Wednesday, February 16, 2005

An Electric Hum

It's about 2:30 in the morning, and I am sound asleep. In my dream I am standing on a stage somewhere, about to receive the Glockenspiel award for excellence in humour writing. But there is a hum coming from somewhere. An electric hum. The kind of hum that gets under your skin and irritates your never endings until the hairs on your arm stands up.
In spite of my best efforts to see the dream through to the part where I actually get my award, I awake to discover that I am in bed, tossing restlessly.
But the hum has not faded with the dream, and suddenly I am wide-awake. Few things alarm me like my house making unusual noises. Nothing, for instance, can freeze my blood like the unaccounted-for sound of running water somewhere in my home. "Who left the water on?" I'll shout, chasing around the place until I find the garden hose that has been left running - usually by me, or the toilet that has been flushed. Unaccounted-for running water in a house is bad. It means burst pipes, invariably in the most inaccessible part of the house, and huge repair bills. Trades people with large trucks and very noisy tools appear shortly after the unexplained sound of running water, and they make noise and dust for several weeks, after which they present you with a repair bill that would pay the debt of most developing countries.
Hums are also very bad. Hums are associated with electric motors in dishwashers, motors that have seized up and will shortly result in the dishwasher springing a leak all over the hardwood floor in the kitchen, or with laundry machines that will also seize and leak through the floor into the finished basement, or with dryers that catch fire or with furnaces that fail on the one night of the winter when the temperature plunges to 30 below. Hums are very bad indeed.
I lie in bed in the dark and listen. The hum seems to be emanating from the headboard, but that's silly, there are no electric motors in the headboard, I'm pretty certain of that. I check the lamp, it's not humming, neither is the alarm clock.
I hop out of bed and put my ear to the bedroom wall. Yep, the house has definitely developed a serious hum.
"Whaddareyadoin?" My wife mumbles.
"We've developed a hum," I explain, my head pressed to the doorjamb.
"Checkit innamorning," she suggests helpfully, and drops directly back into REM sleep.
But there is no rest for me. You ignore a nocturnal hum at your peril.
Slowly and meticulously I track the faint, elusive hum, through the house, room to room, floor to floor, attic to garage, appliance to appliance, until I finally track it down and corner it in the basement. There it is, under a stack of boxes and ancient suitcases, beneath a large, black plastic lid: the sump pump. The electric motor of the pump, submersed under two feet of dark, murky water, has seized, and is humming away ineffectually, unable to pump.
The mystery has been solved. I unplug the sump and head back to bed, secure in the knowledge that all the creaks, bumps, pops, hums, gurgles and clicks of the house are familiar and harmless.
"Zzzzzzz," says my wife as I slip under the covers.
When the plumber shows up the next day, I tell him about the problem: how it woke me, and how I finally solved it. My wife shakes her head in disbelief. "How could you possibly be awakened by a hum so faint? You, who slept through the howling of the children when they were babies."
The plumber and I look at each other. The answer is easy, the babies might have cried when they leaked in the night, but their leaks were never large enough to do any serious damage. Had they hummed, it would have been a different story.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Getting to know Otis

So anyone know who this guy Otis is anyway?
I ask because whoever designs elevators seems bent on making people nuts. I discovered this a few days ago when I managed to get a whole bunch of people riding in an elevator lost, which is no small accomplishment when you think about it.
There we were, a group of strangers thrust together by happenstance in a hotel elevator after having set out from the underground parking garage in search of our various floors. Since I was the first into the elevator, I followed established elevator etiquette and positioned myself by the control panel, ready to take requests.
"Which floor would you like?" I asked each of the other people as they came on board. Then I'd push the corresponding button, keeping in mind that no two elevators in the world have the same letters on their buttons to indicate what floor that letter represents.
When, for instance, someone asked for the Main Floor, I naturally pushed the button marked M, But when the elevator stopped and the doors opened, we found ourselves looking out at what appeared to be the entrance to a restaurant.
"I think this is the Mezzanine," a young executive-looking type pointed out.
The Mezzanine – from the Latin meaning "vacant”, as in "Boy, is that elevator-operator ever a Mezzanine-head!" was the wrong floor.
"No, no," another passenger said. "We wanted the ground floor."
I pushed G.
When the doors opened, we were looking at concrete walls and long rows of parked cars.
"This is the garage!" The executive dude reached out and punched a button marked LL. "We have to go to the lobby to switch elevators to get to the upper floors."
The elevator doors opened at the Lower Level, the level one floor below the main garage.
"Here. Let me try." A young woman stepped briskly up to the control panel and punched F.
The "Foyer" (Ancient French for "If you think you can do it better, be my guest,") turned out to be behind us. What had looked like the back wall of the elevator turned out to be another set of doors which opened up on a narrow hallway filled with laundry baskets and room service carts.
With the solemnity of Scott of the Antarctic, I turned to my fellow travelers. "Ladies and gentlemen. I regret to have to inform you that it would appear we are lost. Please try to remain calm. Since our survival depends on our ingenuity, I suggest we raid the room service carts before we continue our journey."
A word here about elevator etiquette. When someone is trying to be obliging by offering to push the buttons and accidentally gets everybody lost, and then makes an attempt to lighten things up with a funny comment, calling him names is really no help at all.
Also, when you are on an elevator, don't call people on your cell phone telling them that you'll be late for the meeting because some idiot can't tell his Foyer from his Mezzanine.
And while we are at it, whistling the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" is out, so is eating, dancing, making love, demonstrating slam-dunking techniques, arguing, holding political rallies, talking about how great your new computer is to total strangers, and in general doing anything. People on an elevator are expected to behave with the kind of cold formality usually reserved for audiences with the Queen. Imagine what it would be like to find yourself on an elevator with the Queen. You'd probably have to be dead in order to be well enough behaved.
Anyway, by this time there were very few buttons we had not tried. G was the garage. LL was the level below the garage, and LL1, LL2 and LL3 simply put us deeper in the hole, as did P1, P2 and P3. F was the service elevator, RS took us to an abandoned set from the Twilight Zone, M, the Mezzanine...
And then it came to me! We had been going about this the wrong way entirely. There was just one button it had not occurred to me to push because it seemed meaningless: the START button down in the left corner of the panel.
Sure enough, the START button brought us to the main floor of the hotel while muzak by the Rolling Stones played on the ceiling speaker.
So Mr. Otis, or whoever is in charge of putting those letters on elevator buttons, please MAKE UP YOUR MIND.
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