Alley's potholes paved with good intentions

November 13, 1999|By Rob Kasper

AN OPTIMIST is a guy who believes the potholes in the alley are half full, not half empty.

That is what I told myself this week as I made yet another phone call trying to get the potholes fixed in a two-block stretch of the alley running behind my house. It was the third time in four months that I had called "pothole central" (technically, the complaint line run by the Baltimore City Public Works Department).

Every time I call I try to be as upbeat as the cheerful fellow who answers that phone. By now I am on a first-name basis with Alvin.

The first time I called I reported that one pothole was so deep it should have a "no fishing" sign posted on it. Alvin liked that and chuckled as he entered my name, address and the location of the potholes in a computer. We shared a good laugh. But other than producing some merriment, my phone call produced no change on the pothole front.

So the next time I called I told Alvin that the potholes were still there but that my neighbors had spotted a fellow in a city car, studying the potholes.

Alvin again took my name, address, phone number and the location of the potholes. He assured me that the sighting of the man in the car was a good sign. The man, I was told, was probably a pothole "scout" who would size up the damage, then dispatch a repair crew. I hung up feeling confident that any day now, the pothole cavalry would come roaring the alley.

After waiting another month and seeing no sign of the cavalry, I called again. This time as Alvin took down my name, address, telephone number and the location of the potholes, he noted the fact that one of the holes, the one behind my house, had been made by a city work crew. This notation, Alvin and I agreed, might help spur the pothole troops into action.

That hole appeared in the alley back in August, after a city crew fixed a leaky water main. To get to the broken pipe, the crew had to crack open the pavement and dig a hole. After they had fixed the pipe, they filled the hole with dirt. Given the smooth operation of this crew, I felt confident that a follow-up team would arrive on its heels and put an asphalt patch over the dirt hole.

When they didn't, I called the city operator, who transferred me to the pothole line. That is how I began talking with Alvin. That was four months ago. By now I feel so comfortable talking with him that we tell each other jokes. The other day, in between filing another report on my potholes, he told me a joke about the new headlights on his brother-in-law's van. I would repeat it, but you have to have been there, on the pothole line, to appreciate it.

Being an optimist, I have worked up several upbeat explanations of why the alley potholes remain unfilled.

One guess is that the really deep pothole, the one that should have a no-fishing sign on it, is part of an educational experiment. I think this because the massive crater, and a number of smaller potholes, sits next to the staff parking lot of Mount Royal Elementary School, one block down the alley.

My guess is that a geography teacher at the school had seized on the appearance of the potholes as a "teaching opportunity," a chance to show the kids a model of the Great Lakes. That is why, I surmise, the holes aren't being filled.

This theory makes some sense for two reasons. First, about two years ago, a map of the United States was painted on the school playground.

I thought the map was a terrific idea, an easy way to show the kids the layout of this great land. I even used it from time to time. When, for example, I had trouble remembering exactly where Wyoming was located, I would walk down to the playground and look up Wyoming, sitting right below Montana. Using holes in the alley to teach the kids about the Great Lakes, I figured, was another example of this inventive tutorial technique.

Moreover, the other day when I studied the largest of the potholes, I saw that it bore a striking resemblance to Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Pretty soon I could, with a little imagination, see the other lakes -- Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario -- right there in the pitted asphalt.

Sadly, my theory of alley potholes as teaching tools, turned out to be wrong. When I called the school office yesterday I was told the teachers are not using the craters as instructional aids. I was also told the teachers are up to their hubcaps in frustration over having to dodge the potholes every time they drive out of the parking lot.

That leaves me with several, not so optimistic, reasons why the potholes haven't been filled. One is that the pothole cavalry has other battles to fight, ones it considers more important than the craters in an alley. Another is that the Public Works Department, like many city agencies, is "in transition" as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke prepares to leave office and mayor-elect Martin J. O'Malley prepares to takes over.

Then there is the chance, always possible in the modern world, that computers have taken all my vital pothole information and sent it into cyberspace.

The experience of trying to get the potholes fixed has taught me things. I have learned, for example, that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are connected by the Straits of Mackinac. I looked up that fact up in an encyclopedia after studying the Great Lakes look-alike potholes in the alley.

And while I enjoyed my regular chats with Alvin, it is time to move on.

The optimist in me believes that once a new administration is in City Hall, there will be fresh asphalt in every pothole, even the ones in alleys.

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