Ever heard of a gas balloon? Not the kind you ride in, like Dorothy in Oz, but the kind that holds the liquid petroleum used for fuel here in Israel.
“Balloons” (“balonim” in Hebrew) are metal tanks with a spigot on top, hooked to the gas lines that snake into the house to power gas appliances. Steve and I were aware that older buildings have balloons instead of central gas lines, and that they can run dry with no warning. (Gauge? What gauge?) But little did we know that in our spanking new building we’d experience that moment when, as the brownies have started baking and the towels have started tumbling, the petroleum stops pumping.
Apparently this is a short-term situation in our development. As soon as the seventh and final building is complete – in about two years – we will get a central line.
But for now, the seven families in our building have to keep a careful eye on the two tanks. And because we have a gas dryer and range (most of the others have electric appliances), we are usually the ones to discover empty balloons.
The first time was about three months after moving in. Steve figured out how to switch over to the backup tank. He then asked the head of our building committee to call the American-Israeli Gas Corp. (Amisragas) and order a new primary tank. It took a few calls to persuade Amisragas that our building even existed, and then a few more until a truck arrived with a new balloon. By that time, we calculated, the backup was low.
We thought we had the situation in hand when we finally got two fresh tanks, and labeled them to keep track of how long each lasted. The primary tank was labeled 22 January. I know this because on 22 May, it went dry. Naturally, I had a load in the dryer and barley cooking.
I was home alone, but my next-door neighbor Lynda said she knew how to switch to the backup. We went up to the balloon corner and I watched as she closed the spigot on the primary tank and opened the spigot on the second one. Then we went back downstairs and tried lighting our stovetops. Nothing doing.
The only other neighbor around was Moshe, a native Israeli. “Do you know how to switch the balloons?” I asked in my best Hebrew. Moshe set down his watering can and strode over to the tanks. He rapped on the first one. He rapped on the second one.
“They’re both empty,” he declared.
“Not possible,” I said. “It’s new.”
I reached Steve on his cell phone. “It can’t be empty,” he agreed, instructing us to turn one additional dial.
Sure enough, when we got back to our apartments, Lynda’s gas burner came alive under a pot of green beans. I restarted my dryer and was putting in a new load of laundry when the doorbell rang. It was Lynda.
“My flame just sputtered out,” she said.
“But my dryer is on,” I replied, confused. “Listen.”
Yes, we both heard the dryer. And just as she turned to leave in bewilderment, we both heard it stop.
Back upstairs we went. Moshe, still outside tending his flowerpots, knocked again on the balloons and confirmed that they were empty. He kindly offered to call the gas company. Figuring that a squeaky wheel gets the oil – or, petroleum – I also called a few minutes later.
“What’s your address?” the woman on the other end asked me. “B’seder [okay], we’ll send someone to check it out today.”
It occurred to me that there were two miraculous aspects of this conversation so far. One, that a real person answered the phone on a Friday morning, the equivalent of Sunday in America. Two, that she was sending someone right away. Would this happen if you called PSE&G on a Sunday morning? Maybe, maybe not.
Still, I was skeptical. “What time today?” I pressed.
“I don’t know when,” she replied pleasantly. “Today, for sure.”
I took a deep breath. “Thank you. Shabbat shalom.”
“Shabbat shalom u’mevorach [a peaceful and blessed Sabbath]!” she wished me heartily.
I rang Lynda’s bell. She was transferring the beans to a microwavable casserole.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” I reported. “Maybe they mistakenly sent a nearly empty balloon as the backup. Anyway, they’ll be here today.”
“When?” she pressed.
“I don’t know when,” I replied pleasantly. “Today, for sure.”
And then, miracle No. 3: An Amisragas technician pulled up an hour later and installed two full balonim.
Minutes later, the towels were fluffing, the barley was bubbling, and I was smiling. I had successfully navigated one more turn in the roadmap of our new lives.