To grow up in New England is to have an intimate knowledge of snow and ice and all the other joys of winter. The discovery in early childhood that snow created more than soft slopes and sticky snowballs is a profound one. It signals one of the many subtle changes in a life where the balance between play and work, the blessing of snow and the necessity of cleared sidewalks, becomes apparent.

The families I knew and considered to be lucky owned snowblowers small enough to tackle these sidewalks and paths in addition to the driveways. Which is not to say that my own family was unlucky or that my back bent often to the snow. No, my father is a meticulous groundskeeper and always, whether by shovel or plow or snowblower attachment (for his lawntractor is thing to behold) he was the first and last line of defense against winter weather.

As a child and even as a young adult my concept of winter and the problems posed by snow centered on the home. Rarely did my mind perceive the larger battle that was waged with each storm; the battle between road crews and highways, between town employees and public sidewalks.

My mind drifts to these matters now in the wake of what residents of the District of Columbia surely consider a whopper of a snow storm, some three inches of snow topped off by a night of freezing rain. Although I have weathered several winters here before, this year has presented the city with the closest approximation to winter-like weather. This present storm in particular (which occurred now six days ago) brings into relief a few of the strange differences between winter in New England and in our nation’s capital.

The first and foremost difference is that sidewalks are of no concern to the city. Each day I have waited to see the small motorized vehicles that I remeber so well patrolling the streets of Burlington and each day I see only the snow, now made rock-solid by the sheet of ice the sun’s weak rays have created, all making the sidewalks as treacherous as any I have ever encountered. Apparently the sidewalks here are left to fend for themselves.

The roads are similar to the sidewalks but have one particular advantage, the traffic on them is considerably greater and the weight of the vehicles is enough to part the initial snow and create narrow tire-paths that burrow down the pavement.

So many of my writings are concerned with this city and how it deals with matters that effect the everyday life of its citizens. I am drawn to this topic again and again because I cannot fathom the reasoning behind so many of the actions, or more often, the lack of action the city takes. It is not that I am oblivious to matters like budgets and persons employed in various facilities to handle the situations that come about. Undoubtedly the city owns few plow trucks, purchases little salt for the roads and perhaps is without those little sidewalk cleaners. What is most likely is they purchase what they need to keep the downtown area manageable and the rest of the city is left to fend for itself. Meanwhile those who live in the city and have considerable sums of money at their disposal employ groundskeepers and services with companies that plow their driveways and venture onto their roofs if snow needs to be removed.

So while I look out my window and wonder why my sidewalk is the way it is part of me knows it is because I rent my apartment and that I live in part of a neighborhood where the families and other renters have no money for private cleaners. At these times I try not to think about the taxes my wife and I pay to this city each year, or the number of parking enforcement officials on the streets (the ratio may be one parking enforcement officer per 100 cars, this is merely my estimate though) and I am, as usual, baffled by the city.

The problem, I know, is that I am new to city life and I do not want to accept such things. In my heart I remain a small town person who likes walking past strangers and saying “Hello.” I like secondary roads and small gas stations that are near nothing in particular, and I like driving on dirt roads. So I can see that the problem here isn’t really the city and I apologize for ranting about it. When I write about these things I try not to approach them from a place of anger but more from a place of invested curiosity. In the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can get you to notice these things too. If only for a moment.

Author: John Ryan Sullivan

I am a writer and filmmaker.

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