Saturday, December 3, 2016

Who's On First? (revisited)

What started as an attempt to be a responsible citizen ended up being one of the funniest stories my mother-in-law ever told me.

My mother-in-law, Ruth, who is in her 80s, is the picture of doing things the way she has always done them. It's a little problematic when someone wants to introduce something new to the routine, but it is great when there are things around the house that need doing. Every morning she gets up and begins her routine. Every week she does the activities that don't need to be done daily. She even has a few activities that fall into the once a month category. In order to respect her privacy I am going to skip most of the details of all of those things. But I suppose, if you were to imagine her sitting at the kitchen table reading her German newspaper every morning, glass of orange juice by the top right corner of the page, antique letter opener within hands reach, it would be ok.  (she opens her mail as soon as it comes...she would never slide her finger inside an envelope)

Yes, she is a woman of routines. In fact, she even has a few yearly tasks as well. She calls to get her gutters cleaned like clockwork. She services things whose instruction manuals suggested yearly service would be a good idea. And she calls the power company every year as soon as fall starts moving into winter. It's this last activity that I want to talk about today.

There's one more thing I need to mention about Ruth. She has lost her sense of smell. The doctors say it happens more often than people might think and there isn't really anything that can be done about it. If she lived between a refinery and a garbage dump I'd say losing your sense of smell would be a blessing. She lives in a lovely little neighborhood so it's mainly a bother. My wife and I figure it is a side-effect of living with a chain-smoker for the better part of 50 years. (Raleigh....unfiltered)

Back to Ruth's routine. She saw in a news report that a woman's house had burned down because there was a problem with her heater. When the weather got colder this poor woman turned her heater on like she'd done every year. This particular year, however, there was a problem that caused a failure and that failure caused a fire. It wasn't her fault. As it turns out, the only way anyone would have known that there was a problem was if she had a technician come to her house, take apart a portion of the heater, and use a special meter that detects trace amounts of natural gas. To alleviate everyone's fears, and to be responsible journalists, the article went on to point out that many utility companies offer a free service where someone would come out to inspect heaters and gas lines for anyone in their service areas. Ruth called PG&E. They do indeed offer such a service. A routine was born. That routine led to a phone call a few years ago. Here is how, from what she told me, I imagine it went:

"PG&E can I help you?"
"Yes. I want to get my heater checked."
"There's a problem with your heater?"
"No I want to get it checked."
"Does your heater not turn on dear?"

As an aside, because I wasn't there to hear this and because I think it would be funnier juxtaposed with Ruth's thick German accent, the woman from PG&E is from the deep south.

"I don't know if the heater turns on."
"Is there someone there who can help you turn it on?"
"I don't want to turn it on right now."
"You don't want to turn on your heater on?"
"No. I want to turn my heater on...but I want to get it checked."
"OK Darlin', let me see. You want to turn on your heater but it won't turn on so you need to get it checked. Right?"
"No. I want to get my heater checked so I can turn it on."
"I'm gonna just suggest that you turn the thermostat up and let's see what happens."
"I want to get it checked before I turn it on."
"Sweetie, PG&E doesn't fix heaters. You need to call someone who works on them in order to do that."
"Well I want it done for free."
"Well bless your heart. You'll have to pay for someone to come fix your heater. Repairmen have to make a living too."
"I just want to make sure that my house doesn't burn down."

Suggesting that her house was going to burn down kicked it up a notch...and triggered what I'm sure is a checklist of questions that need to be asked in these instances. I also imagine that she is sitting up completely straight and holding her headset against her ear. They told her at her call center training that something like this might happen. Today might be that day. She was ready. At attention. Concerned.

"Are you in danger?"
"I don't know. That's why I want someone to come check."
"If you feel like you are in danger evacuate the area and...."
"I don't have to evacuate. I just want to be able to turn on my heater."

Next question on the checklist.

"Do you smell gas ma'am?"
"I don't smell anything."

Relaxing a little. "Oh, well if you don't smell gas that is a good sign."
Emphasizing... "I don't smell anything!"
"Right, if you smell gas you should leave the area but since you don't smell gas I think you should call a technician to come fix your heater."
"But I don't smell anything."
"Exactly. Not smelling anything is a good sign."
"No. I don't smell anything so I want to get my heater checked."
"If you don't smell anything, you don't need to get your heater checked. They put something into the gas that makes it smell like rotten eggs. Do you smell rotten eggs?"
"I don't smell anything!"
"Not great! I want to get my heater checked because I don't smell anything!"
"But Sugar, if you don't smell rotten eggs, I don't think there is a problem."
"I don't smell anything."
"Perfect! If you don't smell anything that's what we want."
"I want to smell something. I don't smell anything."
"Oh no ma'am. Smelling something means there's a leak and we can come take care of a leak. It is not a pleasant smell, that gas, you don't want to smell it."

Both exasperated at this point.

"Will you please just send someone to my house to check my heater?"
"I can send someone to your house to check your gas line if you think there's a problem but ordinarily you would smell the rotten egg smell. It's very noticeable."

In unison (much like Abbot and Costello at the end of "Who's on First?")

Heaven only knows how many times these two kept running around this conversational track always ending up at the same place they started but I am happy to report that the woman finally agreed, for self preservation's sake I'm sure, to send someone to Ruth's house. The PG&E technician that showed up was able to do, in person, what the poor woman could not hope to do over the phone. He cleared her heater for another year's usage and I got a story to tell.

Ironically, some months after this Sylvia and I happened to be over at Ruth's house when Sylvia turned on the heater. Thick smoke billowed out of all of her heater vents and filled the top foot and a half of her house with a haze in just about 30 seconds before we turned it off and called the fire department. We stopped it in time to prevent any damage and the fire department declared the house safe....but it smelled awful.

Ruth said, "I don't smell anything."


  1. this is great. I read once that loosing your sense of smell is an indication that some health issue is going on, but you say her Dr. knows so I'll just go with the funny part.