The trouble with service plumbing is you never know when some of your future best customers will finally decide to call you. Saturday afternoon at five o’clock I get a call from a friend telling me that a large apartment complex that I had wanted as a customer needed a plumber. I had been home for several hours and had changed into my play clothes and was leaning toward a nap when the call came in.
I quickly changed clothes and headed over. The call was for backed up toilets in two apartments, one above the other on the first and second floors of the five story building. These apartments catered to college students whom had recently moved in as the fall semester was about to begin.
One of the building maintenance personnel met me at the door and took me to the apartments. The first floor apartment was occupied by a young woman’s parents and brother. She was at sorority rush so wasn’t home. The bathroom was standing a small amount of water around the toilet where it had run over. They had tried to stem the flood by using the only thing they had available, a roll of paper towels.
The apartment maintenance man left, telling me he would be in the building if I needed him further. I scooped water from the toilet into the tub which was still draining, and completely emptied the bowl.
The rule of thumb is, that if the toilet can be emptied then the water level is below floor level. I got my closet auger which is designed to clear toilets and is about five foot long and ran through the toilet. When I tried to pull it back out it refused to come out. Weird, I thought to myself, I’ve never been able to not pull it back out.
I decided there was nothing left to do but pull the toilet off the floor and see what the obstruction was. I unbolted it from the floor and lifted it off. I couldn’t set it down all the way because of the closet auger that was still stuck in it. As I was freeing the cable, my eyes looked over at the now exposed floor flange which was packed tightly with toilet paper. I pulled the auger free and was balancing the toilet with one hand while pulling the auger free with the other, when I noticed the toilet paper in the pipe move up through the floor. I quickly turned and set the toilet to the side and turned back to find the column of toilet paper was now almost two feet high.
“Oh, be fruitful and multiply”, (or something along those lines) I said. I quickly stepped closer to the quickly accelerating column of paper, only to be in what can best be described as a volcano of raw sewage. I quickly stomped my foot over the pipe to try to stem the tide. Looking around the bathroom the wave of sewage was headed toward the carpeted area. Water was spraying around my boot which couldn’t quite seal the top of pipe, and I couldn’t move to try to stop the flood of water rushing towards the carpet.
Now I would like to say that lesser plumbers would have panicked but, I remained calm. The truth is I wanted to curl up in the fetal position in the floor, however the floor as well as myself, was currently covered with toilet paper and, let’s call it recently used food.
I pulled out my phone to call for help but, A. couldn’t think of anyone to call, B. Didn’t know what they would do if they arrived, and C. Didn’t want to put my phone anywhere near my mouth.
Luckily at this point the water spraying from around my boot began to dwindle down. I removed my boot from over the pipe and the last of the fluid ran out. I quickly fashioned a dam out of the paper towels to keep the water in the room from migrating onto the carpet of the adjoining bedroom. I picked up my sponge and began the ardous task of removing the mess off the floor. When the floor was manageably clean. I ran my sewer cable down the line, praying no one upstairs decided to flush. Just as I cleared the obstruction and the sewage sucked down the pipe, I heard a toilet upstairs flush. Expecting the worse (for some reason) I turned my face away from the mouth of the pipe. I was relieved to see that nothing backed up the line to give me another completely unnecessary shower. I quickly reset the toilet and began the huge job of cleaning the bathroom.
Forty minutes, and a contractor trash bag of toilet paper and stuff later, I began the sterilization of the entire bathroom with bleach. I threw away my gloves, and sponge since I didn’t think I could ever look at them again. I loaded all the tools and equipment back in the truck and headed back home. When I got back I stripped my clothes off in the garage and when straight to the shower. The martini I was about to drink before the call came in, didn’t go to waste since I poured it over my hands to sterilize them from whatever soaked through my gloves.
If any of you have a child who doesn’t want to go to college have them contact me, or read them this story. By the way, I also have a sure fire remedy for that annoying new car smell.
I have often wondered when they were deciding on the content of a plumbing examination for licensing, why they don’t at least have one chapter on warnings about the customers you would be faced with. It sounded easy enough when I was on the phone with the woman. She said she could hear water running even though nothing was. On the short drive over to her house I went over the possible causes, broken pipe under the house was the most likely. Many of the turn of the century homes in that neighborhood had galvanized pipe water lines that were rusted away to nothing and I suspected this one would be no different.
I pulled my truck into the driveway surrounded by a yard that had defied the original intent of having a yard by transforming itself into a jungle. As I made my way to the front porch, I regretted my decision to leave my machete and snakebite kit in the truck as any minute I expected to be attacked by something less welcoming than a rabid pit bull. After finally gaining the higher ground the rotting down porch provided, I knocked on the paint peeling door. An elderly woman peaked out through the cracked door and asked if I was the plumber. After convincing her that I wasn’t selling Amway, she opened the door and invited me in. My well-trained ears could already hear the water leak I had been called to fix and I asked where her crawl space access door to under the house was. She replied that there was an opening in her backyard that she led me back to. It was no great surprise to find the backyard more grown up than the front, after all everyone tries to impress the neighbors by keeping up the front yard, right? I stared down at the mailbox sized access hole and wondered if she would be willing to postpone this service call for a month, so Jenny Craig could work her magic. Deciding she wouldn’t go for that, I removed the cover and looked under the house. The house was built about ten inches off the ground and was standing about five inches of water. I could however see the water spraying from a pipe about twenty feet from the opening I was looking through. I quickly ruled out climbing under as it would involve shoveling a path through the water filled crawl space and opted to saw a hole in the floor to access the leak since I could measure and cut directly above it.
The owner said she had to run an errand and would be back shortly and left me to work on it. I brought in my saw and cut a hole in the floor in the middle of the den and lay on my stomach and began to fix the broken pipe. I had just started the repair when I began to hear a strange noise inside the house. It was hard to describe except to say it sounded like a sheep baying. I assumed it was something easily explained, you know like a sheep in the bedroom and tried to concentrate on the job at hand. Then still on my stomach feet toward the hall leading back to the bedrooms, the house suddenly began to shake and the baying noise turned into a scream. Jumping to my feet I turned to find myself facing a charge by a grotesquely overweight woman with a deformed head that was three times the normal size welding a twelve-inch butcher knife. Quickly assessing the situation I scooped up my hammer and screamed like a little girl, not out of fear mind you but out of a carefully conceived military type strategy. The woman stopped in her tracks, hid the knife in the robe she wore and ran back to the bedroom from which she had emerged. Faced with an adrenaline overdose that could have killed an elephant, I lay back down and began again to work on the pipe, although I did turn so my head faced the hall, I’m not stupid after all. Shortly after starting back to work again the baying scream pierced through my soul as again I was faced with the charging figure. Repeating my previous strategy I jumped to my feet and yelled again sending her back to her room. It was at this point that I decided to load my tools and, as we say in the south shit and get. I still twenty years later feel guilty for leaving the job unfinished or waiting for the owner to return to at least tell her why. In my own defense I have to wonder did she not know that I could be attacked and two do you leave someone in this condition alone with an unaware plumber? And three did she even own a lawnmower? All I know is I worked for two hours and didn’t charge her and more importantly I was not featured on unsolved mysteries.