Men will be boys

Truth. Sunday at 5:00 a.m., there were eight men in my bedroom.

I was awoken around 4:00 a.m. by an energetic squirrel playing on my fire escape, so I decided to get up and get a glass of water. I was startled when I went to flip on the light and the switch burned my hand. I felt the wall which was also hot, and I could hear a faint buzzing sound coming from the same spot. Damn, I thought. I really don't want to call 911 at this hour, especially the fire department; they always make a big deal over nothing. Then I thought I smelled smoke. Damn. Hell.

But I was still determined to get myself out of this. I was in boxer shorts and a tank top, up much too early on a Sunday, and I really didn't feel like getting dressed or having an apartment full of people. I also had no interest in waking the firemen as they slept soundly in the station, dreaming of whatever firemen dream of. So I put on some coffee, turned on the computer, and typed in a search for the phrase, Hot light switch.

It looked like a common enough problem, something I could surely tend to after a few more hours of sleep, but just as I was about to make my way back to bed, I spotted the heading: Dangerously hot light switch. I clicked on the article and learned that a hot light switch was really no big deal, if it was a dimmer switch. But if it was a standard switch (which of course mine was), then basically it had Fire Hazard written all over it. Still, I didn't want to call 911, at least not yet. What I wanted was to have a civilized conversation with a trained professional, so instead I dialed 411 and asked for the number of my local fire station.

"I'm sorry," said the operator, "We don't have that number. If you want the fire station, you'll have to call 911."

I explained my reluctance to wake the firemen, alarm the neighbors and draw attention to a situation that might prove to be no situation at all. The operator listened, then suggested that instead of calling 911 or 411, I should call 311: The official number of The City of New York.

"Thank you for calling 311, this is Edgar," said the much-too-friendly-voice-for-4:00 a.m. "How may I assist you?"

"Hi Edgar," I said, "here's the thing. I've got a hot light switch but I'm not sure if it's an emergency, and I'd really like to talk to someone who knows about these things, you know, so I can first determine if it's really an emergency. "

Edgar said he'd be happy to transfer me over to the fire department so I could speak with a trained professional. It rang for a bit, then there was a click, then I was disconnected. I dialed again.

'Thank you for calling 311, this is Jenny," said the friendly, but not-as-friendly-as-Edgar's-voice, on the end of the line. "How may I assist you?"

I told Jenny about the light switch and about the disconnected call.

"That's odd," she said. "Even if I wanted to, there's no one to transfer you to. It's standard procedure to put you straight through to 911."

I told her about Edgar and his promise, and his ability to connect me with a trained professional.

"I'm really not sure who Edgar is or why he thought you could speak to someone before calling 911," Said Jenny, so I gave up as she put me through...to 911.

"What is your emergency?" asked the operator.

"I'm not sure if it's an emergency," I said, and I told her about the hot light switch, the hot wall, the buzzing, and the smell of smoke.

"I'm transferring you to the fire department," said the operator.

A thick New York accent picked up the line. "Fire Department!" he barked, "What's your location?" I gave him my address.

"Where's that?" he barked again, "The Bronx?"

"Washington Heights," I said, and he told me a truck was on its way. A truck. Right. It wasn't going to be just one truck, I knew that, and they certainly weren't going to come quietly.

I put on some jeans, threw on my red New York hooded sweat jacket, went downstairs and planted myself outside on the stoop. As I sat and waited in the dark, the thought crossed my mind that if I were a smoker, this would be a perfect time to light up. Just then I heard it. The sirens.

In minutes, the first truck barreled up the street, then the second, then the third; one siren louder than the next. Then out came the men. The first, the second, ten in all, dressed in massive gear, heavy boots, oxygen tanks strapped to their muscular backs. And as they approached me, each one smiled, and yes, they were sleepy smiles. It was clear I had woken them up, and I feared it may have been for nothing.

Eight of them came upstairs, piled into my bedroom and hovered around the light switch, looking at it as if it were a new toy or a frog with two heads; something to play with or dissect.

"Where's your fuse box?" one of them asked. I froze.

"What does it look like?" I replied, not trying to be funny.

"It's the box where the fuses are kept," he said.

"Is it the thing that Con Ed checks every month?" I walked him into the kitchen, pointing over the top of the refrigerator.

He smiled, "That's the gas meter."All eight of them laughed.

Great, I thought, I've just been reduced to Dumb Broad, I know it.

After the power in my room was successfully shut off, one fireman proceeded to unscrew and remove the switch cover, pulling out the ancient and burnt wires from inside the wall.

"You'll need to call your landlord," said another fireman. "And maybe, if you're lucky, in about 3 months he'll get around to replacing these wires."

All eight of them laughed again.

I gave them a "Thanks a lot" kind of smile, feeling much as I do during the holidays when my two brothers inevitably corner me with their relentless teasing tactics.

Then the chief chimed in, "We'll have to get a closer look,” he said. Right then I saw the faces of every one of those men turn on just like that light switch, and I would bet they had an unspoken system for deciding who would get to do the honors this time.

"We have to make a hole in the wall," the chief said.

"Oh no you don't!" I said. All eyes were suddenly on me."I know exactly what this is! You don’t really need to bust a hole in my wall, you're all just a bunch of little boys who grew up and got jobs doing things you used to be punished for!" Silence fell over the room.

"You've got one thing wrong," said the chief.

"And what's that?" I asked.

"We never grew up."

And as the eight little boys stood huddled together laughing in firefighter suits, the Chosen One took out his clawed hammer and gleefully gouged a hole in my bedroom wall.

A consolation prize I thought, for waking them from their dreams. And really, it was the least I could do for a room full of little boys who grew up to be firemen.

March 31, 2012