When Bob Barsanti was his eldest son’s age, his adolescent ego was stoked by shoveling snow. That was then…
An hour or so after the ﬁnal snowﬂake fell and twenty minutes after the plows heaped snow at the end of the driveway, I hustled the number one son out the door and handed him a shovel. He held it oddly. He lives most of his days along the shore, where the snow melts before it can freeze. So, I taught him the time honored skill of snow shoveling: he had to put one hand here, slip the blade under there, and then use his legs to dump the snow over there.
The air crackled with Canadian snap. Overhead, the last of the storm raced off to the east and left an electric blue sky. Galaxies of snow spun over the driveway and settled into the cover. Other than our shovels and the wind, the only sound came from the snowblowers next door. After a half hour, my heir studied those blowers.
When I was his age, I shoveled snow. I got up early, donned boots and snowpants, then walked down the street and set to work. Our driveway would be taken care of. My father had bought an early snowblower for our somewhat long and somewhat wide driveway. He donned his orange ski parka, perched a hat on his heat, lit a cigarette and proceeded to blow snow into the neighbor’s yard. When he ﬁnished our driveway, he graciously motored his machine to another neighbor where he blew more snow, then drank coffee in their kitchen.
At the time, I did not have a strong appreciation of snow blowers. I was young, strong, and had confused antiquity with honor. In the fall, I had contracted to shovel snow for an older man and his wife. I was not going to “blow” snow. He had just recovered from a heart attack and was not allowed to exert himself; however, in the years that I shoveled, I got the idea that his wife did most of the preventing. Had I not appeared early enough, he would have been out there toiling away.
After a particularly heavy storm, when the schools were cancelled and the plows drove slowly, four or ﬁve of us would be out working. We were a silent guild of shovelers. I nodded as I passed, then they nodded to me. As a young man, their acceptance was a powerful tonic. In the bright glare of adolescent ego, I saw myself as walking in their footsteps and carrying, eventually, their shovels. We were alone out in the elements while everyone else was inside with hot chocolate and Bugs Bunny.
When I arrived at the driveway, I started in on the snowbanks left from the plow, then worked my way up the driveway until the pavement was clear and I was standing at the garage door. The snow, if it were a reasonable snowfall, would get deposited to the right of the driveway in a long trench. Each storm took two hours to clear the driveway and the two snow plow drifts. Then, I cleared the path to the front door, shoveled the steps, and asked to get paid.
For some reason that I didn’t want to plumb, I never had a number. I suppose it was a combination of middle class comfort and Irish Catholic passive aggressiveness, but I hadn’t negotiated my pay. I wanted to get paid; that money meant respect, Coca Cola and Charleston Chews. Had my parents been more thrifty, they would have insured that I saved some of it from the perils of comic books and 7-11’s. But they didn’t. I stood on the protective plastic in the main hall or on the linoleum of the kitchen, and was handed bill after bill for my fee. I think I was once paid about ﬁve dollars for a few inches of light snow and ﬁfty for the Blizzard of ’78.
Nonetheless, the money warmed my hands and coat on my way back home. I suppose the cash was nice to have for what it could buy, but it had already bought me my precious membership into the guild of snow shovelers. I shoveled, was approved, and was paid. Ten dollars in my pocket made me a professional.
Thirty-ﬁve years on, I see more than I once did. I see kindly neighbors who could use the shoveling, but would rather give me some work. I see the foolishness in my own arrogance; who wouldn’t rather be the serf to the hot chocolate rather than be the king of the snow banks? I even see the value in a quality snow-blower. John Henry was a fool.
I wish I had saved the money. Had I invested the money in Apple Computer or AOL instead of Spiderman and Charleston Chews I might have a summer house and hedge fund manager. More to the point, perhaps I could have paid myself. Forty-ﬁve year old me could have used the money, and the habits, from my ﬁfteen year old self. An investment account validates you far more than the cash.
On the other hand, I learned how to shovel. I learned that the hours of our lives are ﬁlled with dull thankless tasks performed in the cold and dark. You show up and do the work that keeps the world slowly moving forward, be it in the classroom, the kitchen, or the factory line. You get out of bed and take one step, then the next, and the next one after that. After you ﬁnish shoveling snow, you start mowing the lawn, you start washing the dishes, you start changing the diapers. We measure life by the shovelful.
When my oldest and I ﬁnished shoveling the driveway, he asked what he would get for his work. I told him, with a paternal glint, that he has earned a spring in his step, a glint in his eye, and the pride of a job well done. He muttered something about Gamestop.
We compromised at pizza.
Image credit: R.Kyle/Flickr