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As Snow Batters Northeast, Plow Drivers See Red

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:

New England residents have been digging themselves out from one debilitating blizzard after another. You really can't blame them if they're on their last nerve. Adam Reilly of member station WGBH visited Salem, MA and found that snowplow drivers are being forced to develop a pretty thick skin.

STEVEN LAVOIE: Today we're still trying to make more room for more snow, and it's not getting easy. As it sits right now, some of the snowbanks are four and five feet high. And we can only push so high.

ADAM REILLY, BYLINE: In some ways, Steven Lavoie is just like everyone else in the Boston area. He's fed up with the snow that's hammered the region this year. And he's dreading the additional snow still to come. But that is where the similarities end.

LAVOIE: Now watch this one here. See? Middle finger.

REILLY: I can verify. Middle finger held high in the air.

LAVOIE: And she just gave it again. So that's what we got to deal with.

REILLY: Lavoie drives a snowplow for the Salem Department of Public Works, and for some fed up homeowners, that makes him the enemy. When I rode with Lavoie, he was part of a two-plow crew. The lead truck drove in the middle of the lane pushing snow to both sides. Lavoie was what he called the chaser, following close behind and pushing any snow he caught even further to the right. Sometimes Lavoie's plow drove snow hard into the cliffs of snow already looming over the sidewalk. But other times, he scattered heavy, dirty snow across driveways as people tried to clear them out and was rewarded with naked hostility.

LAVOIE: See? He just told me to go "F" myself. And I would try to make him understand the storm's not over.

REILLY: Not everyone in Salem is so antagonistic. As Kathy Robbins shoveled her sidewalk in the seaside neighborhood known as The Willows she said she tries to respect the work Lavoie and other snowplow drivers do.

KATHY ROBBINS: I'm grateful. What else can you do? I mean, the snow has got to be removed. And we don't have the capacity to do that. You know? So...

REILLY: Still Robbins admits that sometimes that sense of perspective is tough to maintain.

ROBBINS: I will say - I don't want to be disingenuous - when I work the second shift - I'm a nurse - to come home and be plowed in, everything else is shoveled. It's, like, I'm so tired. I don't want to do this. You know?

REILLY: But many of Robbins' neighbors are far more aggressive, especially during or just after a storm. During my ride with Lavoie, I saw several people engage in a sort of arctic brinkmanship, planting their shovels or snowblowers so close to the road that Lavoie had to back off.

LAVOIE: There's a gentleman that didn't want to move. And we had another two feet to go. And I mean, he'll be the first one to complain when he gets stuck in the road because the snow is still on the road. How come we didn't plow? How come you didn't push it wide enough?

REILLY: Throw in parked cars that choke traffic and little kids teetering precariously on roadside snowbanks, and it's fair to say that Lavoie's job is stressful. Oh, yeah, one more thing - he also has to dodge snow-topped manhole covers that can give his truck a seismic shock.

LAVOIE: It's a good-sized jolt, definitely gets your attention. That's why when you hit certain ones, you definitely are going to remember where they are because you don't want to do it again. There's a couple.

REILLY: The physical jolts may be inevitable, but you get the sense, talking with Lavoie, that it's the psychological hits delivered by the residents of Salem that really bring him down.

LAVOIE: Be a little more kind. We're only doing our job. That's the bottom line. I mean...

REILLY: But even if that plea falls on deaf ears, Lavoie will be back on the roads working shifts that can span days and grabbing three or four hours sleep when he can.

LAVOIE: Looks like it's starting to pick up again. It's going to be a long night.

REILLY: For NPR News, I'm Adam Reilly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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