November 25, 2012

Three Weeks Before the Hurricane

(Authors note: The account below was written three weeks before tropical depression Sandy was originally identified in the South Atlantic. In retrospect and comparison after all that followed, it now sounds like a whole bunch of pathetic whining. But there you go.)


There are few worse sensations in the world than getting out of bed in the morning and dropping your feet into ankle-deep water when you were expecting dry floor. Prior to last Tuesday it had happened to me three times in the Bunker, and each from a different cause. The first one was a leaking air conditioner unit upstairs that got out of hand. The second was tropical storm Irene in 2011 (I’m still proud to say mine was the only apartment in New York that flooded thanks to that damn thing). And the third—a week after the storm—was a backed-up sewer line.

            Since then, things had remained dry, all the physical problems that led to the floods had been fixed, and I could comfortably tell myself that I didn’t have to worry about that shit any more. I could once again worry about other, more important shit, and the mop could go back in the closet.

            Well, Tuesday changed all that, though I’m not sure why I was so surprised. I muttered assorted obscenities as I sloshed around the bedroom to see if I could determine a source. Then I sloshed into the hall and the side room. The side room always gets it worse, which is why I don’t keep anything important in there anymore.

            Yeah, things were bad. I opened the door into the boiler room and saw that it was flooded as well. What’s more, the quickly rising water was hot. So I guess it was the boiler. Fourth flood, fourth cause. If I believed in anything, I might choose that moment to start believing that something was trying to send me a message.

            Usually after waking up to a flood, once you realize what’s going on there’s a moment of cold panic. Where do you even start? What room do you go after first? Will towels do a damn thing? Will weeping help matters?

            None of that happened this time. After those first three I had it down to a science. After all that had been lost in the past, there was little damage to worry about. The books and important papers were now off the floor, and if the water rose high enough to threaten them, well, losing more books would be the least of my troubles. My biggest concern at that moment was that I hadn’t yet figured out what would make for proper flood cleanup music. I needed a soundtrack. I didn’t have a copy of Handel’s “Water Music” in the collection, and Spike Jones’ “Drip, Drip, Drip” wasn’t long enough to work up a good head of steam. Well, I’d figure it out one of these days, for sure. I had some breakfast, then a cigarette, then I took my pills. After making sure the electrical cords were out of danger I turned on the computer and sent a note off to the landlord and my upstairs neighbor. Even the note had pretty much become a standard script: “Apartment flooding again. Leaking boiler this time. Please send someone with a wet vac before I drown.” Then I dragged the cooler into the bedroom, grabbed a bucket, sat on the edge of the bed, and started scooping.

            About two hours later the doorbell rang. I sloshed into the front room with some relief and opened the door. That’s when my sense of relief vanished. Standing there was neither a plumber nor someone from the company that maintains the heating system. No, it was my landlord’s cousin, who likes to call himself a plumber and is known among family members as “the Idiot.” True to form, he had arrived with no wet vac, and no tools of any kind. Nevertheless I let him in for some reason and he took a look around.

            “Ah,” he said through a nearly incomprehensible Greek accent, “this ain’t so much water.”

            “Maybe you’re right,” I told him. “But it’s still more than I’m used to having all over my floor at once.”

            Clearly thinking that I was just being a whiner about standing in ankle-deep warm water—perhaps he found it soothing—he sighed and splashed into the boiler room, where he began to bang on things (as far as I could tell, with his fists) and bellow guttural obscenities in Greek. I returned to scooping in the bedroom, pausing occasionally to drag the cooler into the bathroom to dump the water down the shower drain. As the Idiot continued banging on things, my upstairs neighbor Bill arrived with his own mop and bucket. He knew the drill by this time as well.

            Claiming to have shut off the hot water somehow and thus putting a stop to the active leak, the Idiot emerged from the boiler room and sort of explained to Bill and me that he would be back around seven-thirty that night to patch up the hole. His tools, see, were over on Staten Island somewhere. Then he explained something else, half of which was in Greek.

            “You understand?” he asked when he was finished.

            “Not really, no,” Bill said.

            At this, the Idiot started to laugh, and headed to the front door and away as Bill and I stared silently after him.

            “What an idiot,” Bill said finally. Then with a shrug we resumed our mopping. I began to think that it might be interesting, just once, to live in an apartment whose maintenance crew wasn’t made up of escapees from a Fellini set. But I don’t know that such a beast exists.

            Bill and I mopped and dumped for the next few hours, exchanging stories about rednecks and detailing the slow collapse of the building in which we were living. We had both reached the point where we took it all in stride.

            Once we reached the point where I could dry up the rest with towels and fans, Bill returned upstairs and I made a cursory check to insure there was no new damage. There wasn’t. It was all little more than an enormous pain in the ass and another wasted day.

            Later that evening the doorbell rang again. I opened it and once again found the Idiot standing there, this time with two tool boxes. That’s when I really started to worry. Once again I nevertheless let him in and he headed for the boiler room to bang on things and curse in Greek.

            Ten minutes later I heard an unmistakable sound over and above the Greek obscenities. I calmly turned on the computer and composed a new note to Bill. It consisted of two brief sentences: “He’s got an acetylene torch. Lord help us all.”


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.