I step in frozen footsteps and make my way past a patch of dry blacktop where the car was parked. A sudden gust of wind dances loose powder snow across the bare pavement to remind me of the task at hand.
We’re old-school (or cheap) when it comes to clearing our 120 feet of driveway — no gas-guzzling, snow-throwing machine for us. Instead we shake our fists at snowstorms, grit our teeth at blizzards, and double-layer extremities to face sub-zero temperatures head-on. We’re the ones shoveling every two hours during a storm just to keep up with it, alone among our snow-blowing neighbors who opt instead to wait it out.
Satisfaction is short-lived at best, what with city plows that careen down the street and overturn piles of snow back onto the driveway, disturbing the order I’ve just created. I hear the rumble as they start down the block and despite myself I stop what I’m doing and watch the snow tumble back into the driveway, staring at the driver and shaking my fist (in my mind) at the unnecessarily Sisyphean task.
The character of the snow churned up by those steel blades is different than regular driveway snow. When it’s cold enough the snow piles up like sand, with an airy sugar layer topping more compact, dense powder. Beneath that, a layer similar in weight to a damp mix of butter, sugar and cinnamon tints the snow light brown like chai or a creamy latte. Then it’s two feet of ice, frozen solid.
The strategy is shovel by striation: take the sugar layer off and let the snow below turn its face to the sun and melt, which if all goes well means you’re getting to slush and soon you’ll hit pavement. Pavement yields access to the street grate, slush turns to water, and you can use the shovel to push, not scoop, the snow right into the sewer below the street.
If you listen hard enough, you hear actual water running somewhere below where you’re standing, echoing beneath the snow-covered street. Rivulets of water carve tiny rivers through the ice on the curb, creating frozen ledges that I smash with my boots. Those too get shoveled to the grates, and finally there’s the concrete, and I straighten up, hand to back, and stretch.
I sigh, pull my hat back down on my head, and turn back to the work that remains. Section by section, scooping sugar to sand to ice then slush, then out to the street and stomp it to water, then push it to the grate and trickle and plop. It sounds like water running down a well.
I hurry, because I know that in an hour or so the puddles will freeze to slush and then to ice, and the mailman’s boot tracks will freeze in place. I’ll step in them tomorrow morning as I make my way down the driveway after the plow comes again.
Spring seems far away.