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House work (part 2 of 2 parts)

January 27, 2011

Three weeks have passed since publication of the last (and, as it happens, first) installment of my story — three long weeks. No doubt this has left many readers in a breathless and uneasy state. At the close of my previous piece, the next stage of the project was just beginning. No doubt many feared, or possibly hoped, that I'd been killed. I wasn't. Nor did I suffer major injuries. Fact is, nothing bad happened to me at all — but something might've. Therein lies the moral interest of my tale.

You may say I exaggerate — that my project was routine and therefore unworthy of attention. Not at all. It may have appeared routine. It involved sewers — what could be more prosaic? But no. I contended with, in no special order, plumbers, the city of Chicago, and God. If these strike you as factors of no consequence, you're not going to think much of this story. However, if you have an inkling of what was at stake, read on.

The paint was barely dry on my newly-repaired (and, I hoped, ant-free) house when the sewers backed up. This wasn't my fault, I explained to my wife, who thought otherwise. On the contrary, it was a sign that the forces of nature were lining up against us. The ants represented earth; the sewers, naturally, betokened water. Over the years we'd had sufficient branches and power lines falling due to high winds that I figured we'd paid our dues in the air department. That left … oh, dear. Fire.

Well, one thing at a time. Sewers were the immediate problem. My five-year-old nephew discovered the puddle in the basement at noonish on Thanksgiving and pointed it out to my sister-in-law, who alerted me. I told myself it was seepage till I looked in the rear basement stairwell, fortunately located outside the house, and saw odious fluids being spewed up by the drain. 

Sewer blockages are a common problem in old houses. Commonly the trouble is tree roots, and if so the solution is simple. One hires a plumber, who hauls in a snake, a long springlike piece of apparatus wound around a reel. One attaches cutting tools to the tip of the snake and pushes it through the pipe in hopes of boring through obstructions. There's much coming and going, considerable mess, repellent smells. Then, usually, breakthrough — the water drains. A lengthy but uneventful period of pipe cleaning follows, concluding with an exchange of cash. All is well.

Trying to arrange this on Thanksgiving complicates matters considerably. Following a period of frantic telephony, plumber #1 made an appearance Friday afternoon. He was a good fellow but, in retrospect, woefully underequipped, having only a five-eighths-inch snake.

Not to bore you with technical detail, but plumber's snakes commonly come in three sizes — five-eighths, seven-eighths, and inch-and-a-quarter. These represent solutions to problems of varying scale. In my book, a five-eighths-inch situation scarcely qualified as a problem. It was more of an annoyance, on a par with a persistent drip, something you'd fix with a coat hanger and a Q-tip. 

An issue in the  seven-eighths-inch range came closer to qualifying as a crisis, but experience suggested it was better to escalate immediately to heavy weaponry, namely the inch-and-a-quarter snake. However, for now that wasn't an option. Plumber #1 fed his delicate instrument into the pipe through an aperture in the basement known as a cleanout, and we hoped that for once in our lives our problems were small. 

They weren't. After an hour or more of ineffectual thrashing, which had no effect on the fetid water in the drains other than to get it tracked all over the basement, the five-eighths-inch snake broke. Plumber #1 apologized. I grimaced but paid him for his trouble, and he disconsolately slunk away.

I made more telephone calls. Meanwhile, the household had adopted what my sister-in-law took to calling "California rules" regarding toilet usage: if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down. This procedure wasn't received with enthusiasm. One set of visitors, initially prepared to spend the week, discovered it had urgent business back in Ohio. I couldn't argue. The excitement level in Ohio was nothing compared to what we had on a pretty regular basis on Paulina Street, but they had toilets there that worked.  

Plumber #2 showed up on Saturday. I ascertained beforehand that he had an inch-and-a-quarter snake, a formidable piece of apparatus that had to be coupled together in sections to reach its full length.

Things began well. Plumber #2 fed 60 feet of snake into the pipe, then hit an obstruction. The snake spun without result for a time, then … well, it didn't break through exactly, but the heretofore stagnant fluids suddenly began to drain. Nonetheless, a mysterious, impenetrable blockage remained. Plumber #2 could advance 60 feet, but 61 feet, no. We weren't dealing with mere tree roots, he intimated, but rather movement in the tectonic plates.

You see what I'm saying. We were up against something larger than ourselves. We'd started off the day thinking we were opposed by mere vegetable matter. Now we understood we were contending with … all right, God is putting it strongly. But the Paulina Street Fault.

Plumber #2 had a couple of additional things to say, of the good-news-bad-new variety. The good news was that the blockage appeared to lie beyond the sidewalk in front of the house — which is to say, under the grassy strip known in Chicago as a parkway. That meant the city would fix it for free.

The bad news was that we possibly had two blockages — one at 60 feet as previously noted, and another slightly less impregnable one (a small cutting bit would go through it, a big one wouldn't) at 15 feet, directly under the front porch. Paying for that repair was my problem, and it wouldn't be cheap. Plumber #2 thought we'd have to dig.

I decided I wanted another opinion. I called plumber #3.

I was now on a first-name basis with a significant percentage of the professional plumbers in metropolitan Chicago. This had its advantages. Plumber #3 owned a camera that could be shoved through the pipes. Using this, he established that the supposed blockage at 15 feet was imaginary, but the one at 60 feet was real — the pipe had collapsed. The city agreed to take on the repair. How soon? I asked.  Three to six weeks, I was told. Sure, I thought. Maybe three to six years.

All was quiet for several weeks. Then one day a fellow in a pickup truck appeared, armed with spray paint. He paced off various distances, then painted a large orange asterisk on the parkway grass, after the manner of pirates. He put up no parking signs, yellow tape and construction barriers. Then he went away.

The following day several other individuals showed up, likewise equipped with spray cans, plus in several cases little flags, with which they decorated the lawn and sidewalk. These identified gas and water lines, which seemed dangerously close to the orange asterisk.

The next day I noticed a backhoe had been parked in front of the house. I appreciated these signs of activity, but it seemed to me progress was excessively deliberate. I expected excavation would soon commence with a spoon. However, this fear proved groundless.  The next day, a little before 7 a.m., a crew appeared. I'm not sure how large it was, because the number fluctuated continually —  sometimes four or five men, sometimes six or seven. All were engaged in … eh, I can't say feverish activity, because this was a Chicago work crew, and there was always someone leaning on a shovel.

But in general they stayed plenty busy. First they attached a jackhammer to the backhoe. This seemed to me overkill; surely the ground was soft. Well, it had been soft — in June. In January it was about as penetrable as sheet steel. The jackhammer punched into the depths, which took some effort. Once past the permafrost, things got easier. The workers replaced the jackhammer with a scoop. The backhoe operator dug down about as quickly as seemed prudent given that there was a gas line on one side of the trench and a water line on other. But no sewer. Periodically someone climbed down into the hole to probe the bottom with a rod. Nothing.

I went outside to consult. The workers expressed doubt that there was a sewer down there. I stated confidently that there was, at least to the extent of 60 feet out, because I had seen it on TV. What was beyond that point I couldn't say. But the workers would know when they got there, I reasoned, because if there wasn't a pipe there'd be a swamp.

Digging resumed. Archeologically speaking we had gotten past the ice ages and were approaching the Pleistocene Era. Still no sewer. Thinking that perhaps the orange asterisk hadn't been precisely aligned, the crew began probing the sides of the hole. Aha. Pieces of pipe were discovered. The sewer, it turned out, was under the water line, a good eight feet down.

A considerable quantity of earth now had to be removed to expose what was left of the sewer pipe. This was a delicate operation, because the gas and water lines were perhaps four feet apart, and the trench was now so deep and narrow that most of the time the backhoe operator couldn't see where his shovel was. Instead he was guided by what I took to be the Master of Holes, who peered into the depths and pointed first this way, then that. 

I sidled up to the individual who seemed to be doing the least amount of work — this was the city inspector.

How often, I asked, did the crews break a gas pipe?

About once a year, the city inspector said.

And how long had it been the last broken gas pipe? I asked.

About a year, said the inspector.

These broken gas pipes, I asked. Were they accompanied by explosions and fires?

Not usually, said the inspector. But, he added brightly, sometimes we have to evacuate the neighborhood.

This added to the interest of the proceedings. However, the excavation concluded without incident. The Master of Holes climbed down into the trench and was handed pipes, sleeves, and nut drivers with which to splice the sewer back together. That done, gravel was poured on top of the repaired pipe, and on top of that, a mound of soil. The crew was done by five to noon. They promised they'd be back in the spring to replant the grass.

A dramatic ending? Depends how you look at it. We could have had floods, eruptions or other disasters, which might have pleased the superficial. I preferred a more subtle resolution. We had danced on the edge of disaster, then stepped back, and that was drama enough.

— Ed Zotti

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