Monday, May 3, 2010

Water, water everywhere

Sometimes, it just seems as if the entire fabric of what has, historically, made the United States of America the envy of the western world (and probably the eastern world too, even though they'd never admit it) is incrementally breaking down.

Either that, or things just have an uncanny way of being grouped together for the purposes of creating that perception.

First, there's the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ... which could end up being one of the most significant environmental disasters this country has ever faced. And with all the controversy over renewed drilling, this event does give one pause to ponder whether these environmentalists -- seen as so cranky and unbending by the Sarah Palins of the world - might not have it right after all. Maybe the risks of drilling all over the coast do outweigh whatever the advantages are. It's certainly food for thought.

And, of course, to go along with the disaster, are reports that BP PLC, which owns the apparatus, downplayed the leak initially. And if that's the case, it would certainly jibe with the business community's general modus operandi in these kinds of situations ... lowball and then pray.

Now, it's quite reasonable to assume that, individually, all of these disasters and inconveniences (a litany of which is forthcoming) are isolated incidents/accidents that could not have been foreseen. But taken as a group, and grouped so closely together, you have to start wonder whether we're becoming more and more incompetent by the second.

Nationally, it's the leak. But here in Boston, we've had two major incidents occur that have put people's lives in serious danger ... and that have given us pause to wonder whether our entire infrastructure is falling apart. And, if it is, and especially in this tea-party, anti-tax, anti-government hysterical mode we seem to be in, how in the world can we fix it?

The first incident that put our assumptions to the test occurred last week in the city's subway system. An electrical fire sent acrid, choking smoke through the tunnels and into nearby stations, forcing evacuation and affecting service.

Thankfully, that wasn't as serious an incident as it could have been. Nobody died, and only a handful of people were sent to hospitals with smoke inhalation issues. But if you've ever smelled the smoke of an electrical fire, it's enough to make you nauseous. And if you're in a tunnel (which underground stations basically are), and you're breathing in that stuff, you could be in a world of trouble.

Parts of the Boston subway system are as old as any in the country. And anything that old is bound to break down ... or, at least, demand constant upkeep and upgrading.

Yet try to raise the fare, even a little bit, and see what kind of howling ensues.

I spent just about the entire winter traveling back and forth on one of the older lines into Boston, and I can't tell you how many times in that span the trains game to a grinding halt because of switching problems. And -- irony of ironies -- every time it happened, it was about 15 degrees with a wind chill factor somewhere around Antarctica.

Your natural inclination, as you're shivering on the Orient Heights platform (which has no benches and no real serious refuge from the cold and rain) is to find the first MBTA person you see, slap him a few times, and yell "fix the damn thing!" in his face.

Two things. First, try to find one. When the trains break down and leave you stranded on one of the coldest days of the year at one of the coldest stations in the system, these guys are nowhere to be found.

All right, one assumes that they've all uber-busy, and that's why they're nowhere to be found. I get that. What I don't get, though, is why the T (as it is called) can't at least have one person at the station, answering the questions of frigid, beleagured passengers, such as, you know, "when's the next (expletive) train coming?"

But why should we expect that? Even with all the increased awareness, and accent on good customer relations, you can be on a train that stops dead in its tracks for up to 10 minutes, with nary an announcement from the conductor as to why. You're sitting there, in an enclosed vehicle, wondering whether you're going to die there, or what the story is.

This happened to me once on the way home from Boston, and I looked out the window just in time to see a guy blow his brains out in between the Beachmont and Revere Beach stations.

Ahhh, the wonderful world of the Blue Line.

Our subway system is color coded. Our colors are red, blue, green, orange, silver and purple. If you ever find your way around, let me save you the trouble of looking important thins up.

Fenway Park is on the Green Line; the Boston Garden on the green and Orange Lines; Both Harvard and South Boston are on the Red Line (there's a real dichotomy of demographics); Both Boston College and Boston University are on the Green Line; Northeastern is on the Green and Orange Lines, and UMass-Boston on the Red Line; the airport is on the Blue Line, as are both the Suffolk Downs and Wonderland racetracks as well as Boston City Hall (Green Line as well for City Hall).

Boston Common is on the Green and Red Lines (as is the State House); financial and shopping districts on the Orange and Red Lines. The Back Bay (including Copley Square and the Prudential Center) is serviced by the Green and Orange Lines.

In addition, there is the purple line (or lines), which represent all the commuter rails that go throughout New England into the two terminals on the T, North (Orange and Green) and South (Red and Silver) Stations).

Got all that?

Thankfully, the subway fire caused minimal interruptions in day-to-day conveniences. A mere 15 minute delay in service, perhaps, was the worst thing that happened. All in all, and for all the grief it takes, the T did a pretty good job getting the system up and running for the next day. I have no idea how much further that put the system in debt, but, you know, sometimes you have to hold your nose and pay.

If the T situation wasn't bad enough, what happened in Boston over the weekend could have been catastrophic. That it wasn't, again, is due to the quick action of city and state officials who, while they certainly take their share of criticism, do manage to rally to the cause when it happens.

The coupling on the main water pipe (and by pipe, I don't mean the copper tubing that carries your water from the main line to the sink; but a big-ass viaduct -- and no Chico Marx jokes, please!) ruptured, ruptured, causing gallons and gallons of untreated water to spew into the Charles River (which means, for a spell, anyway, "Love That Dirty Water" became the city's anthem yet again).

As we speak, several communities, including Boston, are under a boil water alert. We can't drink water from the top, cook with it, make coffee with it, or do anything that might result in us ingesting it. Well, by "we" I mean universal "we." I am fortunate enough to live in a community not served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The City of Lynn has its own water system -- one that we pay dearly for. And again, I wonder how all those people who howled and howled over the price we pay for water/sewerage (it's on the same bill) feel now that they haven't been majorly inconvenienced by this water main break).

Once upon a time in America, I suppose, when this stuff happened, we rolled with it. We shrugged our shoulders, did what we needed to do, and soldiered on. We got the instructions, we followed directions, and didn't worry about blaming anyone or screaming at them.

Not now. Citizens acted like marauding invaders as they descended on grocery stores to horde bottled water. I saw news clips of people carting out crates and crates of it, obviously pay no regard to the fact that people in line behind them needed it too. It was almost the same as when the weatherman says it's going to snow, and the market is just flooded with people stocking up on enough junk food to survive six weeks in a bunker.

In one store near me, in Revere, there was even a mini-stampede.

Cut down on water use? Hah! And how about all those people who went into coffee shops expecting their usual cup of foofy latte getting angry at the proprietors as they tried, patiently, to explain why they couldn't crew the java? I didn't know this either, but apparently it isn't enough just to boil the water. Other things factor into it too, and the stringency of the steps you need to take made brewing coffee almost impossible.

Let's just say we didn't put our best feet forward in some cases over the weekend.

Thankfully, it appears as if this calamity will be a brief interlude, and by the middle to the end of this week (hopefully) all will be back to normal. For if it would appear that those in charge of preserving our way of life can be massively incompetent at times, it's also true that the first responders charged with fixing the problem know what they're doing ... and do it.

My first reaction, when I heard about the water, was "God, no ... another example of how the entire freaking world is incompetent. Then, just as with the T, and (hopefully) with the leak, you see all the people who just drop what they're doing and work around the clock to fix the problems, and you appreciate the fact that things aren't as bad as they seem, and that your tax dollars actually do some good ... and just when it the most, too.

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