Saturday, January 27, 2007


It had been an awful week, replete with difficulty and tragedy, and the long-planned weekend trip to New York had lost much of its appeal. Its occasion was the jazz educator's convention, and I was tagging along as jazz wife. We would fly down Thursday, attend The Magic Flute at the Met on Friday night, spend an afternoon at the MOMA on Saturday, then fly home. While DK convened, I would wander about taking pictures.

But, by Wednesday night, I couldn't imagine going anywhere. DK had to. I would sleep on it. There was, as usual, laundry to be done, so hauled a basketful downstairs and put it in the machine.

Soon DK's urgent voice came up from the basement. His studio is around the corner from the laundry. I ran downstairs to find my husband standing like a colossus of Rhodes in the midst of a soapy flood. After we'd sopped it up with bedspeads, towels and sheets I tried to figure out what had happened. I cautiously ran some water through the machine's cycles, set to "extra small load." No flood.

So, with the same mechanical reasoning that had, many years ago, led to the involuntary manslaughter of my VW bug (The oil warning light's on ! It must be an oil warning light malfunction ! I'll keep driving !) I decided that the washer's exuberant incontinence had been a fluke and I'd throw in another load. I'd make it a point to wander down before the water drained, just in case.

By the time I remembered the "wander down" part, Flood II was well underway. I splashed toward the machine in time to see water gushing up out of the drainage pipe that collects the effluents. So that's why the tops of the litterboxes were wet ! I thought, as I ran for more sheets and towels. My linen supply was dwindling.

After we'd mopped up the flood, DK phoned the plumber and I went back upstairs. I'd take a shower, a long, hot shower. It would be relaxing. I stepped into the steamy shower and sighed. There was good water and bad water, I mused, under the warm stream. Restorative showers, basement floods. Much like Gaston Bachelard's phenomenology of water in L'Eau et Les Reves -- deep water, dead water, clear water, spring water, running water, maternal water, pure water, sweet water, violent water --

Refreshed, I went back to the basement to check on DK's progress with the plumber.

I stared in horror at the floor. Bachelard had not mentioned such waters as comprised Flood III. These were no eaux courantes, dormantes, amoureuses, composees, feminines or douces. This was not even the eau morte of the moats and tarns of EA Poe. This was, if anything, eau d'ordure, garbage water, or eau de vomissure, eaux de boulimie. Bits of corn and catfood floated amidst other unsavory and unidentifiable chunks. The laundry outflow pipe was still geysering barfwater from somewhere deep inside the plumbing of the house, propelled by the efflux of my shower. These were the gastric waters of retained then disgorged excess, of hurled chunks. Run that through your material imagination, Gaston, I hissed, tiptoing over the icy porch roof to peel the half-frozen, noise-dampening bedspead off the outside of the bedroom airconditioner, the last big, unused piece of linen in the house. Would I have to strip the beds ?

The next morning, after DK went off to the airport, I gazed at the mountain of sodden, malodorous cloth that dominated the basement floor. It was depressing. I was a physician and I knew about blockages. Intestinal obstructions, arterial occlusions, narrowed bronchial tubes, big prostates clamping down on the bladder outlet. But I was impotent, out of my element. I could not call for a stat GI endoscopy or angiogram or put in a foley catheter. All I knew was that my plumbing was NPO -- nil per os -- no showers, no flushing, no nothing until the plumber came.

Which he did, soon, a cheerful fellow who appeared to be about 18 years old. I gave him the history, and he proceeded to do his physical exam. In a while he summoned me to the depths of the cellar beyond DK's studio, the deep rocky place where the tanks and boilers live. In the farthest, narrowest reaches of that far place, a dismantled apparatus lay on the floor. Beyond it was a gaping cistern full of black water worthy of Poe, worthy of Bachelard's comment

Water is no longer a substance that is drunk; it is a substance that drinks. It swallows the shadow like a black syrup.

"I think it's your ejector pump," he said cheerfully, pointing to the sprung, rusting device. "It's shot. I turned it on and smoke and sparks came out. I'm just the drain guy. I snaked the pipe and it seemed fine. I'll have to call in a plumber. Meanwhile, be careful of that," he concluded, pointing to our silent tarn.

"How deep is it ?" I asked, amazed and horrified that we had such a thing in our basement.

"About waist deep," he said, packing up his tools.

I've had dreams all my life, nightmares actually, of water. Of narrow catwalks over water. Of water that swallows. And now this very nightmare water was living in my cellar. Great.

It was late afternoon by the time the plumber -- another cheerful man, this time of about my age -- had installed the new ejector pump. He sent me upstairs to turn on the shower and flush the toilet. I let 'er rip for a bit then went back down cellar.

There I found Flood IV in progress, the most horrid flood of all. This time the laundry pipe's emissions were not gastric. They were colonic.

The plumber and I stood in the sewage staring at the washer. He produced a wet vac and some rubber gloves, and we set to the mess. I picked some of the less sodden cloths from the wet mountain and sopped; when those ran out I turned to paper towels and newspaper.

"Geez," he said, "This is strange. I'll get a drain guy to come back."

He hung crepe, painting dark scenarios of pulling down walls and ceilings to find the elusive blockage. It looked like the efflux from my bank account would continue. It was the only thing in the house that was draining freely at the moment.

If only heroic duct repairman Harry Tuttle could rappell into my basement as he did in the movie Brazil !

Finally, late, a dour, dark haired, middle aged man man arrived. I told him the story. He looked around, muttering; he seemed puzzled, vaguely annoyed. I left him to his work. Eventually, he summoned me. He'd run two washing machine cycles of water through without incident. Everything seemed fine. He hadn't done anything beyond what the other two plumbers had done. He sent me upstairs to turn on some faucets and the shower, and to flush like a madwoman. I did. No flood. It was a miracle.

He snaked the line for good measure -- just as, given the chance and an orifice, a gastroenterologist will do an endoscopy -- and disappeared without a word (or, miraculously, a third bill) into the night.

I stood alone in the silent basement. DK was hundreds of miles away. The kitties, alarmed by the day's activites, were all in hiding. My son was off somewhere with his friends, all comforting one another in the wake of M's terrible death.

I glanced at the stinking, soggy mountain on the basement floor. There was, as usual, laundry to be done.

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