Helping Hand

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The great December 2009 snowstorm dumped 21 inches of snow on us in about 24 hours. When I looked outside in the morning, I could barely see the cars parked on our street; the snow covered everything.

I recently moved to this short, narrow back street, connected downslope to a major Baltimore thoroughfare. To get out of our street, I have to drive steeply uphill and stop at the top, wait for an opening, then dash out into the traffic flow. When I moved there, during the summer, I clearly lacked foresight. Getting out of the street couldn’t be done over snow and ice, so I figured I would be stuck until the snow melted.

Mid-morning I heard voices and looked out to see my neighbors, snow shovels in hand. It wasn’t just the men, either. Everyone was out there, working away. I wasn’t inclined to shovel snow; I preferred to let it melt; but my neighbors appeared to be aiming toward my portion of the sidewalk, so I was forced by social pressure, to put on my boots and join the work party in progress. My plan was to clear the sidewalk immediately in front of my house and go back inside.

As I began shoveling, I could see that not only were these crazy people digging out the sidewalks; they were also digging out their cars and the entire street! This seemed excessive to me; in my mind, the city is supposed to clear the streets. When I suggested we ought to wait for a snow plow, one of the long-time residents explained, “Don’t count on the plows ever coming down this street.” The cars, sidewalk, and street in front of all the row houses up the hill, from me to the corner, had been completely shoveled out. But instead of going back inside, the young woman next door and the gray-haired woman from two doors up were working their way downhill to the part of the street in front of my house. I couldn’t stop them, so I really had no choice but to keep shoveling.

Meanwhile, some people in a pickup tried to see if they could get out of our street. They were fine until they hit the un-shoveled section at the very top of the street, the section that wasn’t in front of anyone’s house. The pickup didn’t make it; it just slid over to the curb. The occupants got out, walked back past us, and returned with a half dozen volunteers to clear that last section at the top of our street.

While we were digging, a large black man arrived with three short Hispanic men in tow, all of them carrying shovels. After discussions with some of the neighbors down the street, these four men set to work on the 100-foot stretch of street just below me, where there were no houses. They worked harder and faster than any of the rest of us, quickly creating a path just a little wider than the pickup truck’s tire tracks.

By the time my two female neighbors and I finished digging out my car and the portion of the street in front of my house, I was tired and wanted to go back inside. But the next car downhill from me belonged to the girl next door, who had just helped me dig out my car. So I was forced, again by social pressure, to help dig out her car. A little after noon, we were all done. Our entire street was clear of snow and drying in the sun.

It was at that point that the government forces arrived, in the form of a snow plow that drove slowly down our bare street, the driver apparently admiring our work and accomplishing nothing. Even the part of the truck that was sup- posed to be spreading salt wasn’t working. But our little street was clear, and all of us could drive in and out that afternoon, five days before the schools reopened and the city got back to normal.

Not only does social pressure work just as effectively as mandatory taxes, but civil society is far more efficient than the government.

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