Thursday, November 29, 2012

365 Jobs: The Karma of Plumbing

May 1979 to November 1989

Some 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. 

I 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.

Half 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?"

"That's right."

"You told him I did everything wrong."

"I may have exaggerated."

I 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.

More 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."

Her 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.

Okay, 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?

When 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.

Ingrid 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."

About 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.

Ingrid's 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.

Wednesday 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.

As we 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 somewhere?"

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. 

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