I found myself pressed up against a wall of icy snow, hopelessly using a plastic shovel as a chisel. I had been stuck in this driveway for over two hours and I was furious. The heat coming off my head in anger could have melted any freshly falling snow. I was cussing and muttering under my breath, all while the owner of the house looked on from his living room. When I would finish this job I’d hang up my boots and retire from this business forever, but right now, no matter how bad things got, I just couldn’t let Barry Alvarez down.
I don’t watch a lot of television but I hear there is a show with the worst jobs around. Snow removal could easily head up that list because of its variety of ways of breaking your will. First, there is the danger. You get called into work in the wee hours of the morning, before anything else is plowed and before it even stops snowing. I don’t know how many times I drove in white-out conditions, unable to see the road or three feet in front of me, just to get to work and make a few bucks. Once you got to work you were there until every job got done. Not just your jobs, but you were liable to help some other clown who might just be incompetent, who may have been drinking when he came in, or who was intentionally dragging ass so he had to do less. This was a psychological kind of torment, made worse by the fact that weather is unpredictable. If we got the forecast wrong and it started snowing again, every job you did before the new snowfall would have to be touched up before we could go home. Inevitably this meant working as much as 20 hours in a row just to get everything completed.
There was also emotional pain. Everyone yelled at you. “Why don’t you come to my house first? You missed a spot over there! It’s not even done snowing yet, why are you here?? You tore up my grass! I know another guy who can do this for a lot less money! Your truck wakes me up at night.” And on and on. Everyone has a list of complaints and as much as you want to tell them to blow it out their ass, you can’t. Hardly anyone ever thanks you, thanks you for risking your life, just so you can be there to clear their driveway and shovel aside their insults.
Physical pain is derived from not just the back breaking work, and long hours, but also the diet you take on as a snow removal expert. Coffee and soda are the lifeblood of these workers. If you can manage to unthaw your fingers in the three minutes between jobs you could inhale a cigarette. When it finally came time to pause to eat, typically not for 7-8 hours into the night, your main course, your only real sustenance for the day, came from fast food joints and gas stations. Throw in the fact that, as you plow, you’re constantly slamming into snow banks, at 15-20 mph just to move the snow, and your body really begins to take a beating. All that junk you put in your body to stay awake begins to feel like a washing machine inside your belly, sloshing around, mixing, and waiting to pour out of you. Then take that washing machine and throw it down a flight of stairs, and that’s what it feels like to plow snow for a living.
A series of unfortunate circumstances led me to my place of misery in Coach Alvarez’s driveway. First, it was the first big snow storm of 2007, about 6 inches of heavy, wet snow. The kind of snow you can’t even push with a shovel because it just packs as you push. I had been working for this snow removal company for two winters, but it was my first night of driving a plow, as opposed to being the shovel bitch/snow blower operator for another plow guy. Our company had a fleet of roughly 30-40 trucks that were sent out to plow residential and commercial properties. Each truck consisted of a team of two or three guys, one driver who plowed; and the other one or two shoveled, salted sidewalks and pushed a snow blower. If things went well the driveway would be finished just as the steps and sidewalk were cleared and we’d all hop in the pickup together and roll to the next house.
The route I was responsible for was located in Fitchburg, one of the more affluent suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin. The mansions in this neighborhood were notorious for long, twisting driveways, many of them uphill. These houses also had big yards, which meant long sidewalks, and lots of stairs leading up to the front door of each extravagant house. Many of the steps were made of large marble stone, which meant they could be both extremely slippery, but also uneven, which could be far more painful than a slip and fall. If you ever shoveled snow for an extended period of time you know what I mean. You’ll be cruising along, pushing a light dusting of snow when… WHAP… you hit a crack in the sidewalk and the wood handle from the shovel stabs you right in the guts. Even worse, is when it hits you square in the balls. When you’re doing this at home, you want to snap the shovel in half. When you’re doing it for a living, you absorb the pain and remind yourself not to dig in too hard, and to position the handle above your crotch, so at least the pain is less severe next time.
Besides the snow being extremely heavy and thick, besides it being my first night plowing and being totally outmatched, I had one other issue complicating matters. I was riding solo. My boss took one of my two laborers away from me because some other people didn’t show up for work, and the one he left me with had a broken wrist. About 90 minutes into our shift the kid was bawling, so I had to take him home, which led me to falling even further behind. How he, or my employer, ever thought he could handle shoveling snow with one arm is beyond me, but this was pretty typical of the bullshit I dealt with, so I soldiered on into the night.
By the time I got to Barry’s driveway I was already fatigued and pissed off. I had completed about four of my thirty driveways in six hours, instead of the typical 30-40 minutes per job. The first mistake I made at Barry’s house was that I got out of my truck and did the all the shoveling first, which took me close to an hour. The second mistake involved where I pushed all the snow. Barry’s driveway was uphill and slightly to the left. To the right were a basketball hoop and some shrubbery that I could not push snow into. On the lower left side was a set of boulders that formed a retention wall. As I approached the top of his driveway there was his sidewalk that ran from the garage to his front door. Instead of trying to push the snow over his boulder wall, and with my luck, risk knocking loose some immovable stones, I pushed all the snow in his driveway onto his sidewalk.
So there I sat with a four foot high, rock-hard wall of packed snow, blocking Barry’s sidewalk and garage. I would have to shovel the entire sidewalk a second time, but first I’d have to break down this wall. It didn’t take long before I’d broken the aforementioned plastic shovel chopping at it. I kicked at it with my size 16 boots. When my feet started to ache I chopped at it with the handle from my broken shovel. When that proved to be futile I went back to kicking, clawing and punching the wall. This is how East and West Germany must have felt, tearing down the Berlin Wall. The whole time Barry stood in the window of his den, arms crossed in a black Wisconsin sweater. After all my hard work, I thought for sure he was going to come out and offer me a scholarship to play football at UW. Granted, I may have been a total fool for my role in getting into the predicament in the first place, but once there I fought for three hours in a manner that would make former #1 pick, Joe Thomas, proud. Alas, there wasn’t even so much as a wave or nod from the house, as Barry stood there stoically. I packed up my truck and drove away, defeated.
Within the hour I met with my boss and told him I was going home for the night. I couldn’t take any more, and I never came back. The last driveway I ever plowed was for Barry Alvarez. But I did some soul-searching that night; I knew I wanted something more for myself than breaking my back for the next 40 years. Within a year from that episode in Barry’s driveway, I was enrolled in my first college class, and was on my way to a better life.
Less than two years removed from that night I had another chance encounter with Big Barry. My brother had taken an internship at a local news station and was able to cover Wisconsin Football as part of the job. Since he knew I was a Wisconsin sports nut, he got an extra pass for me. Together, we got to film football games from the sidelines, interview players afterward, and receive all the perks of being media members. Part of that gig was attending Head Coach Bret Bielema’s press conference after the game, with all the real media members, and of course the man himself, Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, presided over the whole thing.
I stood just a few feet away from him, even closer than the night he watched me from his window, no doubt I was grinning like a fool. I wanted to ask him if he remembered me. I wanted to tell him how that night in his driveway pushed me to do more with my life. I wanted to thank him for building such a fucked up driveway that it single-handily broke my will. In the end, I didn’t do any of that. I just stood there in silent reverence for the man.
Somewhere around that time Barry and a local Madison journalist penned Barry’s autobiography called “Don’t Flinch,” which was a phrase Coach Alvarez repeated to his players when he was the Rose Bowl winning coach at the University of Wisconsin. Maybe that was why he stood there in his window watching me; he wanted to see if I would flinch. I like to think I didn’t let him down.