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Of Plumbers and Plumbing

Of all the construction disciplines, plumbing is my favorite. It’s quiet—contemplative even. There aren’t so many power tools whining. There isn’t a lot of pounding or hammering. It’s not as quiet as painting, but it’s more cerebral—just the right amount of figuring and measuring without being overly technical.

Plumbers spend their days dealing with issues that the rest of us don’t want to have to deal with. If you aren’t grateful for plumbers, you ought to be.

I spent one summer working for a plumbing company. That summer with the plumbers yielded more anecdotes than five years here in the leafy suburbs. Some of the best anecdotes can’t even be sufficiently sanitized for use in this forum. They involve a running feud with a tribe of roofers who refused to accord plumbers the respect they deserved. I would say “use your imagination,” but your imagination is probably no match for these roofers or these plumbers. Or, I should say, your imaginative energies are differently directed than these guys’. I hope they are, anyway.

There is a hierarchy among plumbers. Those who have paid their dues get to do the new construction. It’s clean work. Pleasant work. You run brand new pipe in fresh-dug trenches and into spanking new houses that smell of sawdust and sheetrock. The gleaming toilets might as well be great porcelain soup tureens.

But those plumbers who are still paying their dues find themselves on the service crew. Anything can happen on the service crew. When disaster strikes and things that should have been in the sewer end up in your house, it’s the service guys who get the call. The new construction crew stay warm in their beds, dreaming the dreams of the blessed.

On our service crew there was a man named Rusty. He was like a Navy Seal of plumbers. You could drop Rusty into the hottest spot imaginable, and he would do whatever it took to complete his mission. Whatever it took. As a service crew plumber, one learns to quiet the squeamishness that might keep a person from doing what has to be done. But even by those standards, Rusty was something special. I have seen Rusty lie flat in the mud beside a sewer access and thrust his whole arm–fingertip to shoulder–into the foaming, gurgling, sloshing stew. Whatever it took. I have seen the dark waters recede again thanks to Rusty’s resourcefulness and skill and iron stomach. Whatever it took.

And yet when Rusty wasn’t plunging his arm into raw sewage, he was the most fastidious person I have ever known. He was forever washing his hands and fixing his hair. If he ever walked past a mirror without stopping and checking his look, I wasn’t there to see it. He kept his beard neatly trimmed, and he rolled up the short sleeves of his plumber’s shirt just so.

One day Rusty found himself peering into a deep hole leading into a sewer. It was too dark down there to see what he needed to see. His flashlight was in his tool pouch, and his tool pouch was back at the truck. So he felt around in his pockets and found his lighter.

If you know much about sewers, you are probably saying, “Nooooo, Rusty! Not the lighter!” But Rusty can’t hear you. He has pulled the lighter out of his pocket, and he knows as well as you do that sewers give off methane gas and that methane gas is flammable—explosive, even—but for some reason he’s not thinking, and he holds the lighter right next to his face and flicks it to life. There is a pop and a flash. Rusty staggers backwards. His hair is mostly singed off in front. His eyebrows are gone. His beard isn’t looking so hot either.

Rusty took the rest of the day off to go to the hairdresser, who did wonders for him. He submitted his hairdressers’ receipt to the owner of the plumbing company, who reimbursed it as a work-related expense. “It was all in the line of duty,” the bossman said.

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