Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Car Shoving

This morning, we had a very pretty snow; light powdery flakes that coat the trees and ground with a beautiful white dusting. It was the kind of snow that skiers love, the kind that anything will glide effortlessly over. About 9:00, I bundled up and went out for a walk to enjoy the scenery.

I quickly saw that what is good for skiing is terrible for driving. There were three pileups blocking the road outside my apartment. Nobody was getting anywhere. The rather steep hills had been turned into pure ice, and people were either sliding around or 'parked' at all kinds of angles on the side of the road. There were people attempting to drive around who should not have left their parking space, people who had no clue how to drive in snow and/or were driving crappy cars with bald tires. Some people had been stuck there since 6:30. It was a complete Charlie Foxtrot.

I joined a group of guys who were trying to clear up the mess near the entrance to the road. We told people coming in about the road conditions, trying to get them to turn around while they still could. For the cars on the road, we pushed them to get them started off the ice, and to help them steer around the other cars. Often this required telling people to put the car in neutral and coast backwards down the hill while we shoved the car away from the parked cars. Sometimes we were able to get a car out of the road and on its way, but for many of the ones near the bottom of the hill we had to just shove them off to the side to get them out of the road.

The de facto leader of the group was a charismatic young black guy who was clearly skilled, smart, aware of the situation, and knew how to handle winter conditions. Often he would offer to drive people's cars for them, using his skills to glide them down the hill and away from trouble. The thing that amazed me was the trouble he had getting people to listen to him. He would explain to people, repeatedly, that they had no chance of getting up the hill unless they had a 4-wheel drive and knew how to use it. He told them how he had personally seen 20 cars fail to make the hill. And people would repeatedly ignore him, try the hill, fail, get stuck or start sliding around, and have to rely on us to get them out of the road or back down the hill. Some people refused to cooperate, and we basically had to ignore them and route people around them.

We, and the other groups spontaneously forming at other parts of the road, did a decent job of clearing enough people out of the middle of the road to prevent it from getting completely stuck. But the situation was not really resolved until around 10:30, when the police came, parked their cars across the street to prevent anyone from entering it, and started ordering everyone to park legally on the curb or get off the road. I left then, after helping a couple last people on their way. Presumably the road has been cleared, plowed and salted by now.

At the start of my walk, I had been a bit chilly despite all the layers. But while moving cars, I was comfortable, even a bit warm toward then end. When I got back to my apartment around 11, I discovered that my t-shirt was completely soaked through with sweat. Right now, my thermostat claims that it is 46 degrees in my apartment, but I am sitting writing this in pajama bottoms and a (different) t-shirt, barely feeling cold at all.

So, the things I was reminded of this morning were:
1) People do not appreciate the usefulness of friction until it goes away.
2) Spontaneous social order can be a very helpful way of rapidly solving problems if enough people cooperate, and our society has amazing reserves of public-spiritedness.
3) In order to permanently fix things, you still need the men with uniforms and tasers on their hips, especially if there are people who will not cooperate with the spontaneous order.
4) Shoving cars around for an hour and a half is an excellent workout.
5) The human body is capable of amazing feats of thermoregulation if properly trained.