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Plower Power 


If you don't like the weather in Vermont, just wait a minute. In winter that old maxim has special meaning for David Gomez, whose every waking hour is guided by the whims of Mother Nature. Even his sleep may be sacrificed to the fickle climate. As a sidewalk plow operator for the Burlington Department of Public Works, the 44-year-old Essex Junction resident is permanently on call in case it snows.

But Gomez, who is unmarried, really doesn't mind if his routine is disrupted by the vagaries of precipitation. After almost two years on the job, he takes pride in keeping the pavement passable along his route in the Hill Section and South End of the city.

The burly Gomez is master of his machinery -- a rugged one-seat orange vehicle that serves as a plow when it snows and a sweeper when sidewalks are dry and dusty in the warmer months. He's also frequently on pothole-filling duty in the spring and summer. You might not think of smooth outdoor surfaces as a matter of civic order. But Gomez does.

SEVEN DAYS: First of all, do you go by David or Dave?

DAVID GOMEZ: Everyone here calls me Diamond.

SD: Diamond?

DG: (Laughing) The guys just think I sparkle out there.

SD: Sounds like a stamp of approval. Why is the job so appealing?

DG: The work is steady, I always get paid and I'm part of something. I belong. When problems arise, you've got your "first responders" -- like firefighters and police -- and then you've got us. Without us, the city stops.

SD: I never thought of it that way. But does the labor ever become arduous?

DG: Yes. It's hard dealing with snow banks when the temperature dips to 10 below. Last winter was a cakewalk. This year has been tough on the workers, on the equipment, on the budget and on the citizens.

SD: Explain the plowing process.

DG: There are seven different routes, with one person per machine. They make violent motions -- we try not to eat too much before going out. But it's a beautiful piece of equipment that runs on diesel fuel -- a Holder, that's who makes them. There are three types of attachments: I use a V-blade on it to blast a path through the snow. A blower isn't as fast, but it carves through even deeper snow. A straight blade is for scraping up the ice. People comment that the sidewalks are safer now -- that's because of all the straight blades we got this year. Before, we only had one; now there are enough for all eight or nine sidewalk plows.

SD: How do you coordinate with the street plows?

DG: The sidewalk crews go out after the main plows do their thing. They start with priority routes where there's more traffic, then secondary side streets or dead ends. We're like the broom and dust pan following in their tracks. During rush hour, it can be a challenge to get our routes done within seven or eight hours. Otherwise, when we can travel on the sidewalks, four or five hours is usually enough time.

SD: Severe cold must make it trickier.

DG: Absolutely. If the ice hardens, it's next to impossible to get the sidewalk completely clear. But we work with nature. The sun heats up the sand-salt combination we put down and that honeycombs the ice, which then becomes easier to clean.

SD: What are the hazards?

DG: The key is knowing where the fences and hydrants are located. And you have to watch for people popping out of doorways or cars pulling out of driveways. Last year, I hit a manhole cover on Willard Street and it shot me into a parked car. Luckily, it was minor damage.

SD: And you literally have to be available no matter what, whenever there's new snow?

DG: That's right. We have pagers. Nights, weekends, holidays. We're allowed to leave town on vacations, weather permitting. You don't plan anything. The days sort of all run into each other. A small storm might last a long time and we have to keep staying with it. It takes a miracle of management to organize all this. I have three great bosses: Dan Hill, Steve Hamman and Pam Tuttle. They've been instrumental in helping me learn.

SD: What were your previous occupations?

DG: You name it.

SD: Well, begin at the beginning. While growing up in Essex Junction, where did you envision life would take you?

DG: I thought about going into the military. My father had been an Army sergeant and some of my uncles were in the Marines. But Dad pushed me to go to college. After graduating high school in 1976, I worked in manufacturing at Rossignol skis for a few years. Then I had a stint at IBM as an intern in facility maintenance. At that time, I took courses with University of Vermont Contin-uing Ed. I'd never been a stellar student, though. As a teenager, I was really only good at racing around in my car.

SD: What UVM courses did you take?

DG: Math. I was trying to get ready for architectural studies. IBM offered me a full-time job, but I'd set my sights on college, so there was a big move to leave the state.

SD: What do you mean?

DG: I attended the Boston Architectural Center from 1983 to 1989. My goal was to be a builder. I did production drafting at an architecture firm by day and took five courses at night. It was a hard school, a good school, an impossible school. I still wasn't an academic person. I come from a blue-collar background; it was tough for me to enter a white-collar world. Another factor was that I had been trained as a manual drafter, but it was the advent of computers.

SD: Did you finish?

DG: I was about half-way through when I came home. I'd gotten myself in a deep hole financially. In Vermont, I worked for other architects. Then I went down to Florida in the early 1990s. I did drafting for a cabinet company until Hurricane Andrew blew in and the local economy was destroyed.

SD: What came next?

DG: My dad had a few strokes, so I came back to help out. I delivered oil, did auto mechanics, returned to manufacturing at Blodgett ovens. I was really floundering, in terms of my professional life. I'd lost my focus. Then I saw the DPW ad. In my architectural days, I was never the one who did hands-on stuff. But I always had a fascination with heavy equipment. This is the most suitable career for on-the-job training because, when they hire you, a good work ethic is more important than skills.

SD: You found your sparkle here?

DG: It's the kind of work I always wanted.

SD: In what sense?

DG: To be needed.

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