Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Liquid Fire

I wanted to take a bath to soothe my aching back. It’s just so nice to have this time to relax over the holidays, not to have to stack little tables and chairs, pour paint into little jars, to bend down and pick up toys, wipe noses, rush to clean up spills or open yogurt containers. A celebratory and luxurious bath was definitely in order.

First, I would scrub out the tub, something I haven’t had time to do in awhile. I walked passed the Christmas tree, with its glowing colored lights and went into kitchen to get the Comet—which is what my mother always used for bathroom fixtures. She always said there was “nothing a little elbow grease couldn’t take care of”-- that if you put enough muscle and effort into it, the grime would soon be gone. I tilted the green shaker jar with its magic cleaning powder and began to scour away. As I worked rhythmically scratching the powder with the scrubby, a childhood jingle I used to enjoy singing with my friends kept going through my head. “Comet, makes you vomit. So get some Comet and vomit today!”

I finished scrubbing, and turned on the water, ready to rinse and admire my work. But what’s this? The water refused to go down. It just sat in the tub, the white powder floating on top. I remembered the drain had been slow lately, but it had always worked up until now. Bummer! There was no way I could take a bath under these circumstances. I took a quick shower instead, wading ankle deep, letting the hot-as-possible water stream down over my back, trying to release the aching knot inside it.

An aching back and a clogged bathtub are not a good combination, especially on Christmas Eve day when everything is supposed to be cheery and bright. Boy, I could sure use a handyman. I thought of the old Ethel Waters blues song about her handyman, with all its suggestive lyrics:

“He threads my needle, creams my wheat
Heats my heater, chops my meat.
My man is such a handy man.

He flaps my flapjacks, cleans off the table
feeds my horses in the stable.
My man is such a handy man.”

Now where could I find my own handyman, so I could sing

"He takes his snake out and unclogs my drain.
He rubs my back
to ease my pain
My man is such a handy man”


I called my friend Judy, and laughingly asked her if she knew a handyman with a big snake who could unclog my drain—but the innuendo was lost on her. She had no time to talk tubs. She was in the midst of an argument with her teenage daughter over the price of Ugh brand boots.

Christmas Eve day is NOT a good time to call a plumber. They would probably charge me time and a half to do it. This would be hard to justify, since a clogged bathtub is hardly an emergency. Yet, I so longed to soak in that healing hot tub. I had been so looking forward to using the aromatherapy lavender bubble bath that one of my co-teachers had given me as a holiday gift…
Gradually, the solution dawned on me: I would fix it myself! I would be like mild mannered Clark Kent stepping into his phone booth. Middle aged preschool teacher emerges as “Super ma’am” who can do anything, who can rid the world of bathtub clogs. Ta-da!

I searched on line, clicking on FixItAllYourself.Com. and found step by step instructions for clogging a bathtub drain. “A clogged drain in the bathtub causes water to collect while showering”, the article explained. Ah, yes, I understood. The first step, was to remove “any visible hair or scum”. I used to be quite adept at this process when I lived with my ex-husband in our modern house. There, unscrewing the top of the drain revealed a divider just below the surface. You could easily see the hair hanging over it. It was a simple procedure to take tweezers and grasp gross globs of it out periodically. I was used to doing this. My hair is thinning at an alarming rate, and there are always hairs clinging to the sides of the bathtub and washing down the drain at the end of my showers.

Now, in this old house, where I have been living for only 6 months as the sole proprietess, the drain opening is small and angled with no divider. I thought guiltily about all these months of showering, just letting my hair wash way, way down, as if it was disappearing by magic, as if there would never be any consequences to my irresponsible action-- as if because I couldn’t see the hair, it didn’t exist. I should have known better. I pinched the tweezers through the now lukewarm standing water and poked them blindly into the drain. After many tries, I did finally manage to extract a small amount of scummy hair near the surface. But the water still sat in the tub.

The next step, according to my article, was to find something long, like a coat hanger and attempt to clear the drain with that. I untwisted a metal hanger, turning it round and round. This action took me back to fond memories of preparing long wire hangers to roast hot dogs over the campfire when Noah, now a teenager, was little. I figured out how to remove the “overflow plate” under the bathtub faucet, and learned out that I could stick the wire down that way and it would pop up out of the drain opening. Wow! The two were connected. I was so proud of myself for making this significant discovery. I poked my wire in and slid it up and down repeatedly.

Like a douser, I was sensing the source of the clog. I thought I could perceive some scummy matter. I imagined I was breaking it up, with my repeated twisting and pulling, but after many tries, only a few gray flakes emerged. Below the bathtub was a deeper, hidden place where the pipe curves, a place my clumsy coat hanger was unable to probe. The water still sat in the tub.

The next step was to try a “plumber’s friend”. I pushed the plunger into the standing water—hearing the strong, satisfying suctioning sound of something being accomplished. Water splurted excitedly out of the overflow plate. The standing water seemed to go down by a fraction of an inch. But bottom line-- the water still sat in the tub.

I realized, that what I probably needed was a true plumber’s “snake”— like the one my ex-husband used to use periodically to unclog the sink. So, I made a Christmas Eve trip to Home Depot. Thankfully, it was open and filled with a surprising number of people doing last minute shopping. In the plumbing aisle, were heavy-duty snakes with metal coils that didn’t even look like they’d fit down my bathtub drain’s small opening. Then there were motorized contraptions made by “Rigid” that power the clog open. They deeply drive and retract, drive and retract the cable. I couldn’t seem to find one like that little rubber snake that Gary used to use—something like that seemed less intimidating and more familiar and manageable to me.

Finally, I settled on a long, white plastic strip with jagged edges. It cost just over $2.00 and was supposed to be disposable, although I didn’t see why you couldn’t just wash it and re-use it. It was low tech enough for me to understand its function, and skinny enough to push down into my drain. I could imagine its saw-like teeth hooking all kinds of hair and scum while I twisted it. I glanced at the shelf of chemicals too, but everything I’d read online said to avoid them. Professionals don’t pour toxic chemicals down the drain. They use their tools and their muscles to unclog them. I have to admit I was somewhat tempted by the environmentally friendly citrus potion, but I figured it probably wouldn’t work anyway. On my way out of Home Depot, I picked up some new filters for my furnace. Ms. Handy Ma’am does it all. Why not?

Back at home, I told myself I really should take a little break. It was Christmas Eve after all. I had presents to wrap. There were dishes in the sink to attack--anything, just to get away from the drain for a little while. But this was becoming an obsession, and I couldn’t wait to see if my new tool would do the trick.

I pulled the long skinny plastic rod out of its wrapping. I followed the instructions on the package. I pushed and twisted, pushed and twisted, until it had gone as far as it could go, and only the little white handle was sticking out of the top of the drain. I thought I could feel something at the end. Very exciting. I jerked it out strongly and quickly like a fishing line that has just hooked a great catch. Low and behold—there, dangling from the end was a clump of soggy hair. Hooray! I felt triumphant. But nothing else happened. I ran some hot water and the clog only seemed to be getting worse. The water still sat in the tub.

The last part of my FixItYourself.Com article, talked about ways to maintain the drain once it was clear. So, if I had actually pulled up some of the blockage, maybe I should try these? Boiling water from the teakettle, baking soda and vinegar, more plunging. Nothing.

Discouraged, I rubbed my aching lower back and looked around. Strewn about my bathroom were a long coat hanger, a dirty towel from wiping off gray gunk, a teakettle, a box of baking soda, a can of comet, and my white plastic drain opener. Ms. Handy Ma’am was failing at her mission. What do I do now? Where do I turn? Where, oh where was Santa Claus? I imagined he was the ultimate handy man— the one who could fix it all in a twinkling with a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!” But Santa was nowhere in sight. Perhaps I needed to call a plumber after all…

Finally, as a last resort, I called my ex-husband, Gary—the authority on all home maintenance operations. He went through a list of various things to try: coat hanger, plumber’s friend, boiling water. It gave me a sense of competence to reply that I had actually already tried all of these things. He told me that there used to be a plumbing snake, just the right size, hanging in the wall of the little old tool shed beside the house. He and I used to own this house together. For the past decade, it had been a rental house, and he had done much of the maintenance on it.
I took the phone into the shed, which was built in the 1930’s. It was dark, permeated by a musty smell, with very solid wooden shelves and huge antique nails sticking out at various points in the wall. There were various tools like rusty old saws and hedge clippers hanging from some of them. Gary swore that there used to be a plumbing snake in here. I looked above the workbench, as he told me—and there—I’m not kidding, was an actual snakeskin hanging there on the wall. I mean a real skin from a real live snake! Unbelievable. But there was no plumbing snake to be found.
He asked me if I’d tried Draino. I said I had been worried about damaging the pipes with this caustic stuff, and about the toxicity of it. But he said he thought it might be OK, and I should give it a try.

Then, Gary reminded me that our old tenants had had a serious problem with roots growing in the pipes and clogging them, and that we had once paid $2,000.00 for a man with a backhoe to unearth and clear out some the terra cotta pipes that were used for plumbing in the 1930’s. Terra cotta—that same material used for plant pots had apparently been used for plumbing during the Great Depression, when metal was too precious. Strong tree roots could push right down into them and block them. So that might be the real culprit—not my innocent hair, but sinister tree roots.

I was feeling pretty stressed at this point. Rather than get back in the car in search of Draino, and a better snake, I decided it might help me release some anxiety to walk the half mile down the road to Hillsborough’s locally owned old fashioned hardware store—Dual Supply—which must be one of the last of its kind in the whole country. It was now late afternoon, almost five o’clock on Christmas Eve. The shoppers who had thronged the streets of downtown Hillsborough earlier in the day, when I drove by on my way to Home Depot had thinned. People were heading home.

Dual Supply was dark inside and there was a “Closed for Christmas” sign on the door. Yet I was heartened, when I tried the door, to find that it was still actually open. Everything in Dual Supply is just jumbled on the shelves. There are no attractive consumer displays. They are crammed with all kinds of tools and drills and hoses, and fluids for cars in seemingly random order. Only the inhabitants know how to find things here. I did not see any Draino or plumbing snakes.

Way in the back, a woman was making the last minute purchase of a chainsaw, probably a gift for her handyman husband. As I waited for help, I wondered: why had I walked out on Gary, my own handyman, after 15 years of marriage? What would it be like if we got back together? Would I appreciate him more? But he has a girlfriend now, so there was no chance of us ever getting back together.

I waited by the cluttered desk in the back, “May I help you?” asked the kind gray-haired man with the round belly. This brought tears to my eyes because I was not only desperate to unclog my drain, I was lonely on Christmas Eve. This man reminded me, not just a little, of Santa Claus. Holding back the tears, I described my severe blockage to him and all of my efforts to clear it with the plumber’s friend, the jagged plastic strip, and the coat hanger. I told him I feared it was aggressive tree roots invading the terra cotta. “Do you have a special kind of snake for older plumbing?” I inquired, trying not to sound too desperate, “Or some Draino, perhaps?”

He disappeared into the back room, and emerged a few seconds later with a big, red bottle wrapped in plastic. It was labeled “Liquid Fire” and had all kinds of danger and caution signs on it— dire warnings of blindness and burning. I was afraid to even touch the bottle. It looked like it was probably illegal. But he assured me it would do the trick. “It ain’t the tree roots”, he explained reassuringly, “or NONE of your drains would be working”. Another middle-aged man who had appeared in line behind me concurred. He spoke of his daughter clogging the drain with her long hair. “Santa” instructed me to take the plumber’s friend and plunge the drain repeatedly until all the standing water went down. He assured me that if I kept trying, it would. Then, he said to pour just a very small amount of “liquid fire” down the drain, being very careful not to let it overflow over the top because it could “eat the ceramic”. I thanked him, and handed him $10 from the stash of Christmas cash that I had been saving to stuff in my son’s stocking. I began the trek home in the cool breeze, the December sun setting on Christmas Eve, clutching my red bottle of liquid fire.

I went back into the bathroom and read all the warnings on the label again in detail—the need for safety goggles, and the admonition not to use it in combination with other chemicals. Like baking soda and Comet, I wondered? Would there be an explosion? Still, I was determined to try it. I had spent the whole day on this. I was not about to give up now.

I set the bottle down, picked up the plumber’s friend and plunged hard and furiously, until the water level lowered a little. Santa had told me to wait and be patient. Rather than stand there and watch it drain, I went ahead and put the new filter in the air-exchanger. I plunged some more, waited some more, wrapped a few gifts. Plunged some more, waited some more, and did the dishes. Slowly, ever so slowly, the water was descending. Finally, there was no more standing water in the tub, just water inside the drain.

Now, the moment of truth had arrived. Slowly and cautiously I unscrewed the childproof cap on the top of the ominous red bottle, being careful to turn my head away and hold it at arm’s length. I don’t own any plastic gloves or safety goggles. I was going “naked”.

I poured slowly and carefully, being careful not to look down the drain, for fear of being blinded, just letting a little trickle down. A harsh chemical smell arose, like rotten eggs—followed a faint gurgling. Dare I add more? What’s this? Intense and active bubbling, followed by splashing and sloshing. I heard a sound, like the relief of a scary almost overflowing toilet that has finally flushed. Something had actually happened here! Yet I knew I must wait the requisite 15 minutes to follow the instructions and really give the stuff a chance to work. As I waited, I played some Christmas carols on the piano. Dusk was falling and it was actually beginning to feel like Christmas. And then---the miracle!

I turned on the faucet, and the water went down quickly and smoothly, better than it had ever worked before. No standing water at all in the tub. Yes, there is a Santa Claus! My handy man had come. The presents were wrapped, the air filter changed, the dishes done, and the tub unclogged, and I had enjoyed playing the piano. Even my back felt a little better. I stooped to pick up the teakettle, the Comet, the baking soda, the plunger, the towel, the coat hanger and the plastic drain opener, I took the bottle of Liquid Fire out to the old shed, reverently placing it on the shelf under the snakeskin.

Just then, my teenage son arrived home. “So what did you do all day?” he asked me. “Not much”, I replied, “just unclogged the bathtub drain”.

4 comments:

  1. Oh I truly did enjoy reading that, Aviva! Thank you. Hope there will be many more.

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  2. Thanks so much Mary! I've got a lot in my closet drawer--so this is literally "coming out of the closet" for me. Yes, there is much more to come...

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  3. I didn't realize that my big sister was such a talented writer! Nice stories!

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  4. Plunging it would have worked too. But you didn't plug the overflow, so all the force you used to plunge the drain just went up the overflow instead of down the drain. It's like blowing into a straw with a hole in it, if you don't plug the hole the air goes out that way, instead of where it's supposed to.

    Liquid fire damages piping, and smells bad. It's not a good idea to use it. Nice writing style however :)

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