Saturday, May 5, 2007


I went out to Rockaway to turn on the water in my bungalow for the season. It is a job that always makes me nervous. The people who talked me into buying the bungalow made it sound so easy. “Don’t worry. We won’t let you get in trouble,” they said. The previous owner, a Bingo-playing Irish matriarch from the Bronx, had a son-in-law who did the job for her. (I bought the place from her estate.) It came with this “key” on a stick, a little molded-polyvinyl fitting for a valve three feet underground that you twist one quarter turn and voila: the water comes on. You check for leaks, the plumber fixes any leaks, and you’re in business. But what plumber? I wanted to know. For some reason they were very cagey about supplying the name of a plumber. I could never figure it out: Were they reserving any possible plumbing projects for themselves? A little extra income? Or was there no plumber? Or was it just the horror among bungalow owners of paying someone to do something that you could do yourself or get someone else to do for nothing?

After a few years, those people decamped for Florida, the traitors. I finally did find a plumber. He turns the water off for me in the fall, and blows any standing water out of the pipes with an antiquated compressor, so that I will be less likely to spring a leak. “I guess I’ll see you in the spring, when you turn the water back on,” I said to him the first time. And even he said, “Can’t you do that yourself?”

So I went out there feeling ambivalent: maybe I’d turn the water on, maybe I wouldn’t. Of course, it’s nice to have water—without it, I’m using the facilities at the local McDonald’s of a Sunday morning. And if it doesn’t work out, if there are leaks and all my friends with plumbing expertise are hiding (as well they might), I will have to let it go until the plumber comes back from Florida, in late May. I didn’t realize how keenly I was hoping for help until I ran into a neighbor who has helped in the past, and he said he had to go to a wake later in the day. No one who has to go to a wake is going to crawl under someone's house to help with the plumbing.

When I first bought the bungalow, in 2000, I wanted to know how everything worked. I wanted to master the plumbing. Now I couldn’t remember the first thing. I consulted my notes, the single sheet of paper that the previous owner’s son-in-law had left for me. It said, “Put in plug first.” Good. There are really only three steps. You put the plugs into the pipes under the house. You turn the water on by tapping the underground line with the famous key on a stick ("Key is behind bedroom door"). And you remove the three-inch plug from the waste line, a safeguard against backups during the winter.

I got out my big red wrench. I don’t actually need such a big wrench, but I like to slam it down on the table out on the porch to announce my intentions. I found the two plugs, which I keep in the silverware drawer. One of them looked pretty corroded, but it was already too late to go to the hardware store for a new one. From my toolbox I got a smaller wrench and a roll of silicon tape. I changed into my worst old clothes: paint-stained sweatpants, old red tennis shoes, and a flannel shirt bought at a yard sale. Then I spread an old tablecloth out under the edge of the house (its “foundation” is some cinder blocks), slithered under there, found the places in the pipes where the plugs fit (I had already rolled fresh tape around the plugs, trying to wind it in the right direction, though that is difficult when you don't really understand the way pipes are threaded in the first place), screwed the plugs in, and tightened them with the wrench.

Then I made sure all the faucets were off, except the one in the outdoor shower, so that I could see the water when it came on. I took a trowel and a hammer and my precious key out to where the access pipe to the water line is, and pried the cap off. The key, a three-inch chunk of orange vinyl screwed to the bottom of a slat from a white picket fence, is supposed to fit over a valve in the pipe underground. This is the most frustrating part of the job. I can’t see anything down there, and generally allow about forty-five minutes to get the key in position. This time, possibly because I didn’t even try to see the fitting and was just doing it by touch, the way I'd seen the plumber doing it, I got it to engage almost immediately. I twisted it and felt this surge and heard the water spurting from the shower. Yes! I hate plumbing, but this sensation of tapping into the New York City water system makes me feel like Moses drawing water from a stone.

Now you have to be prudent and leave the key in place while checking for leaks. One year there was a veritable Niagara from the toilet. Another year all the pipes along the bottom of the house were dripping, and I was desperate. The handyman I tried to hire had some kind of emergency, and then it was Mother’s Day (just try to find a plumber who will work on Mother’s Day), and finally my friend G., whose mother is dead, came to my rescue. He donned a hazmat suit and went under the house and replaced a few lengths of pipe, using a kind of fitting that made soldering unnecessary. He looked like an astronaut down there on his back. I felt like an operating-room nurse, handing him tools. Last year, a different pipe was leaking, but my neighbor T., the one had to go to a wake, fixed it by turning the water off to a spare hot-water heater. Anyway, now I was on my own. I checked the plugs under the house: they were holding. Water spurted out of the top of that spare hot-water heater, and I shut that valve. But there was no ignoring the persistent sound of rain beneath the house. Sure enough, water was sluicing out of a pipe deep under the house. So I had to turn the water off, remove the key, and recap the access pipe, and then go to the nearest bar to use their bathroom.

I had removed, with great effort, the big red plug that keeps the house safe from my neighbors’ waste products over the winter. This is an ugly job, but once it’s done it’s possible to flush the toilet with a bucket of water—if you have water. I tried to take some consolation from having at least got that nasty job done; at least everything would be ready for the plumber when he came back from Florida. Gradually I remembered that when the plumber turned the water off last fall, he might have reopened the valve that T. had closed in the spring—I could almost see his face as he turned the knob—and I decided that it would be worth finding that valve and sealing it off, and then turning the water back on again to see if this year’s leak was the same as last year’s leak and might have the same solution. This time, it took a little longer to engage the underground valve with the key, but I finally got it: I felt the surge, heard the water in the shower, and looked under the house: it wasn't leaking. I had fixed it—or, at any rate, avoided having to fix it for another year. Perhaps this is the year I will have that second hot-water heater removed and install an indoor shower or a microbrewery.

All my neighbors are what used to be called “winter people.” Their houses, whether they rent or own, are winterized, and they live here all year long. Mine is the last summer bungalow, the last with an outdoor shower, the last to require these semiannual plumbing rites. The only reason I can think of to winterize—besides, of course, having heat in winter and running water all year round—is not to have to endure this rite of spring. And maybe also to have a microbrewery.


imichie said...

As a bungalow owner I know about leaks. I have a seasonal leak that comes out of my kitchen ceiling the last week of April every year. I think the old caulk in the upstairs shower is old, but it only leaks for about a week so the rest of the year I forget about it, probably a dangerous practice. The line to the sewer backed up once but I won't go into that. I added your blog to my blogroll, I hope you don't mind.

erieblue said...

I love that outdoor shower. You won't change that, will you?

lucette said...

I'm totally in awe of your plumbing expertise--I always just clasp my hands in dread.

Sidewalk Tom said...

Next time you visit Portsmouth bring that wrench. We already have a microbrewery.