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The black holes that could swallow a city


Forget "Holes," the movie. Holes, New York City, has been providing some first-class entertainment around here.

The saga began when the snow finally melted in February. After a particularly harsh winter, the streets of New York City cracked up. Not that New York didn't already have enough crazies. It now also had thousands of new potholes pockmarking every boulevard and street, every avenue and corner. There were cave-ins big enough to swallow a Mr. Softee truck in Queens! Gashes fierce enough to fell a Mercedes in Staten Island! Ruts so deep they ripped the rims right off cars on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx!

Now, there is no doubt that other cities have potholes. During the campaign for San Fernando Valley secession, the mayor of Los Angeles was making sure potholes in the Valley were filled within a day or so of being reported. New Yorkers are supposed to get theirs filled within a month, though they don't count on it.

New Yorkers are cocky and believe since they have the best and worst of everything, their potholes are far superior to anyone else's -- longer lasting, bigger, meaner, more destructive. It helps that they simply don't hold their cars in as high esteem as most Angelenos. You even see brain surgeons driving around in beat-up Toyotas!

But back to the story.

City Hall went on a major pothole offensive starting April 25. Pothole patrols were deployed throughout the five boroughs with the goal of filling 12,000 cavities in about 10 days. By Sunday, they'd filled 16,292 potholes. But the blitz did not go smoothly.

The Department of Transportation apparently had opened itself up to scrutiny as early as February when, after a 20-inch snowstorm followed by 2.5 inches of rain, it announced that the pothole problem this year was worse than it had been in almost a decade.

Months of snowstorms, downpours and seesawing temperatures -- compounded by ceaseless traffic -- had resulted in chewed-up streets. The mayor personally implored residents to report their worst encounters on New York roadways by calling 311, a new complaint hotline he's been promoting. The very next day 628 complaints poured in.

But who needs 311 when you live in a city with competing tabloids?

The New York Post went undercover and found pothole crews spending more time filling up on coffee than filling craters. The March 3 Post headline read "Pour-Excuse Road Crews Spend Day Sitting on Their Asphalt."

The New York Daily News chased that exclusive with a lengthy "special report" on the ugly state of New York's byways and asked readers to submit their worst pothole for "Pothole of the Day."

For days, the News has been running huge photographs of collapsed roads and describing the victims, their broken axles and bent rims. Then the News went undercover. A four-man DOT crew was trailed and caught shopping at a men's clothing store and visiting the home of one of the workers on city time. The headline: "Asphalt Bungle." The four workers were suspended without pay.

DOT spokesman Tom Cocola, a self-proclaimed "seasoned veteran" of follow-the-crew scandals, maintained his equilibrium Thursday morning after reading the Daily News' report.

"There's nothing more New York than potholes and there's nothing more New York than people complaining about them," he told me calmly. "We understand that, we appreciate that and our folks try to do their best, but .... " Then he trailed off and offered his 24-hour beeper number in case new headlines over the weekend needed to be put in perspective.

It's difficult to determine which is more an annual rite of spring here -- the potholes or the muckraking about the repair crews. New York annually fills more than 100,000, and it admits that that's only three-quarters of the holes that need filling.

Certainly it's easy to be disgusted by the slothful behavior of civil servants who know their department is in the hot seat and then shun their work. But it's hard not to be sympathetic to people who spend their days shoveling hot asphalt while being shouted at by motorists and lectured at by the neighbors.

And so, to get the flavor of the problem, this reporter embedded with one such crew in Queens last week. The only guideline was that she agreed not to sue if her rusted green station wagon ended up in a gully.

Bob Nagdek, the crew supervisor, has spent 18 years scraping and repaving roads in Queens. With more roads than any other of the five boroughs, Queens is to potholes as Napa is to wine. Queens has all sizes of holes; it has cave-ins, sinkholes, cut holes, push-ups, collapsed sewers.

"We will be doing this for the rest of our lives," Nagdek, 38, said, watching his men repair a 3-foot-long chasm on Ditmars Boulevard near LaGuardia Airport. "It's hard to find ways to motivate the guys."

The only diversion is the stuff workers find in the holes -- sometimes enough to outfit a starter apartment. Toaster ovens, trash cans, chairs, mattresses, even wedding rings.

But, after a morning with Nagdek's crew, "the rest of our lives" felt like it would be an eternity.

Maybe it was the smell of 200-degree asphalt as it's being poured.Or maybe it's the fumes of trucks whizzing by and motorists angrily shaking their heads at the crew for holding up traffic. Or maybe it was the complaint from Zeathea Gordon.

The noise from trucks roaring across potholes on Ditmars has been keeping the retired utility company manager up nights, she said, and shaking the shingles on her old wooden house. "When I have company over, they have to drive through the potholes to get into my driveway," she told Nagdek. "It's an embarrassment. They look at me as if to say, 'Why do you still live in this kind of neighborhood?' "

Nagdek listened politely and returned to pouring hot tar.

"I can see it now," he said. "Right under the headline 'Tariq Aziz Spills His Guts in Iraq,' there'll be another one: 'Bob Nagdek Fills Another Pothole in Queens.' "

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