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January 11, 2007

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

January 11 , 2007

Fried Tree Rat In The Sky

An unfortunate squirrel demonstrates the danger of suspended power lines in Albany

There was an explosion right outside the second story front window of the house on the corner of Morton Avenue and South Swan Street. It was accompanied by a blinding flash of bluish light that momentarily brightened the sun lit top floor apartment in back of which I was standing.

My first thought was, “That was ordinance.” You know, like a grenade or a small shell exploding. I stood frozen and ran through the possibilities. It was too close to be an automobile backfire. The weather was too nice for a thunderstorm. It was too big to be a firecracker or a gun. It had to be a weapon of war.

But what army, and what were they doing on Morton Avenue on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in January? Surely I would have heard about how the Republicans were sending well-armed Fundamentalist Christian Militias to Albany to eliminate minorities and political dissidents. Certainly there would be more warnings before the roundups began.

I waited. There were no more explosions or flashes of light, no sound of corporate jackboots kicking down doors, no screaming women or shouted commands. Traffic resumed outside.

Then I noticed that the electricity was off in the apartment. Oh. I’m not going to be dragged off to Camp Holy Abuse after all. Not today.

I went back to my house which had also lost power. Everybody in the neighborhood was out, as were many houses down Morton. I must have been the last person to call the National Grid power monopoly to report the outage, so I sat down to read a book by a window and pet the cat in my lap.

Eventually I saw the National Grid ladder truck go up the street. I went outside to find my neighbor Jimmy next to a power pole pointing up in the air and jabbering excitedly. I told the power monopoly employee my story about the explosion on Morton. He listened carefully, and then solemnly he too pointed up the pole. This is what we saw (click on the picture for more detail):

This is what we saw
Click on the photo to see the dead squirrel better

It seems that this squirrel decided to bite into a big wire strung on this decaying power pole top-heavy with transformers. He sort of fused to the line. The red spot is what was left of his furry little head.

“Jimmy,” I said, “Looks like you’re gonna have fried squirrel for supper tonight.”

Before he could sputter a retort, the two weird fat kids standing in front of their house across the street chanted in unison, “We’ll eat it!” We stared at them. I believe those kids were serious.

What actually happened was that there were two simultaneous explosions and flashes on the ragged power lines in our neighborhood. The explosion next to the unfortunate squirrel was an inline fuse busting apart. This is good, that’s what fuses are supposed to do.

But the ordinance-like blast out on Morton was the wire itself disintegrating at a weak point. This is not so good. Fuses are supposed to prevent this.

Well, the power monopoly employees fixed the fuse, and carefully spliced a nice new wire onto the old blasted line. They had the electricity back on by three PM.

This is not the first time we’ve had bizarre problems with this power line. One evening after dark last spring the neighborhood kids rang my bell. “The tree is on fire!” they told me. (Look who the kids tell when something like this happens. Not their own parents.)

I went outside to see where the kids were pointing. On the power line, about halfway between the two future explosions, I could see flashes of fire. I heard crackling as the electric line kept trying to ignite the wet leaves of a maple tree.

That qualified as an emergency, right? Apparently not. The 911 emergency dispatcher sounded bored and annoyed. “We’ll send someone to check it out,” and rudely clicked off.

After about fifteen minutes outside watching the leaves flare up and crackle, I went back inside to bawl out the 911 dispatcher. (I lost all respect for Albany emergency dispatchers years ago.) “Sir,” the dispatcher snotted at me, “Is this your phone that you are calling from?” He sounded angry and hurt that I would consider a tree on fire important. After some more verbal snot he hung up on me again.

About twenty minutes later a National Grid truck rolled up in no particular hurry. The guy tried to look interested as I pointed out the source of the problem, which by now had settled down.

“This happens all the time,” he told me. “We get two or three of these a week in the City. We’ll send somebody to look at it tomorrow.” And he drove away.

It happens all the time! Suspended power lines set fire to trees! It’s not important!

Not important in Albany, that is. The kind of people who run corporate monopolies like National Grid couldn’t give a roasted squirrel’s butt if Albany burns to ashes. If those suburbanites cared about Albany, they would bury these ugly and highly dangerous power cables like they routinely do in their suburbs. That way there would be no more fried squirrels and burning trees.

Of course, the burying of the power lines would cut into their vast profit margin slightly. Apparently it is more cost effective to cob quick repairs on these fraying, decaying electric lines. Apparently the safety of South End residents is not important to them.

Go drive around the suburbs and you will have a lot of trouble finding power lines suspended on poles. National Grid, and their predecessor Niagara Mohawk have been very enthusiastic about burying lines out there. “Safety” seems to be their main concern. Apparently safety is not their concern inside the City of Albany.

In fact, these antiquated Albany poles are very profitable to National Grid. In the spirit of corporate socialism, wringing every bit of wealth out of society, they rent out space on these poles to tenants.

One day some years ago, around the time when bigger international corporation National Grid was eating smaller regional corporation Niagara Mohawk, The Wife looked out the window of our house and noticed people strolling around wearing hardhats and carrying clipboards. They kept looking up and pointing at the sky, and wandering blindly in front of passing cars.

“We’re doing a survey of poles and power lines,” they told her. Not long after that I noticed new cables being strung on our already overloaded poles. These were in addition to the lines already there.

The guys doing the work willingly told me whose cables they were stringing on the poles, lines for obscure telcos or “communications providers.” Since these outfits often tend to be fly-by-night, some of these new cables were pulled down off the poles only a few months later.

On Morton Avenue, I watched a crew hang a bundle of cables inside a gray plastic sheath that must have been six inches in diameter. At the last pole at the top of Morton the bundle slid down the pole like a snake and disappeared into the ground.

From there it went under the big intersection of Delaware Avenue and Morton/Holland Avenue. It seems that the City would not let them string something that big across “the fourth busiest intersection in the City” so they had to bury it. Judging by the way these guys were cursing, that turned out to be a big project.

But it was all for nothing. About six months or so after it went up, the big gray bundle was taken off the poles. I guess the outfit that rented space on the poles stopped making payments. Or whatever. But National Grid still uses the underground cable that crosses the intersection.

The Last Pole Before Delaware.  Very Decorative.
The Last Pole Before Delaware. Very Decorative.

Thus we can see the real reason why National Grid wants dangerous and ugly poles in Albany neighborhoods. It’s easier and more profitable to throw short term rental cables on the poles than to safely bury the lines at greater cost. And damn the South End. When we are talking short term rentals, it’s easier to have dangerous wires out in the open, running alongside our second story windows.

They certainly can bury lines if they want to. There is a ten foot high tunnel running down S. Swan Street maybe fifteen feet from my cellar wall. Through this cavern run at least one trunk power line and various cables. Several times over the years I’ve watched them string heavy cables through this tunnel via the manhole at the corner of my property.

One very interesting cable runs through that tunnel. In the late 1990s a contractor working for the State dug a trench down Catherine Street and ran one of the region’s first fiber optic cables into the S. Swan tunnel. This cable runs from Thruway Exit 23 to the State offices across Lincoln Park.

It is through this cable that the spooks and terrorists inside the FBI Fortress on McCarty Avenue spy on State worker computers. Whenever you read in the daily rags about some poor slob of a public employee with a paunch and a receding hairline getting canned because of porno on his hard drive... not kiddie porn, just plain old T&A... the news content providers always mention “an FBI investigation.” That’s the cable the FBI uses to ruin State worker lives.

So the power monopoly can put any wire or cable they want underground pretty quickly. I know they can because they do it all the time. I’ve seen them. But to hear them tell it, burying power lines is prohibitively expensive and takes too long. They claim it only makes sense cost-wise out in the suburbs. See how these people work to degrade our City?

Meanwhile we who live here are at the mercy of squirrels, and the squirrels are at the mercy of the exposed power lines. My neighbor Gordon, who lives up Morton Avenue from us, reminded me that he went through the same exact thing on his end of the neighborhood several years ago. This squirrel induced explosion happened at another part of the same line that blew up by my house.

Here is his terse description: “Scary, unknown huge pop, and loss of power. Inhumane indifference if it can be happening repeatedly."

Yes, I suppose I ought to feel for the squirrel. Many of my neighbors cared about the fate of the little tree rat. Including Jimmy. He told me later that he buried the critter in his back yard.

“Uh, Jimmy,” I asked, “do you mind if I ask you why?”

He mumbled at me, “Well whadaya want me to do with it, put it down there at the end of the street? I buried it with all the other animals.”

I took this to mean that he honored the squirrel with a grave next to his daughter’s deceased dog, cats, hamsters and goldfish. I think I’ll ask him to show me the burial plot. Perhaps it needs a marker.

Don’t ask me why.

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