Maintenance Takes a Holiday

I utilize my Marine Corps training daily just to walk. Besides the strut, thanks to them I can spit polish boots, shine brass, fire an M-16 to hit an epileptic squirrel half a mile away. Mid fit.  But I'm not a handyman. I learned to rely on legions of expertly trained men to accomplish household repair tasks.

That lesson took awhile.

My rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica is exactly like Loretta Swit. It burst on the scene in the early 1970's. Both had a splashy run, then faded with time, lack of attention and a lot of use. I got the apartment when it was on the decline -- imagine me seeing my place for the first time as the exact place in Loretta's career when Circus of The Stars stopped calling.

When I walked in the place for the first time, like Loretta, I wanted to cry. The place needed to be stripped entirely, gutted and then dipped in magic years-erasing paint. In a rent-controlled situation, if a landlord improves your apartment, they can raise the rent. So I figured how hard could it be? I didn't want to step on a floor or touch a door knob or turn on a faucet or switch on a light in that dingy place. It smelled musty, dusty and crusty.

I rented the place anyway and then spent a month improving it every night after work.

It had one of those cottage cheese ceilings. There used to be a non-subliminal diet tip/trend to slap cottage cheese on the ceilings so the chubby resident would lie in bed, wishing for ice cream; but look up and think, I'll have the less-fattening cottage cheese instead and then maybe someone will love me. I had to get that stuff off.

My friend Barbara knew how to do it and agreed to meet me after work one night. She was late, so while waiting, I stood on a chair and started furiously scraping the bumps off the ceiling. After forty-five minutes, I'd cleared only about a foot of ceiling. The room was filled with a cloud of white dust.  Frustrated and little dizzy, I kept on scraping back and forth.

Barbara came in screaming that I was doing it all wrong, plus breathing in asbestos. She got a paint roller wet with water and rolled it lightly over the ceiling. We barely had to touch the roller to the cottage cheese and it all instantly fell to the ground. 

I coughed for a month. If I lose control of any of my faculties, I am blaming that asbestos exposure. 
look ma, no cottage cheese
New Year's Day soon came and I resolved to change out the faucets on my bathroom sinks. Replacing faucets took four humiliating trips to see a bitch named Busy Bee Hardware in Santa Monica. The store looks like a quaint old lady, but you're waited on all proper-like in this store -- no touchy-touchy self-service. I heard the clerks giggle as I left, betting on how long it would be before I returned.

I read the faucet instructions almost all the way through. I knew that I needed to turn off the water underneath the sink. Those rhyming sing-song tips about life's lessons get jumbled in my head. Doubt creeps in my foggy mind when I have a cold. Is it starve a cold or feed a cold? As I reached under the sink and began turning the spigot to shut the water off, I wondered if it was lefty loosey, righty tighty. Or tighty-whitey, since that was all I was wearing to do this plumbing work. It was early in the morning and I was alone -- men do a lot of things in just their underwear.

I'd never done this; however, and was just beginning to enjoy the mesmerizing turn turn turn of the faucet that fit so perfectly in my usual hand, relishing in the power of being handy enough to remove ceiling coating, change doorknobs and speak to hardware people as comfortably as if I were discussing foreign policy at the U.N. with Taylor Negron and the Ambassador from Rwanda -- when suddenly, the handle popped out of the wall and into my hand.

Water rushed out right at me with an amazingly strong force -- like a fire hydrant. It spewed out two feet straight,  like clear (thankfully cold) projectile vomit. It gushed onto the cabinet's floor and out at me, landing on the bathroom floor. I jumped up, stared wide-eyed at the handle in my hand, and the looked back to the water shooting out of the wall. I froze.

The rushing, painfully cold water hit me and reminded me that it was New Year's Day. As in no one is working on a holiday. I wasn't supposed to be changing faucets for a hundred reasons. I was supposed to be eating black-eyed peas for good luck with Tai Babilonia.

Plumbers go to school, pass their trade down from father to son (and sometimes curious daughters), hang out in bars. At lunch trucks they swap stories about guys like me that try to change their own faucets and end up standing in their underwear on New Year's Day in a bathroom that was recently and jaggedly tiled by the very faucet-changing idiot standing here dripping wet.

I grabbed my bathrobe from the hook I'd just installed. The hook came off in my hand. I didn't know to put a molly bolt in the wall to support a heavy object, I just knew I needed the cushiest, plushest bathrobe money could buy. Stick to what you know, leave the rest to experts. I threw the robe on the pool of water as if I were smothering feelings and ran out of the bathroom into the hall. An artist friend had made the cutest animal heads into door pulls, and as cute as they were, the pull came off in my hand as I yanked open the linen closet. I tossed it aside like 20th Century Fox did Loretta, reached in and grabbed all the towels.

The water was almost ankle deep as I piled the towels down on top. I was basically spitting on a forest fire, with less hope of it being effective. I was all the girls in the shower scene tossing tampons at Carrie.

I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be me. I wondered how long I had before the weight of the water caused the bathroom floor to crumble into the dining room below. And I had just scraped the cottage cheese off that ceiling. I wondered if I would crash through the floor, too, and get crushed beneath the rubble, discovered days later by a neighbor who went looking for their lost cat and found it licking my decomposing face.

I was a Marine goddamn it -- I was trained to lead men through impossible situations. I'd eaten reconstituted eggs, I'd swum in mud -- I'd worn a not-great green. I took control and pushed the knob into the gushing water's source. Soon I made contact with the valve and started screwing it in. The threads caught and the knob closed the valve. The water slowed, then ceased.

Almost. Almost isn't good. The valve had a tiny drip. I was able to squeeze a small plastic cup underneath the valve and the pipe to catch the water.

I mopped up the water as penance. I hated it and enjoyed hating it as my punishment. I put on pants out of shame -- I didn't deserve to prance around in my underwear. As I finally soaked up the last puddle in the corner, I discovered a tiny, black rubber ring. My heart sank. I knew it was the washer to the valve and without it, I would never get a drip-less seal.

I wasn't about to open the water back out onto the floor again; I'm not smart but I'm not stupid. I did what anyone would do. I stayed in that bathroom, sitting on the floor, and emptied that little cup under the sink about every five minutes.

I waited until 3AM, when everyone in the building was hopefully asleep, and I crept into the basement, located the main water valve. I shut the water off to the entire building.

I raced back upstairs, praying that no neighbor was enjoying a post-coital shower, euphorically covered in memory-erasing, germ-killing suds when Bam! the water stopped. Imagine them all sudsy-eyed, reaching out for a towel or their lover's hand, and not finding either.

Within a minute I'd slipped the valve's washer back on the valve, run back to the basement and turned the water back on.

How to Break a Washing Machine

Years have passed; but not a day goes by that I don't regret removing the banisters that once lined the staircase hallway so it would look less cluttered. I'm sure it's not safe. But I can't call in a handyman at this point.

If I ever give this apartment up, I wonder if I get my deposit back.

1 comment:

  1. There is an old rib amongst the trade unions that all you need to know to be a plumber is two things. #1 is that shit will not float uphill and #2 is that payday is on Friday. Obviously that is not all, there is also the "O" ring thing that you have so succinctly pointed out.
    The main thing to know to be a successful electrician is "you don't want to get that shit on you".
    I guess that covers it for now, save the carpenters credo of "measure twice, cut once".


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