Merely Setting Foot on the Street Induced Panic and Dread.

Manholes emerged this year as the new urban menace. I should’ve seen this coming, because I’ve known from an early age about their dangers. When I was in the sixth grade, there was a kid in my class whose mom’s station wagon exploded on Lexington Avenue. She’d parked it there the night before, and when they walked by it in the morning, a fire truck was hosing down the charred remains. The cause was—you guessed it—a manhole, which had emitted a blast of steam and caused the gasoline in the car’s fuel tank to boil. Kaboom!

This was the talk of my homeroom for days, but as best as I can remember, it provoked no outcry, probably because the year was 1980, and the city had crime waves, an eroding tax base, and the impending election of Ronald Reagan to worry about. Freak accidents, in this environment, did not lead to swift public action.

Oh, but they do now. Even though the city faces perhaps the gravest threat in its history, we seem more sensitive to horribly random events, not less so. When earlier this year a woman fell in the street and scalded herself on a burning-hot manhole cover, a strange phenomenon that we will call “manholia” erupted in the streets. Con Edison was forced to take immediate action, setting out to cover each and every manhole in Manhattan with a special goop. The technical term for this stuff is polyurethane epoxy, and according to Con Ed, it ensures that the surface temperature of a manhole never gets any greater than a hot-water pipe in your apartment.

Con Ed had to undertake similarly swift measures when a Columbia grad student who was walking her dog in the East Village was killed by “stray voltage” coming through a metal street cover. (This is not technically a manhole, but they are just about as common; Con Ed tested 260,000 of the covers after the incident.) In this case, the application of goop would not help matters, so we’ll just have to take Con Ed’s word that it inspected all those underground wires.

For the moment, then, New Yorkers should consider themselves safe to walk the streets without imminent risk of scalding or electrocution. Still, a bit of manholia is good for you. This fall, near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, an underground fire sent several manhole covers flying into the air like frisbees—big, metal frisbees. Also, I’ve noticed that the epoxy is already wearing thin on some manholes. And now that I think about it, watch out for parked station wagons. You never know when another of them is going to blow.

Merely Setting Foot on the Street Induced Panic […]