Calling the super can sometimes be the adult equivalent of asking Daddy to cut your steak for you. I know that having a complimentary handyman on call is one of the perks of apartment life, but I can’t help but feel emasculated every time I dial his number. The last time he visited our apartment, I asked him to help me hang a picture on the wall. Well, him to do it and me to watch. While he worked, I asked him discerning questions so he could tell that I was worthy of standing so near his power tool.
“Oh, so you use a special tool to drill through the concrete behind the drywall?” I casually confirm.
“Yes. It’s called a hammer drill. Basically, as it drills, it also hammers.”
“I have a hammer. It’s black and yellow like a bumblebee.”
The super hung the picture up without another word and left, leaving me to wallow in my inadequacies.
The time before that jovial visit, I asked my super to clean up our clogged shower drain. He came up with his assistant and stuck the hose of a wet/dry vacuum down the drain. The assistant hit the switch and the vac did its thing. With the growl of the machine overpowering any conversation and the two men blocking my view to the bathroom, I felt helpless – not that anyone asked for my help, but I wanted to maintain the illusion that I was still master of my domain. As the super cleaned up, I made my case to prove I wasn’t a damsel in distress or, rather, a man-child in misery. “I poured Drano down the drain, but it didn’t seem to do anything,” I mused, hoping this could lead to an informed discussion of his methods. “Got any tips for me in case this happens again?”
His only piece of advice rang clear as a bell: “If it happens again, just call me.” So I’m supposed to send out an SOS call and just wait for the life preserver to be thrown to me? This will not stand. I needed to take matters into my own hand.
The technical school affiliated with the City University of New York offers a three-hour plumbing course for homeowners; I hope apartment dwellers are similarly welcomed. As I enter the hall where the class is held, a security guard stops me to ask for my driver’s license or learner’s permit. I start to get incensed that he could possibly think I was a teenaged student driver before I realize that this school probably offers classes for new adult drivers – at least that’s the interpretation I choose in order to walk into class with my head held somewhat high.
I’m the second student to arrive, immediately after an older gentleman wearing a cargo vest. Our teacher greets me by asking, “Are you the new guy?” I mutter something along the lines of, “I guess so,” but wonder why he’s singling me out as the new guy in a one-time three-hour class. Something about my look must scream out “newbie,” and it makes me think my initial reaction to being asked for a learner’s permit wasn’t far from the truth.
While the rest of the students arrive, I fill out some standard paperwork – “How did you hear about the class?”, “What do you hope to learn today?”, and “On a scale of one to five, how comfortable are you with big boy jobs?” I may have imagined that last one. Mr. Crabbe, our ironically-named amiable instructor, hands each of us a plumbing textbook, which illustrates how to install toilets, faucets, and pipes in full-color pictures and diagrams. I start skimming the textbook in the same way you might stare at an abstract painting for several minutes, assuming that simply making an effort is enough to induce comprehension.
Mr. Crabbe starts the class by detailing the standard plumbing system in a house or apartment building, mentioning vent lines, drain traps, and P-traps. I don’t emit even a single giggle upon hearing the latter term, proof positive that this manly journey has been transformative. To illustrate the importance of the vent line bringing air into the plumbing system, Mr. Crabbe pours water out of an upside-down plastic soda bottle, asking us to take note of how the water dribbles out. Then he pierces a small hole on the bottle’s bottom, and the water shoots out of the bottle’s mouth like a Super Soaker. It’s these kind of Mr. Wizard scientific demonstrations that excite me every time. I don’t care how juvenile it is – I will always be giddy upon seeing the overflowing volcano at the science fair.
Mr. Crabbe starts to explain the pros and cons with PVC and cast-iron tubing, tips when using a roto-rooter, and the technology behind valves. Though I’m sure these topics will be useful when I become a homeowner, they are not applicable to the apartment dweller so I begin to space out, daydreaming about imaginary confrontations with my super, wherein I always at some point say, “Hand me that wrench, partner.” My ears perk up again as Mr. Crabbe starts discussing how to remove and install a toilet, and suggests that we try it ourselves. The classroom is chock-full of power tools, sinks, and toilets – ostensibly here so the full-time students who are here during the week can actually get their hands dirty. Our teacher rolls a toilet on a wheeled platform to the center of the room and tells us to have at it.
I’m hesitant to be the first one up, but my reluctance proves to be a major misstep as you don’t need fifteen students to remove one toilet. As such, a few people do most of the dirty work, and I only end up tightening the bolt on the floor a few turns. Not the crash course for which I was hoping, but I can only blame myself. As we finish up the class by independently tinkering around with the sinks and faucets strewn about the room, I take Mr. Crabbe aside and ask him about the issues with my shower drain and bathroom sink. When I turn the sink’s hot water handle on, water immediately spurts out, but there’s a delay with the cold water handle. It takes a few turns before any water comes out. Mr. Crabbe admits it’s an unusual problem, but suggests I look at the cartridge underneath the cold water handle to see if it needs to be replaced. With the clogged shower drain, Mr. Crabbe suggests I use a zip-it – a long, skinny piece of plastic with teeth – to remove any hair or grossness lodged in the drain. Failing that, he says I can pour a quart of bleach down the drain. With the knowledge I’ve gleaned from the class and Mr. Crabbe’s personal encouragement, I resolve to tackle my plumbing issues with aplomb.
Tinkering with plumbing systems is not for the softies among us, of which I am a card-carrying member. On the Sunday evening I plan on playing super, I don a rain slicker and bathing suit, hoping that being prepared for the worst will somehow prevent it from happening. Sure, you’d probably shut the door on a plumber wearing this costume quicker than you can say, “P-traps are nothing to laugh about,” but my house, my rules.
I retrieve my trusty Phillips head screwdriver and examine the cold water handle on the bathroom faucet. Fortunately, the screw to remove the handle is conveniently located right on top – no hidden screws or an awkward placement with which to struggle. However, as I begin to unscrew the handle, I realize I’ve neglected a crucial component of this DIY session. I need to find the sink’s shut-off valve, which was always so easy to spot in the pictures of the demo bathroom in the class textbook, but proves more difficult in reality. I can easily find the shut-off valve for the toilet (good to know for the future), but the bathroom sink doesn’t appear to have one. Is this even possible? Mr. Crabbe mentioned that every toilet has to have a shut-off valve accessible (again, good to know), but he didn’t mention anything about sinks. I don’t know if it’s located in a place only the super can access, or if I’m just completely missing it, but either way I have to abort the mission prematurely. Taking the cartridge out of the faucet handle before shutting off the sink would surely make use of my rain slicker, but I’m not sure it would make me a man. I’m upset I can’t strut my newfound stuff on the sink, but I suppose there is some solace in knowing what you can’t do. Maybe?
I turn my attention to the clogged shower drain. Despite placing two hair catchers on top of each other, the shower drain has intermittently clogged for the past several months – it only takes a few minutes of showering before I’m standing in a pool. With the failure of the bathroom sink still fresh, I make a silent promise to myself that I won’t call the super for his help. It’s the only way to make sure this plumbing class wasn’t taken in vain.
I start with the simplest solution and hope I’ll get lucky on my first try. Boiling water can do wonders to move the hair and sludge stuck in the drain down to its final resting place, but boiling water alone is not enough to unclog the drain. I continue onto Mr. Crabbe’s suggested methods.
At the hardware store, I become enamored with the zip-it’s bigger brother – the drain auger. The auger is a fifteen-foot long metal coil with an open-ended spring at the very end. The spring enters the drain and you twist it to loosen up the blockage. But the best part is it comes in a handy carrying case! I decide to forgo the flimsy plastic of the zip-it and choose the manly steel of the auger, despite it being three times the price. Can you see where this is headed?
When I return home, I fit the auger handle over the coil and start sending it down the drain, but it stops at about five feet. I tighten the thumbscrew of the handle, twist the coil several turns, and let go, allowing the centrifugal force of the spinning coil to unleash hell on whatever darkness lies in my drain. I do this a couple more times before removing the auger from the drain, which, by the way, is the nastiest thing ever.
To make matters worse, the auger appears to have done nothing besides make me gag. Some smelly sludge found its way onto the coil, but the clog is undisturbed. As if it needs to be said, monetary value does not correspond to results. Rather than plunk good money after bad on a zip-it, I move onto some liquid solutions.
As I research online, a mixture of baking soda and vinegar comes up again and again as a worthy drain cleaner for those averse to harsh chemicals. Since I have those ingredients handy in my pantry, I figure I should try it out, if only to judge its effectiveness against my other methods. I pour baking soda into the drain until it reaches the top and then slowly pour vinegar over it. The concoction immediately starts to bubble, which delights me in that juvenile way that I hardly care if it clears the clogged drain. I wait for a few minutes to let the baking soda and vinegar mixture disappear down the drain, and then I flush it down further with some hot water. On first review, the mixture doesn’t seem to have done much other than clean the metal ring around the drain. It put on a good show, but this homegrown technique couldn’t cut the mustard.
Over the next couple of days, I put off going to the store to buy bleach. Giving up and calling the super appears to be a foregone conclusion, so I hardly have faith in the promise of another method. However, by the end of the week, I’m treated to a marvelous surprise – the drain miraculously clears. Q thinks our clogged drain cleared due to other parts of the apartment-wide plumbing system unclogging, but I’m not a fan of that deus ex machina. I think the drain was no match for my flurry of activity, and simply rose its white flag later than I expected. I still buy the bleach and pour a quart down the drain per Mr. Crabbe’s instructions, as a sort of knockout punch and victory lap altogether. Since that day, our shower drain has been as clear as Crystal Pepsi.
The following week, I ran into our super in the lobby. We both exchanged head nods as I ran to catch the train, but it was a different interaction than we’ve ever had before. My head nod was one of confidence, of a newfound awareness that he is no longer my hero in times of need, but rather my peer. His responding head nod indicated that he was awed by my rapid ascent from clumsy DIYer to responsible apartment dweller. Dare I say I saw the forming twinkle of a tear full of pride in the corner of his eye. At least that’s how I’m interpreting it. It makes for a better ending.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Due to its home behind walls and out of sight, plumbing had always been a mysterious entity. Unlike hanging pictures on walls or installing electronics, the plumbing system in my apartment building could have been run by little elves for all I knew. As such, I took it for granted before learning the ins and outs. And yet, even after absorbing a bit of Mr. Crabbe’s expertise, the easy fixes were not so easy. So much of fixing plumbing is reliant on “feel” that it would take a lot more practice before I could handle even a medium-sized job. But by tackling a small job, I discovered the simple satisfaction in not having to rely on anyone to save me from drowning in my bathtub. Maybe I’ll even leave the rain slicker in the closet next time. 3.45.