Manhole Mystery

The end of summer has ushered in a subtle change beneath New Yorkers’ hurried feet: All across Manhattan, manholes have become covered with a translucent slop that gives the rust-colored iron disks the appearance of a murky puddle. Other times, when the sun hits just right, the clear coating glints like some kind of frosted splotch of ice that has absorbed a year’s worth of Manhattan grit.

The see-through coverings now spread around the city are not some toxic spill or anti-terrorism strategy; rather, they are the culmination of Con Edison’s citywide program to insulate the 6,600 steam manholes dotting the intersections across Manhattan. Eight years ago, according to a Con Ed spokesperson, the power utility began insulating the city’s manholes with a clear epoxy sheath to reduce the surface temperature of the scalding hot steam below. Underneath the streets, steam races through a 105-mile labyrinth of pipes at nearly 9.7 million pounds per hour to more than 1,800 buildings all over the island. While it’s environmentally friendly, sizzling steam can be treacherous, as seen when a 26-year-old Brooklyn woman was recently “branded” when she fell onto a billowing Con Ed manhole on Second Avenue. An exploding electrical manhole forced the evacuation of three Times Square restaurants and one bar in March. And earlier this year, a similar tragedy struck when a woman stepped on an electrified East Village utility-box cover while walking her dog and died (luckily, steam manholes can’t electrocute). Between Code Orange terror alerts and last summer’s blackout, New Yorkers have had to add crosswalk calamities to the urban-risk equation.

But now it appears underfoot safety has been improved. Last week, Con Ed finished sealing up the last of the unprotected steam manholes on the Upper East Side “in an around-the-clock operation,” a company statement said. The epoxy coating may keep us safe, but like any change-from the Bloomberg smoking ban to having Republicans flood our city-New Yorkers aren’t sure what to make of their glossy-topped manholes.

“It looks a little toxic to me, or like some kind of jelly” said Alexandra Cohen, a 21-year-old artist from the Upper East Side as she warily eyed a pair of manholes in front of the Park Café on a recent afternoon. The covers had the greenish hue of mossy rock. “They look gross .”

A little while later, Mort Hochstein, a wine and travel writer who lives in the Village, ambled up Park Avenue and stopped at the traffic signal. “Green slime-that’s what they look like to me.”

In front of the Christ Church near East 60th Street later that afternoon, Rich Green, a real-estate broker in from Long Island, looked down at three manholes lining the intersection, equally flummoxed over their new appearance.

“They look kinda slippery to me, almost as if they’re wet,” he said. “I just walk around them.”

Chris Olert, the Con Ed spokesman, assured The Observer that New Yorkers have nothing to fear about the manhole makeover.

“Don’t be afraid of the epoxy,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

-Gabriel Sherman

It’s O.K. to Punch These People in the Face

1. People who post digital photographs of their birthday parties on the Internet.

2. People who use credit cards to buy stuff at Duane Reade.

3. People who say The Brown Bunny “is actually good.”

4. Everyone inside the Apple Store in Soho.

5. Bruce Willis.

Operation Bubbe

Mik Moore’s grandmother must be kvelling . Not only is her youngest grandson a lawyer who keeps kosher and calls his bubbe regularly, but on the eve of the 2004 Presidential election he has become a feisty crusader for grannies’ voting rights.

“I still feel really pissed off about what happened last time in Florida,” said Mr. Moore, 30, referring to the infamous butterfly ballot that tricked thousands of hapless bubbes into voting for Patrick Buchanan instead of Al Gore during the 2000 election. “People kept pointing fingers at these elderly, mostly Jewish voters in Palm Beach, saying it was their own fault that they voted incorrectly. A lot of late-night talk shows made fun of them. They took a lot of shit for it.”

Mr. Moore was tucked into a narrow booth at a University Place diner, sipping a chocolate milkshake through a straw. Dressed in jeans and a gray golfer’s cap (the kind a grandfather might wear), he had a round face and crescent-shaped eyes that crinkled into slits whenever he talked about the 2000 election.

The Florida controversy is still raw for Mr. Moore. Even though his own Jewish grandmother voted in Chelsea, where her ballot was duly counted for Al Gore, an insult to one bubbe is an insult to all. So Mr. Moore has decided to do what any good grandson might have done: He founded Operation Bubbe, a grassroots effort to make sure that Florida’s Jewish granny vote gets counted on Nov. 2.

During the week before the election, Mr. Moore plans to “deploy” a posse of roughly 100 pissed-off grandkids to Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the trio of communities where the butterfly ballot took its greatest toll. There they’ll team up with America Coming Together, the voter-turnout operation that is mobilizing millions of Democratic voters across 17 swing states. They will remind seniors to vote, drive them to the polls and, perhaps most importantly, make sure that not a single blue-haired bubbe accidentally punches a chad for the wrong candidate.

Mr. Moore has some strong ideas about who “the wrong candidate” is in this election-“Literally, I can’t think of one thing the Bush administration has done that I feel good about,” he said-but was careful to go through the motions of distancing his own opinion from the work of Operation Bubbe. “Just to get this on the record, the purpose of the project is not to advocate the election or defeat of any one person,” said Mr. Moore, who has worked over the years as a Democratic consultant and deputy political director for the large building-services union Local 32BJ. Still, he admitted, “it’s clearly tapping into folks who are very displeased with the policies of the administration and are happy with the policies that have been put forward by Kerry and Edwards.”

Operation Bubbe is not alone. Recently a whole industry of organizations has sprung up to encourage disaffected citizens to get out the vote for John Kerry. Fueled by a combination of rage and soft money (which has mushroomed since new changes in the campaign-finance rules), the groups range from sprawling behemoths like America Coming Together to small feeder groups like Operation Bubbe, which cull volunteers from “safe states” like New York to journey down to contested zones like Florida. One group, Swing the State, focuses solely on arranging travel plans and lodgings for these swing-state pilgrims; among industry folk, it is known as the “anti-Bush travel agency.”

Florida is part of the holy trinity of battleground states that are expected to decide the election in November (Pennsylvania and Ohio are the other two), and within Florida, the Jewish community is considered a potential swing vote. True, they represent only 5 percent of the state population, but Jews have historically been a reliable Democratic voting bloc. As Mr. Moore noted, “The last election was decided by less than 540 votes, so small swings in Jewish voter turnout could tip the election one direction or another. If each person that goes down there can get an additional 50 people to the polls, and you get 100 people to go down there, that’s 5,000 more people who will get to the polls. That’s 10 times what the margin [of victory] was in 2000!”

Despite Mr. Bush’s post-convention bounce, Mr. Moore remains optimistic about Florida-as do his volunteers. Even before he launched his Web site over Labor Day, some 25 Gen-Y Jews had volunteered to trek down to the Sunshine State to hang with their bubbes and help them to the polls. Since then, new volunteers have signed up from California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland and, of course, New York.

“I think the polls are encouraging people to sign up,” said Mr. Moore. “I think the more people are worried that Kerry may loose, they more they are willing to do whatever they can to make a difference.”

And in most cases, of course, the bubbes are not averse to a visit from their grandkids. “The sort of subtext is that their grandparents are likely to pay for the ticket to come down and visit them,” said Mr. Moore, who plans to stay at his family’s house in North Miami Beach.

“There are lots of upsides to this plan,” he continued. “We’re going to have a party or two in New York before people leave, and there’s going to be one sort of big pep rally in South Beach. It can also serve as a pseudo-dating service: When you show up at a grandmother’s house to bring her to the polls, she’ll introduce you to her granddaughter.”

-Lizzy Ratner Manhole Mystery