TourA visitor informed me that a pool of water had appeared around the washing machine in the basement utility room. "I didn't know you ever used the washing machine," she said in a chatty tone. I assured her that I washed my clothes three times a year, whether they needed washing or not, but that alas, the pond of water did not come from the washing machine.
I know this scenario well. Just to the left of the washing machine there is a depression in the concrete floor, housing a round metal plate with holes in it, like a miniature manhole cover. It is a sort of manhole cover, covering the overflow outlet of the house sewer-line. When the sewer-line gets clogged, the water and everything else in the sewer-line backs up through that cover into the surrounding basement floor.
When this happens, no plumbing in the house can be used until the problem has been repaired. My guest got the picture quickly enough and was out the door in the twinkling of an eye, heading for another State. I felt a strong urge to do the same, and in fact lowered a lifeboat and attempted to scull away from the back door. After rowing briskly but to no effect on the driveway for half an hour, I remembered that I have nowhere else to live, and resigned myself to going back inside and getting busy on the repair process.
It is chastening to be reminded how dependent we are on that humblest component of home and hearth, the sewer-line. In other situations, I am the stingiest of shoppers, endlessly poring over my Consumer Reports and missing no smallest opportunity to save a buck. But blocked plumbing leaves one little time for research and comparison shopping. In fact, I was too panicked even to remember which plumber I had contacted the last time this happened. Instead, I threw open the yellow pages and called the first number my trembling hand touched.
Help finally arrived in the person of a Master Plumber named Anthony. His first step was an attempt to ream out the blockage with the standard roto-rooter device, which we plumbing scholars know as "the cable." The cable cut its way through a few roots, the usual culprits, but then bound up at some inexplicably dense blockage that its most powerful cutting head couldn't penetrate. "Fascinating," Anthony said, imitating Mr. Spock of Star Trek. After considering the sound the cable made as it encountered the blockage, he deduced that alien beings from the earth's core had tunneled under the house, beaming solid Kryptonite into segments of the sewer pipeline.
The only cure, he went on to explain, was for him to use space-age technology to discover the exact location of the Kryptonite, and then for his crew to dig down to that section and replace the blocked pipe segments. The cost of this operation would be brutal, but I didn't have many options. There is something about needing to use the toilet that brings new meaning to that term from Economics 101, "inelastic demand."
I was brooding over this prospective outlay, when the telephone rang. A clean-up company, which Anthony's company had helpfully contacted for me, was calling to schedule their part of the job. "Hello there," a cheery voice on the telephone chirped into my ear. "We understand you have sewer issues." I replied that it wasn't exactly an "issue" in the psychiatric sense, just water with a few turds and bits of toilet paper and things floating around in my basement. The voice on the phone became even cheerier, and effused that this was exactly the company's meat and potatoes, so to speak. She assured me that all would be well, and that their technician was already on the way.
Their technician must have been standing by outside my door, for I had hardly put down the phone when he rang the bell, ready to exorcise the sewage issues. He was an impassive Aztec equipped with an assortment of whips, rattles, jujus, and other mysterious, pre-Columbian artifacts with which to carry out the rites of exorcism. I never found out exactly what he did down there, nor where all the sewage detritus, and about half the carpeting in the basement, disappeared to. In fact, I hesitated to go near the basement for several days, fearing to disturb the spell of exorcism.
In the meantime, the plumbing contractor had prepared an estimate, and he passed it across the table to me. A paper black with figures swam before my eyes, and I was assailed by a spasm of pain, centered in the checkbook. Getting a grip on myself, I read on in the document. It was simple boiler-plate, requiring me to absolve the contractor of any responsibility if the excavation caused the front porch to cave in, the house to collapse, or the entire neighborhood to be sucked into the earth's mantle. A pen appeared in my nerveless fingers, and I found myself signing the document. Anthony smiled broadly, whether in reassurance or in pure avarice we'll never know, and he signaled to his minions to begin the work.
Troops of them filed in and out of the basement all day, working devices that obviously came from reruns of Star Trek. At length, the exact location of the blockage --- or what we in the computer world call a "bad sector" --- was pin-pointed. Next, they spent a day and half digging a trench on the scale of Ferdinand de Lesseps' first attempt at the Panama Canal. It was just outside the house, under the porch, so urchins from the neighborhood could gather round to cheer the workmen on, and place bets on when they might strike oil or reach a subduction zone.
While the digging progressed, I was fortunately able to shower and use the toilet by visiting my daughter's place and local libraries, bowling alleys, and supermarkets. The local Safeway clerks must have been a little puzzled when I kept dropping in dressed in pajamas throughout the night.
At length, to the applause of the entire neighborhood audience, the plumbing crew reached the suspect sections of pipe. One of the workmen showed me the bad sectors. "It's lucky we got to them in time, Squire," he confided. "These old pipes are real bad. If they got any worse, they could undermine your circulation, your liver, and your credit rating." Fortunately, the team was able to replace the bad sectors with new, high-tech pipes composed of gem-studded platinum. Anthony himself supervised this delicate operation, although he was often called away to telephone conferences with his broker, his accountant, and a yacht sales representative.
The project ended, of course, with a video camera inspection of the entire sewer-line. Anthony provided a colourful commentary on its whole length, like a tour-guide in Rome. "Look," he would say, "that's where it turns 90 degrees. There's a bit of root the cable didn't get. And that pebbly material on the wall over there, that's early 16th century style, probably commissioned by Pope Julius II." I nodded dumbly at the tour, but got the impression that the line was indeed clear. "OK," I said, "Can I use the toilet now?" Then they transferred the mountain of dirt on my front stairs back into the trench, and smoothed down the earth so that I could use it as a family graveyard, when the need arises.
As a remembrance of this operation, beside the large holes in several bank accounts, I have a video-tape of that exciting tour through my house's very own sewer-line. I plan to enter it into a film festival sometime, just as soon as I've finished selecting the background music. It will begin with Mahler's "Song of the Earth," natürlich, then something suitably dark and expressionist, perhaps by Stockhausen. And we will end triumphantly, of course, with Handel's "Water Music."
--- Dr. Phage