Philadelphia Metropolis

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Her Urban Snow Moment

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By Joy A. Vagefi

It was the first, big snowfall of the season in Philadelphia. Raised in Alaska and a recent transplant from Utah, I was no stranger to white winters. So when my neighborhood was transformed into a virtual winter wonderland, I was thrilled. But unlike Alaska and Utah, where I'd spend an hour or more shoveling my oversized driveway, in Philadelphia, my responsibility was limited to a single-lane scrap of cement that could literally be cleared in minutes using an oversized dustpan.

I heard him before I ever saw him. The sound of metal scraping across my neighbor's driveway echoed outside my living room window. Curious, I watched a man I did not recognize from the neighborhood swiftly push small piles of snow into the street.

Even from my second floor window, I could see that his coat was tattered and stained; his leather boots well worn. Less than five minutes later, my neighbor's tiny, urban lot was cleared of snow and the man was handed an indeterminate amount of money.

Thumbnail image for Philly Snow.jpgAlthough I had planned on clearing my own driveway, my heart went out to this shoveler. Thought his appearance could have placed him on a street corner begging for change, I thought it admirable that he was working for his handout. As I waited for my turn to act charitably, I indulged myself in imagining what hardships plagued this man's life - Homelessness? Lack of education? Drug abuse? 

I'll call the man Lester. He had a round, pleasant face with a wide, gap-tooth smile. A fermented scent wafted from his soiled clothes. A rusted shovel rested at his side. Lester Tsked at the snow covering my driveway; he said he could take care of it -- for a fee, of course.

In my ideal world, a world without social consequences, I would have chosen to pay Lester in much needed hugs. But this was the real world, and my goodwill would have to manifest itself in another way. I asked him his going rate. He replied, "Pay what you can afford."

I raced up the two flights of stairs in my house to grab my wallet. En route, I started thinking that in some small way, I was about to participate in helping Lester step back into society. My do-gooder heart swelled to the point of almost bursting. When I returned, Lester was already finished and waiting with his shovel. Opening my wallet, I was pleased to find a lone $10 bill.

My outstretched hand held my payment, my face an appreciative smile. Instead of the gracious "thank-you" I was expecting, Lester's eyes flashed disappointment, bordering on insult.

An awkward moment passed between us. Suddenly, the Lester I had come to admire in my head -- the man who was kicking his drug habit, or shoveling snow to keep current on his child support -- was now being erased by the rudeness of the real Lester standing before me. For all I knew, this Lester was on parole for whacking naïve women who didn't pay up for shovel services rendered.

What about pay what you can afford? I reminded him. Technically, I could afford more but $10 seemed fair for a few minutes of shoveling. Plus, it was the only cash I had in my wallet. He told me his services were worth more than my offer. He said he was a businessman, with a bank account. He recommended I write him a check.

With my inflated sense of benevolence now punctured, I landed squarely back on planet earth. Lester never asked for my pity or my assumptions; he asked for my money. Sure, he smelled vaguely like urine and had holes in his clothes but that didn't necessarily mean he wasn't educated -- a businessman; a taxpayer. Then, as if sensing my internal strife, Lester snatched the money from my hand before I had a chance to say or do anything else and moved on to his next customer.

A few days later Philadelphia once again fell under a soft blanket of snow. Imagine my shock when my doorbell rang. Apparently, Lester operated under the business philosophy that a low-paying customer was better than a no-paying customer. This time, I declined his service. Forgetting that I lent out my shovel earlier that week, I discovered that my narrow sliver of driveway could easily be cleared with an oversized dustpan.

Yes, it took a few extra minutes but considering my options, it was worth it. 

 

Joy Vagefi shovels her own walk in front of her house in Fairmount.

 

 

 

 

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