augury doggerel

Sunday, February 17, 2002

Central Heating

As I wrote not long ago, we get our heat through wasteful underground pipes from a distant steam-generating plant. Every fall, central planners turn on the heat according to a formula that takes into account how cold it has been on consecutive nights. Then they blast steam out to us until sometime in spring, when a similar formula tells them that it is warm enough for the people to do without heat.

Many people also get their hot tap water from the central plant, though of course they need hot water year round. That's a problem, because these plants need to be shut down and renovated each year. For a couple of weeks, sometimes a month, depending on how long it takes to complete annual scheduled maintenance, they do without hot water. But you are warned when such maintenance is coming, and you can get by. When I lived in a place like that, I used to boil a kettle and wash myself from a bucket each morning. Where I live now, we make our own hot water year round with a little gas heater* mounted over the bathtub.

It's not so simple when you unexpectedly have no heat in winter. There is trouble between the steam-generating plant and our part of town. The big white radiators under our windows have been cold and quiet since Valentine's Day. Meanwhile, temperatures drop below freezing at night and don't rise much above it during the day.

The heat hasn't failed in grandma's part of town, so we have shipped the kid away for the duration. That leaves the woman, the cat, and me. We could buy a space heater, but they're too expensive for what we continue to hope will be brief discomfort, and space heaters aren't much good for heating more than one room.

The woman and the cat have found their own solution: because I am the largest source of heat in the place and will lie still for ages if I have a book, I am quite in demand as a sort of hot water bottle that makes tea, keeps bowls full, and scratches backs. I cannot hold still for ten minutes without becoming someone's furniture. I am being slept upon.

* They call one these little water heaters a Junkers for the same reason people call a vacuum cleaner a Hoover and a disposable handkerchief a Kleenex. Junkers, a German conglomerate, also made the dive bombers that screamed down on this country in the autumn of 1939.


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