Each week Terrain.org will publish new writing coupled with a map. This is the fifth publication in the Spill Stories series.
The natural gas pipeline that runs through the west side of my hometown stretches, in total, 4,361 miles. It moves from the southeast corner of the country all along the Gulf Coast, through Louisiana, and into the southernmost part of Texas. It has been alive longer, seen more people, and traveled more of the world than I have. But kept inside the boundaries of Orlando, Florida, the pipeline is innocuous. It has meant as much to me as the single black line that represents it on a map. It stays on the outskirts of town. It makes its way through a series of small lakes, and passes by Orlando like any other tourist headed to or from Disney. It’s as if the pipeline wants to say there isn’t much to see in this city except for the people who live here. There are more important spots that need to be hit. I’ve lived most of my life completely unaware of it.
When I took showers in my childhood home, felt the warm water drum against my body; when I watched my grandmother ignite the blue flame, frying up food every day after school, the gas pumped through the pipeline’s steel and plastic tubing. When I went to Disney World, heard the great, big machinery all around me, the heaves and sways of roller coasters, smelled the fried food from food trucks, basked in grease and oil, the gas pumped through. Never, of course, could it have been aware of me, or any of the bodies that made up this city. It went where it needed.
But was I ever aware of it? It is true that the only recorded death from a pipeline spill in Orlando happened only two weeks after my eighth birthday. A few miles, it turns out, down from the high school I’d end up going to. The spill cost just short of $16,000. My birthday cake that year, I still have a photo, costs around $15, my mother tells me. And that same year my mother made $27,000 dollars, her first year at the Orlando Police Department.
But the pipeline knew nothing about the costs of me or my family’s living. My birthday celebration or my mother’s new job. And I knew nothing about how a pipeline could demand a price I could never pay, a human life. It simply continued along as usual. And it simply stopped flowing its gas and fuel into my childhood home when we couldn’t afford to pay the bills. It never heard about my mother’s bankruptcy or my family’s eviction. It flowed, unknowingly, where it had to. The pipeline would never, despite its obedience, know the texture of choice, since obedience is mechanical, metallized, with no resemblance to flesh.
But if the pipeline was aware of any of this, if it could speak, I know it would’ve promised that it’d never spill again. It would’ve promised to try its best to give me the gas and fuel I needed. It would have learned, like me, to lie—fully aware that another spill was inevitable. And 14 years later, it spilled again, a few miles away from where I lived. The cost: a little less than $180,000. No one would die this time. And the pipeline would be ready to rationalize to me: Better expensive than fatal. I’d nod and thank it for its many years of service. And we’d both walk away, wondering if we could ever account for the costs demanded by one another.
Header photo by Free-Photos, courtesy Pixabay.