Pots to Go Missing In
By Patrick F. Cannon
My friend Jerry McManus, who lives in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood, mentioned at breakfast the other day that the pothole season is now well underway. Depending on the severity of the Winter, and the freeze/thaw cycle, it can start as early as March in the Chicago area. Added to Mother Nature’s depredations, highway departments spread copious amounts of salt on the roads at the merest suggestion of snow or ice, exacerbating the problem.
Coincidentally, later that day I passed a crew filling potholes on a side street. There was a truck filled with blacktop and a three-man crew. One man filled the hole with a shovel of material, another tamped it down, and the third watched with interest. If necessary, another shovel full was added, and so on. With luck, and not too much traffic, the patch could be expected to last a full week. On busier streets, or if a politician lives there, the crew may also have a road roller, which does a better job of tamping down the blacktop. These patches could last as long as a month!
In the days before most cars had alloy wheels, which do without hub caps, it was quite common to see stray hub caps in the vicinity of a particularly deep pothole. This was a boon for the intrepid scrap-metal pickers, who cruise the streets and alleys of Chicago and nearby suburbs to fill their pickups with the thrown away of our throw-away culture. Often, the hub caps would end up at specialized used hub-cap shops, where you could buy a replacement for your missing cap; it might even be the same one you lost.
I remember one year on North Avenue in Chicago, from roughly Austin Boulevard to Cicero Avenue, when the potholes were so bad that you thought you were going through a slalom course. Even then, they were arranged so you couldn’t miss them all, so you just tried to avoid the axle breakers. Soon after, that and other stretches of the street were resurfaced.
(By the way, potholes should not be confused with sinkholes, which occur when the ground beneath the surface is eaten away, sometimes by a water leak, or the collapse of an underground aquifer. These happen often in Florida. I recall one occasion when a whole collection of vintage Corvettes was swallowed up by a giant collapse. Potholes,, by contrast, rarely swallow more than one vehicle.)
Here’s a conspiracy theory for you. There is an evil cabal that includes politicians, highway departments, union bosses, concrete and blacktop suppliers, and contractors who have a vested interest in building roads that look spiffy when built, but will crumble and fail on a regular schedule. This, when some of the roads the Romans built are still in use?
We have sent men to the Moon, and explored the far reaches of space. Most of us walk around with phones that have more computing power than whole rooms of computers had just 25 years ago. But we can’t build roads and streets that last longer than 10 years?
I am reminded of a 1951 movie, The Man in the White Suit, which starred Alec Guinness as a Cambridge-educated chemist who invents a fabric that is both indestructible and repels dirt. He is hailed as a genius, until it occurs to the woolen-mill owners and their unionized work forces that the new fabric will eventually put them out of business and jobs. Management and labor join forces to put a stop to Guinness and his job-killing invention.
But then, fate takes a hand. Suddenly, the fabric begins to dissolve in the rain, exposing a flaw in the inventor’s formula. The wool industry is saved and can resume fleecing the public! But the final scene has poor Alec pouring over his formula. Suddenly, a smile appears. He has found a flaw in the formula that can be fixed!
Is there an Alec Guinness of roadbuilders out there? If there is, he better watch his back.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon