Washington's hero this winter is the guy with the snowblower

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A01

He arrives in a cloud of hissing white flakes with an unmistakable whine, leaving a trail of clear pavement in his wake. He accepts no money for his work. He moves so fast and is so bundled up against the cold you might not recognize him -- or even catch his name.

He is Snowblower Guy, the action hero of the Blizzard(s) of 2010. All neighborhoods have one -- or wish they did.

In snow-weary cul-de-sacs and buried hamlets across the region, Snowblower Guy has been the man of the hour, working for days not only to clear his driveway but also to help neighbors. He has cleared sidewalks and even carved out routes in roads still untouched by municipal snowplows. After so many mild winters, Snowblower Guy is finally having his moment.

Fred Samarelli, 52, of Vienna used his John Deere with snowblower attachment to carve tracks so emergency workers could rescue an ill elderly neighbor after the ambulance got mired in two feet of snow. His typically modest Snowblower Guy response?

"Just glad I could help," he said.

Unstuck neighbors have heaped praise -- and cookies. They've sent wine, candy, cupcakes, brownies, cabbage soup, gift certificates for gas and even a his-and-hers massage.

"The best fringe benefit is that neighbors from all around come bearing baked goods," said Bill Connor, 51, a District Snowblower Guy who has a media training business. "We got an entire apple pie."

The typical Snowblower Guy seems to be a middle-aged man who already has plenty of other toys to amuse himself with, such as a grill with its own rotisserie or any large motorcycle.

Kirk Randall, 58, a retired energy economist from Fairfax City, owns two snowblowers he keeps in a garage workshop so filled with tools -- six electric drills! -- that he compares it to something out of the old Tim Allen TV show "Home Improvement."

He's the type who's dying for the power to go out so he can fire up his new generator and see whether it works. (His wife, Carol, doesn't mind the two snowblowers but did look askance when he brought home a two-foot propane torch once and tried to melt snow with it.)

After five mild winters, Willie Kelly's family and friends sniggered a bit when he dragged home a pricey, gas-powered snowblower.

"I cannot tell you how much grief I took for 'blowing' all this money on a snowblower," said Kelly, 51, a program manager from Chantilly.

No one is laughing now. Most stores in the Washington area are sold out of high-end snowblowers, which can cost $800 to more than $1,800. Kris Kiser, executive vice president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute in Alexandria, said annual U.S. sales typically swing from 300,000 to more than 1 million, depending on the weather.

Not surprisingly, Snowmaggedon has created a thriving secondary market on Craigslist and elsewhere.

"Need snowblower. Have cash and a pizza. $600," a Woodbridge poster wrote. "Just say no to price gouging." A desperate neighbor recently offered Great Falls resident Chris Leone $2,000 for his used machine -- more than twice what Leone had paid for it.

But most of the men with the machines aren't selling. A few days ago, Randall used his snowblower to clear his driveway. Then he did a neighbor's driveway, then another and another. It was so diverting he couldn't stop.

Between the houses and the sidewalks, "before you know it, you're almost all the way around the cul-de-sac," he said. "And you're real sore."

So despite the heroics, life is not always easy for Snowblower Guy. Especially if the neighbors, well, get a little pushy.

When Marcia Nilson and her husband, Pete, bought the first snowblower on their block 20 years ago, they were the toast of their Silver Spring neighborhood. But the expectations ended up being too much.

"We'd do our driveway and the elderly couple across the street, then the lady with the bad back next door," recalled Marcia, 63, a retiree. "But it got to the point where we'd do the people across the street while their 190-pound star football player for Georgetown Prep was in bed resting for the big game. Long story short, we get a call from a neighbor we didn't even know angry we hadn't done her driveway yet. So Pete said, 'This is ridiculous. No more driveways!' "

Since Kelly bought his snowblower late last year -- ignoring the jeers of his wife and adult sons -- he's been having a fine time with it. This weekend, he had a tutoring session with his neighbors in his court that turned into an impromptu party, with a fire pit, pizza and s'mores. The sense of community he felt seemed to be the trade-off for working most of the day and waking up with an aching back so severe he could barely turn over without experiencing waves of pain. Wednesday, he had the machine gassed up and ready to go for another round. But he, like all the other Snowblower Guys around, is exhausted.

"I'm not tired of being right," Kelly said, "but I'm tired of the snow."

Jimmie Chandler, a 77-year-old retired printer, was resting by the fire Wednesday in his Northwest Washington home after blowing about a dozen of his neighbors' driveways in the past few days. They'd showered him with cookies, coffeecake and a "little spirit" for his hard work.

"I've lived here since 1951, and I've never seen this much snow before," Chandler said. "I was tired, but I kept on going. We'll be back at it again tomorrow."

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