After it snows, I prowl the streets for Department of Sanitation (DSNY) plow trucks. DSNY has plowing down to an art. The salt fans out the back of its trucks as if from an ornamental fountain. Their drivers make synchronized turns that would score well in Sochi. I’m becoming fast friends with DSNY this winter.
My district has four parking lots that would take hours to clear with our one plow that affixes to the front of a pick-up truck. While my workers focus on plowing park perimeters and paths, I go in search of help for the lots. Happiness is finding a DSNY truck sitting idle next to one of my parks with a friendly driver inside willing to help.
Sometimes, it’s not so easy and I have to literally hunt down the DSNY truck. If I’m driving and I pass a truck going the other way, I will pull a U-turn and follow in hot pursuit. When the driver sees me following too close, he will pull over and motion me to pass, at which point I pull up, roll down my window, and ask for help. A couple of times, I’ve had to get out of my car and make a run on foot for the DSNY truck when it’s stopped at a red light.
My plea takes a couple forms:
“Hey, how ya doin’? I’m the Park Manager for this area. Our plow is broken and we have no way to get our parking lots done today. Can you help us out?”
“We are short on staff, any chance you could do us a solid and do our parking lot today?”
I have yet to be rejected.
Last week, fatigued by chasing trucks, I called District Superintendant Williams from DSNY and asked if I could stop by to introduce myself. I wanted to establish a face-to-face connection and see if he would agree to incorporate our parking lots as part of his drivers’ normal routes.
I visited Williams’ office the day after a big snow and expected a frenzied atmosphere akin to the New York Stock Exchange. Instead, a jovial air pervaded that felt like bingo night. A pack of workers greeted me and showed me to Williams’ office. I saw another group of workers lounging in back awaiting assignments.
There would be no agendas or PowerPoints for this meeting. No pecking at Blackberrys around a conference table. I figured it would follow the usual arc that I had become accustomed to during my eight months in the field.
- Start with chit-chat about a New York sports team, the weather, pensions, or years left until retirement
- Touch briefly on the “ask”/reason for the meeting
- Go back to step 1
- End with a quick summary about what either side would commit to doing.
“Superintendent Williams?” I greeted, struggling with the mouthful of syllables. I didn’t know his first name and even if I did, wouldn’t that be rude to use it? I heard someone else refer to him as “ the supe” but I didn’t think we were buddies enough for that either.
Williams was perched behind his desk in a black tie and crisp white button down shirt with a gold badge attached to his breast pocket.
“Yeahsss?” he responded, seeming confused as to who I was and why I had just marched into his office.
“Dave Barker, Park Manager.”
“Yes, what can I do for you?” Williams spoke in a soft, almost hoarse tone. He had a weary demeanor, no doubt the result of the winter’s onslaught of snow storms.
He rose to greet me.
I gave him a Parks hat to warm him up. I carry around a box in my Toyota Prius and hand them out to everyone from a worker who fixes a fence to regular volunteers. He responded with a quick “thanks” as if he was embarrassed by the generosity.
“I called earlier, I want to talk about our parking lots.”
His phone rang and he returned to his desk. I remained standing, unsure about whether to sit on the empty couch adjacent to his desk. I wanted to sit on the couch, to draw this out and get to step 2.
Williams hung up the phone and motioned to the couch. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“So, are we not doing the lot up top?” he asked. The lot up top referred to the parking lot for the Alley Pond Picnic area that the DSNY trucks used for turning around between routes. If they didn’t clear that lot, I had no chance with the others in more distant parts of my district.
“No, you guys are doing a great job there. We have a few more lots.”
Williams’ phone interrupted again. And then one of his drivers gave him paperwork to sign. I began to sweat, to feel like I was intruding and taking up his time. When he was done he looked at me and I got to the point.
“I’m new to this district –”
“Me too, I just started in November,” he cut me off.
“I understand there used to be an agreement between our agencies where you would do our parking lots for us.”
“Ok, the one up top?”
“Well there are more. We have the Alley Athletic, Alley Springfield, and Crocheron lots too.”
He rummaged for a piece of paper and started scribbling as I listed the cross streets for each lot. I had made the ask.
A guy with the name last name of Cerroni stenciled on his uniform who had been sitting in the corner of the office decided to jump into the conversation. He dropped some names of Parks employees, seeing if I knew them. I did. Cerroni had been there 29 years, a number he announced with pride in a thick New York accent when I told him about my six years.
He cracked a joke, something about “the Parks Department hiring kids.” I laughed nervously, not knowing how to respond to someone who had worked for the city for as long as I had been alive. I heard far too many versions of that joke. The weekend before, a firefighter had asked if my mom had given me permission to come to work that day.
Williams, again on the phone, covered the mouthpiece and said to me, “Just give us a call, in the morning or at the end of the day. Whatever you need. We will get to it.”
I wanted to push to see if the plowing could be automatic but I felt this was good enough for this initial meeting. It was February and how many more snow storms could there be? Williams resumed his phone call and we exchanged an awkward farewell handshake.
The 12th measurable snow fall of the year blanketed our parks two days later. I had been wearing snow boots to work almost every day for a month.
I started my inspections, visiting park entrances and perimeters first before arriving at Alley Springfield, one of the lots that Williams had noted during the meeting. A nervous feeling crept up in my throat. I ached for it be cleared. This would indicate whether I had been successful.
Looking out toward the lot, through the oak trees caked with snow, I saw barren asphalt and parking spaces, catching the first rays of morning light.