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Speed the Plow

By Benjamin J. Heller

`These are the times that try men's souls." Four snowfalls in over a week would be trying anywhere, but nowhere more so than in Cambridge, Mass. Snow here is especially difficult, due to the cavalier disregard with which it is treated by the authorities of our stalwart burgh. I mean, of course, the fact that it simply isn't plowed here. It seems that here they leave snow clearance to the melting action of the tire pressure of those unfortunates still driving on the treacherous by-ways, so that the streets look like Pompeii with its well-preserved wagon tracks.

Anywhere else, such a volume of slippery streets and sidewalks would attract hordes of accident victims, eager to suffer painful yet invisible "soft tissue" damage. Mysteriously, Cambridge hasn't yet become the liability capital of the world. This is especially surprising considering the presence of a Law School nearby, providing a supply of the very people who earn their keep by insuring that the clumsy and duplicitous never go uncompensated for their pain and suffering, physical and mental, real and fictitious.

A hearty snowfall resolves another conundrum of local government: Cambridge's boastful claims of a budget surplus. If a town taxes, yet provides no services, the surplus is not much of an accomplishment and even less of a mystery. Well, perhaps "no services" is a bit of exaggeration. Cambridge is at least generous in providing Commissions on Animal Rights, Declarations of Nuclear Free Zone Status, replanting cermonies for Liberty Trees, and Domestic Partner Benefits (even for those, presumably, whose job it is to not plow the snow).

Snow here is sort of like applesauce; it starts to brown shortly after being exposed to the air. In the case of applesauce, home ec teachers assure us, harmless enzymes are responsible for the discoloration. In the case of Cambridge, the browning results from the ubiquitous filth settling from exhaust pipes and copious dormitory fireplaces. Think of the snow as a facsimile of your lungs--and start worrying.

This browning is nowhere more noticeable than on the sidewalks, which have quickly come to resemble treacherous snowbound crevices, paved with slush. The snow gives rise to novel questions of etiquette. If the slushway is wide enough for only one, should you wait for the pedestrian 50 yards up ahead coming in the opposite direction to complete his journey before yourself embarking? Or should you choose to ignore him, and halfway along engage in an awkward Snow Dance--strangers in the snow, exchanging footing?

Snow here also occasions questions of science. Namely, what is the exact composition of that unique substance which some have dubbed "Cambridge Slurpy?" I refer to the dark brown ooze with icy chunks which accumulates where, in most of the Industrialized World, the storm drains would be.

(In Cambridge we don't have storm drains...I've heard its because we are located directly above Hell--which explains a lot--and storm drains are therefore far too dangerous, logistically and theologically, to contemplate. Hades is the only place in the universe with more niggling zoning laws than Cambridge, and Hades' Commissioner of Animal Rights declared that storm drains would have an adverse environmental impact on endangered species such as typhus and cholera.)

Cambridge Slurpy is dangerous stuff, since its opaqueness makes it impossible to judge its depth. In plotting our footfalls, we are left to rely on our intimate knowledge of the complex topography of Cambridge sidewalks. Since the disappointed faces of those whose bootless feet a momentary miscalculation has left sloppily soaked is a common sight, we may deduce that such knowledge is rarely perfect. Tip O'Neill (the man we have to thank for our undulating brick walkways) must be laughing from his grave.

And often no amount of knowledge will help. We have all seen those who, hemmed in at the corner of a sidewalk, have reached that perilous moment of realization: The snow is too soft to serve as a causeway, the puddle is too wide for evasion, too long for jumping and too deep for tip-toeing. It is here that Cantabrigians can be seen drawing on their knowledge of Kierkegaard, and taking a heedless leap of faith (faith in what, you ask? Not God, but in the cans of silicone they applied to their Timberlands, of course).

But when the snow is at its deepest, the Cambridge Slurpy at its darkest, and our socks at their wettest, we can take heart in at least one thing. Spring will be here soon--the time that dries men's souls. And their socks.

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