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Guest Blog

See, what you have to understand here is that I am very consciously the son, grandson, great-grandson, nephew, and brother of plumbers. While bankers’ families talked about banking at the family dinner table, and while lawyers talked about ambulances and torts over their tarts, we talked about the mysteries of dealing with plumbing inspectors from City Hall and about the sorts of things that cause toilets to stop up (there is more mystery there than one might expect), about the benefits of no-hub couplings and the respective properties of galvanized steel pipe versus copper tubing. “Peet” and “Plumbing”-in our minds, the words were irrevocably linked, like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Tinker, Evers, and Chance.

And no doubt it was Chance that caused the initial problem with the plumbing at the building where I work, but I felt that it was not Chance, but Fate, that provided for my presence there that day, because what with my genetic background, I would surely need to do no more than walk in and give that leaking toilet That Magic Peet Touch, let the curative power flow through my hands, before everything would once again be A-OK.

But I’ve left you behind, haven’t I? To set the scene, it was a Monday, July 9th. As is my custom on a workday, I was working, in this case at my job as a secretary/word-processor at one of the buildings at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. This particular building contains about twenty-five scientists, virtually all of them involved in DNA research. All day long, I had heard the remote sound of water running through pipes, but had attributed it to some experiment being performed or the operation of the equipment-washing machines.

It was now about 3:15 in the afternoon, and one of the scientists came by my desk to ask if there was a shower being operated in the men’s room. She said she had heard it running all day, and was concerned that water was being wasted during this drought year. I had been in that restroom many times–daily, in fact– and knew of no shower. I walked in and heard the water running in one of the stalls, on the door of which was a sign reading, “Do Not Use. Plumber Was Called At 11:30.” I opened the door and saw a stream of water pouring into and down the bowl of the toilet. Since it was now 3:20, that meant that this water had been wasted for at least four hours, and possibly all weekend. Well, I thought, surely I can at least turn off the water to the toilet? I, of all people here?

I crouched a bit, looking along the wall near the base of the toilet for a valve, but no luck. That didn’t stop me, however. Surely, in this laboratory which was so involved with genetics, I could show them some real genetics, show them that plumbing was in my blood — well, in a matter of speaking.

I looked at the valve on top of the toilet and memorized the name: “Sloan Royal Flush,” or something like that. I returned to my desk to call my own personal Time-Life Book of Plumbing, my brother Lindsay, who runs the family plumbing shop in Los Angeles. I described the toilet, gave him the name of the valve on top, and explained the symptoms. He nodded knowingly, or at least, over the phone it sounded like he was nodding knowingly, and said, “Ah. A very common problem with that type of valve. It means that the orifice in the diaphragm is clogged.” There was a brief pause while we both thought of lewd jokes involving orifices and diaphragms-delivered in Groucho’s voice, of course-then I said, “OK. What do I do?”

He said that there should be a pipe coming straight out from the wall. About two inches from the wall, this pipe would abruptly turn horizontally to connect to the valve itself, above the toilet. At the point where it turned horizontally, there should be a cap facing me. What I needed to do, he said, is simple. I needed to get a crescent wrench or channel-lock pliers and unscrew this cap. When I did so, I would see a brass screw, and what I then needed to do was to tighten this screw all the way, as this was what regulated the flow of water to the valve. Simple, I thought, especially to one of my background and intelligence. I could probably do it while simultaneously whistling “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or Charlie Parker’s solo from “Cloudburst,” except that I can’t whistle.

Hanging up the phone, I went to find Herb, one of the scientists, whom I knew had a set of tools. When I found him, I requested a metric crescent wrench- an old joke among us technical types– and we kidded around for a bit about the English Whitworth system, a system apparently invented by the Druids which related the size of the threaded screw to the diameter of trees and the summer solstice, and which probably makes a lot of sense to the English, a nation which plays rugby for fun. Herb provided me with a set of channel-locks and a screwdriver, and off I went, The Plumber At Work.

It’s not as if I had been particularly shy about talking about all the plumbers in my ancestry, either. Just about everyone at the lab had heard me talk about my humble origins, though probably ‘humble’ is not the first word that any of them would have used about me. So I blithely thought I would just quietly go about my business, get the water-flow stopped in this toilet, and then in genuine modesty accept the thanks that I was confident would be heaped upon me. As my three-month probationary period was just coming to an end, I thought that my expertise and versatility would also serve to stoke the fires when raise-time came around.

So I walked into the toilet stall, and it was just me and that leaking toilet, mano a mano, my manos being filled with crescent wrench, channel-locks, and screwdriver. As Lindsay had instructed me, I began to unscrew the cap, using the channel-locks (the crescent wrench proved to be too small). After perhaps 1-1/4 turns, water started dribbling out from the cap. Lindsay had not told me to expect this. As I unscrewed further, more water dribbled out. I thought for a moment, then tightened it back up and went back to consult my Time-Life source.

Lindsay shook his head, perplexed, or at least, that’s what it sounded like. “Huh,” he said. “I’ve never heard of that happening,” he wondered. Now it was my turn to nod my head, dumbly (or “unknowingly,” as the Spanish Mystics would say it). “I don’t think it will be a problem,” he hypothesized. “Go ahead and remove the cap, then tighten that screw, and that should do it. Probably, the packing on the valve is weeping a little, and it collected in the cap,” he guessed. Well, my faith in what my family tells me is complete, dating from my early childhood, when my father told me that Elvis Presley wore out his pants from the inside, which I thought amazing-did the Guinness people know about this? And that the pianist, George Shearing, could play “Night and Day.” Doesn’t the poor man get tired, not being able to take a break, I wondered?

So when Lindsay gave me the go-ahead, I went forth again, not unknowingly, but knowingly this time. Obviously, the Spanish Mystics had never had Lindsay to give them the solution to a perplexing plumbing problem.

Bursting with confidence, I re-entered the stall, like the priest in “The Exorcist” entering the little girl’s bedroom, pausing only to grab a small bowl to bring with me. As I saw it, I would unscrew the cap and water would begin to drip out, which I would catch by placing the bowl beneath the pipe. When I got the cap off, I would tighten the screw, and all of the water would cease to flow, even the small amount from the cap itself. I would then empty the bowl into a lavatory (we plumbers don’t call them ‘sinks’) and then return the tools, while the work went out over the lab grapevine about the astoundingly simple solution I had devised.

I began to loosen the cap, and as expected, the water began to dribble out, right into the bowl placed strategically beneath. I loosened some more, and more water began to drip out. I paused for a moment, uncertain whether to continue, then remembered that Lindsay had told me it would be OK; and, like Brutus, Lindsay is an honorable man.

I loosened it some more, when WHAM!! Water was bursting out of somewhere at an astonishing rate of speed, hitting me in the right front pocket of my jeans, spraying up into my surprised and unknowing face, flooding the floor, and I quickly began to identify more with Noah than with the Spanish Mystics. Merely provide some animals, paired two-by-two, and the scene would have been complete.

Just as did Noah, I looked towards the heavens, but in my case it was so that I could catch a breath, an act which the water spraying into my face had rendered virtually impossible. I looked back down, and saw the water swirling on the floor around a small and now completely overburdened floor drain. The entire scene was tremendously exciting, as water ripped out of this pipe, taking my breath away, drenching my clothes, and causing me to wonder if this would be my last day on the job. The pipe was only 30″ or so from the floor, but the water pressure was such that, had the stall door not been there, the water would probably have gone ten feet horizontally before hitting the floor. As it was, the door was taking a pummeling, and I stood there, almost frozen with shock. I stepped outside the stall to try and think, but then I thought that, while I was pondering alternatives and sifting through possibilities, there was a hell of a lot of water pouring onto this floor, and very little of it was going into the floor drain. I had to go back in there! !!MANO A MANO!!

I plunged back in, gasping for breath at the ceiling then looking down through the cascades of water on the lenses of my glasses, trying to see what I was doing. The cap! Where was that cap?! I had to screw it back on! Frantically, I looked on the floor, sure that it was being washed around the room by the torrent. Where was that cap?!! A bit abashed, I found it still clenched in the jaws of the channel-locks, which were in turn still clenched in my right hand.

Thus began Phase II of my plan, wherein I attempted to put the cap back onto the pipe while all the water in California was trying to prevent my doing so. I first tried using the channel-locks, figuring – I don’t know what I was figuring, who the hell is doing any figuring at a time like this?! So I tried that, getting my pants and shoes just a little bit wetter, but accomplishing nothing beyond that. Then I tried using only my hand. After all, has there ever been any device as versatile, as skillful, as a human hand? My conclusion was that versatility and skill are one thing, and sheer brute force another, for the water prevailed again.

This concluded Phase II, and I proceeded immediately to Phase III, in which I admitted defeat. Remembering then my choir training about using one’s voice to greatest effect, I took a large breath, and, from the diaphragm (and hoping my own orifices wouldn’t clog), I bellowed out sharply, powerfully, distinctly, and con brio, the single syllable “HELP!!”

In just a few moments, a scientist named Paul burst into the stall from his office in the library across the hallway. I can only imagine what he expected to find, answering a bellow from help in the men’s room, but he took the situation in with admirable coolness and yelled, “Kevin! Get out of there!” no doubt fearing that I might start repairing a faucet next. I slogged out, and he backed out after me.

I had a sudden brainstorm! The screw! Lindsay had mentioned the screw!! All that I had to do was go back in there, find the head of the screw with the blade of the screwdriver, and tighten it down, thus shutting off all the water to the toilet! In retrospect, this was about as optimistic as buying a lottery ticket, but I confess to being a bit addled by this time. So, it was once more into the breach, dear friends, if not for dear old England then at least for Peet pride.

Dutifully, like the Dutch boy in the story, I went back in there, determined to stop the flow of water, now about two inches deep throughout the bathroom. I re-entered the stall, screwdriver in hand, water again drenching my leg, spraying my face, sheeting down my glasses, and generally testing my mettle.

If one were to ponder the subject, one might believe that even water at high pressure might not meet much resistance against a screwdriver blade. Let me now disabuse you of such a notion, as I can state with the voice of experience that a blade being forced in to a forceful stream of water will lurch spastically from one side of the stream to another, all the while causing great random gouts of spray and mist to be directed directly into your nose and eyes. Yet I pushed on, reasoning (is such a word can be applied at all to my brain’s workings at that time) that it was in the nature of screw heads and screw drivers that they should come together, and that by pushing and rotating the blade clockwise, I would eventually encounter the screw head, tighten it down, and turn the water off.

A soul more clever than I would realize that, for that reasoning to hold true, the screwhead would have to be present for the screwdriver to do its work. Remove the screw, and the driver’s rotating blade does nothing more productive than re-directing the torrent of water, and that only minimally. As I later found out, during the forensic aspect of my adventure, the screw was still in the cap which had blown out in the first place; in the meantime, however, I was screwing clockwise for all I was worth, which at the time seemed to be about the same as a pfennig from the late Weimar Republic. This whole debacle was feeling very reminiscent of snipe-hunting, another activity my father had introduced me to.

Phase IV now commenced, known in military circles as Complete Capitulation. I gathered up my tools, and my bowl, and left the restroom, only to find the water had preceded me. Waves had advanced down the hallway on the right and were moving ahead about and inch per second, or five feet per minute as I absently calculated. The water had breached the doorsill into the library across the hall, and on the front to my left it had performed a sort of enfilade around the corner, and was now advancing down the steps (or steppes?), like some sort of liquid Slinky.

Taking all this in, I became aware that, as much as I wished to be, I was not alone at that moment. Four people stood in the hallway to my right, watching me intently. Five people stood in the hallway to my left, their eyes also fixed on me. There was a moment of silence while their eyes drank in this vision – and “drank” is certainly the best verb to use here. I, for my part, did not know what to say. Finally, as the water continued to stream through the restroom door and spread down the hallways in every direction, I lifted up the bowl in my left hand and murmured, “I think I need a bigger bucket.”

Herb, to my left, broke the silence of the bystanders. “Where is the water coming from?” I looked at him and said, “The Sierra, I think. My guess would be about fourteen thousand feet up.” Someone else said, “What are you going to do?” The metronomic dripping from my clothing and splashing on the spreading pool was strangely insistent. “I’m going home.” From down the hallway on the right, my boss (Oh, no! Is he here?) said, “I think that would be the better part of valor.”

Someone went to the building manager to ask him to shut off the water to the building, and I sloshed down the hall to collect my belongings. I walked slowly, poignantly, back bowed and head down, pausing to remove my shoes and socks which squilched with every step. A voice said the water was now off, and I stopped, knowing that I had left something undone. Slowly I turned back, re-entering the bathroom and the stall, now de-fanged. Removing the cap from the jaws of the channel-locks, by hand I threaded it gently back into the pipe from which it had come. It screwed in without difficulty.

Let the geneticists make of this incident what they will.