Now I know how those mice in the maze feel.

Monday evening, as a seemingly benign 2 to 3 inches of powdery snow fulfilled many a Greater Portlander’s wish for a white Christmas, I attempted something that, in retrospect, was a dumb idea.

I tried to go home.

It took me two hours — the vast majority of which I spent scurrying all over Portland’s West End looking for a way off the peninsula. By the time it was over, I’d traversed Free Street, Cross Street, Spring Street, High Street, Congress Street outbound, Congress Street inbound (U-turn), State Street, Spring Street (again), Vaughan Street, Brackett Street, Congress Street (again), State Street (again), York Street, Park Street, Commercial Street and, hallelujah, the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Along the way, I saw cars backed up into major intersections, making a mockery of the traffic lights overhead.

I saw vehicles sliding down hills into police cruisers, while ambulance drivers struggled mightily to make their way to Maine Medical Center.

I saw seasoned Mainers behaving as if they’d never before seen a snowflake, let alone a road covered with this strange white substance that mysteriously fell from the darkening sky.

What I didn’t see were sand trucks. Or snowplows. Or any of the other municipal apparatus that normally keep Maine’s largest city moving when, horror of horrors, winter finally arrives.

Where, pray tell, were the public works crews?

“They were out there,” replied City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. “But they were stuck in traffic.”

Workplaces in downtown Portland were abuzz Tuesday morning over how badly the city blew this one. Many people, looking for proof that City Hall dropped the ball, cited Portland police Lt. Gary Hutcheson’s quotes in Tuesday’s Press Herald that “we were completely unprepared,” and that “for such a small amount of snow, I have never seen such chaos in my 21 years as a police officer.”

Aha! So it was the city’s fault!

Well, not exactly. According to Clegg, the city sent the salt-and-sand crews out at 3:45 p.m., just 15 minutes after the snow began to fall. Problem was, it fell heavier — much heavier — than predicted.

“We have a hired weather service. We also monitor the local news,” said Clegg, whose trip home to South Portland took an hour. “And the weather reports we were getting were for a dusting up to an inch of accumulation.”

Aha! So it was the weather guys’ fault!

Well, we’re on thin ice there, too. Contacted Tuesday afternoon, WCSH-TV meteorologist Joe Cupo said it wasn’t as if a big storm suddenly appeared out of nowhere and brought Greater Portland to its knees.

In fact, Cupo said, the narrow precipitation band that suddenly ballooned into a squall as it came in off the ocean was here and gone in well under two hours.

“It was a small-scale, local event,” Cupo said. “And there’s no way you can predict that.”

So if the city did its job and Joe Cupo did his job whose fault was it?

Here’s a radical concept. Maybe it was nobody’s fault.

Maybe snow, especially between December and March, just happens.

And maybe, like those mice in the maze, it’s up to each of us to decide how to cope with it.

You can simply sit in your car, as most people did, and wait it out.

Or you can waste a few gallons of gas and countless brain cells, as I did, looking for a quick escape that doesn’t exist.

Or you can do something truly nuts — like pitch in and help.

Dr. Craig Brett, a cardiologist who works in Scarborough, got a call around 4:30 p.m. Monday from his wife, Mary. She was on her way home to Cape Elizabeth when her minivan got stuck in the fast-forming uphill traffic jam on State Street.

“I’ll come and get you,” said Brett, who drives a Subaru. “I can get up that hill.”


An hour later, Brett found himself stuck in the gridlock that, by then, extended from the top of State Street all the way out to Interstate 295.

“So I ditched my car in one of those little lots in Deering Oaks and ran the rest of the way,” he said. “It was crazy.”

The cars on the hill, their wheels spinning furiously, were going nowhere fast. A city sand truck, stuck back near Deering Oaks, couldn’t get any closer.

Then something truly unexpected happened.

A few young men came out of an apartment on State Street to marvel at the mayhem and, without missing a beat, suddenly got behind the lead vehicle and started pushing. Brett and his wife quickly joined in.

It worked.

A few people got out of their cars to help with the next vehicle. Off it went.

Then other drivers and pedestrians joined in while one guy ran up to the light at Cumberland Avenue to keep the intersection open. Another car and another and another made it up the hill.

Guys in shirts and ties helped. So did guys in work boots and college kids on their way home from the nearby University of Southern Maine. Even a few “questionable looking people,” as Brett so tactfully described them, got in on the act.

“Some of these characters — if you saw them on the street any other time, you might go the other way,” Brett said.

To be sure, it wasn’t all peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Some marooned drivers told the good samaritans to keep their mitts off the car, they’re waiting for AAA. And the poor guy up at the intersection had to dodge the occasional motorist on Cumberland Avenue who wasn’t about to stop for anyone. (Whenever that happened, the car-pushers booed loudly.)

But eventually, the hill got cleared, the sand truck finally arrived and, as quickly as it had arisen, the crisis evaporated.

Few would have blamed the Bretts if the whole ordeal had left them, like so many others, feeling a little grumpy. After all, Craig missed an evening meeting, they had to ask neighbors to pick up the kids and, a few hours later, they had to schlep all the way back to Deering Oaks to retrieve the Subaru.

“So our whole night was ruined,” Craig said.

Still, the Bretts found themselves (unlike yours truly) smiling all the way home.

And in the end, Craig said, “we kind of had a warm feeling about the whole thing.”

Nobody predicted that either.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

b[email protected]