Snow, Massachusetts style

I started this piece on February 18th, 2014 and it’s now time to post it. I wanted a reminder of all the ‘fun’ of snow in Boston for when we’re no longer living here!

I’m writing this as snow is pouring, wait, is that the right word?  Does snow pour? Does it lash?  Whatever it does when it’s falling hard, that’s what it’s doing now.  It’s the third snowstorm for Boston in the space of a week, and frankly I’m getting a little sick of it.

Coming from two countries where snow is uncommon, I was captivated for the first winter. It was fun to see snow falling, to put on my snow boots and crunch through it, and to see the buildings and open spaces transformed.  In February 2013, when Boston had its snowpocalypse, two feet of snow fell.  Cars were buried, and you could sink up to your hips in the drifts by the side of the road.   It was very exciting for us Boston newbies.

Now, after suffering two Boston winters, I’ve noticed some customs and challenges Bostonians face when it’s snowing.

Firstly, The Weather gets top billing on the news. The Storm Team is there to tell you all about it, to show gratuitous images of cars slow-motion crashing, people with umbrellas tilted against the wind, and children sledding and making snowmen.  The forecasters can barely contain themselves as they give snow depth predictors and estimated length of the storm.  This occurs as soon as the word ‘snow’ features in the long range forecast.  “Are you sick of the snow? Well, there’s more on the way,” they say with glee. “Say it ain’t snow” was one of the more amusing headlines I saw.

Aside from entertaining weather reports, the main good thing about a snowstorm is the prospect of a snow-day.  The city managers will not hesitate to pull the shutters down on schools and offices if it looks remotely like the commute will be affected by the weather.  Native Bostonians seem to live for snow days and the school calendars have contingency for a certain number each year.

The next thing that happens when it snows is that everyone forgets how to drive. There are two types of drivers in the snow (not including the ones that refuse to drive).  There are the people who insist on going at 10 mph everywhere – the hybrid-car drivers, those without four-wheel drive, for example; and there are those who insist on still going at the speed-limit (+10 mph of course, this is Boston after all).  The latter group includes the larger vehicles: buses, trucks, articulated lorries, utes, and snowplows.  The faster drivers spray sheets of brown muddy slush into the windscreens of the slower drivers, and so the roads become a battle field.  Drivers in this state are not known as Massholes for nothing.

Bostonians also never clear their cars of snow.  It’s apparently illegal to drive with any snow on your car but that doesn’t stop locals only scraping off one half of their windscreen and part of the back window and driving around with inches of snow covering the rest of the car.  It’s common to see mail vans with six inches of snow on their roofs all winter.  It’s when the snow suddenly dislodges and falls into the path of the car behind that it gets interesting.  Massholes indeed.

There are rules in Boston and surrounds about clearing the snow in front of your property.  It has to be done within a few hours of the snow stopping or by lunchtime if it stops snowing overnight.  This highlights the next custom of Boston snow – the tools people use to move it. There are your standard snow-shovels – with a much bigger scoop than ordinary shovels, and often made of plastic.  There are your machines that suck up the snow and shoot it out of a funnel to the side.  There are the bobcat snowplows to clear long footpaths, and the machines that look like a roadsweeper with a brush from a carwash at the front, which somehow brushes the snow aside.

And then there are the snow-plows proper.

It never occurred to me that plowing the snow as it’s falling, rather than waiting for it to stop, was a good idea.  In Boston, the snowplows work continuously – once the snow is about an inch thick.  The snowplows are not necessarily custom vehicles; they are often just a ute with a plow on the front.  They race (see above) up and down the main streets, sometimes in convoys of up to three, pushing the snow to the side of the road.  You can easily find yourself under a shower of snow, slush and grit if you’re on the footpath when they go past.

Snowplows, while a great idea, have some drawbacks.  Because the road is covered in, well, snow, it’s impossible for the driver to see potholes, manhole covers and any other dints or uneven places in the road. This means unless the road is billiard table smooth (i.e. never in Boston), the plow blade regularly crashes through the tarmac.  You can hear the characteristic rumble of the plow approach – followed by a bang as it hits a bump.  As a consequence the roads are completely ruined each winter.  If you’re unlucky, like us, and live opposite a parking lot, you will also find yourself listening to a chorus of reversing-beeps day and night as the plow tries to get into every corner.

Which brings me onto the next challenge of snow: what happens when it melts.  The snow invariably starts melting to some extent within 48 hours of falling.  Puddles form in several places – in the aforementioned potholes, and in the places where it is backed up by drifts of snow, usually at dropped curbs. The drains of course are all covered with, you guessed it, snow.  So, great lakes form, and when I say lakes, I mean wide areas of slushy, wet, brown water that are impossible to jump and are at least calf-deep.  Snow boots or rain boots are essential.

When the potholes are full of water, walking on the footpath again becomes hazardous.  The roads are narrowed because of the snowdrifts, so cars often cannot avoid the potholes. If you see the characteristic brown spray pattern on the snowbank by the road you’d better wait for the cars to pass unless you want a brown-ice shower.

The sign that winter is nearly over can also be found in snow. According to a long-time Boston resident, when the Storm Team first get their snow prediction wrong – i.e. an anticipated snowpocalypse turns out to just be a light dusting – this is a sign the weather is improving.  Gradually the weather forecasters temper their enthusiasm for snow storms and before you know it, spring is on the way.

Thankfully we’ve had our first false-prediction of the season so I’m hoping winter will be over soon!

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