Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ever since I was a kid I wondered about natural gas. First, what's up with the name? Is there an unnatural gas? I don't recall the last time somebody invented a new one. I thought we were pretty much stuck with the ones that have been around since the Big Bang.

Plus, it strikes me as a right-wing kind of name. It posits itself as the one correct gas, while subtly calling all the others inferior. When United dubbed itself "The Friendly Skies" it implied that all other airline flight attendants were backstabbing bitches. When Bounty called their paper towels "The Quicker Picker-Upper" it made it seem like you're going to sit there and whistle while waiting for Brawny to work. We're the natural gas, they're saying. Like all the other gasses have been hanging around dark alleys looking to bugger Nancy Boys.

What about methane? Argon? Neon? Helium has been around since the beginning of time, accounting for 24% of the universe, and it hasn't exactly been loitering by the docks waiting for ships to come in. Why isn't it "natural" gas?

This "natural" gas is the stuff that's piped into our homes to power our stoves and our water heaters. It's cheap and flammable, so it makes sense for all those controlled fires we need. Back in 600 BC the Chinese stuck bamboo poles into the ground to channel the stuff into their kitchens, and basically that's still what we're doing today. One characteristic of natural gas, though, is seen as problematic: it's completely odorless. Which seems like a good thing, because I don't necessarily want to pipe stuff that smells like rotting wombats into the vicinity of my new Zwilling saucepans. But when gas pipelines inevitably leaked, nobody knew. There was no telltale sign. Everything seemed perfectly fine until somebody lit a match and the whole neighborhood went boom.

The industry's brilliant solution? Make natural gas really stink. Then a leak becomes obvious, and the pipe can be fixed before anybody gets hurt. Utility companies started adding a chemical odorant called “mercaptan” to natural gas. It smells like rotting cabbages and smelly socks, and is one of the chemicals responsible for the foul smell of bad breath and flatulence.

Which raises an important question. How are you supposed to smell it in New York?

I ask this with utmost sincerity, as buildings explode around me left and right. Maybe in the rest of the world these disgusting scents would make one stand up and take notice, but in New York one simply has a fleeting thought that Big Orphan Annie walked by their window again and then their house goes boom.

If anybody in my neighborhood ran around screaming, "IT'S A HORRIBLE SMELL! I SMELL A HORRIBLE SMELL!" every single person would think they were crazy. It's like screaming, "OHMIGOD! I SAW A LIBRARY!" or "THAT MAN'S GOT A PONYTAIL!" It's not news. It's not out of place. At best, one helpful soul might say, "I'll bet the Food Bank is handing out asparagus again."

The overwhelming city odors are the worst in summer. Everything dead in the streets thaws out, and everybody even reasonably athletic breaks out their tank tops. The stink isn't quite as bad in winter, but gangrene can't exactly hop a plane to Florida. Even then, I can't imagine a whiff of rotting cabbage prompting action, or smelly socks raising an alarm. It'd be a never-ending cycle: somebody calls 911 to report farting, the farter calls about their bad breath, and so on. Five minutes later an overloaded phone system causes all the lights to go out and then cars start careening off the Brooklyn Bridge.

My solution? Make natural gas smell good. Sweet. Perfumey. We're five minutes away from New Jersey, and there ain't exactly rose gardens and Twinkie factories around here. Make natural gas smell like chocolate chip cookies. That's a smell we don't get. Mrs. Fields and Famous Amos hit the road back in 1972 when even eighteen bucks a cookie wasn't enough to pay the rent.

The best part is, it automatically creates action. It enlists the city's bored teenagers into Certified Leak Detectors. They'll smell the cookies and wander through the house trying to find the source. "Hey, mama!" they'll shout, "When are those cookies gonna be done? I want a cookie. Give me a goddamn cookie." Their mothers will shout back from the couch, "What the fuck are you talking about? I'm not making any goddamn -- RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! THE WHOLE PLACE IS GONNA BLOW!"

Sure, people could abuse it. People who know how slow the police usually respond would whip up a batch of cookies to get a car to their house stat:

PERSON #1: Ohmigod! I've been stabbed!

PERSON #2: Nooo! Quick: bring me half a pound of butter and two eggs.

Of course, scamming the system like that could lead to complaints.

POLICEMAN: You've really got to stop doing that.

STABBING VICTIM: Faking an emergency?

POLICEMAN: No, putting pistachios in these.

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