It's snow problem

Weathering the storm with the Lynbrook DPW

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It was shortly after 2 a.m. on Jan. 4, and snow had just begun falling as Scott Keller climbed into his plow truck. Snow was pelting the windshield, and a Guns N’ Roses tune was blaring from the speakers. Keller was speaking of his girlfriend of 11 years, Peg Feehan.

“She hates it when it snows and I come in,” said Keller over the roar of the truck’s engine. “I said, the deal is either I take her out to a nice dinner — which basically is a wash of the money I’m making — or we put it toward a vacation.”

Keller, 36, graduated from Lynbrook High School at age 17 and lives in East Rockaway. He started working for the village’s Department of Public Works when he was 19. His usual duties involve trimming and removing trees. Despite the daunting number of hours he must put in during a storm, Keller said he likes it when it snows because it provides a different role for him — even if he is unsure when he will return home. He’s out salting and plowing the streets at all hours of the day.

“I like what I’m doing now,” he said as he salted the southwest portion of Lynbrook. He enjoys the work, he said, despite its repetitive nature. He must salt and plow a section and then start all over again when it’s done to ensure that streets are clear for cars and emergency vehicles.

The calm before the storm

More than a week before the winter’s first major snow storm last Thursday, Lynbrook DPW workers were already preparing for it. As the storm, called a “bomb cyclone,” bore down on Long Island at about 1 a.m. that day, DPW Supervisor Phil Healey stood in the department’s garage and explained that he has been dealing with snow storms for 24 years, but learns new lessons with each one.

“One hundred and fifty snowstorms later, you still try to do it a little differently and [more] efficiently each time,” he said, noting that his department has 52 employees.

Healey said the department’s five sanders and 15 plows were inspected from front to back, including the flashers and defrosters, in the days before the storm. After prep work on Wednesday, workers were sent home and told to return at midnight for Thursday’s storm.

To make sure all workers are alert when they’re out plowing, Healey said, he switches up routes and assigns them to 12-hour shifts. “By the fourth or fifth 12-hour shift, nobody wants to talk to anybody anymore,” he said with a smile. “It’s pretty much like, ‘I’ve decided I don’t like you anymore. I’ve seen you too much.’”

The department relies on social media and the Weather Channel to monitor storms, Healey said, and takes a team approach to tracking them. He added that he tries not to get overwhelmed when a storm is coming. “I check the flights to Florida as quick as I can, but then I calm down,” he joked. “It’s part of the job. A lot of people depend on us to get out of their house, to get the school buses. Whatever resources we have, we’ll maximize them.”

About a half-hour later, the snow had not yet started to fall. Healey sat in a common room in the DPW headquarters with five plow drivers and Lynbrook Mayor Alan Beach. The employees kept tabs on the storm in between cups of coffee.

The drivers spoke of the issues when they are out plowing, ranging from people throwing shovels at their trucks to residents standing in front of the them and threatening drivers after their driveways have been plowed in. “People don’t realize that we go home, and we shovel, too,” said Chris Kenny, 43, of Farmingdale, who has worked for the DPW for 19 years. “They can get mad. Eventually, they have to go in their house and say, ‘OK, they’re just doing their job.’ That’s all we’re doing. And I’ll be back two hours later anyway, ’cause that’s my area.”

“Some of the residents hate us,” added Frank Dore, 50, of Manorville, who has been on the job for 30 years. “But we don’t see our dinner tables, our families or our kids for days.” He added that it’s not all negative, and when residents praise the drivers, it sticks with them.

Michael Gilmartin, 50, of Huntington, said that in his 23 years on the job, he finds it most fun when he encounters children on his route. “If I see kids out in the morning, I always taunt them to throw snowballs at the truck,” he said excitedly. “I’m like, ‘Come on!’ They love it. They think it’s great. There’s gonna be that one kid who’s a star quarterback that’s gonna get me right in the face one day.”

Kenny said he likes playing around with children because he doesn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the snow with his own son, Liam, because he always has to work during storms. “I got a 7-year-old, and he’s dying for me to stay home during a storm,” he said. “I haven’t been home with him ever. He’s like, ‘Dad, can you stay home and build a snowman with me?’ And I just can’t do it.”

Kenny added that even though he can’t be home, he makes do with his co-workers. “We’re a family,” he said. “We live in different zip codes, but we’re family.”

Plowing ahead

After nearly an hour, Dore stepped outside for fresh air and returned with news. “It’s 2:15, and it’s officially snowing,” he said, bouncing a small rubber ball as the crew scrambled to prepare.

Keller was delighted as he got into his plow because he was operating one of only two trucks that would enable him to plug his phone in for music. “It’s all Guns ‘N Roses all the time,” he said as he drove to his route. “When s--t really gets ugly, it goes to Rage Against the Machine if I feel tired.”

The explosive guitar licks and thrashing drums help him stay awake and focused, Keller said, adding that he often keeps the windows open to avoid getting bleary-eyed.

He shared the story of one co-worker who once drove five shifts in a three-day span and began to hallucinate that he was professional wrestling legend Ric Flair. “He calls me, and says, ‘Do you know I just spent the last hour pretending I was Ric Flair?’” Keller recalled with a laugh while maneuvering the plow. “And he had his head out the window and was going, ‘Woooo,’ and saying all his catch phrases. … I was like, ‘Are you all right?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t think so, man.’”

According to Keller, those kinds of moments make what can otherwise be a monotonous job a little more fun. “If you didn’t laugh, what the f--k else would you do? Stare at each other?” he said. “Once you get to that third shift in like three days, you look at the guy next to you and you’re like, ‘I f--king hate you.’”

On the eve of the storm, Keller worked from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., went home, ate dinner, caught two hours of sleep and returned to the DPW at 11 p.m. He said he likely wouldn’t return home until Friday.

Keller said he didn’t envision a life working for the DPW. After graduating from Lynbrook High, he said he wanted to attend Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and eventually become a chef. After one semester, he couldn’t afford school, so he decided to accept a summer position with the DPW, where his older brother, Pete, also worked, and still does.

Nearly two decades later, Keller said, he enjoys the path he took, even if it wasn’t his dream. Keller received his commercial driver’s license in 2004, and said he was contemplating returning to school in the spring in the hope of earning an associate’s degree. In addition to his job at the DPW, Keller also works as a butcher at King Kullen three times a week and as a tree trimmer on Saturdays.

Keller said that it isn’t always easy winding down after long shifts in the plow. He often packs two sets of clothes, one to change into if he’s going home, and one for the gym if he’s too amped up to go to bed right away. He also brings extra meals.

Whether it turns out to be a major or minor storm, Keller said the department is always prepared to deal with the weather. “We usually joke that it’s death by snow,” he said. “The hype job is usually worse than the storm. … The shifts are all about paying attention for 12 hours straight, like really paying attention, and making sure you don’t hit someone, or something, or break anything.”