Snowbound and Murderous

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Montreal_-_Plateau,_day_of_snow_-_200312My God but the veneer of civilization is thin. Baltimore had one of its whomping good snowstorms last week – I stopped measuring at 14 inches – and the next day it had another 3 inches or so, plus sleet, and the day after it had only an inch, plus more of that sleet, and then of course the inch yesterday.  Baltimore is a poor city and thinks of itself as Southern, and the combination means that neighborhood streets don’t get ploughed.  The houses are generally rowhouses, so close to each other and two cars each.  I’m setting the scene here:  lots of snow, lots of cars, no ploughing.  So classic dog-eat-dog kicked in, and a genteel and sociable neighborhood lost its civility.  It was ugly out there.  I personally was enraged.

Most of the neighbors have a bone-deep understanding of the dangers of dog-eat-dog thinking.  For the most part, we do the civilized work-around and opt for cooperation.  We shovel out our own cars, then help the neighbors shovel out theirs.  This maximizes the space available for parking and minimizes the chance of getting stuck in somebody else’s glacial ice, and most important, it feels good – we have parties afterward, safe and happy in our common good.  Civilization triumphs.

Civilization’s fall took only a couple of guys.  3189655796_401a228e26They each waited until everybody else shoveled, then drove away, leaving islands of cleaned pavement alternating with their small, unshoveled Antarcticas.  The neighbors silently assessed the situation and reverted to savagery.  Normally this doesn’t happen because no one would consider parking in a space dug out by someone else, even if they worked together to do it; and besides, it feels bad – selfish, mean, vengeful.  But this had been a snowy winter and in earlier storms the neighbors had been watching these non-communal, non-shoveling guys and this time, pretty soon everybody’s parking place was marked with chairs and parking cones — a sad come-down from gentility, in fact, quite rude.  But then the guy with the SUV not only parked in another guy’s dug-out spot, but drove over his parking cones to do it.  I mean, the parking cones were not even mine and hours later, I was still plotting hideous revenge.

So what to do next?  That’s the question, isn’t it.  Talk to the parking-cone neighbors and with them, talk to some other neighbors and form a gang of pissed-off people?  That’s the hard-wired first response for everything from Twitter pile-on’s to gang wars to whatever the hell is going on in – oh, I don’t know, pick a country with blood everywhere, Sudan? Syria? Turns out that being part of a warring gang or tribe or team feels good too.  One time a consistent non-shoveler went out of town leaving a car on the street, it snowed a lot, and the neighbors piled the snow around and over the car and it didn’t get free until the spring thaw.  I’m still smiling evilly about it.

But obviously, no, we can’t be doing that.  Psychology and sociology are no help; they’re full of research about this but I can’t even be bothered to look.  Because I will find only what we all already know: that bunches of people can get together and behave in ways that are as good or as bad as humanly possible.  They can be better than animals; they can be much, much worse.  So again, what to do?  Philosophy and game theory are full of answers to this but I can’t be bothered to look that up either, same reason.  And I’m pretty sure the non-shovelers are going to keep driving around looking for cleared places to park in and I can’t do a thing about it.  And now I’m depressed.

So I’ll remember the majority, the people who clear around their own cars and help you clear around yours, who get out into the street and take the snow and ice down to black pavement so the sun can shine on it, and the black can warm up, and after a while the snow just slips away.  The veneer of civilization isn’t always so thin.  In fact, it’s not even veneer.  It’s the majority and it’s solid.

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Photo:  DerMac, via Wikimedia; Meryddian, via Flickr

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11 thoughts on “Snowbound and Murderous

  1. Great post!

    Animal behavior and game theory will tell you what you already know. The only way to keep people from cheating is to punish them when they do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a wolf pack, a cooperative group of vampire bats, or a Baltimore neighborhood. What the punishment entails is between you and your neighbors…

    Ideally, punishment is swift, so the connection is clear. But not excessive. For example, murder is not a good idea. Also, at least some of these non diggers may have invisible health problems that make it hard for them to dig. Have you investigated that?

  2. I should have asked you before I wrote, Jenny. Part of the neighborhood strategy seems to be to avoid direct confrontation but not be particularly friendly either — which is probably completely ineffective because against your advice, it’s not swift and because the nonshovelers don’t especially care. (Sneaky retribution is not entirely ruled out but it has the same defects as avoidance and nobody’s proud of it.) Part of my own strategy is to assume invisible health problems — bad back, maybe, or cardiovascular disease — in these robust, healthy middle-aged people.

  3. As a Californian, this post puzzles me. Don’t the cars simply being parked on the street keep the snow from hitting the ground? Or is this the snow that falls while at work? Second, I am really worried that someday I might move to a snowy place and not know all the rules and wake up with angy pitchfork-weilding people on my doorstep.

  4. The car always has a clear spot underneath it; but the problem is around it. Snow falls off the car, snow piles up between your car and the next one, and snow falls on the street next to your car. So in a big snow, you can’t just drive out, you have to shovel. Next problem is, where do you put the snow you’ve shoveled? Glad to be of service.

  5. Ann, I used to live in Baltimore. I moved there from Minnesota in 2009, so I was lucky to be a part of “Snowmageddon 2010,” the snowstorm that dumped about 40 inches in three days.

    I remember being very perplexed about the chairs/traffic cones, and I also observed that many neighbors seemed to not own shovels, which surprised me even more!

    Perhaps the non-shovelers simply lack the equipment to dig out their cars, so some well-placed loaner shovels would give them a hint next time? Maybe even surrounding their cars with a fence of shovels stuck in the snow – they can’t miss that hint, right? ;) Good luck, and I hope you guys stop getting hit with snow in the near future!

  6. As the only avid shoveler on my block, I’ve long pondered this issue myself. I like your strategy of assuming they cannot shovel for their own perhaps very sound reasons. But on a block where there are only two non-shovelers amongst a majority of dutiful shovelers, I’d be tempted to confront them en masse in a friendly “can we give you a hand” fashion right near the beginning. That might just tip them over into righteous civility.

  7. When the winter gets into it, I like seeing the assorted objects used to mark spots…like potted plants, big wheels, cardboard boxes….

    I think there was a TWITTER or TUMBLR for this, for pictures of. What gets my goat is the people that shovel off their cars and either shovel it onto your sidewalk or into the ever lovin street. Good gravy. The snow, like funerals and lottery winners, brings out the worst in people’s greed.

  8. Diedre, the normal Baltimore winter is warmer and less snowy and generally you can just wait and it’ll melt that afternoon or the next day. Snowmageddon 2010 was amazing, wasn’t it. I love your idea of loaner shovels: “Here, dear, would you like to borrow this? Just leave it on the porch when you’re done. You can thank me later.”

  9. One night after a mild snow I returned to my apartment complex, began to drive into a parking space, and noticed a child car seat on the pavement.

    I hit the brakes and, shaking, jumped out to see if I’d killed a baby. Nope — someone apparently had decided they needed that particular parking space and left a car seat in it that might have cost as much as my car.

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