inside of the window: I don’t want to be sued when someone slips on my sidewalk!

I suggested that we could have both a clear sidewalk and enough room to get a car through. It seemed obvious to me. But it didn’t seem to faze either of them.

Inside — she had now cracked her storm door and way yelling across her stoop: “I have enough problems without getting sued.” — which is very true, by the way, as nightly arguments with her adult son in the middle of the night on our echo-chamber of a street will attest — “I’m sick. I can’t go out there and clear this up again. And I don’t appreciate you dumping all that snow on my sidewalk.”

Outside: “We have to get to work tomorrow morning. And I have to get food for my kid. I have to get to her father to get money. What if the trucks don’t come? Then what do we do?”

Inside: “I don’t know why you’re even bothering with that now. I called the mini-trucks to come plow it. We’re on the list. You’re wasting your time. They send the mini-trucks. We’re on the list every year. They’ll send a mini-truck tomorrow.”

She must have said “mini-truck” a dozen times.

I spoke up and tried to assure her that we’d clear her sidewalk again. Of course. I totally understand. No problem. But she was more interested in arguing with the other woman.

Mini-trucks! Mini-trucks! Mini-trucks!

I took a look down the street at the four or five houses’ worth of street I had cleared and decided I had done my fair share. Another neighbor cleared all the new snow on her walk to the curb while she and my companion stood there doing nothing constructive. And I’d heard enough, so I left them to their argument without another word, pushing my snow shovel in front of me on the way to my house.

At best, we had only cleared half the street. Most people could get their cars out of the block, but no one would be able to get back in from the other end.

And those mini-trucks never came the next day. Or the day after. Who knows when we’ll be able to drive anywhere again.

Last night more snow fell. Had we not risked an apparent lawsuit for our neighbor, we’d be far worse off.

Jeff and I tried to get an early cab back home from center city before it got too bad, but three drivers sped away the moment we said we were going to South Philly. The one guy who did stop for us said he’d charge $20, double what it would cost in summer.

We consented, but he didn’t take kindly to our backseat discussion of price gouging.

“It’s your choice!” he said. “I’m not forcing you to get into this cab.”

Actually, when you turn off your meter, and you name an arbitrary price, you are a gypsy cab. There’s no record of the fare. You are price gouging, no matter how safe and justified you feel about the decision. Thanks for providing the service, but no thanks.

And anyway, in fact, we didn’t have a choice — apart from walking a couple of miles in a snowstorm.

When he insisted that South Philly was dangerous, my Midwestern bravado came out. “It’s not even that bad out yet,” I said. There was a scant two inches on the ground at that point — two inches of snow on slick, icy streets, but they were slick, icy, totally drivable streets. It would soon be far worse. This was nothing.

“Not that bad?” he said “Are you driving in this all night?”

No, but we learn to drive on snow in Michigan and Minnesota. In Detroit, where public transit is a distant memory, we have no choice. Suck it up, drive carefully, and get it done. Or turn off your light and go home.

We suggested he take a plowed bus route down. But he preferred to argue with us. About six blocks from where he picked us up, he stopped the car and forced us out. “I’m not going down there. Get out of the car. Free ride on me, guys.”

Uh… thanks.

I wonder how many legit fares he passed up arguing with people. You’d think he’d want to get in as many as he could before he was forced to shut down completely.

(His medallion number, by the way: P-1558. Don’t think we didn’t call it in.)

Our frustration was soon undone when a much more humanitarian driver stopped a minute later. He said he was about to pack it in for the night, but he’d pick us up as his last fare. His car was new, and he wisely had no interest in driving in the snow. He was on his way to pick up a friend, and we were more or less on the way. And what’s more: “Just give me whatever you guys want,” he said. He didn’t turn on the meter.

On the way down through treacherous, deadly South Philly, we chatted about West African music and his home town in Mali. He answered his phone, but said he needed to hang up because he was driving. The honor-system fare philosophy was one thing, but a cabbie not on his phone every second of his shift? This was indeed a rarity.

And we’re getting even more snow today. And a bit of rain. Those roads should be nice and lethal by now.

It does make things a little trickier. How do I get to the bar? Will the beer distributor deliver? What about the pizza place? Chinese delivery? Oh, and groceries. And schools are closing down — 1.8 million kids are out of school in New York City alone. (But parents can’t get to work anyway, so they shouldn’t need babysitters, right?) City services are shutting down. Regional bus lines are canceled for the next day and a half.

But we’ll just dig back out.

Considering the horrific conditions of a real natural disaster in Haiti, it seems obscene that we should as much as blink at a couple of snow storms. So let’s get some perspective.

Snoverkill, some are calling it. Snomageddon. Snopocalypse.

No, not really. It’s just snow. Buck up, make a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, heat up some cocoa, and enjoy some rare quiet time with someone. Forget about the cabs, the roads, the neighbors. You might not have that chance for a while.


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