Sean O’Leary rumbled down a Wantagh street blanketed with snow, deftly maneuvering his hulking plow — a green garbage truck fitted with a 15-foot-wide blade.
On a blizzard-like day, O’Leary was viewed by many as a savior.
He stopped a couple of times to rescue stranded motorists. Kids happy to have a snow day waved and begged him to blast his horn, and he obliged. One man flagged him down to offer a tip, which he politely declined.
O’Leary’s mission Thursday was to make roads passable — “I want to see blacktop” — but as some of the powder flew into Cypress Street driveways, he sighed. He knew those residents would be annoyed.
“I don’t enjoy putting snow in their driveways,” the Town of Hempstead sanitation department employee said.
But, he reasoned, what if one of those annoyed residents had a heart attack? An ambulance would need to get there fast.
O’Leary, 30, a former Elmont firefighter who lives in Merrick, started his 12-hour day around 5:40 a.m., and by 7 a.m., he was out plowing. He allowed a Newsday reporter to join him for a few hours on his four-neighborhood route in Wantagh and Seaford.
He steered the 15-ton rig with his left palm, saving his right hand to operate the plow.
“You’ve just got to feel it out with the blade,” he said as he cleared a section of Beech Street in Wantagh.
He plowed each street four times: twice up the middle in alternating directions; twice along the curbs. It can take 15 minutes to plow a single street — and if the snow keeps falling, the cycle never ends.
“It looks like I didn’t touch it,” he said as he circled back at 2:45 p.m. to one of the first streets he plowed.
When it’s not snowing, O’Leary drives a recycling truck for the town.
“When I was younger, I was obsessed with street sweepers,” he said. “Anything big and loud and strong.”
He’s been plowing for about 10 years. He usually plays the radio and will sometimes pause to do a few jumping jacks in the snow to stay sharp.
The toughest part of the job, he said, is when residents throw their shoveled snow into the street rather than onto the front lawn.
“I feel bad for these people. They shoveled out, and I have to plow them back in again,” he said. “There’s really nothing I can do.”