Stepping back a pace, Michaela Brice adjusts her beanie with a pink-gloved hand and takes stock of our progress.
“I think a wheelchair can get through there, right?”
With a five-foot channel cut in the chest-high snowbanks along Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, there is unanimous agreement from her compatriots. But Brice goes at the path again anyway, using the flat edge of her shovel to shave a little more off the sides. Then she hacks at a layer of gritty, blackened ice that’s already started to form on the pavement. She scoops that aside, too.
“OK, that’s a done deal,” she says, satisfied.
As of 8 a.m. Monday morning, Brice is one of 920 paid emergency laborers who signed up with the New York City Department of Sanitation in the wake of this weekend’s blizzard. The city put the call out out bright and early on Sunday morning. She and five others in this group will spend the day scraping and chopping and heaving their way up Nostrand, helping to take some of the pressure off of the department’s staff of 7,100 — which typically gets stretched pretty thin after a major snowstorm. At just one department-owned garage in Crown Heights that morning, at least fifty people were issued shovels, reflective orange vests, and route assignments. They were then hustled onto MTA buses and driven a few blocks west for an eight-hour day of hurling around wet snow.
Crosswalks, bus stations, fire hydrants, garbage cans. That’s the deal. And if you come across a storm drain — not likely with piles like this — get that, too. If you’re at least eighteen and can handle some hard work, it’s a good way to make a few extra bucks, which isn’t always easy in this city.
The pay is $13.50 an hour. Not a bad wage for once-in-a-while work, the crew on Nostrand seems to agree, even if it is some of the toughest labor around. That figure represents a bump over the $12 the department paid last year, though it’s not the $15-an-hour Mayor Bill de Blasio has set as a goal for most city workers by the end of 2018. Whatever the wage, the crew will earn every penny of it — with frozen toes and aching backs — by the end of the day. And Brice says there are other rewards aside from the money; the work makes it a little easier for the city to get back up and running. She’d rather people get where they need to go without falling on the sidewalk or into a slushy intersection. “You’re helping out your community,” she says.
On other days, Brice is a church organist. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, and it doesn’t seem like her style to half-ass anything. She was a postal driver until one early morning in the mid-Eighties when someone stuck a gun in her face while she was on her route through Bed-Stuy. That was the end of that. She helps take care of her mother, who just turned 90, so the extra cash comes in handy. At 63, one thing is clear: She and the rest of the six-person crew are most certainly outworking the reporter they allowed to tag along. Brenda Saxon, 54, another part of the east-side-of-Nostrand team (there’s a separate crew on the opposite side), is out for her second consecutive day. Over the years she’s worked off and on for the city parks department, and she’s currently back in school. Her son Shalique, 22, is out shoveling, too. He signed up even before she did, after they saw a report on Channel 12 about the chance to make some extra dough.
At one point, Brice and another member of the crew, Devon Chin, begin discussing strategy: Where’s the best place to fling all this snow? The department, they say, hadn’t given them much guidance. Chin’s theory, which is persuasive, is that it’s probably best to toss it generally downhill; that way whatever melts will run into the gutter, rather than pooling at the curb.
Chin, tall and slender, with dreadlocks tucked under a black cap, declines to give his age beyond saying that he’s in his fifties. He’s been finding work lately through a temp agency. Mostly clerical jobs, and whatever else comes along. He splits his time between Clinton Hill and his native Jamaica. When he talked to his mother over the weekend, she was sipping coconut water in the Caribbean, teasing him about the snow.
He’s focused on finding the sewer grates. While they aren’t a particularly high priority for the department’s supervisors, he’s thinking ahead to the lakes of slush that will, soon enough, begin swallowing the shoes of unwary New Yorkers. “Maybe that’s not how they normally do it,” Chin says, gesturing at the heaps surrounding him. “But this is no normal thing.”
Emergency laborers are typically only hired on when Mother Nature decides to screw the city over with particular zeal. They’re the first line of defense against the blocked crosswalks that are a perennial gripe for New Yorkers, and a reasonable one. (A Gothamist post from early Monday highlights the challenges faced by people with disabilities when crosswalks and sidewalks remain choked with snow.)
According to Belinda Mager, a sanitation department spokeswoman, the city directs its temporary shoveling crews to work the areas that don’t lend themselves well to mechanized clearing in the way that streets do. Corners are studded with light poles and walk signals and other infrastructure that might be damaged by plows pushed by trucks. Actual humans are the only practical way to get them cleared.
And doing it by hand ain’t easy. Back-of-the-envelope figures (courtesy of the snow-weight calculator at NJ.com) suggest that freeing up one side of one crosswalk means moving roughly 1,000 pounds of snow. With six people on the job — or seven, if you count a reporter with a pack-a-day habit who has literally never had a gym membership — each corner took about twenty minutes of hard shoveling. Multiply that by approximately 878 billion street corners, give or take, and it’s a big job.
People do take notice of the crew’s work on Nostrand. There are a lot of thank-yous. Even a few literal back-pats. Four or five people stop to ask about the work; they seem interested in signing up themselves. One guy who wanders through asks how much the crew is making and nods politely at the number. But when Brice tells him he can sign up at the sanitation department, he shakes his head.
“No, no, I’m a drug dealer,” he deadpans. “I don’t need to make no $13.50.” Still, he smiles and thanks the shovelers before he moves on.
Sometime around 11 a.m., a city employee comes by with some encouraging words — and also to make sure everyone who went out is still on the block and hard at work. Not long after he leaves the crew realizes they’ve forgotten to take their fifteen-minute break. The group decides to work through until the hour-long lunch break at noon, but there’s a quick pause for a cigarette and some water.
“You’ve got to stay hydrated, or you end up in the hospital with an IV in your arm,” Brice says. “I learned that at the post office.” She takes a long pull from a bottle of Fiji. “Oxygen and two hydrogens,” she says.
At noon the crew breaks for lunch. The younger contingent heads toward a Burger King up the road while the rest duck into a Chinese restaurant. Over plates of fried rice, Saxon and Blair Moody, 55, realize they know some of the same people. Saxon’s brother and Moody used to hang out years ago. “Small world,” he says.
Moody, who works nights as a security guard at construction sites, says he tries to put together temporary work like this — he also mans polling sites during election season — whenever he can. Presidential election years are good, he says. He can expect to pull in $500 for a few days’ work, once the primaries and voting day are said and done. You need to do some training for that one, he notes, but then you’re on the list and can expect a call.
Based on past experience, he estimates it’ll be four to six weeks before anybody sees a check for today. By then the snow, and the sore muscles, will probably be long gone.