Diary of a Small Contractor, Day Six
Wednesday, September 24, 1986
I don’t want to sound like a snob, but some houses are so poorly built that I hate working in them. They depress me.
Michael has such a house. It has no foundation. The roof is rotten. The ceilings buckle; the floor tilts. And the plumbing is a nightmare.
Unfortunately, I am Michael's plumber. He’s a friend and a business associate. I can’t refuse.
His kitchen sink won’t drain.
I crawl under the house. The drainpipe from the sink has no slope. Dead level. Opening a no-hub coupling, black sewage spurts onto my pants. The blockage is five feet long. I scrape it out: black, soggy, matted food waste.
The fix would be to rebuild the drain lines with a better slope — any slope, in fact, would be an improvement. But Michael doesn’t want to do it. “Too big a project,” he says.
So in another six months, I’ll be snaking this line again.
I replace the ballcock in his toilet. When I rejoin the water line, the supply tube breaks and sprays water. I replace it, leaving a damp carpet behind.
I remove his kitchen faucet and install a brand new Delta. I love Deltas. They operate nicely, and they’re easy to repair and reasonably priced.
My final assignment for Michael today is to test a built-in dishwasher that has been in this kitchen ever since he bought the place five years ago. He finally wants to find out if it works.
First problem: the water line is clogged. I unscrew the angle stop and scrape an inch of debris out of the supply pipe.
Second problem: the control knob is sheared off. I turn it with pliers.
Third problem: the dishwasher starts; the water goes in, but it goes right back out again through the drain hose without ever entering the wash area. This one, I can’t solve. He needs an appliance repairman, and I tell him so.
I started at nine o'clock. I’m quitting at 3:30. I leave a bill for 5 hours labor, plus parts. I'm not sure why. Maybe to head off an argument. People never believe plumbing could take as long as it does, and I get tired of justifying myself. Most plumbers can tell you: it's not the mucking in sewage that's so unpleasant, it's the mucking with clients.
Back home I shower, wash my hair, shave, cut my toenails — trying to remove all traces of sewage sludge from my body. It seems to penetrate skin the way oil penetrates wood. My clothes I drop in the washer.
At last I’m ready to begin my own bathroom.
The first step is always the most frightening: cut a hole in the floor. Once cut, there’s no turning back.
As luck would have it, I have to cut through a floor joist. Now the floor is dangerously weak — directly under where I want to place a 300 pound bathtub to be filled with 400 pounds of water and 150 pounds of flesh.
Normally, you’d solve this problem by cross-bracing with a perpendicular joist, but in this case I can’t reach one of the sides where I’d have to hammer nails unless I tear out the ceiling of a closet downstairs.
Study. Measure. Trade-offs. Think. Finally I come up with a plan involving mini-braces and a sheet of 1 1/8 inch plywood under the tub.
I don’t have 1 1/8 inch plywood on hand. I cut and install the mini braces, and I repair some gaps where flooring was never laid for some reason. Then I call it a day. Four hours work.
My wife comes home, and all she sees is a hole in the floor. “That’s a day’s work?”
"Four hours. I was at Michael’s until three-thirty.”
"Four hours? One hole in the floor?”
“And a lot of planning.”
She laughs. She's familiar with how my simple projects can expand. "You want a hamburger?"
"It'll take about four hours."
Somehow, though, it's ready in fifteen minutes.