Mean streets

“You’ve been around for a long time,” the caller said. “Have you ever seen a worse mayor than this?”

If he’d been referring to New York’s Bill de Blasio, I wouldn’t argue, but of course he meant the deplorable condition of Kingston streets after last week’s snow storm.

That said, it’s not fair to judge an administration solely by its public works operations, even if many people do so.

The caller would only identify herself as a “proud” resident of the town of Ulster. “Our guys were back in the barn by 9 o’clock the next morning,” she said, referring to town DPW superintendent Frank Petramale’s jacks of all trades. Kingston crews were still plowing 48 hours after the storm.

Personally, there’s a soft spot in my black heart for working stiffs, like the DPW. I’ve been there.

Some years ago, I was sitting at home in my jammies, beer in hand, watching the Knicks, when the phone rang. It was a dark and stormy night, a stiff wind blowing sheets of snow and sleet past my window around 10 p.m. Who could be calling at this hour, in this weather?

“It’s the mayor,” my wife called from the kitchen.

Dick White got right to the point. “Reynolds,” he said, “you’re always bitchin’ about the lousy job the DPW does on snow plowing. Are you man enough to ride a plow tonight?”

What red-blooded American could resist that challenge?

A half-hour later, a giant Walters snow truck sounded its arrival at my front door. An old hand named Tommy (I forget his last name) gave his horn a few blasts and off we went.

From the passenger seat, the raw power of this monster was amazing. When Tommy dropped that plow, snow flew almost over the windshield, six feet in the air.  

Tommy was full of stories of winters past, “when it really used to snow.”

“One time I was plowing downtown on Lincoln Street when I saw what looked like a mound of snow on the curb,” he said. “It was a snow emergency, so no cars were supposed to be on the street. I kicked that thing into low and gunned it. God-damn! It was a Volkswagen bug. You should have seen the doors fly off that thing!”

At the end of the shift, around 4 a.m., we drove up to the Dietz Diner, its parking lot full of city snowplows. Even though a newspaper wimp, the plowmen treated me like one of their own. I’ve loved those guys ever since.

But let’s not digress: It’s not really fair to compare Ulster or any other rural/suburban area with Kingston, a 350-year-old city with narrow streets and a dearth of off-street parking. The villages of Saugerties, New Paltz and Ellenville have similar issues, even if their residents are less vocal about it.

But whereas charity often begins at home, as a city resident I can’t help but grouse that in the 50-odd years I’ve been skidding around these mean streets in winter, nobody seems to get snow removal right. At least on the first pass.

Some of this can be laid on city hall where elected officials look to the DPW to balance bloated budgets, thereby depriving superintendents of the necessary personnel and equipment. We taxpayers pay for that with dangerous streets in winter and potholes in spring.

Perhaps with even a one percent increase in that sacrosanct tax rate politicians protect with their (political) lives, we could hope for better results from an adequately funded public works department.

Condolences – The virus claimed another victim last week, the irrepressible, superbly talented writer and publisher Joanne Michaels of Woodstock. Joanne, who was only 69, and I were sometimes rivals in the print business, but always friends and confidants. She was outspoken and committed, but with an appreciation of others’ points of view, a rather rare commodity these days. We could use a lot more people like Joanne.

Christmas list: Joanne Michaels is a hard act to follow, but we must. Christmas Eve will find in this space the much-anticipated Hughie Christmas List. Remember, we know who’s been naughty and we know who’s been nice. So, be good for goodness sake.