No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Losing Your Car to the Snow, For Kate

Beginning of a Blizzard in Sedona, Arizona (half hour south of Flagstaff), December 2009

In Montreal, when it snows, the cars parallel parked on every street of the city have to magically find somewhere else to go so the snow can be plowed and hauled away. The city handles this difficult situation by hanging vibrant orange tow-truck signs with 12 hour time periods over the streets of the neighborhoods that will be plowed next. So, on the right side of the street the 12 hours overlaps day time hours, and on the left side of the street the hours are at night. The city figures this way only half the car owners are totally and completely screwed at any one time. Honestly, when there are enough cars in town that they take up every car length of street in the area, it's hard to imagine how all those cars will compress into half the car spots of the city. Somehow, it mostly works.

The reason for the tow truck sign is that at some point in that 12 hour time period a giant plow is going to come through that side of the street to get rid of the snow. If your car is on that side of the street when the plow comes down the road, a city tow truck is going to ticket, and then take your car away. The nice thing about life in a place like Montreal, is the tow company knows all too well that they don't have time to literally haul every such car to a distant tow lot, and no car owner wants to cross town to said lot. Instead, the tow truck just pulls your car around the corner to whatever open parking spot the driver is able to find. As a result, the day after a big storm there are tons of people driving around trying to find a parking spot, or there are tons of people walking around trying to find their moved car.

My last year in Montreal was the largest snow year on record. That means the biggest snow fall in 400 years (when the records started). Pretty impressive really, and quite lovely too. Towards the end of the season, right when the snow plowing budget ran out, we got the biggest snow fall within that record year--about 3 feet in one storm. Because the city had run out of money for plowing, they stopped clearing the city sidewalks, and focused only on clearing the streets, but even there the city plowed only one side of the streets in many places, figuring it would all melt eventually anyway. As a result, walking about town was like pushing along a mountain trail. People had made little step-by-step paths on top of the three foot mounds of snow on sidewalks. But in places their steps would sink in, then there would be the entrance to some apartment building where the manager had actually bothered to shovel out the front, then there would be the place where someone dug their car out and threw their snow on the sidewalk, so that suddenly the snow was five feet high. With this combination of features you'd be walking gingerly, but sweating as you climbed up, then back down, then sunk in, then perched up over the crazy mountain-like trail of sidewalk snow.

In the midst of this 3 foot snow storm I caught some kind of illness and was bed ridden. As a result, I missed first digging my car out of the frozen rubble to move it for the plowing, and then missed too when my car was actually plowed. By the time I woke up from my mysterious sleep, my car was no longer parked in front of my flat, the sidewalks were half way up the first story of the building I lived in, and the left side of my street was cleared, while the right side was still buried in snow. I have no idea where the neighborhood cars disappeared to. They'd all been moved. It was a day after the storm when I came to, and had to start wandering the streets to find my car. My car had been towed once each of the two years previous that I'd lived in Montreal, so I was familiar with the procedure. I figured it wouldn't be a big issue, I'd just walk around each of the corners within a two-block radius of my apartment, and around one of them there my car would be. This time though the around-each-corner investigation didn't work. My car wasn't to be found. I expanded the search area to five blocks, and still it didn't work. Then I realized it was time to rush off to some meeting across town so I ditched the car search and went on my way via bus. Not arriving home till later that night, I didn't bother looking for my car again till the next morning. Waking up the next day, I decided to take a systematic approach to searching for my car. I would walk north for ten blocks, looking side to side for my car at each cross street, then turn and walk ten blocks south one street over, and keep this up for the general neighborhood area. Walking like this I still didn't find my car and again other plans intervened so I ditched the hunt again. That night though after my meeting I met up with friends and one of them asked if they could catch a ride home with me. "No," I said. "I'm sorry." "Oh? What's up." They asked in response. "Oh. My car is gone. I haven't seen it in several days so I walked here." My friend started laughing at how nonchalant my response was. "You car is gone?" They thought I meant it was stolen. I clarified that oh, I had no idea what had happened to my car, since it had never wandered off this far on its own before. But I figured I'd find it eventually. And if I didn't, well, that would save me ever shoveling it out of this record snow fall again.

That night we stayed out late drinking cheap Canadian beer, and I woke up the next day with a sore back and a headache. Not enough water. I decided though that the weather was so bright and clear it was time to work even harder at finding the car. If I didn't succeed after day three of looking, I'd have to break into the French-speaking municipality system and call to report a runaway sedan. In the midst of walking a full-kilometer away from my house I received a phone call from Don and we chatted it up about Star Trek, philosophy, the snow, and our aching post-cheap-beer headaches. We were both feeling physically miserable, but I was out in the brisk air walking it off. Twenty minutes of this and I still had no idea where my car was. I was starting to say to Don that maybe it really had been stolen and here four days later I hadn't even bothered to report the theft to the police. Finally though, I walked by one of those bright-orange tow truck signs that had a phone number on it. I'd never seen one of these before. My neighborhood only ever had a friendly little picture of the truck.

I told Don I'd call him back and dialed the number. It turned out it linked directly into that French-speaking municipality system, falling right in the middle of the snow-plow, tow-truck division. If you had your license plate number memorized, you could type it into the system and a man with a heavy Quebecois accent would recite back the cross street location where your car had been towed. This was excellent. If my car had just been towed away for snow, I could just dial it in and look it up. I typed in my license plate and the man recited back a cross street I couldn't understand. It had just been towed. But to where I had no idea. In my extended neighborhood I couldn't remember any streets that even sounded remotely like what he was saying. I called Don back, who was at home snuggled up with his internet connection (the best way to deal with a hang over clearly is either sleeping or online), and gave him the dial-your-car information, asking him if he could sort out where my car was located by referencing the man's accent to a local street map. We got off the phone again and I waited. Don called back and had come up with four possible streets that could turn out to be where my car was located. One of them was more than a kilometer from my house. The rest I'd walked by in my previous searches. I start heading east towards the furthest possible street. Don and I talked more, laughing about the absurdity of the situation when you included my hang over in the story.

I walked in the sun, through the wide open snowy field of the park near my house. We chatted while I moved under the several-hundred year old trees covering the area. Finally, there on the other side of the park, I reached the street. There were cars thrown in at odd angles and underneath enormous mounds of now-frozen-to-ice mounds of snow. With the craziness of the snow storm it turned out the trucks had to take cars this far away to find a ditch-'em parking spot. In addition, though, the city hadn't recently plowed this street, and many of the cars had obviously been left there since before the last snow. The trick then wasn't going to be just walking the length of the street to spot my car, but instead to walk the length of the street to identify the mound that could fit the shape of my car. The thing about owning a sedan though, is that lots of mounds could look like the shape of your car. After walking half the street I recognized the tip of my radio antenna sticking out of a mound in just the right way. I kicked the snow off of the license plate. And there it was. My car. Buried under a mound of snow that surrounded the car by literally two feet on every side, and another foot and a half on top. I told Don the situation and then got off the phone ready to throw my aching back, and headache into the project. Hauling snow off the trunk with my hands I was able to get my shovel out of the trunk and started digging out the car. After three years in the city I'd learned how to take away only just enough snow to de-parallel park, leaving the shape of the mound mostly intact when I left with the car. This time it turned out the tow truck had hauled my vehicle onto an earlier-made mound of snow and so I had to shovel snow out from under the car too. Still, after three hours of work I was able to leave behind a rectangle brick of snow a foot and a half thick on three sides with the shape of a sedan missing from the middle of it. The tow truck ticket was $100.

Yesterday Flagstaff, Arizona experienced one of its biggest blizzards in years. That's really saying something considering Flagstaff is a mountain town situated at 7000 feet, or 2,140 meters in elevation. Last night our power went out for 10 hours as a result of over 2 feet of snow and 70 mile per hour winds. It's time to head outside and dig our way out the front door. Gratefully I brought the shovel into the mud room two days ago, knowing I'd need it soon. The car is in the driveway without threat of towing. Flagstaff too will tow your car away if its parked on the street overnight after a snow storm. But it is surrounded by two-feet high snow on every side, and on top. Not to mention a good twelve feet between the back of the car and the edge of the street that'll have to be shoveled. Gratefully, there's no hang over in sight.

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