Salt of the Earth: On the street in a storm with a plow driver


Montgomery County Department of Transportation equipment operator Mauricio Barbosa has his truck refilled at the transportation depot after spreading a salt mixture on the roads in a Silver Spring neighborhood Wednesday morning. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist March 6, 2013

Mauricio “J.J.” Barbosa’s dump truck is massive. You don’t step into the big yellow beast so much as scale it, climbing up two rungs of a ladder before hoisting yourself into your seat. The curved plow blade bolted to the front looks like a steel wave with a fluorescent orange whip attached at either end.

But J.J. has made his truck — No. 042250 — homey. He has the stereo tuned to Christian radio. He flips down the passenger sun visor inside the cab and says, “That’s Emily.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Taped to the underside of the visor is a photo of a baby — a brand-new baby, just hours after being born.

“Wow,” I say. “She looks pretty young.”

J.J. flips down the other sun visor. There’s Emily, a few weeks older. She’s now a little more than a month old, and it seems to me that J.J. would rather spend Wednesday with her, his and wife Diana Carolina’s first child.

The “snowquester” did not turn out as intense as planned, leaving D.C. snow plows with little work to do. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

But those days when everyone on the radio and TV is telling you to stay off the roads are exactly the days that J.J. has to be on them. For 16 years, he’s driven a Montgomery County snowplow and salting truck, and on Wednesday morning it’s time to give Route 1523 a shot.

That’s what the salt guys say: I’m gonna shoot it. That means pressing the button on the little console in the cab that activates the spreader and flings a crescent of pinkish rock salt on the road.

Also, they don’t plow the snow. They push it. J.J. says he likes pushing snow, maybe because he grew up in Colombia, where they don’t have much of the stuff. His mother-in-law is visiting from Colombia for a few months to help with the baby, and she hoped she would get to see some snow.

She got her wish, sort of. It’s a rather desultory snow that’s falling as we leave the Montgomery County Department of Transportation depot at the end of Brookville Road in Silver Spring. It’s not so much Snowquester as Snowquestion.

Route 1523 encompasses a swath of Silver Spring bounded by Forest Glen Road, Georgia Avenue and Plyers Mill Road. J.J. has it memorized. It’s the route he’s done since starting in the job at age 24. In the winter, he salts and plows it. In the fall, he drives the leaf truck, sucking up leaves from it. The rest of the year, he works all over the county, patching potholes, fixing roads and sidewalks, trimming trees.

Whether salting or plowing, the drill is the same: Emergency routes are done first. Then the major roads. Then the smaller neighborhood roads. Sometimes, J.J. says, homeowners will wave their arms and beckon him: Come do my street!

“Calm down,” he tells them. “I’ll do it as soon as I can. I can’t jump from one street to the other.”

Route 1523 is one of the tightest of the 34 routes served by the trucks in the Silver Spring depot. (There are two depots in Gaithersburg and depots in Bethesda and Colesville.) That means narrow streets and lots of on-street parking.

There are five short, dead-end lanes that J.J. backs down, shooting salt as he creeps in. He’s fairly active in his seat, throwing his body back and forth to look out his rearview mirrors, standing and craning his neck to look out his window. With cars on either side, it’s a lot like threading a needle.

When we emerge from one particularly hair-raising stretch and pull up to an intersection, J.J. says, “I like to push snow on streets like this.”

In front of us is a wide open thoroughfare, with nary a parked car in sight.

As we head down another street, a girl of about 10 teasingly raises her hand as if to throw a snowball at J.J.’s truck. He’s used to it, he says. And he doesn’t mind.

“Kids, you know?” he shrugs.

Sometimes people bring him cookies. Sometimes they bring him coffee. Then there are those motorists who try to cut around him or who tailgate him despite the sign that says “Keep 48 feet back.”

Have you ever gotten stuck in the snow, I ask.

“Twice,” J.J. says

Were you embarrassed?

“No,” says J.J., 40. “I called the depot and said ‘I need somebody to pull me.’ ”

I guess if there’s anyone who should be allowed to get stuck in the snow, it’s the snowplow driver. He blazes the trails that others will take.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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