Pals in the Pipes


I’m losing friends.

It happens every year, about this time.

The weather warms, the furnace settles in for a long summer nap, and the creatures depart. Whatever kind of creatures they are. I mean the ones that live in our radiators.

I can only assume there are creatures in there, from the sounds they make. From what I can tell, they arrive noisily in the autumn, and depart with more noise in the spring.

Of course, I would be the last one to lecture anyone on the intricacies of radiator life. Having moved to New England relatively recently, I have very little experience with these strange contraptions. To me, it seems a big cast-iron robot was squashed flat and left to die, then someone extracted its rib cage, propped it up against a wall, hooked a bent pipe into one end of it, and called it a radiator.

There was no such thing as a radiator where I grew up, outside Chicago. Our house had little rectangular vents on the walls, at floor level, where I huddled in my jammies and waited for the whoof of the faraway furnace and the soft, steady exhale of warm air. It was miserable when eventually, inevitably, I heard the whup of the furnace, as it finally inhaled in order to stay alive, and its warm breath evaporated into the morning chill.

My adult decades in Phoenix knew no radiators either. In the desert, you had a massive white box on your roof, or on a concrete pad next to your house out back, whose great challenge was to produce cold air, not hot, and enough of it to keep you alive during the nine months of summer. In the house, the vents were high on the wall, so the cool air could float down from above, dissolving into the desert atmosphere at about $4 a minute. On those five or six rare nights of the year when you needed some measure of heat, the system would grudgingly blow through the same way-up-there vents, and the warm air would hover timidly near the ceiling, wondering what it had been brought here to do.

Then we came to Ipswich, and a 196-year-old house, already occupied by a family of 10 radiators. Most of the winter, the basement boiler rumbles, vibrating the living room floorboards, and the radiators generally sit silent, listening respectfully to the grumpy boiler below, as they glow their warmth into the air. Most of the summer, the boiler hibernates, and the radiators are empty. Abandoned. Quiet.

But in the spring and the fall, with our fickle weather and rollercoaster temperatures, the boiler gets a workout. Just when it seems he won’t be needed again, a New England cold snap jerks him to life. Growling at the interruption, he begins his grumbly functions, knowing full well that it’s another false alarm, and soon he will be waved off yet again: Never mind, warm enough now.

Meanwhile, the creatures in the radiators offer commentary. One raps a spoon against the cast iron’s interior — Pang! Pang! Pang! — then falls silent to see if anyone raps back. Another uses a wooden stick: Tok tok tok tok tok. One hisses contempt: Ssssssssss! Another seems to have experience in the percussion section of an Asian orchestra: Chong! Ticka-ticka-ticka. Chong! Ticka-ticka-ticka.

From the radiator in my office, I hear the perfect imitation of an infant who has just learned to whine in a continuous sound-stream almost too high to be detected by human ears: Eeeeeeeeee!

In the radiator near the mudroom door, something gives the cast iron a good swift kick — Whonk — then seems to pat it guiltily, with a soft touch: Pam pam pam pam pam pam. Soon, apparently, there’s another annoyance, because there’s another Whonk — followed by more guilt: Pam pam pam pam pam. It’s a tortured relationship, which doesn’t seem to resolve until July.

Meanwhile, in the master bedroom, the radiator-creature sulks, without a sound. But I know what it’s thinking: It’s broken, stupid. Call the plumber.

No need. Soon, all the rooms will be as quiet as this one. The creatures will slip away, down through the pipes, to wherever they go.

Farewell, friends. Hello, summer.


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