by JIM KNIPFEL
January 17, 2016
A couple of months back I ran a column about that long-standing and Beckettian New York pastime, waiting for the plumber to show. Well, the plumber eventually did show a couple of days after I wrote that column, did what needed doing without bothering me too much, and all was well. For a week or so, anyway. The water that had leaked freely and copiously into the bathroom and bedroom of the basement apartment from a broken pipe on the first floor dried up, and we all continued on our weary way. Having been through more than a couple of man-made floods myself when I was living in the basement apartment, I felt bad for the Greek kid and his girlfriend who were down there now. More than anything, though, I was glad to be up on the second floor.
Then a week or two after the cracked pipe was replaced, the raw sewage began backing up into the Greek kid’s apartment. I’d had first hand experience with that down there, too, when the shit began bubbling out of the drains and oozing up through the cracks in the floor about a week after I’d mopped up that first big flood. Jesus, this place sometimes. But y’know, I’d warned him about all that when he moved in.
So once again it was time to wait for a plumber who showed three days later than expected. When he did, and when he surveyed the situation and reported it back to the landlord, we all got a very angry note about proper toilet use.
The pipe, it turns out, was clogged with cooking grease (not our fault, as we do no greasy cooking), Clorox sanitary wipes (again not our fault, as I don’t even know what those are) and cigarette butts (okay, so maybe I contributed to some of that). Dredging all that crap out of the pipes was an expensive operation, and for the first time in the six years I’ve been here, the landlord threatened to raise the rent if we didn’t cut it out and shape up. That was threat enough for me, so I stopped dumping my butts down the john.
Things once more seemed fine for about a week after that. Then the shit began backing up into the basement again. We weren’t aware of this until the day after Christmas when we found our water had been abruptly and unexpectedly shut off in the middle of the day.
Well, okay then. At that point unaware of the latest flood of liquid feces in the basement, we took it to be a small fluke, something that would clear itself up in time, so we stepped out for a couple of hours. When we returned, the water was back on, we could wash our hands, and we barely gave that earlier dry patch another thought. At least until noon the following day when the water was turned off again, just as abruptly and unexpectedly.
In our minds, unshakeable optimists that we are, it remained a fluke for the next several hours, something we could chortle away. The water would come back on at some point, and some point soon. That was one of the few things in this crazy old world we could count on. Then about seven-thirty that night, after almost eight hours with no water, and long after I’d become solidly drunk, the phone rang.
It was our neighbor on the first floor, a very reserved and soft spoken fellow a few years older than me who loved political history and his many cats. I could hear his wife yelling in the background, and he was in as close to a fury as I’d ever heard him. Measured and even, but in a fury nevertheless. The plumber, he said, was supposed to be there at four but never showed. It looked like we would be without water until at least the following afternoon. He and his wife had a long running gripe with the landlord’s inaccessibility and reluctance to make needed repairs or improvements, so there was some talk about legal complaints against the landlord and rent strikes and the like, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. If I were still living in the basement and the only way to stop the shit from seeping up through the floor was to turn off everyone’s water, well, I’d likely be tempted myself. Thinking back on it now, probably the only reason I didn’t do the same thing was that I had no idea how, or even that the master valve was down there someplace.
No matter at this point anyway. We’d deal with it, right? Morgan and I went to bed that night a little funky and sticky, there were still dishes piled in the sink, and we couldn’t use the toilet, but we’d be okay. We’d keep a sense of humor about it all and the dry hours would fly by like that.
Come the next morning, though, we began to get a sense of just how well we’d adapt to a real emergency situation, and I think the proper expression would be “Not Very Well.”
At six that morning, an hour after getting up and the moment the bodega across the street opened, we dashed over there (greasy and itchy as we were) and bought four gallons of bottled water from the confused Egyptian behind the counter. Then three more. Then another two. Then another two after that, which Morgan gave to the couple on the first floor.
By eight, voices in all three apartments were being raised by people who hadn’t been able to brush their teeth or make a simple pot of coffee in almost twenty hours. Being without running water, it seems, was having a far worse and much more immediate impact on people than not having electricity or heat. Until it’s gone, you just aren’t aware of how much water you use every day without thinking about it. Not just to flush or bathe, but casually turning on a faucet to wash your hands or rinse off a fork or get a quick drink. After not shaving for one day, I had a full beard, and it made my head hurt. Things were starting to get pretty bad, everyone pointlessly sniping at everyone else.
The latest clog in the sewer line, we learned, was caused by two things. One was a design flaw in the way the pipes had originally been laid a century earlier. The other was the fact someone (and I’m not naming names or pointing fingers here) had still insisted on flushing Clorox wipes down the toilet despite the earlier dire warnings. But the plumber, it was promised, would be there by eleven and we’d have water by noon.
At some point before that, Morgan and I took a step or two back, recognized the situation for what it was, and decided yeah, as grotesque as we felt, we had little choice but to deal, right? Our place wasn’t being flooded with shit every time someone turned on a faucet, and lord knows we weren’t fleeing a war-savaged nation hauling everything we owned on our backs, right?
So we stopped worrying. We had bottled water. We could handle basic necessities and deal with a little personal discomfort for a couple more hours. I’m not so sure the same attitude was adopted in the other apartments, from the sound of it.
The plumber arrived more or less on time, and by two that afternoon we had water again. It was good, and everyone seemed to calm down some. Bathing can work wonders.
The next morning was cold and windy, a mix of rain and sleet slapping against the windows. And when we got up, flipped on the faucet in the kitchen sink, and found the water had been turned off again, we only shrugged.
Given how sort-of quickly we adapted those first two days, I’ll be curious to see just how long we can continue taking it in stride.
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