an unspoken bargain struck between residents of coastal California and
residents of most of the USA: we get the quakes; you get the freeze.
there are exceptions. A recent earthquake on the east coast put cracks
in the Washington Monument. Here in La Honda, we have a few frosty
nights every winter. For the most part, however, the bargain is kept.
then there was December of 1990. This was just a year after the big
World Series Earthquake, so it seemed we were getting the worst of both
sides of the bargain. The lake at the center of La Honda froze over.
Ducks were wandering around in a state of bewilderment until we emptied
bags of grain for them on the ice.
Everybody's pipes were
freezing. Nobody had ever bothered to insulate their exposed water
pipes because it had never been necessary. When a pipe freezes, of
course, the water inside the pipe expands. The pipe bursts.
of this blog who live in Ohio or Maine — and of course my readers in
Canada and Russia — are probably laughing at our naivete, imagining a
town of stoned hippies standing around in
paisley shorts and sandals, shivering and saying "Wow, man, my pipes
are shattered!" Well, it's not exactly like that here, but La Honda
does have that image in the public mind.
Saturday, December 22:
get so many broken-pipe calls that I disconnect the answering machine.
We need to prepare the house for our annual Christmas party — with 30
guests invited — coming this evening. We have no water. I make
emergency patches to the water entry, then cut off and cap the exposed
pipe along an outside wall that extends to a hose outlet. Next, while
my wife and kids deal with party prep, I repair a pipe for the nuclear
physicist who lives down the street and another for an old friend who
lives on the other side of town. I arrive home an hour late for my own
Sunday, December 23:
I try not to work on
Sundays, but today I repair frozen pipes in a yurt owned by a nice man
who happened to inherit a fortune. His swimming pool has frozen over,
though we won't be addressing that damage today. Meanwhile his
14-year-old daughter is driving his new minivan up and down the
driveway, up and down, up and down. Then I go to the house of a
musician, a happy-go-lucky guy who plays keyboards in a popular band.
While I solder patches into his pipes, I chat with his new girlfriend, a
woman who has moved from house to house in La Honda wrecking one home
after another. She's a coke-head. Doesn't he know? More than his
pipes are about to burst. Then back home, I note that many of our
plants are dying. The water meter across the street from our house has
blown up. It simply exploded.
Monday, December 24:
Christmas Eve I begin the day by repairing another broken pipe, inside
the wall this time, for the nuclear physicist who lives below me. He'd
gone away for the weekend and turned off the heat in his house. When I
present the bill, he gives me a check and a bottle of wine. Good man.
for 10 hours, well into the frigid evening, I repair pipes for Mordecai
at his vacation house in the mountains at the end of 3 miles of dirt
road. The house is both modern and rustic, with a hot tub viewing the
ocean and the sunset — a frozen Shangri-La. Mordecai uses the house as a
summer retreat but holds an annual Hanukkah party. This year it will
be on December 26. There is also a geodesic dome on the property where
Kilo, the caretaker, lives. Mordecai is a psychiatrist, and I suspect
that Kilo is one of his clients. Clearly, Kilo needs to live in
isolation at the end of 3 miles of bad road. In fact, as you might
judge from his name, Kilo is only half-present even when he is standing
right in front of you. Anyway, Kilo shows me around.
pet peacock follows my every move. I'm wearing gloves with the fingertips cut off, which seems to fascinate the bird as do my hooded sweatshirt and propane torch. Each repair leads to a new break — a
plumber's nightmare — and I leave Kilo and peacock with no hot water
and limited cold water. I'm feeling somewhat defeated.
arrives as I depart. He is clearly disappointed at the state of things —
and his wife more so, and quite vocal about it — but at the urging of
his grown daughter, Mordecai gives me a bottle of wine — a fine one, which is the only kind he would have.
Back home my kids have stayed up late, so I catch them
in time to sing a few Christmas carols, have an egg nog, hang up
stockings and help put them to bed. I haven't even had a chance to clean myself up; spatters of solder cling to my sweatshirt. The kids all sleep together in one room
on Christmas Eve, a tradition in our house, bundled on the carpet with
blankets and dogs. All this emergency plumbing has kept me from
finishing the presents I was building — trophy cases — in time for
Christmas, but I feel good that I helped some people and made some
Tuesday, December 25:
our gifts are low-key this year: home-baked goods, baskets of plants,
handmade books and drawings, coupons for massages or trips to the
beach. And some partially-built trophy cases, which I will finish today
for my award-winning children. Only my youngest son is disappointed.
He isn't being selfish or greedy, but at age 8 he wants that old magic
of Christmas as a seemingly endless unfolding of delights. Now he is
learning that Christmas is finite. Part of the problem is that we had
to cut back on gifts this year because we simply couldn't afford them.
Another part is that Grampa was recently hospitalized and had no time to
order presents, though they'll come later. Otherwise, though, the day
is delightful, freezing outside but a warm fire burning within,
fresh-baked bread, cookies, and the special pleasure of staying home
together making things for each other.
Wednesday, December 26:
I repair a pipe for Danny,
my jeweler neighbor, and then spend another 10 hours at Mordecai's
house while they have a party. A brunch. His daughter brings me lox,
bagel, a cup of tea, and several cookies while I crouch under the floor
joists soldering pipe and discovering more problems. By late evening
I've restored most of the hot water. When I finally get home, the kids
are in bed. They spent most of the day alone so my wife could also go
to work. We really need the money.
Monday, December 31:
a few days the temperatures rise above freezing, and I catch up on a
number of non-emergency broken pipes for a number of my favorite
clients. Now today, New Year's Eve, it's turned cold again. I return
to the house of a less-than-favorite client, Mordecai, where they still
seem to be cleaning up from their party. While the peacock follows me
about, kibitzing, I restore water service to the non-urgent parts of the
house. At one point as I'm taking a break, Mordecai punches out a
telephone and then explains to me: his 14-year-old adopted son just got
kicked out of school and hopped a train. Now Mordecai is sending the
kid to a 3 week $3400 wilderness survival school. Tonight the kid will
sleep where it’s 30 degrees below, on rocks that were warmed in a fire
and buried in a pit. Mordecai says, "He tests limits.” Mordecai
narrows his eyes and asks me, "How much are you charging me?"
I tell him my standard rate, which he already knows.
"That's unconscionable," he says.
I've never heard that word before, but I can guess what it means. "I told you my rate before I started."
"Yes, but that's when we both thought it would be a small job. You've been here for days. Shouldn't I get a discount?"
a moment I just stare at Mordecai. Those days include Christmas Eve,
the day after Christmas, and now here I am after dark on New Year's Eve
at the end of a dirt road in the mountains that he and I both know
wouldn't be visited by most plumbers. And most plumbers charge more
than I do. "What's your hourly rate?" I ask.
"That has nothing to do with this," Mordecai says.
"I'm sorry but I can't give you a discount," I say.
"I don't have my business checks here. I'll have to mail it to you."
he's claiming my work as a business expense to his psychiatry
practice. At current tax rates, he'll only pay half of my bill. Uncle
Sam will pay the rest.
Talk about unconscionable.
it home in time to spend New Year's Eve with my youngest son. The two
older kids, ages 14 and 12, are with friends where they are safe. My
wife, my youngest and I watch the movie Lassie Come Home, which
proves to be too intense for the boy. Plenty of 8-year-olds could watch
the slaughter of armies without a moment of fear. Not my son, who
can't handle seeing a dog in jeopardy. We "guess" the ending for him
and let him sit on our laps. A sensitive kid, like the other two.
We've sheltered them from a cold and crazy world. And I would have it
no other way.
(Peacock photo and Lassie poster from Wikipedia.)