When all was snowed and done yesterday, it came down to one simple and unmajestic thing: the shovel. When snowplows never made it to side streets that looked like moonscapes, when one needed the stuff moved now, right this minute Lord have mercy, the shovel once again became man and woman's best friend.
"I like the scoop shovels the best. The dirt shovels don't work," says Don Schoening, who is directing a work crew on behalf of Bovis Lend Lease over on 14th and N streets NW. "I got six shovels going right now," he says, glancing at a tableau of a half-dozen workers in a gritty winter musical, shovels rising and falling.
It is a construction site, and his workers have ebbed out into the street. "We're helping Mayor What's-His-Name, who was down there in Jamaica," Schoening offers.
That would be Mayor Williams. That would have been Puerto Rico -- from which the mayor returned Sunday evening. But we get the drift.
Ben Berman, a consultant for a health organization, is glancing around his front yard over on Rhode Island Avenue, taking deep breaths. Shovel snow and you breathe with the righteousness of the athlete.
The shovel itself fairly gleamed. This isn't your grandfather's shovel. It's one of those ergonomic numbers. "Its pretty good for lifting snow because it has a curve," he says, lifting the shovel, showing the S-like curve. "It's good for your back. If it was straight you'd have to get down to here." He bends like a contortionist, the snow nearly at his nose.
Berman snickers a little: His landlord happens to be rather conveniently away. But something told him to pack his shovel and he did. He's been riding around with it in his car for a couple weeks now. "It's only useful when you need it," he says, rather overstating his understatement.
There were those shoveling porches, those trying to shovel cars out, cussing out tires with shovel in hand. Old shovels, new ones, short handles, long handles.
"I've sold the pointed garden spade. I've sold all the snow shovels. I've sold all the square-point shovels. And the old-fashioned coal scoops as well," says Vincent Cooper, owner of Cooper Hardware on 14th Street. Yesterday Cooper was a man in love with old school: "A snowblower can't do you no good when you're trying to get your car out." Alas, Cooper himself could do you no good either yesterday. Every shovel in his store was gone.
In many areas of town, the plastic shovels, by midday, looked terribly defeated. "I got it two years ago," Dominique Oudar is saying of her orange plastic shovel while digging in on Vermont Avenue. "Haven't had to use it before today. It's a little tougher to break through." Standing at ground level, she looked like someone who had been climbing a mountain. Her pants legs were soaked from the snow.
In an alley off Logan Way, a trio of shovelers gather. Neal Isenstein, a land surveyor, had a rather lovely looking shovel. "It's got a lot of volume in it," he brags, then holds it up showing a foam patch for better and more comfortable gripping. Anna Tucker fairly dances over, holding her own. "This is the one you really get down with and break it up with," she says of the ice-snow combination. Tucker, a veterinarian, is holding a spade. "A garden spade. And it's multipurpose." It looked pretty winning. "This spade has a history," she allows.
And with that bit of news, Art Russell, his own shovel in hand, waltzes over to listen.
"My mother used to be a protester," Tucker begins. "She protested South African apartheid. She went over to the embassy on the 10th anniversary of Soweto. A bunch of workers went up there with a coffin. And she began digging a grave with this spade before she got arrested."
Russell looks gloomy. His own shovel has no such history. "This was a $10 special at Ace Hardware," he admits. "Bought it on the fly. I figured we'd have two major snowstorms before spring. But this is not quite doing the job. You just have to get innovative. I've dug two people out today. I used an ironing board as a cushion and some sand. I put the ironing board under one wheel and sand under the other and I pushed one lady out." Then he raises his shovel. "I shoveled my wife out with this, though."
In many parts of the metropolitan area, there were those who stayed home with their shovels and those who wandered. It was a day to make a buck. "This is a coal shovel, but you can use it for snow," says Phillip Howard, who works for Labor Finders, a temp agency. "A square-faced shovel is good. This is an old shovel, but it's metal."
He had no set appointments, just wandering in hopes of helping a soul in distress. "I'm just going around and asking people if they need help. I ain't worried about money that much. People were there to help me in life."
He walks on, a Gary Cooper gait, the shovel slung over his shoulder, snow all around.
Have shovel, will travel.