It was a dark and stormy day. I was at my car, for the reverse commute to Rockaway, at 7:30 A.M., just as a thread of pink appeared in the sky: Red sky at morning, sailors take warning? I was giving up, with some reluctance, the spot I’d regained after being relocated during the shooting of the “Sex and the City” movie on Halloween. (The check from the production company arrived, by the way, covering the cost of the parking tickets.) Something by Schubert, the overture to an unfinished opera called “Der Teufel als Hydraulicus,” was on the radio. “Devil in the Waterworks”? I was on my way to meet the plumber and turn off the water for the winter, and I hoped this was not a bad omen.
My list of things to do got longer the closer I got to Rockaway. The plumber wasn’t coming till one, so I had all morning to lay the ground for him. The sky over Jamaica Bay was one big platter of dark cloud with a pale rim all the way around it. I bustled around, doing dishes while I still had water, putting the recycling out for the garbagemen—last chance before spring—emptying out the refrigerator and defrosting the freezer (I learned years ago that it’s easier to let the ice melt, helping it along with a pan of boiling-hot water, than it is to hack at it with a butter knife). I plugged in the electric radiator to take the chill off the place, and I used the toilet whenever I felt the slightest call, because once the water is off and antifreeze is in the lines, the nearest facilities are at McDonald’s.
One urgent job was to do something with the tank of leftover gasoline from the boat. It’s shameful that I didn’t use it up puttering around on Jamaica Bay, but at least I never ran out of gas. My idea was to pour the gas into my car’s tank, but I didn’t have a funnel, much less one with a wide mouth or anyone to hold it in place for me while I hefted the three-gallon tank. Brainstorm: Get in the car and drive to the mechanic and ask nicely if someone will help you. The mechanic had a funnel, and in the trunk I had one of my homemade bailers—an empty bleach bottle with the cap still on and the bottom sawn off. So I held the bleach bottle, with the cap off, upside down over the funnel, and the mechanic tilted the tank very carefully and poured the gasoline into the car. We hardly wasted a drop.
Home again, I snuck out to the boardwalk for a walk before the rain set in, and had lunch and read the Wave (a great column by my favorite columnist, Dorothy Dunne). At twelve-thirty, I began preparing in earnest for my date with the plumber. I found the key-on-a-stick—the fitting used to turn the valve underground and cut off the water to the house—and pried the cap off the access-line pipe outside with the claw of a hammer. I bushwhacked my way between the bungalows (lots of new vines have established themselves) and moved aside the latticework so the plumber could get under the house to unscrew the two plugs in the water line. It was raining steadily now, and the ground was slippery with wet leaves. I brought the hose inside for draining the hot-water tanks, and filled a bucket with hot soapy water and a few big pots with cold water and a dishpan with lukewarm water. I filled the sprinkling can, too, in the hope that I will still get around to planting tulip bulbs.
I remembered the five-inch red plug for the waste line and found it under the kitchen sink, wrapped reverently in a white paper towel. In there, too, was a gallon of antifreeze: got that out. Cleared the floor around the toilets and took the lids off. (Used the toilet again, while I was at it.) By one, I had everything in order. And the plumber didn’t come.
There was still plenty to do to fill the time. I finished defrosting the freezer, and packed some things to take back to the city. I drained and packed my bong, a sure sign that summer is over. I had already swept up around the toilets, but I went back in and scrubbed them with cleanser, which was an afterthought but a good one. (And, as long as I was in there, I used my nice clean toilet.) There was no point in mopping yet, because the plumber would be tromping around in wet boots—that is, if he came. Every once in a while I’d open the porch door and stare down the walk to the street. I kept telling myself that there was nothing to worry about. The wind was howling and the rain was pouring down, but surely plumbers have gotten wet in the rain before, and Jimmy has never let me down.
I thought of trying to get started myself—go and probe underground with the key-on-a-stick to see if I could turn the water off (allow forty minutes) and start draining the hot-water tanks. But if the plumber wasn’t going to show up I might just as well leave the water on. I like to stretch the season, till Thanksgiving, if possible. I watch the weather page of the Times, which features a little diagram showing how low the temperature is likely to sink each night for the next week, as well as the actual temperature range for the few days past. It had hit freezing the weekend before, when I was out of town, which was not in the forecast, and this gave me a scare. But often after that first freeze the temperature goes up again. I am a great believer in Indian summer.
I had just run out of things to do and put on some water for tea when Jimmy called my name from the front door. Whew! He was forty minutes late, but he was here. He was wearing a yellow slicker and carrying a bucket full of tools and his compressor, which looks like a gigantic oil can with a pump, a hose, and a pedal. He had an assistant named Gary, who brought in an electric pump to speed up the process of draining the hot-water tanks.
While Gary emptied the tanks and the toilets, Jimmy and I went outside to turn the water off. He got it on the first try. He removed the showerheads and handed them to me to take inside. He went out to the truck and got some cardboard to slide under the house. “I'm out of the rain once I’m under the house,” he said gamely, and wiggled under the bungalow to take out the plugs. "Do you remember that there are two?" I asked. He did. I stood by like an operating-room nurse to receive the plugs and put them in the silverware drawer till next year. Inside, Jimmy warmed his hands on the electric radiator, and then pumped the air out of the faucets in the kitchen sink. He attaches the hose on his compressor to the faucet, pumps the big oil-can thing full of air, then steps on the pedal to release the air into the pipe, forcing out any standing water. I had neglected to clear my toiletries out of the outdoor shower, so I did that before Jimmy brought the compressor outside and blew out the line to the shower. I was beginning to feel fantastic. Much as I hate to see the season end, having the bungalow’s pipes blown out is like having my own lines purged of anxiety.
I asked the plumber when he was going to Florida. He’s leaving next week on a two-week tour of China. It will be his third time there. I emboldened myself to ask him if his family was from China. (Jimmy looks Chinese but his speech is pure Bronx.) “My parents,” he said. “They were from Canton.” He pronounced it “Can-TAWN,” and for the first time I made the unlikely connection of Chinese food with Canton, Ohio, home of the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Then he is coming back for a month, to do his heating projects, and will go to Florida in early January. He usually returns to Rockaway around Mother’s Day, the hardest day of the year to find a plumber.
“This is about the last chance,” Jimmy said as we went about winterizing. I kept trying to focus on the main thing I didn’t want to forget: put that plug in the waste line. This involves sliding back a neoprene sleeve, like a tourniquet, on the pipe where it has been cut to allow insertion of a big red plug, which keeps sewage from backing up into the house in case there's a problem over the winter. My first mentor in the world of bungalow plumbing questioned the necessity for this step, but it has always seemed like a good idea to me. (He also told me that I could use the toilet in the winter if I flushed with antifreeze.) Gary was outside now helping, too. Jimmy got the plug in, then poured the last of the antifreeze into the trap, and we were done.
“What do I owe you?” I asked Jimmy.
“Same as last year,” he said. “I don’t remember.”
I didn’t remember exactly, either, but I believe he charged $75 for each side. I budgeted $200 for plumbing, so I gave him the whole amount, which he said was very generous. I don’t know what the etiquette is, but ever since the first year, when I failed to tip Jimmy and his assistant, a guy named Paulie, who really did not like going under the house (I repented later and sent a check), I always tip the plumber. He may be the only man in the world who has the know-how and the equipment to satisfy me completely.
We wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving and a good trip to China and a good winter, and Jimmy gathered his bucket of tools and his compressor, and told Gary that I’d given him a little something, and we shook hands, and they left.
Now it was time to mop the floor and lock up. I started at one end, gathering everything I needed from each room as I went along, turning the lights off, leaving the refrigerator door open, piling bags, sweater, jacket, and finally keys and purse on the porch. I emptied the slops into the drain on the street, and carried a carton of orange juice salvaged from the refrigerator over to my friend the Catwoman, who gave me a cup of coffee. Then I headed back to Manhattan.
It had finally stopped raining, but that platter of cloud was still hovering over Jamaica Bay; at the western edge the sun dropped under the rim, spreading golden light into a long slit at the horizon. It was rush hour, but, again, I was going against traffic. I can’t remember when I’ve tried to park at rush hour. It seemed possible: people who are crazy enough to drive to work and park on the street would be leaving. But then again people who are crazy enough to reverse-commute by car would be out cruising. My favorite street was parked up solid. So was the street where the violence had broken out. I knew there would be nothing on my street, because of the car-rental agency on the only block where it’s legal to park during the day, but I drove the length of it anyway, and turned left at the end, ready for a twenty-six-block tour of the city, in search of a Monday-Thursday spot. I realized just after turning that the spot at the corner, which I had just passed up, was legal: I backed up. I fit. It was too good to be true. I got out and looked at the sign: It really did say Monday-Thursday, and though there was a No Parking sign with an arrow, I was on the right side of the arrow. I checked to see if the car ahead of me had enough room to get out if I pulled up snug, and it did.
Ah. Now it can get cold.