The Price of Plumbing Versus the Cost

by CB Bassity

     Walking into the house the other day around 5:00, I smelled gas.  I checked the kitchen stove and the bathroom space-heater.  Everything was shut tight.
     The plumber I called said it'd be $85 to come out—after hours, you see.  I figured for that kind of money I could do it myself.  I’ve done plumbing before.
     I called my neighbor, Curtis, who used to work for a plumber.  Curtis explained how you hunt gas leaks with a squeeze-bottle of dish soap—squeeze a few drops on pipe-fittings, and leaking gas will give itself away with bubbles.
     I pulled on coveralls, grabbed detergent and a flashlight, and headed for the crawl-hole in the foundation.  The dogs had been digging—they'd left a trough that now held day-old rainwater.  It joined a low spot under the house, making a healthy puddle to crawl through.  I knew from experience that only by wriggling just so could I stuff myself through the rectangular hole.  My plastic rain-jacket would protect the top half of me.  But I couldn't bring myself to slosh through that water unprotected below the waist.  What if I had to make two or three trips with tools?
     I cut two sheets of Visqueem, the opaque construction plastic, and wrapped one around each leg.  I went twice around with the plastic and wrapped it with four ribbons of duct-tape—upper thigh, lower thigh, below the knee, and around the ankle.  Fortunately, it was almost dark when I emerged from the tool-shed swinging one gray-striped leg before the other like some Frankenstein—this isn't the garb you want to parade around the yard in.  As passing headlights lit up my yard, I hustled back and hid behind a shrub.
     It worked, though—the plastic and tape.  I slithered through the hole, sloshed through the puddle, wormed my way into the crawl-space, and kept reasonably dry doing it.
     My home seems to have been designed with the idea that plumbers are the size of MaryLou Retton, and just as agile.  The crawl-space beneath my floor could make a snake claustrophobic.  To get around, you have to slide on forearms, push with feet and knees, drag thighs, and coordinate the whole business with gut muscles (picture an inch-worm) doing things they haven’t done since exiting the birth canal.  Just fishing a tool from a pants-pocket becomes a tactical exercise.  Then too, what was mud near the foundation became choking, powdery dust farther in.
     And the geography is unique.  Pipes carrying water, larger ones carrying it away, and pipes supplying gas, must all pass beneath the floor joists.  So there's no as-the-crow-flies in a crawl-space.  Sometimes to move three feet you have to travel half the length of the house—and then back—to get around pipes you can't squeeze under.  It's like traveling from Little Rock to Memphis by way of Idaho, and creating a dust-storm all along the way.
     Anyway, with pipe-wrenches and pliers stuffed into my pockets, I humped along tracing my gas line.  Like an interstate highway system, it goes a lot of places.  As I slipped through a tight spot, a wrench sticking out of my back pocket clanked, hung on a pipe, and jarred me to a stop.
     I eventually found the leak.  Fortunately, a valve in the line allowed me to cut off the gas behind it until I could return with tools and replacement fittings.
     I had just put away my tools when Curtis came by.
     "Well, how'd you make out?"
     "All right.  That soap did the trick.  I guess I'm plumber enough to handle the job.  To hell with those high-priced professionals."  I popped the cap off a bottle of beer and handed one to Curtis.  "In the morning I'll get my fittings and—hey, have you got a pipe-cutter I could borrow?"
     "Nope.  But you can rent one easy enough at Rent-All."  Something in his voice made me wonder.
     "Curtis, you own more tools than anyone I know, and you don't have a pipecutter?"
     "I don't do plumbing, CB."
     "How come you quit, anyway?  I would've thought there's money in it."  I was thinking: $85 to crawl under a house after hours; $40 during business hours.
     "Well," he said, "keep in mind I was just a plumber's helper, working for Gary Thompson.  But I got tired of crawlin’ around in other people's drain-water.  And then something happened one day that cinched it for me.
     “I was crawlin' along under a house.  And you know how some houses have a stem wall in the foundation—like between one part of the house and another?  Well, just as I poked my head through a break in the stem wall, the biggest bull-snake I ever seen come slitherin' by, like so,"—and here Curtis passed his quivering hand before his face, six inches away.
     "I'm wedged in there tighter than the wallet in your jeans pocket.  And whad'ya s'pose that snake was carrying?  He had a live rat in his mouth that was going like this"—he cocked his head, put on a panicked expression, and sent tremors through his head and outstretched arms.
     “I came out of there backwards, faster than I ever done anything in my life.  I was knockin' into pipes.  I tore my coveralls, and busted my head in three places.  Gary was up there in the house—he heard all that commotion—he's lookin' down there at the floor.  When I come out he said, ‘what in the world got into you?’
     "I made up some b.s. story to explain the thumpin' around and told him I needed a hand down there.  But I made Gary go back down ahead of me.  And I didn't tell him why till we got done.
     "That was my last plumbing job.  I don't even do my own.”
     Later, standing in the shower, rinsing the gritty, brown flood down the drain, I got to rethinking that $85.  My forearms were scraped raw.
     My wife asked, "What'll it take to fix it?"
     "Well," I said, "come to find out, it takes special tools—I talked to Curtis.  And the parts I need, you can't hardly find them around here.  I'll call a plumber in the morning."

© CB Bassity, 1998.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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