Jerry Zezima, a Newsday assistant editor who writes a nationally syndicated humor column for his hometown paper, The
I am not a Rhodes Scholar because I have holes in my head, but I recently became a roads scholar because I learned how to patch holes in a road despite being suspended after only 10 minutes on the job.
I earned my street smarts with the help of a terrific crew from the Brookhaven Highway Department, which kindly took me out on pothole patrol and allowed me to help smooth out a rough situation without once telling me that I was a pain in the asphalt.
That did not, however, prevent me from getting into hot water -- actually, it was oil, which is used on the equipment -- because I got off on the wrong foot by having the wrong footwear.
My day began at the town yard, where general foreman Dan Curtin assigned me to a crew that would perform pothole repair on a residential street in the hamlet of, appropriately enough, Rocky Point. Dan gave me a bright yellow vest, which was more stylish than my bland blue shirt and faded jeans, and a hard hat, which wasn't as hard as my head but which I had to wear anyway.
I was introduced to road crew worker Billy Lattman, who showed me the hot box attached to the truck we would be riding in.
"It holds four tons of asphalt that's heated to 290 degrees," Billy explained.
"I guess it's safer to think outside the box," I said.
"You're catching on already," said Billy, who drove with me to Asphalt Supply of Long Island to pick up three tons of the stuff.
"This past winter was one of the worst ever," said Billy, who has been working in the highway department for 13 years and also is a volunteer fire chief. "So there are a lot of potholes to fill. And some of them are pretty big. I saw one with a hubcap in it. Another one had a bumper in it. It made me wonder what happened to the rest of the car."
"Do you have potholes on your street?" I asked.
"Yes," Billy replied. "We haven't gotten to them yet. My wife keeps asking when we're going to fill them in. I told her that we don't get any special treatment. But at least I've never lost a hubcap or a bumper in a pothole. I avoid them because I know where they are."
When we got to the work site, a narrow residential street named Friendship Drive, I met the rest of the personable and hardworking crew: Rob Nolan, John O'Sullivan, Gary Grob Jr. and Mario Desena.
I also met Tony Gallino, chief deputy of the Brookhaven Highway Department, who took one look at my ratty sneakers and suspended me.
"Not even 10 minutes on the job and already you're suspended," Tony said, adding that I should have worn safety boots. "You're lucky the union won't let me fire you."
But Tony did compliment me on my work, which entailed shoveling hot asphalt into the ruts and potholes that pocked the street, smoothing it out with a long metal rake and going over it with a roller.
"You're doing OK," said Tony. "Still, I wouldn't quit my day job."
I learned that the crew's day job is pretty tough. But they perform it with professionalism and good humor.
"You guys have real camaraderie," I said.
"That's because you're here," Billy responded. "We're on our best behavior."
It's a good thing I was, too, because at that very moment, Dan Losquadro, superintendent of highways, came by.
"I hear you've been doing a good job," Dan told me.
"I don't like to brag, but you see that spot?" I said, pointing to an area that I worked on. "I did that."
"Very nice," said Dan. "You are no longer suspended. I am reinstating you."
"Thanks," I said. "On the next job, maybe the crew can do something about the holes in my head."