May 1979 to November 1989
background: In May of 1979 I installed a gas cooktop for a man named
Greg who had an incredible estate in Los Altos. He had a tennis court,
pool, brick walkways, a lovely wife, two blond munchkins, a golden
retriever, and a mansion covered with ivy. He was a Xerox salesman, and
he must have sold those copiers by the truckload.
I had to
extend a gas pipe the entire length of the house through the
crawlspace. When I finished late in the day, Greg asked if I would
double-check all the fittings because his wife was terrified of leaks.
was charging by the hour, so the longer the job lasted, the more I
earned. But… I was exhausted. Crawling the length of that house was
like doing 62 pushups. Already on the first pass I'd connected each
joint firmly and tightly.
"I already double-checked," I lied. Unforgivable. I never lie. And yet I lied. Exhaustion is no excuse.
a year later in October of 1979 I got a call from Greg. He was
furious. After continually, faintly smelling gas he'd called a plumber
named Bruno to check it out. "Bruno said you did it all wrong."
"Could I talk to Bruno?"
Greg gave me the number. I called Bruno and asked what I had done wrong.
Bruno had a German accent: "One of the joints was wrapped in Teflon tape. You can't use Teflon on gas pipe."
"I know I can't do that. Just one joint?"
"You told him I did everything wrong."
"I may have exaggerated."
never use Teflon tape, so I don't know how I happened to use it there,
but anyway Bruno had charged more to fix that one mistake than I had
charged to plumb the entire line. Greg hadn't asked for reimbursement —
I think he just wanted to yell at me — but I sent him a refund check: a
day's pay. A day of crawling, for nothing.
Could've been worse. At least I didn't blow up the place.
background: Eight years later, in 1987 I remodeled a kitchen for a
depressed, and depressing, woman named Jacqueline M. Even in her
sadness, Jacqueline was a gourmet French cook. She treated me to
exquisite pastries. Always stiff and formal, she'd sit straight-backed
in a chair flipping through cookbooks, pouting and moping and watching
me work. Probably I'm flattering myself, but she may have entertained a
fantasy of boinking the plumber.
A few weeks later,
Jacqueline called and told me that her kitchen had flooded. The plumber
she'd called, a man named Bruno, said I'd kinked a drain line on the
dishwasher, causing it to overflow and ruin her floor.
"Did he say I did it all wrong?"
"No, just the one kink. He said otherwise everything looked great."
insurance would cover it, so she wasn't asking for anything. She just
thought I'd want to know. She didn't seem angry. Or sad. Maybe Bruno
had fulfilled her fantasy. At least he wasn't badmouthing anymore.
enough background: Now it's 1989, the Monday before Thanksgiving. I
get a call from a woman named Ingrid for some plumbing repair. She says
I was recommended by her friend Jacqueline M. (Which makes me wonder:
Are they enemies?) Ingrid has the same address, and the same last name,
as Greg. Oh my gosh.
I take the job. What will happen when her husband sees me? Will he attack? Will he send me away?
I show up, men with jackhammers are removing concrete around the
swimming pool. There are soccer balls in the ivy and cleats by the
door. The munchkins have grown.
Greg isn't there.
is a touchy/bouncy type. She says a man was working on their plumbing
this week, and then the shower and sink faucets stopped dead.
Jokingly I say, "What was his name? Bruno?"
"Yes. That was the man. Bruno."
Plumbing is a small world. I say, "You should make him fix this."
"I don't want him back. He said something indiscreet. About a friend."
Jacqueline? Did they boink? I don't ask, and maybe it was just
something he saw, but I'm thinking: As a plumber, you not only enter
people's houses. You enter their deepest cabinets. Under the sink,
behind the toilet, over the tub. You enter their lives.
Bruno entered. Then he blabbered. What an asshole.
shower and faucets were clogged with debris. Bruno should have flushed
the line after making his repair. I say nothing about his fundamental
mistake. No badmouthing. This circle is now complete.
Ingrid is delighted. She bounces up and down. "I can wash my hair!" (She already looks great.)
I leave a bill and a business card. Will her husband recognize and remember my name? We’ll see. This is Tuesday.
night I get a call from Ingrid. The men with jackhammers shut off the
water to work on the pool, and now it won't go back on. Could I come
back on Friday?
Friday, Greg greets me at the
door. I say hello. Greg says, "I had seventeen guests yesterday for
Thanksgiving dinner, and no water."
He shows not a flicker of
recognition. To him I'm just a generic tradesman. Which is how it is
with most people. I'm the invisible plumber.
The main shutoff, a
1 ¼" gate valve, is stuck. It's surrounded at the base by a brick
walkway. I tell Greg there isn't enough room to make a repair. Greg
runs off and comes back with a jackhammer borrowed from the pool
workers. He doesn't ask one of the workers to do it for him. He just
grabs the jackhammer and blasts away. I see the key to Greg's success
as a salesman: he is a man who doesn't blink at denial. He gets
results. He turns his own front entry into rubble. Then he watches as I
solder a ball valve into place with painstaking care.
stand among the wreckage, the dirt, the fragments of brick, when I turn
the new handle, the sound of rushing water makes him shout: "Thank you!
Thank you!" Then he looks at me closely. "Do I know you from
I tell him about our previous encounter of ten years ago.
He's surprised: "That was you? That son of a bitch? He had a beard. He had hair down his ass."
I'm clean-shaven at the moment. Short-haired. I'm in disguise.
Then Greg laughs. So much time has passed. "I remember now — you sent me a refund. I was amazed."
We part on good terms. Another circle, complete.
There are lessons to be learned.
Don't lie. Don't badmouth. Don't blabber.
Double-check your gas lines.
Build good karma.