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Buttercup's lament


The city is still repairing the sidewalk outside our apartment building. That has meant hearing jackhammers and pavement saws when decent (and indecent) New Yorkers are still trying to sleep, breathing and walking through concrete dust, and learning a new maze every day to leave and enter our front door.

This week it has meant something else. The trees on our block are gone.

There are spaces in the new sidewalk for them, and perhaps they were removed for protection during the work. But this doesn’t seem ideal weather for transplanting trees. It’s approaching freezing, which means it’s almost time for me to put on socks.

We New Yorkers LOVE our trees. One of the producers I work with (who lives in our neighborhood) took an eight-week course and test so she could become a Citizen Tree Pruner, licensed to care for trees in all five boroughs.

In 1971, I accompanied a truckload of equipment from St. Petersburg, Florida to New York. One of the technicians I was with had never been out of Florida before. As we approached the Georgia border, he pointed to a scrawny leafy object beside the highway and sighed. “Too bad they don’t have any trees in New York.”

The equipment we were transporting was for one of the first computerized hotel in-room movie systems. It didn’t work very well.

The system was designed to use power lines to derive timing information. It turned out that the factory in St. Petersburg had four-phase power (something I’ve also encountered only at the 19th-century Academy of Music in Philadelphia). When the system was used with New York’s more common three-phase power, the main processing unit couldn’t properly identify the rooms.

We worked on the problem for a long time. One day, the sales manager came up with an idea. We could bill ALL the guests for buying movies, and, if anyone complained, we could cheerfully refund their money.

One of our utilities has decided that such a billing system is a brilliant idea. Our “local” telephone company, Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic, formerly Nynex, formerly New York Telephone), in the rush of trying to restore service to customers after September 11, got the New York Public Service Commission, without hearing or debate, to change its rules about service interruptions.

So people who have not had phone service since September 11 are nevertheless being billed for it. If they complain, Verizon cheerfully refunds their money. The new rules apply even if the service interruption has nothing to do with September 11. I suppose the extra money helps pay for all the name changes on stationery and signs.

It seems the American Red Cross has taken a similar tack. Stung by criticism that they were not planning to give 100% of the money they collected to September 11 victims, the Red Cross also offered to refund donations to any contributors who asked.

The Red Cross was planning on applying some of the money to their future disaster-relief efforts. On September 11, before there was such a thing as a September 11 fund, the Red Cross provided immediate relief services thanks to previous donations.

On Friday, the city’s Twin Towers Fund issued its first checks to the families of victims. But, according to a report in the New York Times, “the payments may violate the federal tax laws governing charities.” The problem seems to be that the IRS requires tax-exempt charities to serve (according to the Times) only those “in dire financial need”. Meanwhile, thanks to pensions and death benefits, the income of some victims’ families “is actually higher than it was before September 11.”

This charity business is a lot tougher than it looks. More than $1.3 billion has been collected thus far. A loss of tax-exempt status could affect donations from individuals and corporations like Verizon.

Verizon has offered to help people retrieve voice-mail messages associated with subscribers in the World Trade Center area. But, if those people don’t act now, the messages will be lost.

Another thousand people lost not just messages but all phone service after Monday’s plane crash. Millions of us would gladly have traded our phone service — and much more — to have saved even just one life.

The plane crash caused fewer power interruptions. Our other major utility, Con Ed, supplies the city’s three-phase (and other) electrical power. Con Ed stands for Consolidated Edison. It has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange longer than any other company — since James Monroe was president of the United States. It goes by the friendly symbol ED, even though it started as the New York Gas Light Company in 1823, 25 years before Thomas Edison was born.

In 1956, Con Ed got the nation’s first license to operate a commercial nuclear power plant. The first Indian Point reactor went on line in 1962. It is now under constant surveillance and protection by the coast guard and military forces — regardless of whether it’s working (and it often isn’t).

Thomas Edison’s first central power plant was on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from what is now “Ground Zero.” It was by no means New York’s first electric generating station. Long before Edison’s incandescent light bulb, New York had street lighting based on electric arcs. “Ground Zero” is again being lit by arc-based lights.

Nikola Tesla, the genius who made AC power practical, came to work for Edison at the Pearl Street station. We may never know exactly what passed between them, but it seems to have been something like this:

Edison sent Tesla to fix a dynamo on a ship berthed at a New York pier. Tesla fixed it and said he could improve the efficiency of Edison’s generators by 25%. Edison said he’d pay Tesla a bonus of $50,000 if it could be done. Tesla did it — and then some. When asked for the bonus, Edison told Tesla, who had been born in Eastern Europe, “When you’re a real American, you’ll appreciate our sense of humor.” Tesla quit and became a ditch digger. Then he did other things, including creating the electric power systems used throughout the world.

I wonder if someone like Tesla would be allowed even to enter the country today. He was strange. He requested 18 napkins when eating. He didn’t like to shake hands and was revolted by the thought of touching hair. He also claimed to be able to hear a fly landing in the next room. Many of his experiments were noisy and scary. He once knocked out power in Colorado Springs.

Might he have been accused of being a terrorist by the president and, therefore, subject to trial by a secret military tribunal operating outside the U.S.? That’s a possibility under the order signed by George W. Bush yesterday. Might my father, another Eastern European, have been declared a terrorist? He fought against us in World War I and entered the country illegally. The idea is chilling.

Florida is not known for its chill, even though we hear often of citrus growers in the state taking measures to protect their fruit from frost. When my associate from Florida arrived in New York in 1971, one of the first things to scare him was the steam emerging from the street.

I don’t think Con Ed distributes any four-phase power in New York, but they do distribute DC to some old buildings, gas, and, for heating, steam from the power-plant boilers. It’s common to see striped “chimneys” sitting on the streets of Manhattan spewing clouds of steam. Those temporary ducts are just to get the steam above windshields.

Whether it comes from Con Ed power plants or more local boilers, what warms most New Yorkers in the winter is steam heat. Aside from their drying effects, our pipes and radiators sometimes create another nuisance, loud hammering sounds as the gaseous and liquid parts of the heating systems equalize. The song from “The Pajama Game” captures the idea. The first line is “I got (BOOM! BOOM! BANG! BANG!) steam heat.”

Boom and bang are also the sounds of war. The Northern Alliance is now in Kabul, reportedly with a minimum of bang and boom. I’m glad about the lack of fighting. But United Nations warehouses have been looted, and there have been reports of atrocities.

The Northern Alliance is said to have told us they wouldn’t rush into Kabul. But, after the Taliban pulled out, they said they had to go in to maintain order. We seem to have been surprised by the move.

Tim Weiner wrote in the New York Times on Saturday that Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance commander who led the capture of Masar-i-Sharif, is “the very model of a modern Uzbek warlord.” He fought with the Soviet Union and then against them. He fought with the Taliban and then against them.

Switching sides is not necessarily a bad thing. Our mayor-elect, Michael Bloomberg, was a Democrat before running as a Republican.

The day before the election, some of his campaign workers were distributing leaflets in Staten Island, our whitest borough, saying that a vote for his opponent was a vote for David Dinkins, the city’s only African-American mayor (who first defeated and then was defeated by Rudolph Giuliani). Bloomberg immediately stopped the tactic and chastised his staff.

At the time, the apparent explanation for Bloomberg’s reaction was that he didn’t want to be racially divisive. Now, another explanation could be that he didn’t want to lie.

After his election, one of Bloomberg’s first moves was hiring as the head of his transition team Nat Leventhal. Leventhal had previously handled the transition to the mayoralty of David Dinkins. Bloomberg’s second major appointment announcement was of Ray Kelly as police commissioner. And which mayor did Kelly last serve in that post? Yes, it was David Dinkins.

Things are not always what they appear to be.

TTFN, Mark