05 Mar. 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

My Home Town

I remember Sam, he was the village idiot,
And though it seems a pity, it
Was so.
He loved to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done,
Because he was the mayor's son.

In my last blog, a compulsive recitation of all the politicians (including four mayors!) I could remember meeting listed among them the mayor of the town in which I live.  I neglected to mention the circumstance, which, remarkably, is the antithesis of the Tom Lehrer verse above.  I had just bought my house in New Jersey a couple of months before, and was shuttling between locations with stuff and with things.  I wasn't spending every night in NJ, which makes this coincidence more remarkable.  One night, when I arrived at the house, I found it to be in the process of burning to the ground.  I have absolutely no doubt that this process would have completed itself within a couple of hours, since there was an enormous, roaring pillar of flame coming from the hot water heater temperature control valve and shooting up toward the beams in the basement.  This was in winter, and I didn't know the housal systems well enough to find the gas shut-off valve in the dark.  I didn't have a cellphone and nobody else did either, it being 1985.  But I did have a radiophone, nerd that I was and am, and used it to call the fire department, which appeared within minutes and put the fire out.

This was my first acquaintance with volunteer fire departments.  It was also my first acquaintance with our mayor, who was a member, and who was among the crew that saved the house from total destruction.  I wasn't in much of a position to do more than issue thanks to the responders.  The basement was smoldering and I was totally without electricity, the wiring being within feet of the defective water heater.  So, thanks were issued, I used the radiophone to get an electrician on an emergency basis, and spent a very nasty and soggy late-night trying to get the house in a semblance of functionality.  Sunlight revealed that the major beams had only a superficial char and damage was limited to the immediate vicinity of the heater.  I have little charisma with water heaters, by the way.  I've had to replace them at least five times since I've been living here, once after only a little more than a year of operation.  The joys of homeownership!  And the true joy of small-town living.  I cannot picture John Vliet Lindsay coming to my rescue wielding an ax in his turnout coat.  (Oddly enough, I can picture Ed Koch doing so, but he wasn't called on in this case.)

I ran into the mayor for a second time a year or so ago at the same fire department breakfast at which I met the gregarious councilman.  I reminded him of the time that he saved my house from burning down, thus acquiring and keeping a loyal and thankful constituent.  Of course, after his acknowledgement, I couldn't resist asking "What have you done for me lately?"

I know what you're thinking:

Q:  Sure, Richard, when your house was in danger, Hizzonor himself came to put out the fire.  But what about the town library?  If you can't get books, you might as well have stayed in New York.

A:  Funny you should mention that, because I have a library story that goes with the fire story.  (It doesn't involve the mayor, so far as I know.)  (Or a fire.)  It, too, takes place shortly after I moved to New Jersey, in a time without internet access or online ordering.

I had discovered the existence of a book called "The Puzzle Palace," the story of the NSA (National Security Agency), and was keen to read it.  I decided to stop at the library, which I passed every day on the way to work.  I had neglected to check the library's hours, which I unthinkingly assumed to be conventional.  But no!  When I arrived at about 09:40, the doors were secured and a sign proclaimed that I would have to arrange my own amusement until 10:00.  I was looking for something to read when there was a tapping at the car window. 

A woman put me to the question: "Hello!  Are you waiting for the library to open?"  Assuming she was to be a fellow (so to speak) lingerer, I admitted that such was the circumstance.  "I work at the library.  Tell me what book you want and I'll check it out for you."  Being from New York, I immediately considered that this was a plot to hijack my library card or perhaps something even more sinister.  I rejected that notion as I recalled how easy it was to get my own library card, which I had done some weeks earlier.  She had heard of "The Puzzle Palace" and a few minutes later she fetched it to my car, still short of library opening time.  (Yes, she returned the card as well.)

This small but remarkable courtesy had quite the effect on me, as you can probably guess, since I'm talking about it 20 years after the event.  You don't get that kind of service by sitting in Bryant Park! 

This somewhat disjointed blogitem began with a random connection of the mayoral persuasion, and was going to end with a bit of a paean to small-town living.  However I took a break right before finishing and happened to read a recently-posted "recycled" Dave Barry column about "The Art of Cooking."  It contained the following sentence:

"Carmelize eight minced hamouti kleebers into a reduction of blanched free-range whelk corneas.''

Small town living is pretty good, but it lacks the concentrated risibility of Dave's sentence, and sometimes you just have to go for the guffaw.

NP:  "In a Reverie" - Lacuna Coil

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