Preparedness Lost, and Regained

During the last twenty-four hours, the weather app on my phone has variously told me that my area is slated to get, in no particular sequence — three inches of snow, five inches of snow with a trace amount of ice, rain, freezing rain, rain and snow, snow then rain, and thirteen inches of snow. Needless to say, I live in New England and we’re ten days into what most calendars want us to believe is “spring.” But we New Englanders are smarter than our calendars. Our shovels, if put away, are still accessible. Our boots are still in our mudrooms. Our sweaters and coats are in bins ready to put away, but not quite in the cellar yet. And a shift in the wind still carries the wary possibility of snow.

So when I saw our forecast, I felt the usual springtime New England emotions — frustration and acceptance, but not concern. Never concern. That is, until I checked on my rock salt. It was gone.

A homeowner who leaves their shovel in the shed overnight deserves the cold, wet punishment of retrieval the next morning.

I felt immediate shame at the prospect of not having a way to melt ice. In the Northeast preparedness, not cleanliness, is what sits next to godliness. A neighbor whose snowblower runs out of gas is a pitiable creature; a homeowner who leaves their shovel in the shed overnight deserves the cold, wet punishment of retrieval the next morning; a couple that faces a storm without salt is just reckless, if not fully insane. For this reason, I couldn’t rely on a neighbor for help. Sure, they would help me in a heartbeat because they’re good people. But in asking for this kind of help, I’d be revealing my worthlessness. Asking your neighbor for salt in a snowstorm is like borrowing water from your friend’s canteen in the wilderness; you clearly lack self-control, you obviously don’t belong here, and where did it all go? Unwilling to exchange self-respect for charity, I headed to Home Depot.

My first stop was to the section with all the shovels. At the outset, I harbored no misconceptions. This is spring, and there wouldn’t be boxes and boxes of ice melt lining the aisles, which is normal during December, January, and February. But there would definitely be a small stock of salt or ice melt somewhere in the store. I went up and down the aisle, then to the adjacent aisles, and finally circled the area like a bird of prey. No salt. On a whim, I headed to the main aisles where the salt lived out in the open during the winter months. Nothing, no surprise there. At this point, I swallowed my pride and headed to customer service.

Customer service in Home Depot is where men go to admit that they don’t belong there. Everyone in line looks about as though they were cheating on their spouse and waiting to get caught. Every inquiry is made in hushed tones in the hope of drawing less attention. I mean, if you don’t know how to find stuff here, why don’t you just go to Lowe’s? My turn came and I timidly approached the counter.

“Is there any rock salt?” I asked quietly.

“What?” said the lady.

“Rock salt,” I said, starting to doubt the forecast, “for the storm coming?” I added that last part to justify my question in case any others were listening in.

“Hang on.”

And why include that detail? Now I sounded like an alarmist.

She called an older associate to the counter and, in a voice loud enough for someone in the contractor’s section to hear, yelled, “TIM, THIS GUY’S LOOKING FOR ROCK SALT. HE SAYS IT’S FOR A STORM.” Not ‘a’ storm, I thought. And why include that detail? Now I sounded like an alarmist. My desperate last-minute search was now on display, and I’m sure one passing man shook his head. My justification had backfired.

Tim turned out to be a nice guy. We took a walk to the outdoor section where he asked another associate about my rock salt. The other man shook his head, said something inaudible, and pointed back inside. We went to the section where I had started and confirmed my assessment that it wasn’t where it should have been. Circling back to customer service, Tim went up to a different person behind the counter and explained our problem. This person asked if we checked outside or in the shovel aisle. Tim nodded, and the customer service associate shook his head and said, “then we must be out. But if you go to plumbing, you can get some water softener. Basically the same thing.”

I left the store. I realize now, thanks to a rudimentary Google search, that this associate was correct; it looks like water softener will do the trick in lieu of rock salt. But if I were to head to the plumbing section at the behest of a store associate, I would be admitting that I indeed did not belong in Home Depot. Instead, I’ll keep this trick under my belt for the future, should I ever need rock salt again. For the present, I was still out of luck. Pride can be an ugly thing. But, as I alluded to before, pride is all a New Englander has during a snowstorm.

After Home Depot, I tried two more big stores, but they had also traded in their bags of salt for bags of mulch and grass-seed. I dealt with customer service at both locations with an increasingly cavalier attitude. At this point, I was a crusader of preparedness fighting against the dark forces of ignorance in corporate chains who scheduled their products based on arbitrary dates instead of forecasts and local knowledge. At each location, store clerks were more and more embarrassed that their stores couldn’t supply my need; they were feeling the shame of being New England purveyors unprepared for the reality of an early April snowstorm.

At the last location, I was fortunate enough to cross paths with one of New England’s finest practitioners of divination and problem-solving: the unwelcome eavesdropper. A middle aged woman wearing a waterproof coat, tattered gray pullover sweatshirt, worn out jeans, and Asics crosstrainers heard my conversation from two checkout lanes away.

“Hey,” said a gravelly voice, coming from across the store, “have you tried Monnick?” She had a heavy New England accent.

“Is that the one on 85?” I asked. The best way to respond to an eavesdropping New Englander is with an address.

“That’s it.”

“Thanks.”

“Uh huh.” She waved her hand dismissively, walked outside, lit a cigarette, and wandered away into the universe.

I want to believe that Monnick had my rock salt simply because they’re free to make irresponsible decisions about ice melt during March.

In the end, Monnick had what I needed. I’m convinced that the universe was telling me that I should have tried the local business before any of these other corporate entities. Four years in Marlborough and I’d never gone there. The local business keeps stock based on what’s going on around town, not a shipment calendar involving fifty states and just as many countries. I want to believe that Monnick had my rock salt simply because they’re free to make irresponsible decisions about ice melt during March. This type of rationalized chaos lies happily at the heart of American small business. In all likelihood, they only had my rock salt because everyone else had gone to Home Depot and never crossed paths with my mysterious smoking guide. But I will choose to believe that I am now prepared because I went to a business that is free to take wild risks, like stocking rock salt on a March 30 when the high hit fifty-two degrees. How curious that a decision uninformed by data analysis might lead to a happy customer. This type of paradox appeals to me, and on that basis alone, I might be done with Home Depot.

Whatever the reason for Monnick still carrying rock salt, I have the means to fight ice, another local business has another new customer, and, most importantly, this New Englander’s pride will remain fully intact.

So long as I avoid Home Depot’s customer service line.

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