If you've ever cringed as you squeeze your car through a narrow street, try doing it 80 hours a week.
"Sometimes the job gets a little nerve-racking," admits Burlington snowplow operator Lorand Codrean. "Like anything, though, you get used to it. It's a chance to see people, smell fresh air - that's why I like what I do."
Codrean, 42, is letting me ride along as he clears streets from Schmanska Park to the waterfront during a whiteout on a recent weekday morning. For all his quick, attentive demeanor, he seems serene amid the chaos.
Inside, the truck's cockpit resembles an airplane's. As Codrean shifts gears, he adjusts his plow "wing" to avoid smashing into a Volvo. We return the wave of a woman shoveling her driveway on Bilodeau Court. "See how nice people are?" Codrean asks. Leaning his head out the window, he calls to her, "We'll make it better tonight - for now, we're just patting down."
Plowing is not all this city maintenance worker does. Like the other 15 full-time employees of the street department - a division of the Department of Public Works - Codrean wears multiple municipal hats. Earlier this morning, he had to stop his truck to repair a broken grate on a catch basin. And if a sewer pipe should clog this afternoon, he'll have to operate the "Vactor" - a truck retrofitted with an enormous suction drill. Sometimes he even helps free snow-bound fire trucks and ambulances.
"Uh-oh," Codrean says when we reach the corner of South Winooski Avenue and King Street. "Someone knocked a stop sign down - and it wasn't us! I'll pick it up later."
For three hours, Codrean fills me in on his work over the roar of his plow. By noon, it's time for gyros at the Pine Street Deli.
SEVEN DAYS: How long have you been driving the snowplow truck?
LORAND CODREAN: For six years. I've been in Vermont for 17 years. Before this, I worked as a mechanic for Vermont Transit.
SD: Where did you live before that?
LC: I was born in Romania into a Hungarian family. My wife and I came to Vermont in May of 1991. I came to Burlington - and that's it. I'm here since! I do a lot of fishing, hunting, boating.
SD: Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, "Damn! Snowing again!"?
LC: Never. I love it - you wait the whole summer for the opportunity. I love plowing; it's fun. With so many people going by, it's almost like watching TV. With plowing, there are different thrills throughout the day: rush hour, then the "push-back" of the snow, which is the final clean-up before the end of a storm. Of course, it's a little tense - but in the same way that skiing, or other adventure sports, can be tense.
SD: Do you listen to music on the job, or drink coffee to stay awake for those 12-hour shifts?
LC: I stopped drinking coffee when I was 25. I have a lot of energy, and coffee would really aggravate everything. I'm naturally adrenaline charged! Sometimes noise can be distracting. Some of the guys listen to music, and I do too, occasionally. But I prefer to listen to what's going on around me. If the sound of the plow scraping the ground changes in the slightest way, you know something's wrong. Loose bolt, hydraulic pump . . .
SD: Is this a dangerous job, then?
LC: It can be. Sometimes, it's hard to tell where the curb is - so if I hit it, the truck will bounce two feet in the other direction. That's what some daredevils don't understand. But everybody wants to get somewhere.
SD: So you're saying that people sometimes get angry at you without just cause?
LC: A lot of people get annoyed when we block their driveways. Some wave angrily or say insulting things. They don't understand that when I pull into my driveway in South Burlington after a storm, I have to face the same reality. But you get used to it, since our work keeps the city functioning. I'd say 99 percent of people are nice - only 1 percent will "play chicken" with the truck. I definitely don't play chicken - that's not my idea of adventure.
SD: What about all the salt that's used on the roads?
LC: The less snow you have on the road, the less salt you need to use - that's why we scrape so much. It's also one of the reasons we look like a nuisance, going around and around all the time. The whole plowing process is actually very ecologically friendly. I'm an environmentalist, too, and I'm at peace with our system. Our green salt, for instance, is more environmentally friendly than the white kind, but we use it sparingly because of its price. There's nothing 100 percent - but the city of Burlington does a nice job.
SD: What do you do in the summer?
LC: I fix manholes, repair catch basins, do general maintenance work, help clear sewer plugs . . .
SD: So your snowplow work is actually part of a larger process?
LC: Yes. In the summer, we fix the "scars of winter." At this job, you see how the city works. Basically, all the snowplowing, the clearing, the hassle is so that people can get to their jobs. It's not that we try to annoy people. I think of it all as a circle of responsibilities: If we don't plow, the buses can't take people to work - just like water in nature. There's a moral aspect to all this.
SD: Has anyone in particular inspired your work?
LC: When I first came here, the guy that trained me in the ins and outs of winter operation was Bernie Baker. He shared a lot of patience and wisdom with me - and I couldn't think of a better guy than him to learn from. I have a lot of regard for him. When he retires, I'll feel very sad.
SD: And your wife?
LC: She's very understanding. She has infinite patience, has endured a lot of things for me. She's been a great person in my life. On sunny days, we love spending time together.
SD: But when it snows?
LC: But when it snows . . . Well, that's my time. I've got to be there.