Friday, January 14, 2011

The Plumbing

One day in the fall of 2009 I noticed a water-running sort of noise behind the bathroom wall, and immediately launched all my defensive missiles, which is to say I walked out of the bathroom and closed the door behind me. After all, a doctor had once told me that most physical problems don’t require treatment-- given time, they resolve themselves without interference.

Then I got one of those notices from the city saying they’d like me to leave some water for everyone else, thank you very much, so would I please kindly do something about the leak pronto and without further notice. So I took a steadying breath and marched myself into that bathroom, where I stood looking at the wall. So far so good, but I had no idea how to proceed from there.

Then, “Plumbers,” I thought. So I called, one came out, and he peered about here and there, noted in a despairing voice that the house is built on a concrete slab, took things apart and put other things together, walked back and forth between the bathroom and the main, and adjusted this and that.

“Ma’am,” he concluded. “How much do you like this house?”

I answered with the sort of sound a puzzled squirrel makes when you step on its tail.

He told me he’d rigged something, but that it wouldn't hold for long, so I should consider putting the house on the market. Real soon. Priced low enough to sell fast. In fact I should just take anything I could get and go.

But I couldn't follow that advice because a long series of electricians have expressed incredulity over my wiring and have warned me that it would be illegal to sell this house. So the only way out of here would be to cut my losses, pack up in the middle of the night, and disappear without leaving a forwarding address.

Here’s another problem with selling the house: by the conditions of the divorce settlement, when I sell this house, I won’t get enough of the principal to buy another house, of any size in any neighborhood anywhere, and my salary is too low to qualify me for a mortgage on another house. I know this because in the days when anyone with a heartbeat could get a mortgage, a banker accidentally laughed aloud in disbelief when she looked at the figures I gave her, and I found myself out the door and back in the parking lot before my car had quit dieseling. My salary is also too low to cover rent on an apartment with water and electricity. My salary is also too low.

Here’s the problem with selling the house that makes those other problems inconsequential, irrelevant, and moot: As a person with Asperger’s, I can't handle the unexpected. I stand blinking with no electrical activity taking place in my head. I also can't handle the unknown, change, dealing with people, or the messy chaos of packing. So after being entrenched in this house for over twenty years, there's no way I could move without at least a couple years' notice. Sorry. Couldn't.

It was a complex situation requiring time to hope it would go away. So I did that for five days, and then the noise came back and brought some of its friend and neighbor noises with it. So I called the plumber back, he looked things over, and he called in two other plumbers, who went to get their backhoe, and then a bulldozer, and some kind of industrial pump-thing on wheels, and then . . . they brought . . . a jackhammer.

Oh, my, the jackhammer. Since I didn't want to do one of my little Asperger's re-enactments of the smoke-detector-freak-out scene in Rainman, I told the plumbers I could not be there for the jackhammer, and they tried diligently to give me advance notice. But apparently plumbing cannot be trusted to always do what plumbers expect it to do, so a couple times I had to throw on my coat and gloves, grab the car keys and run out into the cold rain with no time to think about where I could go.

The jackhammer also laid a thick coat of dust on every surface of every object in the house. And it made four very deep and wide holes for me to fear falling into in the middle of the night.

I don’t have the command of language necessary to describe the overall mess of dust, mud, tools, tool boxes, men, plastic sheeting, plumbing parts, hunks of concrete . . . . Plus I'd had to empty two bathrooms, the kitchen, and the laundry room, piling the contents of those rooms into all kinds of places where they didn't belong. There was a toilet in the-closet-across-from-Elizabeth’s- room, and I couldn‘t find the mop or my underwear. The cats moved under my bed, so I had to put their plates and water bowls and a litter box under there, and the plumbers thoughtfully made a plastic sheet-shield for the foot of the bed to protect the cats from the dust and to help them feel a little more secure, and I wanted a plastic sheet-shield too.

The plumbers shoveled mud into buckets to haul outside to the dump truck parked next to the van, the pickup, the bulldozer, the backhoe, and the industrial pump-thing on wheels. And one evening I came alarmingly close to toppling into the bathroom pit while I was trying to get water from the tub faucet without letting any go down the tub drain which didn’t exist any more, in order to haul the water to the kitchen to at least soak the dishes and pots I couldn’t wash because there wasn’t a working sink in the house. For two weeks I showered at other people’s homes, and I didn’t ask anyone if it was illegal to use the woods at night because I had to whether I was crimeing or not, and yes I know that isn’t a word, but it doesn't make sense to expect people who pee in the woods to use proper English.

One day at work, while I was teaching, someone came into my classroom with a note saying that I'd just gotten an emergency phone call from the plumbers in my home. This seemed ominous, but you know the way some Aspies talk incessantly about train schedules, or frogs, or computers, or . . . ? Even a mild Aspie, when given the floor to discuss her subject, to a paying public no less, isn't pulled away that easily. I once taught in clothes so drenched I dripped all over the carpet and sloshed around in my shoes, and my wet hair hung so low over my eyes I couldn't see out; I wasn't about to be deterred by a note. All I had to do was put it in my pocket, and that took care of that.

Later I learned that the plumbers had dealt with the crisis on their own-- just a minor explosion, really, more frightening than dangerous. But they did suggest I get an electrician out there, and since I’m me, I asked if they’d recommend someone and, uh, would they mind making the call for me. (Conversing with people I don't know--or people I do know-- is difficult at the best of times. Sometimes I lose the ability when under stress. Asperger's at work again.)

It seems that a house needs something called a ground wire, and that in days of yore, builders used to sometimes attach the electrical wiring to the plumbing to make the water pipes act as the ground. Over time, the plumbing gradually rusts and begins to disintegrate, and then one day someone touches the plumbing and he or she becomes the ground. According to the plumbers, I had long been at risk of touching a faucet and being cremated, and they told me some gripping stories about people this has happened to. Cremation is actually my intention, only I thought I'd have it done after I died.

After a few weeks, the electrician hadn't come and still hadn't come, during which time the plumbers kept finding new things to dismantle and I kept jerking awake at night in order to ponder my bursting into flames. So the plumbers recommended a different electrician and made that call for me too, and the second electrician came right out and said that putting in a ground wire is a cinch, but that's because he hadn't met my house yet. Sure enough, he soon announced that he'd never seen wiring quite like mine before, and he made many exclamations of incredulity, but in the end he assured me that now my house was legal and completely safe, except for all the pits in the floor.

That watery noise behind my bathroom wall triggered an ordeal that lasted months, usually starting at 8:30 each morning and going well into the evening hours. On weekends, when the plumbers took time off to count their money, and Christmas week, when they took off to consider their blessings, the dust gradually settled, and the jackhammer stood silent in the laundry room corner like Tiny Tim’s crutch. On one of those December days when the plumbers weren’t home, a friend dropped by, so I invited her to step over the mud-mound that made a complete circuit around the house like a moat turned inside-out, and I guided her carefully around the house, a tour she concluded by announcing, “You. Cannot. Stay. Here.”

She invited me to move into her house, where I could have my own room and bath, and as an Asperger's-friendly friend, she even said that I wouldn't have to speak to anyone if I couldn't handle it. She was beyond kind, but there was nothing she could do about my being stuck Aspie-tight, refusing to budge. So I stayed.

Then the manager at work said that for reasons he was not party to this was my last week of employment.  This was my last week of employment.  After 17 years, this was my last week of employment.  So I created a spot in my living room free of plumbing-related chaos, put up the Christmas tree in it, sipped eggnog, and listened to Bob Segar sing, “We got tonight. Who needs tomorrow?” *

In January the floor man came, the plumbers took the toilet out of the-closet-across-from-Elizabeth’s-room and re-installed it in the bathroom, and finally everyone packed up their things and went home.

The day after they’d all gone, the new water heater under the kitchen sink spewed hot water while I was in the shower that is still hooked up to the old water heater and therefore should not have any effect whatsoever on the kitchen water-heater. The kitchen stopped spewing shortly after I stopped showering, which confirmed this unexpected and improbable cause-and-effect relationship between the shower and the kitchen water heater. I pulled out the owner's manual for the new water heater to try to figure out what to do in the presence of spewing, but the manual was clearly for a water heater that was not my water heater or even a distant relative. So I put a towel under the new water-heater and closed the cabinet door, determined that this time the house would just have to deal with its own problem, and for once it did. For the last year there’s been no more spewing that I’ve been able to detect with the cabinet door closed tight and no peeking.

The plumbers said they’d have to wait until the ground dried out before they could smooth out the inverted moat around my house, and in the meantime they left their machinery in my yard and their box fans and pile of plastic sheeting in my tool shed.

Elizabeth suggested, before I paid the final bill, that I sell the machinery on Ebay and then when the plumbers arrived for their check and asked where in the world their machinery was, I should look bewildered and suggest they must have the wrong house. Since bewildered is my natural facial expression, I could possibly have pulled this off, but I lack initiative, courage, and willingness to risk incarceration, so I didn’t.

It was a wet winter, so they didn’t come back until spring, and in the meantime I could not persuade the cats to jump over the inverted mud-moat like I did, so for months I had to deal with little muddy paw prints all over the floors, rugs, table tops, counter tops, furniture, bathtub, bedspreads, sheets, and my pillowcase.

Time has passed. The new pipes keep delivering water splendidly to the places where I want it, and since my water usage has plummeted to bottom-of-the-barrel levels, it must not be going anyplace where it hasn’t been invited. I still occasionally find evidence of The Great Upheaval-- a casserole dish turns up wedged between the phone books, for instance-- but I’ve stopped bursting into inappropriate bouts of laughter. I didn’t exactly lose my job after all, but my hours were cut back two-thirds, placing my salary much too close to the negative numbers, and now after a year of that, I'm starting to take the first steps towards necessary change. While not a lightening-fast response, a year's stagger-time is actually not bad for me. Coming unstuck is a slow process because change is very hard, frightening, and messy, but I’ve been thinking maybe I can deal with the messy part.

* The Bob Segar song is about a guy wanting to spend the night with a woman he doesn't really care about, which is disgusting, but that evening at Christmas time it was about taking a temporary respite from chaos and career loss. I also listened to Carrie Underwood sing "I guess it's gonna have to hurt. I guess I'm gonna have to cry. I guess I've gotta go through some things to get to the other side," which is much more uplifting.

Click for more information on Asperger's and resistance to change.


  1. I love your blog because it puts my petty problems into perspective! So what if my dishwasher isn't working (I still have children at home), one of the 2 kitchen lights is out (one still works), and it's freezing in Florida at the moment -- nothing compared to jackhammers in the house! Glad your ordeal has ended (but I do wonder what's going on behind that closed door)!

  2. Thank you, Pat. Mostly what's going on behind the closed door is that I'm writing about what's been going on behind the closed door. I'm having a blast doing it, and love it that people are having a good time here reading.


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