The long belt of snowbank started out lining the whole of Elm Street. Right up to the corner where Elm Street meets Scott Avenue. It was born of the first big snow storm in mid-December, a wet and heavy snowfall. Twelve inches at least. Packed solid after the plows had come through and people had used shovels or snowblowers to clear the sidewalks.
That was followed, in the usual way of off and on again New England winters, by periods of more and more snow, intermixed with the occasional snow shower and the inevitable icing and re-icing. Building and shrinking, the snowbank has lasted pretty well all through December and January and even right on into February. But lately, as February is reaching towards March, the snowbank is becoming uneven. Frozen fairly solid in some spots, all but worn away in others. Tall here, short there.
A last small snowfall came in mid-February, ending in an ice storm that left all the snowbanks glazed and looking fresh again. But only for a bit. Now, in the last days of February, the once-long snowbank belt of Elm Street has begun to collapse, ending just before Elm Street crosses Scott Avenue in a hump of icy snow that also encases a fireplug in its crusty grip.
All through the winter, the once pristine snowbank has been getting pretty well trampled along its entire length. By snow-booted kids, either clowning around or cutting through to sidewalk or street. By dismayed bus riders, left short of a cleared place and anxious for the safety of the sidewalk. By impatient delivery men, with no time or patience for seeking shoveled pathways. All of it, together with melting hastened by diluted road salt swept up by the passage of cars and trucks and vans, and aided by the hungry suck of a thirsty earth below, is causing weak spots to give way and is creating an archipelago of tired small snow\bergs and hump-backed icy islets. A severely scalloped edging of crust is all that’s left of most of it.
Now, I must tell you that snowbanks hear what’s said. Can’t avoid it, what with people standing right there or walking right by or even climbing right over them. But a snowbank gets plowed into, climbed over, played atop of, and shoveled onto all of its life. So, by and large, it doesn’t pay attention. Because whatever is said has nothing to do with it. And even if it should, there’s nothing it can do but endure whatever comes.
That last crusted snow hump, the one almost at the corner of Elm Street and Scott Avenue, the one with the fireplug in its icy embrace, hears the kids playing around it and climbing on it. They like to climb on it because of the hydrant. Standing on top of the hydrant means a kid is ‘King of the Hill.’ For the crusted icy snow hump it only means more scuffing and squashing down of its frozen crest. So as a rule it doesn’t listen. Until yesterday, when one of the kids said he is so cold he is about froze. As froze as ice cream, he says.
The crusted snow lump still isn’t paying real attention. But the other kids join in, saying, yeah, ice cream! -- Ice cream’s the best! Best thing in the world! Love ice cream! And they began naming their favorites. Arguing. Chocolate! No, Butter Pecan! Uh-uh - Maple Walnut! No, no no - Strawberry! -- On and on they had spun out the names. Pistachio. Coffee. Vanilla Swirl. Raspberry Royale. Fudge Brownie. When at last they have all scattered, the icy hump wonders what ice cream can be. It spends the rest of the day and the whole of the night, wondering what ice cream is. By daylight it has concluded it has no idea.
And now, a yellow school bus is pulling up right next to the icy hump. It seems that this morning the driver of the school bus, Mr. Kone, was preparing to leave home, the school bus waiting outside, all warmed up, when his youngest, a toddler named Scoop, waddled up to him and thrust at him a smushy ice cream bar and then grabbed him around his knees in a fierce tiny-kid hugging. Mr. Kone’s heart of course melted with love. But the ice cream bar was melting, too. All down his glove. He made a rapid escape after kissing Scoop’s head and saying he loves Scoop more than ice cream. Now, still clutching the sticky sweet and shaking his head, he’s put on the flashing red lights in the bus and is coasting to a stop, right by the icy hump.
Setting the brakes, he opens the door, clambers down the steps of the bus and steps smartly over to quickly thrust the wooden stick of the mushy ice cream bar deep into the frozen snow of the icy hump. Looking down at what he’s done, attempting to lick the worst of melted chocolate and oozy vanilla ice cream from the forefinger and thumb of his glove, Mr. Kone whispers aloud to his tiny ice-cream-passionate child that he is sorry, he can’t eat while driving, but this crusty bank is sure to keep the ice cream bar safe.
He finishes, saying he loves Scoop as much and maybe more than Scoop loves ice cream. Thinking how true this is, he steps back up into the bus, swings himself into the seat, shuts the door, eases off the brakes, turns off the flashing lights and trundles the old bus up to the corner, where he signals, waits a moment for traffic to clear, and then turns onto Scott Avenue, disappearing in a puff of gray exhaust.
So the crusted, dirty, frozen snow hump has something else to wonder at. To say it is surprised is to overestimate a snowbank’s emotional capacity. However, the thing called ice cream is now stuck right into its icy side and it has been called Crusty Bank. People call each other by words that are names. Does the sad dirty frozen hump now have both ice cream and a name? It isn’t given long to ponder this.
Across the top of the old crusted and icy scalloped banks races a squirrel, cheeks filled with acorns from its food stash in the old Beech tree, one block over. The squirrel had been on its way back to its winter digs in the Red Maple on Scott Avenue when a large brown dog came galumphing out of a building and set off after it, delighted to be chasing something. The squirrel has cut through an alley between blocks, but the dog is still in hot pursuit. Now the squirrel is hellbent on getting away. Dashing up and down over the snow humps, it sees a fire hydrant just ahead and gives brief thought to the dog maybe stopping to pee on a fireplug, even one banked in snow, but knows it can’t take any chances.
Now, the snowbank feels every bit as worn out, old, iced over and frost-pitted as it is. Cold, gray, dirty and crusted. With ice cream and acorns shoved into it and pee now all down its side. Maybe it does have ice cream and maybe even a name - Crusty Bank. It doesn’t know. What it does know is that in its short life it has been tromped over and stepped on and kicked. Trucks and cars have scarred it, run over its bottom, and splashed it with road salt. It has been rained on and snowed on and frozen and re-frozen, again and again. Now it has been peed on. Maybe it has ice cream. Maybe even a name. But it seems there’s never enough humiliation for a last bit of iced-over snowbank.
On this very night, the town Fire Department is scheduled to make sure that all town fire hydrants on all the main drags are cleared of snow, with the snow hauled off. A routine winter duty. Word is, another snow storm’s due. Probably one of the last big ones. All hard iced-over snowbanks must be dug out to free town fire hydrants before the storm hits.
It is late when a town Snow Removal truck eases up beside the crusted hump that embraces the fireplug. A town fire engine pulls up right behind it. Two firemen, the truck driver and a helper get out and stand together by the curb where the icy hump stands, frozen to both ground and a fireplug. Brighter than bright, flashlights shine out. Papers are checked and signed. Copies handed out. Notes made on paper that’s clipped to clipboards. Then small talk and late night banter follows, laughter and gossip is exchanged as the men stand scuffing their feet and hunching their shoulders against the cold.
One of the firemen laughs and says to look at that, there’s an ice cream bar stuck in that hump of snow. Then, seeing the acorns, he fishes them out and sticks them back in to form a mouth and two eyes. He calls the others to look at what he’s done. “See the eyes? And the mouth? It’s a snowman. Got its arm around that fire hydrant. And, look -- it’s got an ice cream bar.” Then he takes pictures of it on his phone. To show his kids.
The other fireman waits ‘til the pictures are taken. Then he plucks out a few acorns. Wiping them off on his coat, he starts juggling them, standing by to watch the truck driver and his helper hack at the frozen snow hump. He remembers his excitement as a kid at the first snow. The snow angels and snowmen and snow forts he made, playing in snow, laughing and falling and fooling around. Big jackets, big boots, mittens and scarves and itchy, itchy hats. Now the snow on the streets around town looks old, tired. Grimy from street dirt and iced over melted slush. Pocked with litter.
Giving the acorns a last flip and catch, he drops them in his pocket and turns away while the truck driver and his helper stop chopping and make quick work of digging out the last snow from around the fireplug, clearing the crusted hump and beyond, so the curb is cleaned right to the cross-walk at the corner of Elm Street and Scott Avenue, finishing up by loading ice-crusted dirty snow on top of other ice-crusted dirty snow already loaded in the back of the truck.
And that’s how the frozen hump, just a lump of icy snow, with its ice cream bar and acorns and a wet patch of dog pee down its side, gets chopped up and scraped off and tossed into the back of a truck, made part then of a truck-load of street-dirty snow, headed for dumping in the old marshland out by the Town Line.
The fireman’s kids love the pictures. In fact, one print is in the family photo album, with the date and a title, “Crusty Bank, the Snowman, with its buddy, Plug,” written below it. Some six months later, the fireman who dropped the acorns in his pocket finds them and can’t think why he has them. Walking outside the fire house, he pitches them over into an empty lot next door. Where no giant oak takes root. No squirrel takes them for food. Only two crows happen upon them and they fight over them before each manages to capture one and fly away with it. Old acorns, much the worse for wear but still, a prize won in contest.
All of last winter’s snow that was hacked out and scraped up and lumped together to be dumped together melted of course in the coming of spring. Now all of it is part of what’s now a (road) salt marsh. A place where little or nothing that is not hardy and intractable ever can or does grow, never mind thrive. No spring peepers. No croakers later in the season. No fish. Not many birds. Only those passing through. Few rodents. No people. Except for town workers. Those who work at dumping and then, briefly, tending to what they’ve dumped. Before leaving it all to melt or moulder.
R.I.P. Crusty Bank