Invasion of The Rebel Manhole Covers
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2000; Page C01
Paschal McMahon was standing on a bar stool when the manhole cover took flight.
No, he wasn't drunk. He was working. It was 7:30 on Sunday morning, June 4, and McMahon was cleaning the windows of Mr. Smith's, the Georgetown saloon where he tends bar, when a manhole launched its lid into the wild blue yonder.
"All of a sudden, Boom!" he says. "Jesus Christ, my heart went into my mouth!"
The manhole cover soared about three feet into the air and then plunged to earth with a thundering thud. But it wasn't a particularly impressive manhole cover flight, at least not by Georgetown standards.
These days, Georgetown is the Reagan National, the Dulles International, the Cape Canaveral of flying manhole covers. It achieved this lofty status on Feb. 18, when three M Street manhole covers abruptly abandoned their traditional positions underfoot and zoomed toward Heaven, one right after another.
This is disconcerting, disorienting, a tad distressing. Manhole covers are not supposed to fly. Birds are supposed to fly. Planes are supposed to fly. Flies are supposed to fly. Manhole covers are just supposed to sort of lay there, preferably while covering manholes.
They're not designed for flight. They're heavy--80 to 300 pounds--and not particularly aerodynamic. Even their mothers wouldn't call them streamlined. And yet they're taking off, blasting into the heavens. It's the kind of thing that makes you question your understanding of reality, like the time you saw Sammy Davis Jr. give Richard Nixon a big hug: Apparently the world is weirder than you ever imagined.
When manhole covers fly, you have to wonder: What next? Rocks that swim? Trees doing the Lambada? Frogs raining from the heavens? Dogs playing poker? Republicans taking over the House of Representatives? Oh, wait. That already happened. See how strange life is getting?
This isn't just a Washington phenomenon. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, seven manhole covers took flight in 1997, one landing on the roof of a nearby child-care center. In New York in 1998, a manhole cover outside Radio City Music Hall zoomed four stories into the air, which even the Rockettes can't do. In New Orleans last summer, so many manhole covers started flying that the local power company started chaining them to the earth, a public-utility version of preventive detention.
But Washington is certainly in the forefront of manhole cover aerodynamics. After Georgetown's iron geysers in February, manhole covers were flying all over town. On March 8, one flew at 19th and K. On March 31, one manhole cover exploded on the grounds of the White House and another flew into a car at 13th and G.
Back in 1994, a manhole cover rocketed into the air over Connecticut Avenue, and landed on the ninth-floor balcony of a building across the street.
The ninth floor? What's going on here?
There are, of course, a lot of theories.
Back in February, after the now-famous Georgetown launches, Pepco blamed Washington Gas and Washington Gas blamed Pepco, and there was a lot of talk about how maybe the salt spread on streets to melt snow had damaged cables and caused the explosions. But that can't explain the flight that scared McMahon, which occurred on a balmy spring morning.
Nancy Moses, spokeswoman for Pepco, which owns 57,000 manholes in Washington, has a theory: Most flying manhole covers are caused by electrical short circuits underground that shoot sparks: "And that flash could ignite any gases present--I don't mean Washington Gas's gas but gas from decaying leaves and gunk. There's a momentary heat buildup and pressure that may dislodge the manhole cover."
"I have my own theory," says Patricia King of the Walking Company, a Georgetown shoe store located right in front of the February launchings. "The rats were chewing the wires and the wires exploded."
Maybe. But neither theory explains the flying manhole covers in San Juan. Those manholes flew off sewer lines. Sewer lines don't contain wires. They contain . . . well, something else.
So maybe we need to think outside the box, consider some alternate explanations:
Maybe Mother Earth has been eating too many beans.
Maybe manhole covers watched Frisbees and got inspired.
Maybe this explains those flying saucer photos from the '50s--they were just manhole covers out for a quiet romp in the sky.
Or maybe not. Maybe manhole covers are just beginning their own space program and these little flights are their crude early attempts, like those rockets that blew up on NASA's launch pads in the '50s. Maybe they'll work the bugs out soon and be flying in formation over Georgetown like the Blue Angels.
Or maybe manhole covers just got tired of being stepped on and spat upon and decided to rise up--literally. And maybe flying manhole covers will inspire other aspects of our urban infrastructure to start doing their own thing, expressing their inner beauty in hitherto unexpected ways. Maybe railroad tracks will tire of the whole parallel thing and take off on their own, twisting like snakes. Maybe sidewalks will eschew the merely horizontal and begin to rise, humming "Stairway to Heaven." Maybe telephone poles will give in to a previously unexpressed desire to dress up in beads and boas and perform selections from the Judy Garland songbook.
Or maybe not. You never know. It's a weird world out there. Better stay alert. Keep your eyes on the skies. Also, keep your eyes on the pavement. Or do both at the same time, if that's possible. Remember: You can't keep a good manhole cover down.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company
: THE BEAVER MILITIA
: KING BEAVER TRAPPED--EXPERIMENTAL LAB ANIMAL
: CHERRY TREE BEAVER UPDATE
: BEAVERS RESETTLED
: ART BELL AND THE REST OF THE POST
: THE REST OF THE POST