Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Visit from the Gas Man

I’ve heard tales of elderly so lonely that they invent excuses to talk on the phone or have another human being visit. Calling 9-1-1 to generate a visit can lead to a visit to Harborview for psychiatric evaluation and charges of making a false report. At the risk of starting a trend of false reports, there’s another number to call that is sure to produce a knock on the door. This is a call to the toll-free number of Puget Sound Energy Services, formerly known for their flame building on Mercer Street and the simple acronym of WNG.

I really don’t like to call their toll free number when I smell gas because right from the first prompts, it seems to push my phone call into an emergency category that I don’t feel is warranted. I’d like another choice. “If there’s an infrequent, slight odor of gas, press 2 now.” But calling in any odor whatsoever prompts the two hour turnaround emergency service visit. Luckily there are no lights or sirens on this dispatch, just the distinctive hum of an industrial white van with a lot of horsepower. A service man, invariably smelling of cigarette smoke, knocks on the door and gives the relaxed smile of a man who is not expecting to blow up when he descends to my basement.

There should be a prompt for an odor that is so slight that it takes weeks to remember it once you’re away from the water heater and a few more weeks to actually call. “If you have an odor that only you can smell and you’ve been meaning to call for 6-7 weeks, please press 3 now.” In this case, I finally called at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. I was smelling the additive odor that they create to warn us of the odorless danger more frequently. The real danger was that the slight odor was giving me an urge to light a match by the water heater just to see if I was imagining the smell. When I actually looked around for matches I knew it was time to call.

“It’s just a slight odor,” I assured the chipper voice at the other end of my phone call.

“I’ll put this report into dispatch,” she said, “and the next available service person in your area will respond. It should be within two hours.” She said service person but I would bet my box of matches that it would be a man on my doorstep. My daughter had reported back on the Women in Trade Day at Seattle Center and although the utilities might have recruited some young women with the pole-climbing in special shoes, the energy companies had not won over any recruits by having the girls move dirt from one side of a ditch to the other. Plus they didn’t have good candy.

“For the sake of caution, don’t turn on any additional lights in the area, but feel free to vent the space by opening a window or door.”

“Okay, okay,” I agreed. Two hours, or less. I’d better get in the shower and get dressed before he showed up. I did consider that taking my hot shower two floors above would cause the pilot in the water heater to light the jets beneath the tank. If there was a gas leak the whole tank could explode. As I shampooed my hair I thought of how an explosion would probably blow the top off of my house. I hoped that the shower stall would stay intact, my own glass elevator into the sky.

There was no explosion. I didn’t really expect one, but then I hadn’t expected the Nisqually earthquake another time that I was beneath the showerhead. The gas man knocked at 9:15 a.m., a mere 45 minutes after my phone call. I was just dressed and my hair still dripped at my shoulders. He smelled of cigarette smoke and carried a big, yellow flashlight. He was downstairs for perhaps five minutes before he mounted the stairs and announced, “you’re not going to blow up. There was just a little leak at the pilot tube, but I’ve tightened it up.” He went to the big white van to complete the paperwork. In the box marked Leak Investigation, he had checked yes by methane present? I wondered if he was humoring me. I signed my name and he was gone by 9:25 a.m.

It takes me so long to check off other things on my list. I’ve been calling for 8 weeks about a billing error with Dynacare and I’ve spent over an hour in the last month tracking down an optical reimbursement. My tax guy is running late on my taxes, he made me do an extension just because all sort of delinquents decided to file this year. But one phone call to the gas company and 45 minutes later there’s a man with a flashlight and a smile at my door. He always comes when I call.


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