The Boston “Sweep Van Experience”

By | September 8, 2019

So, Carole and I spent the weekend in a 12-passenger van driving around Boston and environs; Carole was navigator and I was driver. We served as “Sweep Van B” for the 2019 New England Susan G Komen 3-Day. We had walked in the Twin Cities 3-Day a few weeks ago, and this was kind of our chance to pay back the incredible work of the Minneapolis/St Paul 3-Day crew by serving as crew ourselves in Boston and environs.

We had a theme for our van and everything! We chose “Under the Sea” as our theme, decorated our van with fun underwater props and decorations, and even dressed as though we were on an underwater expedition — Carole as a mermaid, and me in snorkeling gear. Carole got a lot of attention because her costume really did look pretty snazzy. I was just a weirdo in a shortie wet suit, mask, and snorkel who occasionally put fins on when I was standing by the van cheering walkers passing by. (I did not drive with the mask actually over my eyes; I’m not a complete idiot.) We passed out lots and lots and lots of Swedish Fish candy and the walkers we gave lifts to were surprisingly very glad to get them — apparently Swedish Fish are a lot more popular than I’d previously realized.

We had a playlist of underwater-themed music (think “Octopus’s Garden” and “Under the Sea” and stuff like that) to blast out the windows of our van as we drove the route — playing music loud enough to be heard by the walkers is meant to help them know you’re there and available. It’s frustrating as heck to realize too late that a sweep van just drove by you and you didn’t notice in time to raise your arms over your head in an X to signal for a lift. The music didn’t work as well as we’d have liked: Boston traffic is loud. Carole had to spend a good bit of time leaning out of her passenger-side window flat-out calling out to walkers who looked especially tired, “You okay? You okay? You there — you look marvelous!”

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Was it fun? Well…

Serving as sweep driver for three days in Boston-area traffic was exhausting. The proverbial aggressive Boston driver is not a myth — I cannot tell you how many times I carefully signaled a lane change and had a car barrel up and cut me off. When you drive an event vehicle at a 3-Day the organizers emphasize safety, caution, and so on, and so on. And then they tell you what to do if and when you get into an accident, give you paperwork to document what happened, tell you who to call and in what order… and wait for the semi-inevitable “oh God” moments when someone does side-swipe three parked cars or worse, actually has a fender bender with another vehicle.

I very much did not want to be That Guy, the one who had to call in to 3-Day command with a “um, so…” call from the scene of an accident. But as a result, I spent all weekend gripping the steering wheel for dear life, ready to make emergency evasive maneuvers as needed. My hands literally hurt tonight on the drive home from Boston. Carole served as navigator and an extra pair of eyes and she was worn out from the stress.

But … I didn’t wreck, didn’t scrape any other vehicles, didn’t run into anything, didn’t run over anyone. As I joked at one point, I call that a win.

The 3-Day is a positive, life-affirming experience most of the time. But then there’s having to drive five miles out of your way because you missed a turn and you can’t get safely turned around what with traffic and one-way streets and all that. Repeatedly. It was especially aggravating the first day as the route took us through the narrow winding streets of Charlestown and the North End, with traffic so bad that on occasion it took us a half hour to circle back to a point on the route three blocks behind us where we’d been informed that walkers were waiting for pickup. (By the time we got there, of course, the walkers had either given up and kept walking, called an Uber or Lyft, or, if they were lucky, been able to flag down one of the other six sweep vans as it came by.) We heard repeatedly that walkers simply didn’t see any sweep vans on Friday — we were just lost in the hurlyburly of Boston traffic.

One nice little detail from the weekend: we heard from several walkers that they didn’t realize that Carole and I were actually a married couple crewing together because we were being too nice/courteous/civil to each other as we drove around, even when things around us were absolutely crazy.

I. Am. Not. Kidding.

Our passengers were those walkers who were tired, sore, injured, etcetera (or who really, really needed to get to a bathroom). All lovely, pleasant people, a pleasure to serve and ride and talk with. We were honored to serve them. Many of them are breast cancer survivors, and every one of them cared enough to raise at least $2,300 in order to walk in the event. So there was that. Awesome people. Inspiring. Getting to be of service to such people was why Carole and I wanted to volunteer at the event. We got to see a few old acquaintances when we did stop for a few minutes at pits and even gave a couple of them rides, and that was nice.

But then there’s the downside — missing out on all the other parts of the 3-Day. The unfortunate thing about long hours spent in a sweep van is that you really miss out on a lot of the 3-Day experience; you don’t get to spend much time at pits or at lunch other than when you’re dropping off walkers, and you don’t get to visit with the people who don’t need a lift. You wave as you drive by them, and hope you don’t miss them signaling for a ride, but you don’t get to hear their stories or find out what motivates them to walk.

In principle, we could have done some of the socializing on Friday and Saturday evening at “camp” (the evening events and walker accomodations were in hotels this year, but we’re used to calling the event site “camp”).

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That was the theory, anyway.

However… Carole and I were assigned a hotel two miles or so from the two main event hotels — just luck of the draw. Our hotel was right next to the vehicle lot, which was convenient, but it meant that we had to shuttle over to “camp” if we wanted to take part in 3-Day evening stuff. The shuttles were vans like ours, driven by crew like us, fighting traffic back and forth the whole way between hotels, just like us. What sounded good in theory (shuttling people to camp from our hotel and back again) didn’t work out so well in practice.

We did go over to camp the first night (Friday), but shuttling to the “camp” hotel where all the 3-Day festivities were being held took an hour, and after dinner we were too tired to function. We waited for a half hour for a shuttle to take us back to our hotel but the shuttles were all stuck in Friday night traffic, so we walked back. It was faster.

On Saturday, we didn’t even bother going back over. My day had started at 5 am driving hotel-to-hotel shuttles (in much lighter traffic, admittedly, than at dinnertime on Friday) before starting our sweep van work, and by evening, I had no gas left in my tank, so to speak. We simply weren’t up for another hour shuttling back to camp and another hour shuttling back so we missed out on the honor ceremony and other aspects of camp life. We had dinner near our hotel and then we crashed for the night.

I don’t think anyone missed us when we didn’t appear at camp on Saturday night. We certainly didn’t get any messages saying “hey, where are you?” and that’s good, in a way. I used to be very obnoxious, if I do say so myself, about getting noticed at a 3-Day, wearing my pink hard hat and doing a lot of rah-rah social media posting before and during the event. When I look back on all that, all I can think is that making such a spectacle of myself, well intentioned or otherwise, detracted from the real purpose of the event, celebrating those fighting breast cancer and remembering those we’ve lost. If I’ve managed to become sufficiently invisible that most people don’t even know I’m at a 3-Day, then I guess I’m doing something right. It’s not supposed to be about me; it never should have been.

I should give credit, by the way, to our awesome sweep captains, Melissa and Ryan, who got to spend their weekend sitting at a table back at the camp hotel, up on the sixth floor next to the medical area, watching our transponders move around a map of Boston on their laptops and fielding calls and texts from us and from other 3-Day crew as to who was where with how many walkers and who was available to pick someone up at such-and-so location. They had things very well organized and kept our crew of seven sweep vans (two crewmembers each, driver and navigator) busy.

The most important detail from the weekend, though, is simply this: the 1200+ walkers and crew who took part in this year’s New England 3-Day raised $2.9 million dollars for the fight against breast cancer. That’s a serious chunk of change and Carole and I are proud to have played a role, however small, in making it all happen.

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