Nighttime with the Smoking Manholes of Ludlow Street

Posted on: March 22nd, 2017 at 5:18 am by


The following guest post was penned by Vicki Rovere, proprietor of the Ludlow Street Free Store the last decade.

Walking home from the subway about midnight last Sunday night, as I turned onto my block I smelled smoke. Smoke seemed to be curling up from a little curbside street grate outside Libation. Was it steam or smoke? I sniffed. It was such a little thing I hesitated to call the Fire Department. I called the local police precinct, in hopes they might send just a squad car with someone who might confirm my sniff. They declined.

I called the Fire Department and did my best to convince them it wasn’t an EMERGENCY!!!! but something that needed to be checked out. Only a couple of minutes later two fire trucks and a car showed up. I pointed out the grate.

“It’s steam,” one of the firefighters deadpanned.

“I smell smoke,” I insisted. “Doesn’t anyone else smell it?” My throat was burning. None of the 8 or so firemen within earshot ventured an opinion. I thanked them for responding and said I was sorry if I had made a mistake. As I left the “It’s steam” guy was ringing the bell of the bar at that location, which was closed probably because this was the day of the blizzard.

Further up the street I passed a young woman who was looking with interest at the activity. “They say it’s steam, not smoke,” I said. “Don’t you smell smoke?”

Her accented reply was incomprehensible, but we finally worked out that she had been told a dog had fallen in. “Smoke or steam,” I told her. “No dog.”

I entered my building but I was curious to see what the firefighters would do. When I poked my head out the front door I saw someone was deploying yellow plastic tape. A few minutes later when I ventured out all the vehicles were gone. A black trash bag had been deployed into the street, The yellow tape was attached to the bag and to a tree and a post with parking instructions on the sidewalk, forming a triangle within which the street grate was still gently belching out its indeterminate gas.

Had they decided it was in fact smoke but not worth bothering with? Or was the yellow tape meant to forestall any other local busybodies from reporting it anew?

I do not know.

(I actually have a pretty good track record for reporting significant smoke and gas smells.)

Day 2:

I walk down Ludlow Street to deliver two sketchpads and a box of brush markers to the Con Artist collective, passing by my “golden triangle,” the street grate surrounded by yellow tape. (The tape says “Police Department,” not “Fire Department.” Don’t they have their own tape?) It’s now belching clouds of white steam/smoke, no longer smelling like ordinary smoke but like burning plastic.

Do I call the Fire Dept. again? Noooooo.

I return maybe 20 minutes later, and I hear sirens. I watch with interest as two fire engines make their way down the block, briefly stymied by an Uber car waiting for its rider. They stop at the triangle.

Hah! Vindication!

My friend Ken, taking a smoking break outside the Japanese restaurant next door (Sakamai), says there had been another visitation of trucks earlier.

Even better.

Later I walk to the Duane Reade all-night drugstore almost half a mile away and find, on 2nd Street, another golden triangle–police tape, billowing white clouds, plastic smell.

My friend Tom Gogan tells me that the salted wintry water works chemical mischief with plastic sheathing that wraps underground wires. “Manhole” covers have suddenly been lifted heavenward by powerfully explosive gaseous vapor caught below, the slowly pent-up result of those chemical reactions. He said that two years ago, man just a block or so away from where he lived was nearly killed as one such flying cover caught him upside the head two years ago.

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