Diary of a Small Contractor, Day 9
Tuesday, October 7, 1986
I’m in Gunther’s basement, eyeball to eyeball with a dead mouse. He (or she) is sprawled on top of the concrete foundation. I don’t know what killed it. Gunther is upstairs, not dead, in bed recovering from eye surgery.
I’m cutting pipes, drilling holes, banging and clanking and feeling guilty about all the noise. Gunther's wife is at work — teaching my daughter, who is in second grade. Neither Gunther nor his wife seem to take this surgery seriously, though I do — he’s an old man, after all. Any surgery entails risk.
I, too, am doing minor surgery on his house, though there is nothing delicate about this operation. Gunther hired a “yahoo,” he says, to plumb an apartment in his basement. Twice he’s called me to correct errors that the yahoo made — minor errors, ones Gunther could have lived with. Gunther doesn’t seem to tolerate minor imperfections in plumbing, though you’d never guess it from the slapdash style of the house. Or maybe he can't tolerate being reminded of the yahoo, who must have been arrogantly ignorant. Gunther is a retired schoolteacher, an affable and generous man.
Today’s yahoo error is a vent pipe that dips in such a way as to hold water like a sink trap, which defeats the purpose of venting. And what is the purpose of venting? To equalize pressure, the same way you can improve the pourability of a can of tomato juice by poking a second hole — a vent — in the top of the can. Vents also allow sewer gases, which are both poisonous and explosive — methane, for example — to go out through the roof of your house instead of bubbling out in your bathroom sink. Vents are not a glamor item. But you need them.
My other task for Gunther today is to divert two bathtub drains into a graywater line for which Gunther has dug a trench.
While I’m working, one of the neighbors, an oldish woman, comes down to the basement and says, “I’m Karla Kartoffel. Kartoffel. That’s German for ‘potato.’ I’m wondering if you could look at a drain in my house that isn’t working right.”
Later, I go to Karla's house which her husband built in 1952. He’s dead. Karla has religious quotations on her walls. She can’t look at me when she speaks. She gazes off at a 90 degree angle, squinting, pursing her lips as if she’s reading from a teleprompter located too far away.
All Karla's drainpipes are buried under a concrete slab. There’s no way to change the pipes now: “You’ll have to accept the fact that once a year or so you’ll have to call a rooter service to clean them out." I point out the plumbing vent protruding through her roof under an oak tree. "Put a screen over your vent so it doesn’t fill up with leaves. They're plugging your drain and could cause gases to build up. I'd do it myself but I didn't bring a ladder.”
This seems to be vent day.
I charge her nothing for the advice though I’ve spent a half hour here. I’m too easy sometimes.
Karla Kartoffel’s house, like the houses of many old people, is a house that is gradually shutting down. She lives alone in one end of it. Gunther’s house is more fully active, though the basement is full of old file cabinets and the smell of fermentation.
Gunther tells me that the doctor instructed him to call if he experienced “really severe pain” after the anesthesia wore off at home. Gunther awoke at 4 a.m. in pain and wondered what is the dividing line? When does it become “really severe"? He vomited. Is vomiting “severe”? He was sweating. Gunther decided that sweating meant severity, so he called the doctor at 6 a.m. His wife drove him to the doctor’s office at 7 a.m.
By the time I finish, Gunther is up and about. Just 24 hours after surgery, he's inspecting my new pipes, praising modern drugs and medical techniques. He’s been blind in one eye for 20 years. When his eyepatch is removed, theoretically, hopefully, he will see.
We test his graywater pipes. They leak — a slow drip. I tell Gunther that I can fix them, but that the soap in his wastewater will plug them up if he does nothing. Soap is a wonderful sealant.
Gunther will let the soap do the work. Apparently, he’ll tolerate imperfections in my plumbing, but not the yahoo’s.
Gunther invites me to have dinner with him. His wife has a meeting at school. He's lonely, though he doesn't say so, and maybe a little scared, though he'd never admit it, and — I think I detect — a little ticked off at his wife for leaving him alone all day and all evening. Women, take note: when a man says he doesn't need help, he means
a) he really thinks he doesn't need help, and
b) he'd appreciate a little chicken soup.
My job is home repair. I stay for dinner. I talk about how much my daughter enjoys second grade, how she blossoms under the teaching of Gunther's wife.
Conversation. Equalizing the pressure. Omelet, prepared by a one-eyed man. Salad, prepared by a plumber. Nothing glamorous. But something he needs.