(Editor’s Note: Who would have thought winter would have ended so abruptly? After spending a couple hours in a city snowplow during the last “snow emergency,” the story sat in my notebook for more than a week as I waited for another snowy day. However, since the forecast is calling for spring-like temperatures for the next 10 days, I decided to post this now before summer-like weather arrives. Many thanks to Chris Mendieta for letting me ride shotgun for a couple hours, pushing me up into the truck when I got stuck midway, and for keeping the heat cranked up in the truck that morning.)
By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
While much of Bowling Green sleeps, Chris Mendieta and his fellow city workers rumble past our homes to clear a path for us to get to work, school, wherever.
It’s easy for citizens to complain about untouched side streets, or plowed in driveways. But few of them have sat in the same driver’s seat as Mendieta, high up in the 1999 snowplow. By 7 a.m., he has already been working on clearing streets since midnight, with another five hours until his shift ends.
Mendieta’s route is Ward 1, and a portion of Ward 2. That means he has to squeeze the big truck through the narrow East Side streets like Reed and Merry.
“These are really tight streets,” he said as he swung the truck onto Leroy Avenue. “These are big trucks to get through here.”
The “snow emergency” has not yet been declared on this day, so the streets are still littered with parked cars. Mendieta points out the nicked utility poles on the opposite side of the road from parked cars.
“You take your time,” but sometimes the plow scrapes up the poles in the driver’s attempt to avoid the cars, he said.
The snow is coming down in big wet flakes as Mendieta turns onto North Enterprise.
“I was just down this section an hour ago. You can’t even tell I was here,” he said.
The goal in this kind of heavy snow is to make the busy streets passable, and dump salt at intersections, railroad crossings and on overpasses. Smaller streets and tidying up road surfaces will have to wait, he explained.
Driving a snowplow takes concentration – especially with the older model trucks like Mendieta’s.
The plow direction is frequently maneuvered depending on the route and conditions. Salt or brine application has to be monitored. Blades have to be lifted at railroad crossings so the tracks aren’t triggered and the gates close. When the plow fills up with snow, it must be dumped somewhere along a curb where it won’t cause problems.
Mendieta loves plowing snow, and he counts his blessings that his route is in the city unlike county plow drivers who have to venture out in blowing conditions where the biggest concern may just be staying on the road.
“They’ve got big ditches they have to worry about,” he said as he drove on East Poe Road, where the edge of the road was an educated guess based on his 13 years on the job.
Mendieta’s truck has few frills. It has one window that is electric, one manual. He’s lucky if the defroster keeps the front window clear. On this particular morning, he had to stop the truck to slap the wipers on the windshield to knock off ice.
“It’s not exactly built for comfort,” he said with a smile. On snowy days, the truck is his home for 12 hours. He’s not big on caffeine, so he drinks water and listens to sports talk radio to help him stay alert. Of course if the blade hits a pothole or a dislodged manhole cover, the noise is enough to jolt any sleepy driver.
Mendieta knows that citizens are counting on him and the drivers of the city’s other seven snowplows to clear their way.
“We try to get the stuff up and out of the way as soon as we can,” he said.
But Mendieta also knows the plow drivers can’t make every citizen happy – particularly if they have just finished shoveling their driveways when a plow goes by.
“They spend 45 minutes clearing their driveway, then we come by and fill it back up. I get it. But we have no place else to put the snow.”
As Mendieta took a swing past some businesses on East Court Street, he couldn’t help but push up snow in the path of a delivery man parked in the street.
“I just made that guy’s life rough,” he said.
“We’re not perfect. Sometimes mistakes do happen,” he said. “That’s something people don’t understand.”
There are also citizens who appreciate the snowplow drivers for making streets passable.
“We got a lot of support from the community,” Mendieta said. “They drop off cookies or candy.”
That is especially appreciated during the long shifts. Sometimes pizza shops will drop off an unexpected dinner, and often the public works supervisors will bring in eggs, sausage and toast, or a crockpot of chili or soup to keep the drivers going.
The public works crews also have other work to complete, like picking up trash and recycling. Mendieta and the others put in a lot of overtime hours during snowy winters.
“It’s a necessary evil of my job,” he said, though it allows him to build up comp time that comes in handy when he coaches baseball.
Most of the motorists in Bowling Green give the trucks room to operate, except for a few “hot heads,” Mendieta said. “These are big, big heavy trucks. Even in great conditions they take time to stop.”
Most of the citizen comments are positive, “especially from people who come from bigger cities,” he said.
That pleases Mendieta and his fellow plowers, who take pride in their work.
“To be honest, plowing is kind of fun,” he said.
“I got a nice plume going there,” he said as his plow sprayed snow off East Poe Road. “I like looking back in my mirror and seeing it clear.”
And he likes seeing the snow let up so he can do more than clear a pathway on the main streets.
“It looks like it stopped snowing,” he said during this recent morning. “Good, we can get caught up a little bit. Now I can go start hitting the smaller streets that haven’t been hit.”
“We take pride in what we do,” Mendieta said. “We want the city to look good. We want people to be safe.”