Monday, January 17, 2011

Snow, Babylon Town and The Bloody Long Island Railroad

This miserable tale of incompetence begins at the end of last year.

On Boxing Day1 to be precise.

In the early evening it began to snow, reasonably heavily, and the snow continued to fall into the following morning (which was a Monday, and therefore a work day). The situation was complicated no end by sustained winds estimated at 40 mph. We usually get wind gusts in this sort of weather, and strong winds, along with the thermodynamic consequences they bring, soon had the electrical wiring failing and snow drifting to ridiculous heights. The back door of Chateau Stevie was blocked by a drift that covered the door handle, which required that I actually remove the glass from the storm door and dig from the house out, but I'm getting ahead of the story.

The Stevieling grabbed her outdoor things and began digging for all she was worth, clearing a path from the front door to the gate and thence to the curb. As she dug, the wind helpfully piled up snow behind her rendering her efforts moot. I called her inside once I realized what was going on. I couldn't tell if it was still snowing or whether it was the stuff on the ground being moved about with extreme prejudice by the wind. I certainly wasn't going out in it, so Mrs Stevie was forced to stay at home being as how the driveway was unnavigable. Snow had drifted up over the door-sill of her Odyssey peoplemover anyway.

The wind dropped around 11am and I was unable to maintain the fiction of inclement weather preventing snow clearance operations, so I was dispatched outside with a shovel and the keys to the garage, where I store Troll, the Snowblower of Supreme Spiffiness.


The first job was to move two feet of snow from the front of the garage and get some room in which to pull the Mrs Steviemobile, essential since there wasn't enough room to drive Troll between the vehicles. Normally I would have parked my car in the side bay of the drive (our drive can accommodate 5 vehicles easily) but that has been occupied for almost a year by Mrs Stevie's old Taurus estate wagon, now used as a shed for crap. I know his because th one time I wanted to use the vehicle for the purpose envisaged by its designers I was informed that I couldn't because it needed to be cleaned out first.

That was in June.

Eventually, by a series of two-foot back and forth movements, I was able to move the vehicles apart enough to ensure safe Trollway. Once again the neighborhood rang to the mighty engine-noise of Troll as the magnificent machine made short work of the inconvenient whitestuff, hurling it into Mr Singh's garden in a twenty-foot arc of manly domination over all things snow.

Once again the neighbors shook their fists in friendly salute to my superior tool-deployment versus the elemental fallout. Many of them eyed their snow shovels and I could see the calculation being run again as to which was more desirable: the top-o-the-line Jet-ski or that summer sale snowblower they had sniffed at and walked by disdainfully.

All during the summer I had seen them hooking up their little aquatic motorbikes while sneering at the nascent figure of Troll as it sat sleeping in the garage, hugely inapposite in the heat of summer. Well the Jet-skis were under several feet of frozen water and the snow-shoe was on the other foot now! Ahahhahahaha!

I made short work of our driveway problem, taking less than half an hour to clear the entire thing. As I was finishing up, widening the access to the road, the kid from across the street came over and asked if I was managing, because he had "a better snowblower" and would do the drive for me.

Now I used to give the local kids all the snow-clearance business they could handle, but since I bought Troll clearing snow is actually fun and I look forward to it. Besides, he was way too late out of the gate.

I gently turned down his generous offer and so was spared the financial negotiation that would have followed. It also freed me from one chore: I was on the point of going across the road to dig out their drive for them since when the snow is bad and I have the time I usually try and dig out as many of the neighbors as I can.

Funny thing. As I was getting ready to go over to Mr Singh and dig out the fleet of cars he has in his driveway (he has a fleet of young adults and teens too) the same kid asked me if I would help them dig out their driveway. I could see he had amassed a gang of five or six shovel-wielding pals, but saw no sign of this monster snowblower.

Of course I said I would, and was then flabbergasted when the young man issued a set of instructions as to what needed to be done and disappeared completely out of theater with his gang!

So I did what I was intending to do anyway and cleared most of the snow from their drive and a path to their garden gate. It required shovels to finish the job but all the shovelers were nowhere to be seen 2 so I left with a shrug. I could have done more but if they weren't worried about it then I wasn't either.

I did what I could for the Singhs, though their drive always causes Troll problems. Last year I busted a shear pin in the driveshaft on the Singh's driveway. This year I couldn't get traction. Don't know why.

Then down to help Pedro, who had a small snowblower that would take forever to do the job, then down to Mike's, his next-door neighbor3 and back via Crazy Joe's (who had had a plow come and shove all his snow somewhere else before I could deal with it).

That was Monday.

Tuesday dawned and I decided to go to work, there being no earthly reason why there would be a problem now. The LIRR website said trains were running (a distinct improvement over Monday when they had stopped running so abruptly people had been stranded in what passes for waiting rooms all over the system, most of which have no facilities, water supplies or heat so a human interest story was only hours away) so I fired up the Steviemobile and drove to the station.

The roads had only light traffic that day, most people deciding4 to stay home again.

Even so there were about the same ratio of nitwits threatening life and limb. The Town of Babylon (the civic and financial body responsible for the snowplows hereabouts) had decided on plow parsimony and the main drag to Wyandanch Station, Acorn Street, had been plowed as a single track route which made driving up it much the same in terms of excitement and anticipation as a rural Canadian logging road. All it would take is one truck 5 coming he other way for disaster to strike. But such did not happen that day, and I was thus set-up for the booby trap the Town of Babylon had set for me.

The car-park for the station is bisected by a V-shaped road which trucks often use to bypass an inconvenient traffic light. During the night this had happened, which led me to the mistaken conclusion that the road and the car-park had been plowed. As I turned into the road, it became apparent that the snow had not been removed so much as mashed about and the Steviemobile was soon yawing around as the snow level exceeded the ground clearance of the crankcase and sundry other underframe parts, rendering the Steviemobile like unto a boat. Thank Azathoth for the traction control, which acts to keep any wheel that slips from robbing drive thrust from the vehicle by applying the anti-lock brakes an a per-wheel basis6 which in turn has ensured I have been able to get where I'm going in weather that has challenged four-wheel drive vehicles.

So I tobogganed along the road, the car yawing occasionally, but surprisingly little given the circumstances past the car-park that was still a pristine field of unbroken white thanks to the lack of diligence of the Town of Babylon and their inadequate plow fleet. I realized as I went that the car I had passed that I had initially assumed was in the car park was in fact on the road and stuck in a snowbank, the driver having made the same mistake as me but having a better memory for where the road should have been had turned earlier than I had to his great inconvenience. It went very much against the grain for me to just leave someone thus mired, but there was literally nowhere to stop without getting stuck myself.

The Stevieling was not pleased to find a parent hoving into view and ruining her snow day with his presence.

It boggles the mind that 24 hours after a snowstorm has subsided, even a bad one, that what I'm told is the busiest station on the Ronkonkoma branch has a) no plowed space in the car-parks (plural) and 2) its main approach road so inadequately cleared to posed an actual hazard in and of itself.

Days later the carpark finally got plowed, sort of, but berms of snow were left everywhere that blocked otherwise completely clear spaces, rendering them inaccessible. The LIRR got into the act too by not clearing the sidewalk approaches to the station. Indeed, one day I was astounded to see that although the path to the station was icy and in need of salt application in just one unthawed place, the LIRR service crew were sweeping up cigarette buts from the platform.

I looked at the crew. I looked at the path. I turned to a newspaper seller and said "Is this a joke? Are we on camera?" He just shook his head

Two weeks later another snowstorm hit.

This one lacked the howling wind with which to drive the snow into huge drifts, so it made up for that by increasing the amount of snow precipitation. We received about 15 inches of soft, fluffy white snow all over Deer Park and its surrounding towns over the course of that Sunday evening, so Monday morning commenced with my breaking out Troll again and throwing all the snow in the driveway as far from the driveway as 8 horsepower whirly gubbins could manage.

Operations were complicated by Mrs Stevie's enormous peoplemover thing blocking the path, so I asked her to move it over a tad so I could squeeze Troll between our cars. I was then treated to a breathtaking display of ineffective backward-and-forward maneuvering that otherwise increased the Trollway between the vehicles not an inch. I bore this with my usual stoicism, limiting myself to stamping my feet in increasing frustration and waving my fists for emphasis while giving voice to level three and four Words of Encouragement, but all was in vain and eventually I had to evict the woman and get behind the wheel myself7 and edge the vehicle closer to the fence.

Then it was a simple matter to climb out of the passenger-siad door and recommence snow rearrangement operations, culminating in driving each car backward into the road and clearing off the foot-anna-bit of snow on every remotely horizontal surface there before reparking them in the now-clear driveway. Mrs Stevie had been wasting time digging out the back garden by hand while this important work was going on, but as soon as she had a route to the road and a vehicle that didn't look like something that would be more appropriately found sticking out of one side of the Titanic she leaped into the shower declaring her intention to depart the scene for work.

I had already showered, and the LIRR was proudly announcing train service on the local news channel on the Ronkonkoma branch so I just departed, or at least I tried to.

Nicolls Road (the one directly outside Chateau Stevie) had been plowed in the night and therefore had a few inches of snow that was already beginning to be packed hard into ice by the occasional vehicle. Deer Park Avenue, the main avenue that crosses Nicolls Road was plowed and salted, but only in one lane each way. This made for interesting driving conditions as people plowing out their business driveways spread snow over the clear road which formed icy skid-pans every few hundred yards. Acorn St, the main drag to Wyandanch Station had not been plowed, but had been traveled by a gazillion tractor-trailer rigs which had squished all he snow into a slippery white lunascape. Driving it was akin to riding a "Wild Mouse" roller-coaster, something I vowed never to do again after the Hershey Park trip in the summer.

It was at the Wyandanch station car-park that the real fun started.

I could see a bucket-loader had plowed the road into the car-park, and could also see the loader plowing part of the car-park so I pulled into the road.

A beautiful job had been done removing the snow, such a contrast to the job done in the previous storm. The car-park entrance was perfectly clear and the loader had moved to another part of the car-park so I pulled in on the wonderfully clear track it had left with a blessing for the driver.

Which turned straightway to the foulest curse in my lexicon when I discovered that the entrance to the car-park was all that had been cleared, and that the car-park itself was a fifteen-inch deep field of unbroken snow apart from the tracks left by a four wheel drive vehicle sometime in the past. That stupid bleep in the bleeping bucket loader hadn't even cleared enough room to turn around in, and so I found myself on snow, tobogganing on the floor-pan before I could stop.

Which meant I couldn't stop now come hell or high (frozen) water because the traction control wouldn't be able to get the car moving again if it bogged down. The traction control system is good, but it's not a miracle worker. My only hope was to follow the tracks and hope they ended in a flattened area wide enough to turn around in without stopping.

It was a good plan with every chance of working I told myself as I stood outside the now-bogged-down Steviemobile. It was just that there was so much unplowed snow that it had piled up in front of the front bumper and that could only end one way. The Steviemobile isn't a bulldozer.

But it does have a very good traction control system that would see me clear if I could improve the odds a little. I hadn't brought a snow-shovel as I would have had to leave it in full view and that would simply be an excuse for someone to bust a window and steal the thing, leaving me to find a cold car full of drifted snow with a flat battery when I got back at 7:30 or later that night8 so I was reduced to stomping the snow flat around the car and kicking away as much snow as possible behind and in front of the wheels. This in turn gave me just enough room to rock the Steviemobile until it got a grip and a mere 60 minutes later I drove triumphantly into my driveway and declared a Snow Day.

The next day the car-parks were still not plowed so I parked in a space in a side-street. This had only been half-plowed so I was forced to drive back and forth into a small snowbank until I had formed a track in which to park the front wheels of the car in order not to create a collision hazard for anyone trying to drive along the street with the rear half of The Steviemobile.

On Friday I managed to find a route through the car-park that had been plowed, but since none of the spaces had been cleared I was again reduced to making one by backing in and out of where I thought a space was. I backed in because by now the snow had gone through so many freeze and thaw cycles it was pure ice underneath a thin crust of snow and I couldn't be sure of getting out if the drive wheels weren't on clear road.

It is clear that the Town of Babylon is on its uppers. It'll be interesting to see what civic service is next to degrade past the point of usefulness. Interesting in the Chinese sense, as they say.

It has taken me a few days to knock out this post, and it's now a full week after the last snowfall. Today, Martin Luther King day, I was driving past the Wyandanch LIRR station car-park.

It still had not been plowed.

  1. December 26th, a day all civilized people include in the Christmas Holiday
  2. I never got so much as a wave of thanks either
  3. Who it turned out had agreed to pay the Fantastic Disappearing Snowshovelers to do the same job, but if they hadn't showed in the time it took me to get there then they weren't coming at all
  4. Wisely, as it turned out
  5. Or, for than matter, a bubble-car
  6. The axle of a car is not solid because a car is wide enough that when cornering the inside wheel takes a much shorter path than the outside wheel does. If the axle were solid, one wheel would have to slip. In reality, both wheels take turn, real-world physics being a democratic process, but they do so unpredictably which gives the vehicle "interesting" handling characteristics. This is gotten round by having a sandwich of gears that allow the wheels to move at different speeds while still getting power transferred to them from the engine. This is what is inside that big bulge you see in the middle of the rear axle of monster trucks. In front-wheel drive vehicles, the device is hidden inside the gearbox. There are a number of surprising things that happen as a result of this arrangement when the wheels aren't where the designer expected them to be. For example, if you jack both wheels off the ground and spin one of them by hand, the opposite wheel turns too, but in the opposite direction! Another side effect of the design is that the power goes to the wheels in direct relation to the ease that they turn, so if one wheel gets on ice or snow, it will spin like crazy but the wheel on dry ground will get no power at all. There are any number of ways to mitigate this. The Steviemobile is engineered to apply the brake to the spinning wheel, thus "tricking" the differential into sending power to the other wheel, the one capable of moving the car. Clever, no?
  7. A lifetime childhood spent playing with Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky products have given me a keen insight into when one should be turning the steering wheel and when to apply drive in the proper direction in order to "walk" a vehicle sideways in a small maneuvering space
  8. Why yes, I do speak from experience here

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