by JIM KNIPFEL
March 22, 2020
Horror Movie Scenario
It was about eleven on a Sunday night. I’d come to bed about fifteen minutes earlier when Morgan stepped into the bedroom.
“The tub’s backing up again.”
“Oh, you’re fucking kidding.” We’d been in the apartment less than three weeks. The same thing had happened our first night here, and when the plumbers (eventually) showed up the next day and unclogged the pipes, they gave us every indication that that was it, from that point on it would be smooth sailing. I guess they were the overly optimistic types.
“It’s about an inch deep now and still rising,” Morgan said of the raw sewage bubbling up through the bathtub drain.
“How deep is the tub, about a foot and a half?” I asked. “Should I call that emergency plumber Al (our new landlord) mentioned?
We thought about it for a bit. Considering the time, how long it would take him to come over, and how exhausted we both were, we decided to take our chances that the tub wouldn’t completely fill up with Other People’s Shit and overflow. At least the toilet hadn’t overflowed again, but considering the sounds it was making and the dropping water level, it was giving every indication that if we dared use it, it would.
“Well, shit.” We closed the bathroom door to contain the toxic invasion, and went to sleep.
The next morning, the tub hadn’t overflowed, which is good, but the situation was still grim. Being unable to use the shower or toilet and being fairly unhappy about this, I left an unhappy message for the landlord, knowing he wouldn’t be in his office for another two hours. Then I called that emergency plumber, a guy named Eddie, who supposedly lived on the block and was an old acquaintance of Al’s.
Well, I learned from the groggy fellow who answered the phone that not only was his name not Eddie, as we’d been told, he had never heard of our landlord, which also contradicted what we’d been told. Why was I not shocked to learn any of this? At least he was a plumber and not an accountant. As a topper, when I described the situation to him, he told me bluntly he wasn’t about to touch a mess like that. But he did give me the number of another freelance plumber in the neighborhood who would.
When I called this other plumber, he clearly knew exactly what the issue was and what needed doing, but demanded cash up front. I didn’t have that kind of cash on me, and the banks didn’t open for three hours, so there was little choice at that point but to wait until eight and call the landlord again, trying, through sheer force of will, to ignore the growing pressure in my bladder and bowels.
Al pretended to be shocked and grossed to hear the same thing was happening after the plumbers had given it the all clear three weeks earlier. His biggest concern, however, was how much it was going to cost him to resolve the problem.
“Every time these plumbers come over,” he said of the guys he brought in last time, “it costs me three hundred dollars! You think I want that?”
Now, when you haven’t been able to piss in a civilized manner in nine hours, this is not the kind of whining you care to hear. I pointed out that personally, I considered it a small price to pay in exchange for the right to shit and bathe freely again.
He relented, and agreed to call the plumbers, telling me they likely wouldn’t get to the apartment any earlier than mid-afternoon. Having once been forced to shit in a plastic bag when confronted with the same situation back in The Bunker, and in no mood to go through that nonsense again, I made it clear as I could that this wasn’t exactly acceptable. He relented again, and arranged to have one of the plumber’s assistants come over at ten.
A few minutes later Al showed up at our door and gave us the keys to the vacant apartment across the hall, where the plumbing, in theory, worked as it should. “Just to hold you over until the plumber shows up, you understand.” It was a decent gesture, though maybe one he should have thought of three weeks earlier when this happened the first time. As he repeatedly pointed out what a selfless gesture it was on his part to give us the keys, he kept complaining about how much the plumbers were going to cost him. Somehow I felt no guilt about this
The apartment across the hall was essentially the mirror image of the shabby cesspool we’d moved into less than a month earlier, with two basic exceptions. First, there was no balcony, which left room to make the apartment’s actual living area much larger (including several closets not nearly as creepy as the single closet in our place). And second, it was much nicer overall, if you could overlook the shag carpeting. So far as we knew, Al had never shown that apartment to any potential renters the entire time we’d been living across the hall. The question then became, why? But those ponderings would have to wait. We just wanted to use the fucking toilet and get back across the hall to wait for the plumber.
When the surly plumber, one of the two who’d been there the last time, arrived a few minutes after ten, he surveyed the situation and groaned to himself. Following a few muttered obscenities, he dismantled the toilet, found the clog deep in the building’s basement, and discovered the source of the problem. He then, in his surly world-weary way, asked me if we were in the habit of flushing baby wipes down the toilet.
“Oh, of course not,” I told him. “We don’t even own any baby wipes. Last place we lived, the woman on the first floor did that and ended up clogging and eventually bursting the sewer line. She’d been . . . “
“Yeah, okay,” he cut me off, clearly sensing the overlong story that was coming. “Then it must be the people living above you. If they don’t stop flushing those things, this is just gonna happen again in a couple weeks, and it’ll keep happening.”
Well, that didn’t sound good. An extended Hispanic family lived above us, with kids ranging from toddlers to older teens, along with their mother and grandmother. From what I could tell the kids were a little too old for baby wipes, but who knows? I stopped trying to fathom human behavior a long time ago.
The plumber explained the situation to Al, letting him know that as landlord, it was up to him to tell them to stop flushing baby wipes down the goddamn toilet. I tried explaining this to Al as well, but he likewise cut me off when I began sliding into that long and ponderous story about the flood of shit and subsequent week without running water in the Bunker.
“Jim,” Al said. “It’s the kind of thing I have to be very diplomatic about. They could tell me to go F myself. I mean, they’re just gonna do what they want to do.”
It was clear that Al was terrified of the Hispanic family on the Third floor, and so wasn’t going to say a word to them. Meaning, of course, we could expect raw sewage to back up into the bathroom again in a couple of weeks.
“I mean,” Al said for no real clear reason, “I’m not a slumlord.”
No, I thought. Slumlords generally don’t charge this much rent.
After the plumber left, and for the second time in a month, it was still up to Morgan to mop up the raw sewage from the tub, the floor, even the hallway outside the bathroom, where the plumber had tracked it. Living in dread of a plumbing system that could erupt with liquid shit at any moment—and knowing it eventually would—was bad enough, but being left to clean it up ourselves afterward was the needle in the eye. This was no way to live.
I’d lived in my share of hellholes over the years, nightmarish places never intended for human habitation, but I was younger then, more adventurous, and to be honest, unaware of how other people my age were living. I also wasn’t married. Less than a month there, and we were already actively looking for other apartments. I would rather take an awl to the throat than move again, but we simply would not live in fear of the damn toilet. Fuck the lease.
Then Morgan had an idea. The place across the hall was on a different sewer line and unconnected to the family above us. It was a nice place, and given we’d barely started unpacking, we could do most of the actual moving ourselves. It seemed to have real promise. No, we weren’t sure about the building overall, but we did like the neighborhood and it would save a few headaches.
I called Al the next morning and asked if the apartment was available. He told me it was, and without the balcony the rent was even a little cheaper. Call me a philistine, but I was perfectly willing to trade the balcony—which to be honest had been nothing but an open air smoking lounge for me—for indoor plumbing that worked.
I told Al that we were interested, and he said we should come down to his office on the ground floor later that afternoon to sign the new lease.
After I hung up the phone, it slowly began to dawn on me that what we were slipping into here was the premise of a horror film from the Seventies. Forced out of one miserable apartment only to move into the much nicer place with the lower rent, conveniently located directly across the hall? There were too many whispers of The Sentinel and Rosemary’s Baby and countless made-for-TV horror films. I said nothing to Morgan, but as we began preparing to move yet again I had the sinking suspicion things were about to get far worse and more terrifying.
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