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Our Modern Cannibalism: Why Winter Brings Out The Worst In Some Of Us

J. Kates: When public transportation grinds to a halt, we throw our iciest snowballs at the people working to get and keep the trains and buses moving. In this photo, Alma Az, 43, waits for a bus on Concord Ave. Cambridge, as she makes her way to work in Copley Square, Mon., Feb. 9, 2015. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
J. Kates: When public transportation grinds to a halt, we throw our iciest snowballs at the people working to get and keep the trains and buses moving. In this photo, Alma Az, 43, waits for a bus on Concord Ave. Cambridge, as she makes her way to work in Copley Square, Mon., Feb. 9, 2015. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
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About twice a week, I drive back and forth between southwestern New Hampshire and Boston. If conditions are good, the drive each way takes about an hour and a half. If traffic gets snarled, or the weather doesn't co-operate, the trip can take twice that long. Sometimes, the weather gets so bad I can't go at all.

Not so very long ago, the same trip would have taken me days, not hours; and, if the coach broke down or the river rose or the horse threw a shoe, I could be spending a night or two sharing a bed with strangers in a flea-infested inn before I got home.

Anyone who takes travel for granted as comfortable and convenient is either naïve or spoiled, or both.

Anyone who takes travel for granted as comfortable and convenient is either naïve or spoiled, or both.

We live in a world where we can span the continent in a matter of hours. The next time your plane is delayed for an hour or two, or even for a day or two, think of the Donner Party taking five or six months to cross the country, stranded for a winter high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the survivors reduced to cannibalism before the end of their ordeal.

Our modern cannibalism takes the form of gnawing at those who are doing their best to help us through the inconveniences and discomforts of the travel we have come to assume as our right.

Snow falls, heavily. Our public transportation grinds to a halt. Of course it does! What did you think? Especially when our public transportation system is already overburdened, outdated and underfinanced, we can't expect it to keep to the schedule of our dreams. But, angry at our own discombobulation, we throw our iciest snowballs at the people working to get and keep those trains and buses moving.

We'd eat them alive if we could.

And the next time we're asked to pay for improving the infrastructure of our public transportation system, most of us will vote against it. We'll say no to the tax on gasoline, or no to the toll service. We fall into the rhythm of the old joke:

"Why don't you fix the hole in the roof?"

"Because it only leaks when it's raining, and I can't fix it in the rain."

Snow falls, heavily, again. There is nowhere to put it. You shovel your driveway out and here comes the municipal plow for the umpteenth time, scraping the road and compelling you to start over again with a slightly more compact mix to clear away. I admit, I've always enjoyed shoveling snow. I also confess that the limits of my pleasure have been strained this winter, and heaving snow may be just as much fun at 69 years old as it was at 49 — but it's a lot edgier.

Still, let's lean on our shovels for a minute, take a couple of deep breaths, and acknowledge that these plows are laboring to serve us, not to plague us. However exasperated we may get, we need to honor those who are giving their own nights and days to ease our travel as much as they can, even if we have to work a little harder ourselves on our own property. I thank them for their service, and chip away once again at the icy bank they've raised.

let's lean on our shovels for a minute, take a couple of deep breaths, and acknowledge that these plows are laboring to serve us, not to plague us.

After all, it's the time I like the city best. Traffic disappears, but the necessities are only a walk away — as long as those people down the street do their part to make walking possible. And so we do. Neighbors who hardly speak to one another in other seasons work together cheerfully or ruefully to unclog storm drains and expose fire hydrants, or to make a way for the postal carriers. First your walkway, then mine, somehow it all gets opened up eventually.

So I raise my cup of hot coffee in a toast: to the men and women at Logan staffing the machinery of runway-cleaning and de-icing the planes, baggage handling, rescheduling irate and impatient passengers; to the MBTA drivers and mechanics struggling to bring the Little Engine That Could over the mountain; to the plow-drivers facing lifted middle fingers and angry fists even while they can't take the time to go home to clean out their own driveways; and to all my neighbors who don't whine and complain, but who smile and cheer one another on in a community that appreciates our warm, dry houses and the chance to travel at all, sooner or later.

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J. Kates Cognoscenti contributor
J. Kates is a poet and literary translator who lives in Fitzwilliam, NH.

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