Modern Times, Old Buildings
In this episode, Dan Holohan shares some entertaining tales about troubled heating systems and human nature.
We once had our office in a storefront in Beautiful Bethpage on the Isle of Long. We had hot-water heat, with baseboard. It was very cozy in that office.
Before we moved there, we had the office next door. That one had steam heat, which rattled and knocked like an angry old man, and the landlord wasn't the least bit interested in any of this. The Lovely Marianne, my wife and business partner, hated that heating system because it put out more heat than a squad of cheerleaders, and she is a bit older than most cheerleaders and not a fan of rooms that are too hot. Neither were the ladies that worked with her. Marianne also hated our old landlord because he kept telling her that this is the way steam heat works, and that there’s not much anyone can do about it. She glared at him and he, in turn, spent as little time as possible in our office because The Lovely Marianne can be a fearsome woman.
He showed up during the first winter of our stay in his building with some insulation for the pipes. “Try putting this on the pipes,” he said to her. “It’s like a blanket and it will keep the office from getting too hot.” The Lovely Marianne accepted the insulation and gave him a look that could curdle milk. He left and I arrived and slid the insulation over the pipes. I also closed the radiator valves on the one-pipe steam radiators. That only made the radiators bang all the more because the valves were old and they didn't seat properly. They leaked steam into the massive cast-iron, column radiators, causing them to rumble and bang. All of which reminded Marianne how much she despises both this particular steam-heating system and the landlord.
The system had two thermostats but no zones. There was a residential tenant directly above us who regularly let the water in his tub overflow down onto our file cabinets. The landlord’s response to this was to buy Marianne a tall plastic garbage pail. He told her to place it on top of the file cabinets, the thinking being that it’s easier to catch the water than it is to attempt to change human nature. And since we were the ones doing the catching, this was an easy decision for him to make.
The guy upstairs had a Honeywell T87 thermostat, and so did we. Either thermostat could start the oil burner, but not both at the same time because there was also a toggle switch that was wired in series with the two thermostats. We had the toggle switch in our space, so we got to make the decision as to who had heat and who didn’t. This was the landlord’s idea. His reasoning was that we could toggle the heat on during our regular office hours, and then toggle it in the tenant’s favor when we left for the day. This happened around the same time that the tenant was returning from work, so it all should work out. The landlord figured it was like passing a baton in a relay race.
Now, because there was no zoning in this building, everyone got heat all the time. It really was a question of how much heat. During the day, The Lovely Marianne would toggle and then turn our thermostat down to 50 degrees, which throttled her office air temperature down to a mere 80 sweltering degrees. I was working at home at the time, and tried my best to mind my own business. However, when The Lovely Marianne did this, the upstairs apartment was, of course, cooler, perhaps 60 degrees because this system was also completely out of balance, due to the air vents being both older than the building, and more clogged than the Long Island Expressway. There was also the steam boiler's near-boiler piping to consider. It was as wrong as mortal-sin, and the boiler contained water that looked like it was left over from Woodstock. The insulation was gone from the pipes in the basement, where we stored all of the books that I had written about solving heating problems. These books sat heavy on pallets, basking in the heat.
Whenever the upstairs tenant let his tub overflow down onto our file cabinets, The Lovely Marianne would get even by forgetting to toggle his heat on as she left for the day – or for the weekend. And that would get the landlord out of bed because the tenant wasn’t at all bashful about using his telephone as a bludgeon.
We take justice where we can in this world.
Our daughter Meghan went to college in Massachusetts. She’s very smart, and her school is old and famous. During her junior year, she lived in a garden apartment that I thought was pretty decent. She was on the third floor (there were no elevators) and she had two roommates. They spent a good year together and there were plenty of parties. I’d stop by to visit whenever I was passing through. The hallways reeked of beer and vomit, but Meg assured me that neither came from her or her roommates. “That’s just the way college smells, Dad,” she said.
For her senior year, they all moved to another apartment. They were very excited to be able to get into this place. In fact, she and her roommates had to apply two years in advance to get into this place. It was on the choicest street in the entire college neighborhood, the place where all the cute guys lived, the epicenter of beer and vomit, and they were delighted. “What’s it like there, Meg?” I asked.
“It’s wonderful, Dad,” she said. “We’re going to have such a good time.”
“Isn’t that the street where the police spend most of their weekends arresting three-quarters of the student body?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s not that bad, Dad,” she said. They signed the lease and that was that.
I drove there with her late that summer and schlepped her furniture and many boxes of belongings up a steep flight of rickety stairs. The rats helped me carry things. “Isn’t it wonderful!” Meghan said. “We’re going to have so much fun this year!”
I bit my tongue. What else could I do? The lease was signed and the blind enthusiasm of youth filled the hearts and minds of Meghan and her roommates.
When we got into the apartment I immediately looked around for the steam radiators because that is what I do. I look for radiators. Always.
I glanced around and saw nothing. So I glanced upward, looking for ductwork. Nothing. Radiant, perhaps? I looked down at the cracked linoleum and knew that the only pipes under this floor would be the sewer lines, and probably cracked ones.
“There is no heating system in this house.”
“Oh, don't be ridiculous, Dad. There has to be a heating system. This is the Twenty-First century. All houses have heating systems!”
I looked around again, just to be sure. “Meg, there’s no heating system in this house. I know this for certain because that is my business. To look at heating systems. There is no heating system here.”
“Oh, Dad, don’t worry about it. I’ll ask the landlord.”
I looked over at some wires that were sticking out of a crack in the plaster wall. “I’ll bet he’s going to show up with some electric space heaters on the first cold day,” I said. “Who’s paying the electric bill on this place?”
“I am,” Meghan said. “Well, actually you are, but you know what I mean.”
Some weeks went by and she drove herself and the rest of her stuff to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the first day of classes. She called me one chilly evening. “I found out how we heat our apartment,” she said. “The landlord came by and he showed us.”
“Oh, and how is it done?” I said.
“We have to turn on the stove,” she said.
“The stove? You’re heating that place with the stove!”
“Yes, the landlord said that it’s a very special stove and that this is how everyone in the city heats their apartments. It’s special. It gets really hot and that’s how it works. He told us to keep all our bedroom doors open, and the bathroom door open, too, and to use some fans to blow the heat around if it got too cold during the winter.”
“Oh,” I said.
“See? I told you there was nothing to worry about. We do have a heating system!”
I stopped by a few weeks later. The place smelled like college and everyone was delighted with their living arrangements. It was all so . . .very. . . Twenty-First Century.
I must be getting old.
Well, I hope you liked that one, and if you did, please share it around. And if you haven’t subscribed to this podcast yet, please do because I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. I’m really enjoying hanging out with you. Thanks for being here.