The crew that hammered the golden spike into the transcontinental railroad couldn’t have been any more delighted that their job was finished than we were in my neighborhood when our streets were finally repaved.
We had been complaining about them for years. Our little suburban enclave had a complete taxonomy of bad road, from freeze-thaw potholes deep enough to reach the earth’s molten core, to aging asphalt that crumbled away in sheets.
These hazards were like submerged rocks menacing a port. Necessity had turned us into savvy harbor pilots. Over time, we had memorized the location of every fissure and knew when to steer our vehicles toward the far curb or cut toward the near one.
Every neighborhood is full of complainers, but if you’re lucky, you live in one that also has people who do more than just complain. In ours, these civic-minded volunteers researched how to convince authorities that it was time to throw some new infrastructure our way.
The neighborhood email chain hummed with ideas. Politicians were contacted. A petition was distributed. Handmade signs went up around the neighborhood, drawing attention to the perilous pavement.
An official decision seemed to hinge on how bad our streets were, scientifically speaking, and ours, someone determined, were not bad enough. A special machine pointed at the pavement had been driven through the neighborhood, scrutinizing the road surface, probing for clefts and crannies and cracks and producing a “pavement condition index.”
It seemed like we didn’t qualify.
But then some of the powers-that-be toured the neighborhood and saw for themselves the sorry state of the streets, which in some places resembled a dry lake bed, its surface covered with puckered polygons, and in others a bombing range. The decision came down: We would get new pavement.
Good things come to those who agitate.
They say that all roads lead to Rome. And they say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Put those together, and it follows that roads aren’t built in a day. Repaving our neighborhood involved several months of destruction and construction.
First, potholes were patched. I mean seriously patched. Like a surgeon giving himself a wide margin around a tumor, workers cut large rectangles of pavement around these asphalt blemishes before filling them in again.
This struck us as . . . odd. Weren’t they going to take every street down to its foundation anyway? Why fill a pothole with asphalt just to come along later and scrape that asphalt away?
But, hey, they were the experts.
Next came the pavement-removing machine, a long, loud contraption that crept along on tank treads. With its serried rows of horrible, spinning teeth, it ripped up the asphalt and spit it into a succession of dump trucks. If our streets could talk they would have been screaming, “Oh! The pain!”
And then, nothing.
For weeks after they were milled, our streets were embarrassingly exposed, the asphalt epidermis gone, but no new skin was applied. Every other day or so, a street sweeper would rumble by, vacuuming up pebbles and bits of gravel.
We began to wonder. Emails buzzed through the neighborhood: Are they paving your street? No. Are they paving yours?
Then, finally, it started happening. There were the sounds of new machines. One sprayed a sticky black goo on the naked roadbed. Another took warm, gooey asphalt from a dump truck into its hopper and spread it on the street with the care of a pastry chef icing a cake. A crew of men walked alongside it, shoveling in stray bits of bitumen.
On the day this happened on my street, I watched from my house, my car safely in the driveway. I ambled down to get a closer look.
“How long before we can drive on it?” I asked the hard-hatted foreman.
“About a month,” he said, deadpan. A joke.
Steamrollers were the final step, zipping over the cooling surface with amazing grace.
Now it’s like a cambered billiard table out there: smooth and as unblemished as a baby’s cheek.
Somebody said it had been 30 years since the streets in our neighborhood were repaved. If I’m lucky, I’ll be around in 30 years. I don’t know if I’ll still live in the same house, but I want to come by and see how things look.
“I remember when you were born,” I’ll say to the street, pondering my own mortality.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.