Silent Plowman Turns Snow Removal Into an Art

In Maine, a cordial relationship with someone who plows snow is an absolute priority. Two years ago, when I bought this house, an inquiry about who plowed nearby driveways brought the response, ''Oh, Ray will do it. He always has. He goes with the neighborhood.''

Ray does, indeed, go with the neighborhood. You don't hire Ray. You just get him. But, being a newcomer and not fully understanding the flow of things around here, one day I went to call on Ray and his wife, to introduce myself and to request his services.

Shirley opened the front door a crack, ''Yes?'' Our discussion was carried on through the slightly opened door, with Ray only a voice behind Shirley somewhere. ''It's the new person,'' Shirley reported, looking over her shoulder toward Ray's voice. ''The one who lives at the top of the hill.'' Shirley turned back to me: ''He says he knows where you live.''

''She needs to get out by 7 in the morning,'' Shirley said to Ray. ''He says he knows,'' Shirley said to me.

It seemed our arcane negotiations were reaching a climax. ''Do you need my phone number?'' I asked, trying to be helpful.

''What for?'' Shirley asked.

I knew I was losing ground. ''Tell him thank you.''

''Yes,'' Shirley said and shut the door.

Ray likes to plow. He is, in fact, an artist. Not a divot of dry grass tops his snowbanks; not a pebble of driveway gravel appears on the lawn in spring. Ray enjoys worrying about how much snow each winter will bring and happily prepares for the worst. After the first storm of the season, he creates a veritable parking lot out of one's driveway, pushing ''her'' (this is part of the French heritage in Maine: recalcitrant materials or objects are always feminine) way back to make room for more.

Ray plows by night. This probably has something to do with his truck. It's a vintage vehicle, heavily rusted, with a mongrel's pedigree, a tricolor body, and a baseball cap hanging where the inspection sticker should be. The truck has needed a muffler for several winters. In the dark, Ray's progress down our country road is announced by the missing muffler. It enhances the drama of his appearance in the snowy darkness.

Ray works with utmost concentration, gunning his truck forward, then backing off to get a better run, wheeling around for a different angle, shoving up great mounds of snow, deftly edging a line next to the front steps, adding a little flourish if he knows you are watching. And I always watch. I think he appreciates it.

Ray's true plowing signature is revealed in how he deals with mailboxes. In rural areas, mail gets delivered only if the box is readily accessible. Often this is quite a trick since the town plows pile up dense, icy snowbanks that are difficult to shovel. With Ray in charge, however, there is no need for concern. He carefully plows ''her'' back on either side of one's box, and then finishes off with a neat pass underneath the box. It's possible to spot Ray's driveways all up and down the road.

A relationship with Ray is wonderfully simple. He plows; you get a bill; you pay. No pay, no plow. He has a sliding scale of fees. The previous owners of my house (who, everyone knew, ''had money'') were billed $20 per plowing. Somehow, for me, the fee is $18. These matters were never discussed.

This has been a good winter for Ray. Only three months into the snow season, he has appeared out of the swirling darkness a dozen times already. The ample parking lot that he made in my driveway has shrunk by a third, but the mailbox is still clear, though dwarfed by snowbanks. With a severe winter weather pattern firmly entrenched, and the Maine spring at least two months away, Ray's hopeful worries have been affirmed.

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