If this had been an actual emergency...

For the past few days, I've thought I might smell just a dash, just a soupçon, just one wafer-thin mint's worth of natural gas in the kitchen. I would sniff, and my wife would tell me I was crazy. It happens.

Last night I thought I smelled it, and this time my wife allowed as how she might smell it too. I didn't call ConEd immediately, having a vague memory of a similar situation in my Brooklyn apartment and being made to understand by the man who came to check it out that I had been kind of silly not to know this wasn't the dangerous kind of gas smell.

So I called up ConEd very late this morning, from work. In the voicemail treet, I deliberately did not choose the emergency options. I waited for a customer service representative. I said I might have smelled a little gas in my kitchen.

"What's your address, sir?"

I gave it, expecting that next we would schedule a little confab for later in the week at which I would sit home for hours wondering what time the gas man would deign to arrive, and the gas man would fritter away his day and finally show up with five minutes to spare before the end of the agreed-upon appointment window.

"Thank you," said the customer service guy. "Someone will arrive within forty-five minutes."

"Um." My brain shut down. "It was just— I was expecting— I'm not home. I'm calling from work."

"Sir, we take gas leaks seriously. They're very dangerous. We treat them as emergencies."

"But, I thought— I'm not—"

"Is someone home?"


"Is there a neighbor? A landlord?"

"No, there's not— I'm— Can't you—?"

"Sir, we dispatch these calls immediately. If they arrive and no one is home, they will break down the door. We treat these as emergencies."

I finally got my head around it. "So they're on their way."

"Yes, sir. Where are you?"

"In the city. How long do I have?"

"Zero to forty-five minutes, depending. Sir, I suggest you get there if you don't want your door broken down."

I dashed off a terse email to Paul Witcover, with whom I was supposed to have lunch, and dashed out the door. The elevator refused to come, so I ran down the stairs. I grabbed a cab on Park Avenue and directed it homeward.

As we flew up Park Avenue, I tried calling my wife, but she was doing presentations at work and didn't answer. I tried calling a friend who lives nearby to see if she was home or working today, but got no reply. I would have tried calling our other friends who might both have been home because they are moving out of state soon, but I needed to talk to the first friend to get their number.

I was thinking less about the doors to the building and the apartment than about Ella, and whether she would end up wandering the streets after the ConEd men burst through the splintered portals like Big Brother's henchmen.

The cab seemed to crawl. It was like a race against time from a movie, except it never seemed to end. Everything that could possibly get in the way did. Trucks backed up into intersections. People abandoned cars in the street. Vehicles failed to move in time at traffic lights and we missed our chances. Once we even lost precious moments when the light turned green and my own driver failed to notice. Traffic snarled and gridlocked. Traffic actually got worse in Queens the closer we got to home, and I watched the time edge past 25 minutes.

At 30 minutes, after I'd been calculating for some blocks at what point it would be faster to just hop out of the cab and run the rest of the way, we finally turned onto my street. I had 22 bucks already in my hand, my shoulder bag strapped around me, and my door keys at the ready. Heart in throat, I spied a ConEd van pulled over at the curb opposite our apartment. I scanned the front of the building from half a block away, but didn't think I could see any door-busting damage.

Then as we slowed down and I tossed the money at the driver through the plexiglas window, I saw one lone ConEd man loitering by the van. He wore a visored cap and had a long gray mustache. I hopped out of the cab almost before it had stopped and ran to the door, greeting the ConEd man over my shoulder.

As I hurriedly shoved aside the stack of mail that had been shoved through the door slot, I asked the ConEd man, "Have you been waiting long?"

"Just got here," he said.

He looked to me as if he had been loitering for a bit, but I was grateful and relieved (though my hands were still shaking) and I didn't want to push it. I warned him about the dog, burst into the apartment, shoved a very confused Ella out into the back yard and shut the door on her.

I was doing everything in movie-hero time.

The taciturn ConEd man checked the stove and told me we had a pilot light out. He relit it, then used a length of rubber hose connected to what looked like a small car battery with an LCD readout to check for natural gas. "Negative," he said. "You're fine."

And he left. And I joined the dog in the back yard, where she flung herself at me repeatedly and covered my head with licks while I let the jammering of my nerves dissipate.

Then it came to me. That's what the other guy had told me in Brooklyn that one time. One of my pilot lights had gone out then too, and he had shown me how to light it again. I wonder if I'll still remember this by the next time it happens.  

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill