Jonathan Vatner in Building Operations on April 6, 2023
This past Christmas Eve, someone smelled gas in our Yonkers co-op. Fearing a leak, Con Edison shut off the gas to the building, leaving shareholders without heat or hot water on the coldest weekend of the year.
My husband and I were away visiting relatives. When we returned home late on Christmas Day, a Sunday, the cats were huddled together in the closet, the warmest spot in the apartment. The building staff had been busy all weekend, reassuring residents and distributing space heaters. Fortunately, the heat came back on that evening, and we endured just one night in our woolens before the apartment warmed up.
What I didn’t find out until the next day was that there had been feverish behind-the-scenes drama. The property manager and the super had worked overnight on Saturday and all day Sunday to temporarily switch the dual-fuel boiler from gas to oil. If they didn’t get the heat back on quickly, they would have to drain the building’s water system to keep the pipes from freezing — which would have forced an evacuation of the entire building.
They called every mechanic in the area, but all were off for Christmas. When they finally found a mechanic willing to do the work, a fuse blew in the building, making it impossible to fire the boiler. The super drove into Manhattan in the middle of the night to buy a new fuse, only to be told that he needed to pay for it in cash. Ultimately, the property manager bought the fuse on Sunday morning so that the work could be completed. I am still floored by their dedication.
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Because we had oil heat and hot water, the gas shutoff only prevented us from using our stove and the building’s dryers. I naively assumed the gas would be off for a day or two, but a friend in Manhattan told me the gas was off in her building for an entire year.
So we did our best to cook with an electric hot plate. It was able to boil water, but timing a meal proved impossible. So I microwaved the vegetables — and rediscovered the simplicity of salad.
At first, my husband and I sent our laundry out, but this luxury was expensive. We tried washing our clothes by hand and hanging them around our apartment to dry, but it was depressing to live inside an immersive art installation of damp laundry. Even more depressing was a visit to a nearby laundromat, which was dirty and riddled with broken machines.
Fortunately, just one month after the building’s dryers were shut off, management confirmed that the gas line to the laundry room was intact, and the dryers were turned back on.
Meanwhile, it was determined that the gas flex line and shutoff valve in each apartment had to be brought up to code, and so the co-op board formed a special committee to expedite the process. This turned out to be a gargantuan feat of coordination. The committee contacted every resident to schedule work inside their apartments, and plumbers visited every apartment over the course of a few weeks to install the upgrade. The plumbers performed air pressure tests in each of the apartment lines. If the pressure held, the gas was turned back on, line by line; if the pressure didn’t hold, leaks had to be found and patched.
If Christmas brought us a lump of coal, Valentine’s Day gave us a gift of pure love. That was the day we got our stove back, just seven weeks after we lost it. As gas shutdowns go, ours was miraculously brief. For that miracle, we can thank our property manager, our super and building staff — and the unsung heroes who serve on our co-op board.
Jonathan Vatner is the author of the novels Carnegie Hill, about an Upper East Side co-op, and The Bridesmaids Union. He is managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.
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