Our house got us a present for Christmas.
A clogged kitchen sink.
Which, I can tell you, is wonderful when you've just finished eating dinner and you have a dishwasher already filled with a dirty mess. In our typical style, we crammed the rest of our plates in and crossed our fingers that the problem would resolve itself overnight.
We woke up to find that all the standing water had magically disappeared, leaving a gross frothy residue of whatever morsels had been tucked away inside the garbage disposal. I sort of knew it wouldn't be the last of the sink issues, but I got to work cleaning off Allison's high chair anyway before making breakfast.
It took a moment, but the water rose steadily and never receded.
"Now what?" I asked Jerry, who looked equally frustrated.
It was a start.
The label said it was safe for garbage disposals, but the increasingly disgusting water didn't budge. So we gave in and called a few local plumbers hoping someone would be available to come out on a Saturday.
The first said his "sink machine was broken."
The second was basically an advertisement for his top competitor, Roto-Rooter. He stopped just short of dialing the number for us.
Eventually Jerry had to leave for work, but not without giving me strict instructions to weld my phone to my skin for fear of missing the call. Yes, I'll admit I do have a tendency to leave my phone laying around in places I can't hear it, but he was forgetting that I wanted our sink back just as badly as he did.
On his drive, he must've filled in his mom about our problem because a few minutes later, she called and came over with her drain snake and more tenacity at tackling our problem than either of us had mustered. She pulled over a chair, used a plunger as I bailed out the mess and tried to figure out a way to wriggle the coiled metal snake through our ancient sink, but it wouldn't fit.
We worked right up until the Roto-man knocked. He came in as I delicately explained that I may or may not have emptied an entire container of Liquid Plumber Gel down the pipes in hopes of averting his nearly $200 fee.
Fortunately he had a sense of humor and had seen much worse in his days. Including looking past my paint-stained sweatpants.
He dug out the piles of grocery bags in the cabinet under the sink and shined the beam of his gigantic flashlight on the pipes to inspect our setup.
"Do you have access downstairs?" he asked.
So I took him to the basement where the new PVC pipes connect to the original galvanized pipes in a coiled mess on the ceiling.
"Is everything else working alright?"
"I flushed the downstairs toilet to check and that was fine," I said.
He shined his light around the coils. "That's the toilet right there. And that's a sink. How about the shower?"
"We don't have a shower downstairs."
He walked over and pointed out the pipe had been capped off. "Well, if you ever want another one, it'd be easy to do."
I know our house has a lot of history, but it's always fascinating finding out more about it. I'd give anything to see what it looked like when it was built in 1901. Entire walls and doors and windows have changed since then.
He determined his course of action and asked to borrow a bucket and a towel. He covered our washing machine and uncapped the end of a pipe and all of the foul standing water that I had been dumping chemicals into all morning cascaded with such force into the bucket that half of it went right down his sleeve.
"Oh, UGH! Use the towel! Seriously! I don't even care."
He just laughed.
"This is nothing. You should see some of the jobs I've done."
The curious ex-reporter in me couldn't help but start asking questions.
"I used to work in Baltimore. A landlord called for one of his tenants explaining that the place was filthy, but he had been unsuccessful at kicking him out. Anyway, I went in and the whole apartment stunk like ... ever been in a chicken coop?"
"Like that. Like the ammonia from feces."
"Anyway, he led me to the sink, kicking a path through all the junk on the floor, and it was completely filled with standing water. But, get this, a dead rat was on the counter with its head sticking in the water. Like it had purposely drowned itself or something."
I almost vomited.
"WHAT DID YOU DO?"
"I asked him if he knew there was a dead rat on his counter."
"And did he?"
"Yeah. He just shrugged. So I told him if the dead rat didn't bother him, then a sink full of water shouldn't either. And I left."
On the other hand, he said he was the regular plumber for Sen. John Murtha, one of the top-ranked Democrats in Congress. The one who infamously called his own constituents "racist" and "redneck" before the election. One he, incidentally, had been running in to reclaim his seat, resulting in regular spoofs on "Saturday Night Live."
"What's he like?" I asked.
"Really cool actually. But definitely a politician. It was probably three years in between my first and second time there and his wife remembered everything about me -- my middle and last name, knew I had moved here from Maryland. She even asked how my mother was."
"I wonder if they write that stuff down somewhere. You know, keep a record," I said.
"Wouldn't surprise me."
We went on to talk about working in industries that never sleep. Like the news business, Roto-Rooter is open 24/7. Like me, he is scheduled to work Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
After grinding the gunk out of our centuries-old pipe and flushing the system with water from the kitchen sink a few times, he told me we should be good for awhile.
Having watched his technique, I asked him if it would be crazy to try it myself if it ever happens again.
"Well, if it doesn't work out, we're always open," he said with a laugh. "Just be sure to have a bucket ready."
I couldn't help but find his daily routine interesting. More times than not he probably deals with regular calls at regular homes like mine. But there are a whole range of extremes on the other ends of the spectrum.
The whole afternoon, although spurred by something I would've preferred to avoid, reinforced my belief that everyone has a story.
You just have to ask the right questions.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Reminiscing about my reporting days
Our house got us a present for Christmas.