SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
November 12, 2017

Heat Stress

 

The one clear advantage I can see to climate change is that if New York comes to be classified as a tropical zone over the next decade, as miserable as that would be, it would at least remove one bit of annual stress from my life.

            See, every fall as temperatures begin to drop, the stress level goes up, as I’m never sure when, and more importantly if, the heat in this building is going to come on.

            The myth is that since I grew up in Wisconsin, the cold wouldn’t bother me, that I’d be accustomed to it and maybe even thrive on it. Not true, not true. Each time you get frostbitten, you become more susceptible, and get frostbitten that much quicker the next time. The cold has a way of seeping into your body, and with each passing year you feel it more sharply. The only thing growing up in that climate teaches you is the value of long underpants and snowsuits, and these days I own neither.

            When I first moved into the Bunker seven years ago, I didn’t think much of the fact I was walking around the apartment in gloves and a hat until my upstairs neighbor told me the furnace was on the fritz. That first time it took two weeks to convince the landlord to do something about it. It was December after all, and people have all kinds of holiday plans to make, so a busted furnace wasn’t high on his list of priorities, considering he didn’t live here.

            Even after the repairman came by that first winter and got things working again, every two weeks or so over the following three winters the damn thing would conk out again. I spent half my winters trying to work while wrapped in blankets, and the other half wondering how long it would be before I needed to break the blankets out again. Given that my apartment was directly connected to the boiler room, sometimes I could hear the furnace dying again with a wheeze and a clatter, other times it was just a matter of noticing things growing progressively more frigid. A quick consult with the neighbors to confirm my suspicions, and I’d send the standard note off to the landlord. Every time it went down, it seems, it was a different problem. Sometimes we were out of oil, sometimes a few settings needed to be reset, sometimes it was a much bigger problem, but mostly the problem seemed to be the furnace had been installed when the house was first built in 1913, and was already used at that point. Over the cold months I came to know all the assorted furnace repairmen on a first name basis, and most of them were very friendly fellows.

            Right around the time Morgan and I moved from The Bunker up to the second floor, things finally seemed to have stabilized and the furnace did what it was supposed to without too many glitches. The problem at that point became less the furnace itself than the neighbors.

            It’s one of the many, many quirks of this house that the single working thermostat which controlled the heat for the entire building was located in the first floor apartment. This meant whoever was living in The Bunker and on the drafty second floor was subject to the temperature whims of whoever was living on the first floor.

            This would seem to be little problem at all, once the people on the first floor were made aware of the situation. The folks who live in this neighborhood tend to be reasonable, helpful sorts. People want to be warm in winter, right? Well, not everyone, it turns out. The last two tenants on the first floor admitted they preferred things a little chilly. This in itself might not be a problem, until you take into account that up here on the second floor, given all the windows and inescapable drafts, things are always ten to fifteen degrees colder than they are on that hermetically-sealed, almost windowless first floor. “A little chilly” down there becomes “fucking freezing” once you step upstairs. But when I tried to explain this to the last couple of cold-loving types, asking in my own charming way if they might be able to turn things up a notch, they were always quite agreeable, making a big point of turning the thermostat up two degrees.

            So my first few winters here, the stress came from wondering when the fucking furnace was going to die again, and in the years since it’s come from tromping downstairs once a week to beg goddamn Mr. and Mrs. Freeze down there if they might turn things up a noticeable notch.

            So when a fey and frail kid from Thailand moved in this past spring, I was sure the days of winter stress were behind me. He didn’t seem well-equipped for winter in general (he was from Thailand, for god sakes), so would certainly want things warm.

            What started to make me nervous was that, nice as he was, he kept an extremely erratic schedule, and weeks could go past when we heard nothing at all from that first floor apartment. In many ways it was a blessing—the laundry room was always open and there was no need to make pleasant chit-chat every time you ran into him in the hallway. But I was thinking ahead. What if no one told him about the thermostat, and what if he disappeared for a few weeks when we needed him to turn things up? This could be bad.

            After a brief cold snap in early September, I was lucky enough to run into him one Saturday as he was on his way to the store, and mentioned the thermostat. (I’m sorry, but I get obsessive about these things.)

            “Really?” he said, just as I figured. “I had no idea.”

            “I mean, you don’t need to worry about it now, but when it gets cold again feel free to crank things up.”

            He made it clear how much he hated the cold, which I took as a good sign, and let him go on his way, confident everything would be okay after all.

            When things started taking a turn for the frigid in late October, however, nothing happened. Days went by when, regardless of the temperature outside, it never got much above fifty on the second floor, and dropped even lower at night. The radiators emitted nary a gurgle, and remained cold. The stress was starting to creep back. Where was our little heat-loving Thai friend? Or was that not the issue? Had the furnace taken another nosedive? Were we just out of oil?

            Morgan offered another possibility:  what if he doesn’t know how to work the thermostat?

            “Oh, Jesus Christ,” I said. “If that’s the case, then I have one more reason to hate these fucking Millennials.”

            Well, sleeping in our clothes was fast losing its charm, and with no one downstairs answering when I knocked, I finally taped a brief but cordial note to his door, asking him to please, whenever he has the time, turn up the fucking thermostat.

            The next morning we were still freezing, but when I went downstairs the note was gone. At least he’d seen it.

            Later that day without much hope I went downstairs again and knocked. This time, and much to my amazement, he answered.

            “Oh, Hi,” I said. “I’m real sorry to bother you, but . . . ”

            “The heat, right?”

            “Yeah.”

            “I’ve been looking for the thermostat, and can’t find it.”

            Oh, Jesus Christ, Having been to the first floor several times over the years. this much at least I could tell him. “Okay, you just go straight back here,” I pointed behind him. “Past the kitchen and into the back room. It’s on the wall to the right of the back door.”

            “I thought that was the thermostat, but I have no idea how to work it.”

            Oh, these goddamn Millennials. I thought they were all supposed to be technically adept. “It’s easy,” I said. “It’s a round thing with a plastic disc with a pointer. You just turn the pointer to the temperature you want, and there you go.”

            “But this is more of a box with a clock in it. And all these buttons”

            “What?”

            He led me to the back of the apartment and showed me the box in question. Sure enough, it was a box with a clock and a bunch of buttons and switches, not at all like the kind I was accustomed to seeing everywhere else, from my childhood home to cartoons. There was even one in The Bunker, though the one in The Bunker was just one of those novelty thermostats not connected to anything that cruel landlords like to stick on walls to screw with their tenants.

            Okay then, well shut my mouth.

            “Okay, Jesus,” I said as I felt around the box. “This wasn’t what I was expecting. Must be one of those new-fangled jobs.”

            “I’ve been fiddling with it all morning but nothing’s happening. I sent a note to the landlord to ask him.”

            Yeah, don’t hold your breath on that one, I thought. Not wanting to mess things up irrevocably as I have a way of doing, I stopped fondling the box. Instead I excused myself and returned upstairs.

            A few minutes later I was at his door again, this time with my StupidPhone in tow. I took a picture of the fucking thing and sent it to Morgan. She was much better with these things than I was. Plus she could see.

            Armed with the thermostat’s make and serial number, she started looking to see if someone had posted instructions online. It took some searching, but at long last she found what she was looking for.

            I am happy to report that what we’re dealing with here is a Honeywell TA-8095 thermostat, which was last manufactured in 1977, and is now considered officially obsolete. Today the TA-8095 can be found in only two places on earth: this house and the Smithsonian.

            As luck would have it, the Smithsonian page devoted to the TA-8095 included detailed operating instructions, apparently to show future generations just how nuts things were back in the analog age.

            With a solution proudly in hand, I marched back downstairs and once more knocked on the kid’s door. He didn’t answer.

            Well that was fucking typical. I would have simply emailed the information to him, but didn’t have his email address. So pointless as I knew it was, I dropped the landlord a note asking if he might be able to tell the kid how to work the fucking thermostat.

            An hour later the kid still didn’t answer his door. I got a note from the landlord (itself a miracle) telling me he’d in fact sent his own detailed instructions over to the kid earlier in the day. Well, okay then, this was going to be alright, I figured. But that night we still had no heat.

            My god, I started to think, could this kid be even more incompetent than me? Or is he simply mortified to learn this sort of thing might be his responsibility?

            The following night I happened to run into him again as he was coming home from the store. “Hey, did you ever hear from the landlord?” I asked.

            “Yeah, and I did everything he said, but nothing happened.”

            “Well, it’s been a warm day, so maybe that’s why.” I went on to explain the history and rarity of our particular thermostat, as described by the Smithsonian. “The most important thing is, there are two switches on the bottom of the box. The one to the right—“ I held up my right hand for emphasis, “—is marked ‘HEAT’ and ‘OFF.’ You want to push that to the left, where it says ‘HEAT.’ Otherwise nothing will happen.”

            There was a pause. “Okay, but there are no switches on the bottom.”

            “Yes there are. I felt them, and my wife saw them in the picture.”

            “There are no switches down there.”

            Suddenly he seemed so smug and dismissive. Fucking little Ivy League jerk, clearly under the impression the world has to cater to him, and doing anything that menial is not his responsibility when the building has a landlord. Oh, he would learn alright, but at that moment I wanted to smash his smug, superior face with a brick. As there were other people on the street around us, I just let him bring his groceries inside and close the door.

            So now I have a third reason to stress over the goddamn heat every year. I think I’m going to start investing heavily in coal.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.