When there's danger, smoke gets in your eyes

January 24, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

As a public service announcement, I'd like to remind Hagerstown's residents that the city sewer department will be pumping smoke into the pipes Jan. 20, so if you notice any porcelain smoldering away in your house, it's nothing to be alarmed about.

Oh, that was Friday? This past Friday? Oh.

So - are we having asphyxiation yet?

Right up front, I have to admit, this is a horrible, horrible pickle for a humor columnist. It is arguable that compromised sewer pipes, boring as they sound, are one of the five biggest issues facing City Hall today.

See, you've got nice sewer (rainwater) and nasty sewer (gagwater). Nice sewer can go straight to the crick, but nasty sewer needs to be treated (at a very high cost to taxpayers) before it is discharged into the crick.

But if there are leaks in the pipes, nice sewer gets into the nasty sewer and goes to the treatment plant, where it is treated at a very high cost to the taxpayers, even though it doesn't need to be. So Council member Kelly Cromer is correct when she says of this program, "the good outweighs a minuscule amount of bad."


On the other hand, it is SMOKE coming out of your TOILET. Or something like that. As a humor columnist, you officially lose your Dave Barry Wannabe status if you ignore something of this magnitude. You are stripped of your fake nose and glasses, they take away your Joy Buzzer and you're sent packing down that long and demoralizing trail to a real job.

And there are some real issues about the program that need to be addressed. Council member Lew Metzner, a known lawyer, said he has concerns about "privacy issues."

No doubt. George Bush is already listening in on your phone calls, spying on your library card and trying to find out what you've been hunting for in your Google searches. If he thinks he and his goons can enter anyone's living room disguised as smoke sent through the sewer pipes, imagine the unpleasant consequences.

Then there was the notification flier itself (like they say, where there's smoke, there's flier), a copy of which was kindly provided by my friend, Tom. Specifically, one can't help but get caught up on the city sewer department's assurance that the smoke is "relatively harmless." OK, so our relatives won't be harmed, but what about us?

But seriously. Relative is such a relative term. We journalists are very careful about words. You would be amazed if you knew how many newsroom hours, days and years across the nation have been dedicated to meetings where they discuss whether a federal grand jury hands UP an indictment or whether it hands DOWN an indictment. We figure that you, the reader, are very worried about the difference, so we leave no angle unconsidered in making sure we get it right.

So naturally, when we see a word like "relatively" combined with "harmless," well, safe to say the needle goes right off the meter.

The smoke only gets into your house if there is a leak, the flier says. But then it says to minimize the chances of smoke in the house, owners should pour water down all of the drains.

Right. Nice try. I'm sure Sewer Boys at City Hall are having a good belly laugh over that one. Obviously, this is a cheap ploy to sell more water. And when you use more water, they charge you for more sewer - even if you are watering your car or washing your garden, water which will never see the inside of a sewer pipe.

But my favorite line in the city's flier is this: "House pets will react in a manner similar to a prudent person and leave the smoky area."

How great is that? In other words, if you are an animal or a smarter-than-average Hagerstonian, no problem.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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