Nobody loves a pothole, though we seem to have plenty of them in West Virginia.
I hate potholes because they’ve wrecked more than my car’s alignment.
My previous vehicle was a Chevy Impala, a great big boat of a car. It wasn’t the car I wanted, but it was the car the dealership would finance at the time.
My preference has always been for smaller vehicles — not necessarily economy cars, but something easy to navigate that isn’t hard to parallel park.
The Impala was the opposite of that. It had tons of horse power, but I barreled over the potholes.
Tires were popped. Wheels were bent. The car routinely fell out of alignment and I replaced three ball joints in two years, which canceled two much-needed vacations and a weekend trip to the Forecastle Music Festival in Louisville, where I had tickets for the music, but suddenly didn’t have enough cash to pay for gas to get there.
Ready to dig in
When Brent Webster, Charleston’s Public Works director, asked if I was interested in spending the morning with a blacktop crew learning about what goes into fixing the city streets, I told him to sign me up. We could start my month at Public Works with that.
Brent laughed. I needed to slow down.
“We only send crews out when the weather is OK,” he said.
Patching roads with hot asphalt in the cold or in the rain is a losing proposition. The American Asphalt plant, where the city gets its asphalt, is on the far end of St. Albans. Hot asphalt, a petroleum product, cools faster during the early spring months than in the middle of summer, and the asphalt is really only good while it’s hot.
But I lucked out. I managed to line up a mild day and rode along with Rodney Bailey and Brian White.
Rodney drove a truck. Brian was one of the laborers who filled potholes, though he was qualified to be a driver. He used to drive trucks.
“It’s just not worth it,” he told me. “It’s too much responsibility for too little difference in pay and there comes a point when you start looking at what your life is worth to you.”
The heavy truck drivers, like Rodney, will drive an asphalt truck in the spring and summer. When winter rolls around, they’re often behind the wheel of a snow plow.
It’s risky work. Snow trucks can slide off an icy road just as well as any other vehicle, and there’s a lot of responsibility that goes with driving. The driver has to think about more than just his own life, but also the lives of the people on the road around him.
Brian thought the job was worth more than about $12 an hour; as a laborer, he only made 50 cents an hour less.
At the asphalt plant, we picked up a ton and a half of fresh blacktop and then covered the truck bed with a heavy tarp.
“The tarp helps keep the heat in,” he said. “It makes the asphalt stay hot longer.”
As if it were a noodle casserole.
Helping on the job — sort ofFrom there, we drove up Loudon Heights, just down from Holz Elementary, where we met up with the rest of the crew, overseen by foreman Steve Boxley.
Brian and I hopped out, while Rodney stayed in the cab of the truck.
At the rear of the vehicle, Brian picked up a shovel, a rake and a tamper, one by one, and splashed diesel fuel from an old laundry detergent jug over each of them.
This was to keep the oily asphalt from sticking. It wouldn’t last for very long. We had to reapply every fifteen minutes or so.
There were about six of us working, if you counted me — which was probably a stretch.
Along with our truck, there were two other pickups, which brought the flaggers and Steve. They watched for cars and helped us stay safe.
It was between 8 and 8:30 in the morning. The kids had already been dropped off at school, but the road leading down from the school was busy with people on their way to work.
The flaggers controlled the flow of traffic, to keep Brian, Johnathen Redman and me safe; but every now and again, one of the cars blew past us fast, just as soon as they were given the go ahead.
People working on the road crews have been hit by drivers, they told me.
“You can get hurt,” Brian said. “People just don’t care.”
Watching the cars pass, I saw a lot of drivers on their phones, talking and texting, barely aware of what was directly in front of them, let alone who was standing just a couple feet to the side.
I was glad we had the two spare trucks behind us to provide a little protection.
We began at the top of the hill and followed the asphalt truck, walking behind.
The truck stopped as needed.
As we came across potholes, Brian and Johnathen took turns with the rake and the shovel. Usually, Brian scooped out asphalt from the back of the truck with the shovel and filled in the holes. Then, Johnathen smoothed it out with the rake.
After a while, I picked up a spare shovel and pitched in.
We moved at a brisk, but unhurried pace. Everyone on the crew looked toward the road for holes worth patching. Not every hole got covered — some were too small or too shallow — but we took care of the bigger cuts in the road.
We got a little over an hour in before the asphalt began to harden to the point where it couldn’t be spread anymore. Whatever was left over would be either used as fill somewhere or taken to be reused as asphalt.
Working on the road in the early spring and in the fall, they told me, wasn’t so bad. The work can be hard and smelly, but the heat was manageable. In the summer, toward the middle of the day, it can be hellishly hot, and they work longer. The asphalt doesn’t cool as fast, so they can cover more area.
It’s a hard job, sometimes, and not glamorous, but it’s important. The men take pride in what they do.
Nobody thought they were making enough money.
What the people told me
Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of complaints and concerns about pay, particularly from drivers. Some of the men I spoke with said the pay structure has changed over the last year and they’ve lost wages.
Others told me the pay just isn’t competitive and the city has a growing staffing problem.
Drivers have left, they said. Drivers were leaving. It is likely going to get worse, but this probably isn’t just a Charleston concern.
Last year, USA Today and The Washington Post wrote stories about truck driver shortages around the country. Some reports claim that the country needs another 50,000 drivers to keep up with current shipping demands.
The money sounds good. A long-haul trucker can make over $100,000 a year, but the life is hard. Truckers often live like hermit crabs, carrying where they sleep with them, only getting home to their families every few weeks.
Still, that kind of money is hard to ignore.
Even driving locally, they say, is more lucrative than working for the city.
I was sympathetic. I work in an industry that has seen some of its best leave to work in public relations, marketing and advertising because the money was better, and the business seemed more stable.
But I was also suspicious and began to wonder if maybe some meeting had taken place before I ever stepped foot on the lot. I wondered if it had been decided that everyone who came in contact with me would find some way to bring up their pay.
Then, one morning, I was in a convenience store buying an energy drink and saw one of the Public Works drivers walk up to a driver for a potato chip company and ask if he’d heard anything about a job.
The other driver told him not yet, but that they were supposed to be hiring soon.
That didn’t look staged to me.
I enjoyed my time with Charleston’s Public Works department. It was nice just to follow along in someone else’s footsteps as they went about their daily routine, though sometimes I felt a little like I was part of a “take-your-kid-to-work” day.
I never made it onto the back of a garbage truck like I’d planned, and this month felt a little scattered. Given the limited amount of time I had available, it probably would have been better to just focus on one particular job, instead of trying to cover so much, but like everything else, this column is still a work in progress. I learn as I go.