6th Jan, 2009

What’s with the blowtorch?

I have decided to write shorter pieces, more often. This is based on the twin observations that (a) I don’t have much free time, and (b) something is better than nothing. So…

Yesterday I had an unusual experience. A man jumped out of a garbage truck and ran up to me brandishing a blowtorch. Points to the person with the best guess as to why this happened. I’ll tell the rest of the story after I hear from a few people.


He thought you could direct him to a large quantity of creme brulee?

Alejna, I’m not sure you understand the ramekins of your comment. I’m not sure I do, either. Anyway, I’m afraid no creme brulee was involved. Nice guess, though!

Your garbage was frozen (it is the far north, at least as far as most of us are concerned), and he had to melt it before he could throw it in the truck.

I’m with Calin. Or maybe your garbage can was frozen to the ground. Or you put locks on your garbage cans in crime-filled Härnösand and the lock was frozen.

Brilliant explanations, Calin and Ian, but unfortunately wrong! You see, Swedes are smart enough to use plastic garbage cans (without locks), which never freeze. I will grant you, however, that freezing does come into the picture. Ian is not far from the money.

By the way, given that most Swedes see Härnösand as “in the north”, I think it’s safe to say that 99.9% of humans would see it as “in the far north”, so your characterization is pretty solid, Calin.

Oh, and Ian, Härnösand is not particularly crime-ridden, as I’m sure you can surmise, and definitely not so much so that people would steal garbage!

Once when I was living in Boston it snowed really hard one day (maybe a foot), then thawed, then froze really hard, and lots and lots of cars were frozen solid in almost a foot of ice. Maybe your car was frozen into the street, and the garbage truck man was helping you to free it?

Your garage door was frozen to the pavement and he was just helping out. (Do you have a garage door?)

Erin, good guess, but alas, I have no garage door. I do have a garBage door, in the sense that our garbage is behind a gate, but I shouldn’t lead the discussion in that direction, since as you all have correctly sussed out, the garbage aspect of this story is less important than the blowtorch aspect. (Don’t you think “The Blowtorch Aspect” sounds like an indie rock band?)

Calin, I remember those winters in Boston. I remember trying to find my car after a snowfall. Cars look remarkably similar when they’re covered in a half a ton of white powder.

OK, I’m ready to tell the end of the story. See the next comment…

The problem was in fact a frozen lock. Specifically, the lock on my car was frozen (so cars are involved, too), and I was trying to unfreeze it with a soldering iron. (It seemed better than a hairdryer; I figured it was either a really good idea or a really bad idea.)

So I was standing there in the freezing cold with my soldering iron when a garbage truck went roaring past, down the hill (hope there’s not too much ice on the road…). Suddenly the truck screeched to a halt, the door swung open, and a man with fluffy red hair came running at me waving a blowtorch.

My first thought was “He thinks I’m trying to steal this car (albeit in a non-standard way) and is going to try to stop me with fire.” That really was my first thought, sans parenthesis. But as he approached, he broke into a broad grin. He had seen me with my soldering iron, and said “This will work much better”. I got a little queasy, imagining turning a blowtorch on my car (if the soldering iron was a bad idea, this was a WAY BAD idea), and was actually rather relieved when the torch turned out to be out of gas.

I have to say, that garbage man was an incredibly cheery fellow. I can only hope that I would be able to be as jolly if I had to drive other people’s trash around town. The though made me feel slightly warmer, as I stood there trying to do the same thing to my car.

Ian wants to know did you eventually make it into your car? With the soldering iron? And I want to point out that, in the US at least, garbage collectors in general make way more than graduate students, or even post-docs. I’m sure that helps keep them jolly.

What thread of logic led you to the conclusion that a soldering iron was a superior lock thawer than a hairdryer?

Erin: Simple—the soldering iron is higher-wattage than the hairdryer. But even if they were the same, the iron concentrates the heat in a much smaller area, which is what I wanted. The goal was to heat up the metal in the lock, and not necessarily the door around it.

Calin: Tell Ian that yes, I did eventually make it into my car. And as far as the relative earnings of garbage collectors (or sanitation engineers, or trash-free environment solution providers, or whatever the hell they’re called these days) is concerned, I don’t doubt that they make a whole lot more than graduate students.

On the other hand, a great deal of psychological research has shown that money and happiness really don’t correlate, at least once you pass the point where you can afford to buy enough food. So that’s a consolation for graduate students, anyway.

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