Sippican Cottage

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The Hills Are Alive, With the Sound of Unorganized Hancock

My two little human noise machines will be appearing on The Breakfast Club on Z 105.5 in Auburn, Maine this morning. That means we have to get up a half an hour before we go to bed in order to get there in time. This is the third time that Unorganized Hancock has brought their unique blend of not-uniqueness to the Matty in the Morning show. Everyone at the station is always really nice to us, and we’re grateful for their friendship. The boys will be performing at a benefit event run by the station later on in the Spring, which will be announced on the show.

Unorganized Hancock has added their original song, Go, Go, Go, to their Bandcamp page. It’s the official anthem of the 21st Century, because I said so. You can listen to it by pressing the Play button on this-a-here embedded player, and you can download a hi-def copy for just 99 cents, if you’ve got an iPod and 99 cents.

If you want, you can listen to the show live over the Intertunnel on Z 105.5’s feed. If you don’t happen to be glaring at my webpage when they’re on, and you miss it, never fear. You can hear an archived copy almost immediately on the radio station’s TalkShoe page.

[Update: Here’s a direct link to the Talkshoe recording of the show]

[Another Update: Many thanks go out to Sam from Astoria, Oregon, for his constant support of of our children’s musical efforts. It is very much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to Donald B. for overpaying for the boy’s song on BandCamp. It is very much appreciated]
[More Update: Many thanks to longtime friend Kathleen M. from Connecticut for her generous support of our children’s musical efforts. It is very much appreciated]

Interestingly, ‘Byzantine Forest of Metal Columns’ Is the Name of My Supertramp Tribute Band. But I Digress

    This is Sippican, tattered and torn
    That kissed the missus all forlorn
    That flushed the toilet one fateful morn
    That flooded the floor and smelled like scat
    That filled the blog with a monologue
    About fixing the house that Jack built.

I don’t know who built my house. I imagine it was constructed by a great big crew of rough-and-tumble guys. In 1901, power tools were scarce, and ‘strong backs with weak minds’ were plentiful. I’m sure any number of them were named Jack.

Of course the old expression about ‘strong backs and weak minds’ doesn’t really hold in this case. When I began working in construction, back in the dark ages of the ’70s, that appellation was reserved strictly for young people fresh on the job. The old guys knew plenty, and could do more math in their head than you can manage with a calculator.

The jobs reserved for we newcomers, luxuriant of hair but challenged in all other areas, were always pretty simple : Dig a hole here. Roll this wheelbarrow full of concrete over 100 yards of rough ground and dump it in the form by the back door. Take the bundles of shingles off the truck and put them on the roof. Don’t fall off the roof, it makes a mess. That’s the only sort of direction you’d get.

The payoff was that you got to work with people who knew their arse from their elbow. You would receive a certain amount of instruction. This instruction was supplied in the form of abuse, delivered in vibrant Anglo-Saxon, accompanied by a threat to be fired if you did whatever it was you did again. For the most part, you were required to be cautious, quiet, and “steal with your eyes” if you wanted to learn things. You would work right next to men who were very accomplished carpenters, painters, roofers, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, stonemasons, concrete finishers, or skilled at various other trades. They were also very accomplished drunks, and could show you a thing or two about getting yourself outside a quart of Four Roses while still being able to show up early for work the next day. They accomplished marvelous things, if you loved single-family houses the way I did, and if you paid attention, you could learn how to do it yourself.

In theory, this monkey-see, monkey-do method is how home and garden shows on TV are supposed to work. There’s a problem. The people featured on shelter shows are chosen because they are most likely to be entertaining to the viewers. The work is an afterthought. Even the venerable and useful This Old House has succumbed to this affliction. They spend fifteen hours picking out drapes, and fifteen seconds placing the foundation. The actual work happens in a blur in the background. You can’t steal with your eyes by watching competent people, because there aren’t any in front of the camera. If you watch Home and Garden TV, you might learn what is required to become a host on Home and Garden TV. That’s about it.

The ‘steal with your eyes approach’ eventually cultivates an ability to puzzle things out when confronted by a construction and maintenance problem, if you don’t fall off the roof holding a bundle of shingles before you learn everything. If your view of the whole thing is informed by a long series of small glimpses of the underlying structure, you get a much clearer understanding of what’s truly going on overall. This is also the basis of my interest in Victoria’s Secret catalogs.

So we’ve wandered hither and yon in the thesaurus talking about my clogged sewer pipe. It’s long since time to cap the thing off and take stock of the whole megillah. I promise I won’t exaggerate, and as I’ve said a million times before, I never resort to hyperbole. Anyway, here goes: I believe that the recalcitrant sewer line is the entire reason I was able to buy my home for less than 25 grand a few years ago, even though it seemed to be the only thing in the house that functioned, at least a little. It was not one of many things wrong with my house. It was THE thing wrong with my house. My house is a hovel, so that’s saying something. Here’s the theorem, proved:

  1. It has obviously been many decades since the sewer line functioned properly. It’s possible it never did. The vertical Drain-Waste-Vent line went directly into a clay pipe ‘Tee’ fitting underground. That’s not a deal-breaker, but a sweep (a gently curved pipe) would have been better.
  2. The Tee had a cleanout a few inches from the spot where the vertical pipe meets the horizontal tee. This cleanout couldn’t be accessed because there was a solid granite foundation wall in the way. 
  3. Some former owners dug outside the foundation when the pipe didn’t work, only to discover the pipe didn’t exit the house that way. That excavation required the demolition of a ground-level rain gutter made from concrete. That allowed rainwater from the roof to filter down into the ground, where it makes a damp spot along the inside of the foundation wall. That made the basement perpetually damp, and it masked the water leaking out of the sewer pipe under the slab.
  4. There was a clean out pipe for the sewer. It was on the opposite side of the basement. To my surprise, that’s the side of the house where the main house drain actually left the building. In the mists of antiquity, someone broke off the clean out pipe underground, plugged it with a series of small fittings, and then installed some sort of sink. Then they buried all their piping in concrete. This made it appear as though the (long abandoned) sink location was at the end of a drain leading back to the main DWV vent pipe. Even if you weren’t fooled, (I was) there was no way to use this clean out anymore. That means it was a practical impossibility to clean out the house drain and sewer line outside the house for forty or fifty years.
  5. Once I dug up the sewer clean out, I used 70 feet of drain augur cable to clean out the pipe, and there was twenty feet of house drain before you got to the clean out. A 4″ diameter pipe that’s 100+ feet long will hold a lot of water (and other stuff). Lots of water would mean lots of weight pushing on an obstruction. If the obstruction won’t budge, that much pressure will blow out all the oakum or tar or whatever was used to seal the joins between the 4-foot sections of sewer pipe. Given enough time, all the water leaked out of the pipe without pushing the ‘solids” along.
  6. The solids continued building up in the pipe. I think the pipe filled from the bottom up at first, with water flowing over the top a bit, and then eventually the only way for water to get by was to seep through the entire 100-foot run of muck. Not very efficient.
  7. The entire sewer line became a defacto septic system. Almost nothing made it past the obstruction to reach the town sewer.
  8. The leaky seams in the sewer pipe let water run out quickly enough so that the house could limp along for decades with the solids slowly building up in more and more of the pipe. 
  9. Once the unsuccessful exterior excavation ploy failed, someone dug up the pipe where the vertical DWV pipe entered the floor (and joined the clay Tee pipe). They broke the clay pipe, and they also lost or broke the plug that went in the unused end of the pipe.
  10. They couldn’t get another clay pipe to replace the one they broke, and Ferncos might not have been invented yet, so they put a wooden disc in the plug end of the Tee fitting, then stuck the broken bits around the DWV pipe, and covered it up with a concrete patch. 
  11. The wooden disc plug didn’t last for long, and tree roots flourished at the now open ended pipe. 
  12. Lots and lots of water escaped the pipe right where it entered the floor. 
  13. The foundation and cellar floor was undermined by the water.
  14. In the winter, the temperature reached 20-below-zero regularly.
  15. The water froze, then heaved the foundation and the floor. 
  16. The original walk-out barn doors in the basement no longer worked as the foundation in the back of the house slumped. 
  17. Someone tried to fix the problem by pouring a makeshift concrete foundation on top of the sinking granite blocks that made up the foundation walls. The water just kept undermining the now taller wall.
  18. The problem accelerated, and the foundation wall in the back of the house between the 8-foot-wide barn doors completely crumbled to dust.
  19. Someone propped up the back of the house with a byzantine forest of metal columns, makeshift wood beams, and a few I-Beams that didn’t do anything. 
  20. They also boarded up the entire back of the house, then insulated it, blocking out almost all sunlight and keeping heat out, while thinking they were keeping heat in. Where they thought the heat they were keeping in would come from is unknown. This accelerated the freezing, heaving, and subsidence of the remaining foundation walls and the floor. 
  21. The forest of hollow metal columns rested on the thin concrete floor, with no footings underneath, and the floor was constantly being undermined, so the columns punched holes in the slab instead of holding anything up. 
  22. This elicited the installation of ever more columns, all accomplishing not much. This coincided with the installation of ceiling fans, a hot tub, and a tanning bed in the house, because people think a house is for adding to, not for taking care of.
  23. Eventually the back of the house dropped between 6 and 8 inches. 
  24. Because of the unusual framing technique used on the house when it was built, (thanks, Jack) the back wall of the house basically became detached from the rest of the house.
  25. When the back wall of the house slumped, the rear roof eave slumped a lot, and the rest of the roof only slumped a little. 
  26. This pulled open the neglected roofing about 3 or 4 feet up from the roof edge.
  27. This allowed water to enter the attic, and flow freely inside the four-story back wall of the house. 
  28. Water flowing inside the back wall destroyed the windows, so they boarded some of them up, too. This made it colder inside, prompting the owners to — you guessed it — install more ceiling fans. 
  29. The rain and snow entering the holes in the roof made the house’s structure even worse. Leaks in the roof became big holes in the roof, which let in bees, hornets, carpenter ants, chipmunks, birds, squirrels, and bats. The holes never got large enough to let in any competent plumbers, however.
  30. Once the owners ran out of light fixtures to replace with ceiling fans, and it was raining indoors regularly, they folded their tents in the night and stole away, leaving the local savings and loan holding the bag holding the mortgage.
  31. Because a bank can’t enter a house while they foreclose on it, all the plumbing pipes in the house froze solid, and were ruined. They were no great shakes anyway. The heating plant was an oil-fired boiler with hot water baseboard heat. All of this was full of water, froze solid, and was destroyed. 
  32. I came along looking for a cheap house. The banker realized there couldn’t be two people as dumb as me walking the Earth, so they sold it to me before I sobered up.

So, there you go, your honor. I hereby testify that someone flushed an unmentionable down the toilet, back when Eisenhower was president, probably, and it got stuck, and that little thing destroyed the sewer system, the foundation, the back wall of the house, the roof, the plumbing, and the heating system in the house. And I bought it. I plead insanity.

So if you’ve been reading right along, you know that my son and I were able to repair the main house drain. If you’re new around here, press on this Plumbing label and read the posts in reverse order.

I’ve been struck by the interest in this project from many corners of the Intertunnel, and the outpouring of support from people near and far, for which I am immensely grateful. It would seem to me that people want to hear more about fixing my house, so that is what I’ll write about every chance I get. I definitely owe Jerry and Michelle a stirring conclusion to the tale of jacking up the back of the house. By gad, I’m going to do it.

My son and I cleaned off the nasty cables we used to augur out the sewer line, and then tromped over the snowbanks to load the rented tools into my truck to return them to the tool rental yard. We backfilled all the excavations and compacted the soil. We burned half our clothes, and my wife washed the rest. Twice.

A week or so later, we got a generic notice in the mail from the town government, appended to a utility bill. It read:

If you experience a sewer backup, please notify the Public Works Department before you hire a plumber. After hours, call the Police Department. 

But, we didn’t hire a plumber, so I guess we’re all set. Life sure is a lot simpler when no one imagines anyone like you even exists.

[Update: Many thanks to Robert B. from Chicago, Ill. for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to William O from Bandera, Tejas for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Yet More Update: Many thanks to James H. from Lees Summit, Missouri for his kind words and generous contribution to our TipJar. It is very much appreciated]
[Still More Updates: Many thanks to Jerry and Michelle V. from Everson, WA for their unflagging support and friendship. It is greatly appreciated]

Interestingly, ‘Unified Field Theory of Neglect’ Is the Name of My Left Banke Tribute Band. But I Digress

My house, just as I found it. The bad news was that Winter was coming

You know, I’ve been talking about this sewer line fix for three weeks or so. One of the reasons I found the whole thing so durn interesting is because the exploration and repair of one problem solved a zillion other problems I’d been turning over in my mind. This busted sewer pipe really was the key to life, the universe, and everything — at least everything to do with my house.

My house cost less than $25,000 when I bought it. I wasn’t expecting a rose garden. As it turned out, I got a lupin garden, but that’s a story for another day. There was a lot wrong with my house, and I knew it. I even knew that the sewer wasn’t likely to be first rate. There was a patch on the concrete floor around the sewer pipe. There’s always a reason why the floor has been patched around a sewer line. All the reasons are bad reasons.

I needed a house six years ago or so after catching the poverty. It was my own fault. I foolishly went to the early-bird special at the Honest Work Buffet, but Wall Street had gotten there before me and sneezed on the warming tray with the regular economy in it. Lyme Disease didn’t help any, either, although I still find ticks less loathsome than politicians.

I believe that a house is the chassis of a competent family. We were broke but it was important to keep us together in a house where we would have some control over our affairs. I looked for a house that was as cheap as the chrome on a Kia, but didn’t have anything wrong with it that I couldn’t understand or fix myself. Our house fit the bill. It had been abandoned, and the bank wanted to get rid of it, badly.

The house was owned by a local bank that held the note from the prior owners, a real rarity back when the real estate leverage world was desolating the landscape. People kept predicting that housing would fall an additional X percent, and then they’d buy. They didn’t realize that the big banks holding the leveraged debt had no interest in the real real estate. The financial institutions were being made whole by logrolling the government. The houses were abstractions to them, and only the paper was real. The local banker had his tit in the wringer over our house. I could reason with him. Either I could live in it, or he could. No one  in their right mind would want to live in my house.

I didn’t want an abstract house. I wanted one with real problems. Mission Accomplished. I tried in vain to make real estate agents understand that I wanted to buy a house nobody else wanted. They kept trying to show me houses that looked like Home Depot had exploded inside them. The current owners wanted me to pay for the privilege of ripping out all the silly stuff they had inexpertly selected and installed. What I really wanted was a neglected house. Neglect is easier to handle than active malice. That applies to real estate and elections, now that I think of it.

Our house had been neglected, that’s for sure. There was a hole in the back roof that I could stick my head through. The wiring was still partly knob and tube. It takes a long time to foreclose on a house, even if it’s abandoned, so all the pipes had frozen and burst while the bank went through all the legal steps to foreclose on an empty house. When we bought our home, it was essentially a poorly constructed shell of a house, not a dwelling.

That’s exactly what I wanted. I’ve stood in the middle of plenty of poorly constructed house shells. I’m certain some were poorly constructed, because I constructed ’em. A half-built house holds no terrors for me. It was a fully-built house that looked like a Kardashian picked everything out and cost a bunch of spondulicks that I had to avoid. I didn’t want to pay for someone else’s ceiling fans.

I didn’t. I bought this house for about five grand more than a plot of land costs around here. It’s funny, but the price of land never seems to change, no matter how much a house costs here. That’s because you can plop a trailer on a house lot in these parts, and no one will bat an eye. My big Victorian house had to compete on price with a house that gets built by a tow truck. The dirt underneath it had no opinion.

So, the roof had big holes, and the plumbing was totally gonzo. Anything might happen when you turned on a light switch, except light. There was no heating appliance in the house that functioned. Heating matters in western Maine. The back of the house was in danger of collapsing. The foundation underneath it was completely gone, and the weird props that had been installed to hold it up were only good at collecting cobwebs, which were the only things actually holding up the building, I think.

These all sound like separate problems. I thought any one of them could be handled by a successful convenience store robbery and some elbow grease. I was wrong. I’ve been banging on this house for nigh on six years now, and until this whole sewer line debacle, I had no idea that there was a central theme to these problems.

I have an unusual disposition. Some people call that being a jerk. I don’t like not understanding things. I notice things. Noticing things isn’t encouraged much anymore. See: Twitter. I must admit, however, that it was almost worth the very real fear of being unable to fix the sewer to finally figure out that there was a central theme to my house’s problems. For the first time since I bought it, my house made sense. I had come up with the Unified Field Theory of Neglect. I understood everything that had gone wrong for the last 75 years or so. It wasn’t a disconnected series of problems. The sewer line had wrecked my roof, and everything in between.

[to be continued]

Interestingly, ‘Synapse Drippings’ Is the Name of My Andrea True Connection Tribute Band. But I Digress

Honestly, this is the “before” picture.

Our clean out was capped, so we moved on to reworking the transition from the vertical DWV pipe to the sewer pipe under the floor. Blessedly, we could throw away seven feet of concatenated strangeness that came with the house, and we replaced the whole mess with plastic pipe. I’m not a vice president without portfolio for any of the large tech companies that litter the Fortune 500 these days. I have no plans to freeze my head when I die, or upload my synapse drippings into a computer. When I’m dead, I’m gonna get buried, and let you lot worry about the plumbing in my house for a change. I’ll be perfectly happy to perish if I don’t have to dig my own hole. The plastic pipe we installed will outlive me, so as far as I’m concerned it’s a permanent fix. I fixed the whole world in the same way by having two kids.

After we removed the busted Tee pipe under the floor, we were presented with the bell end of the next pipe. Fernco fittings only fit on the spigot end of clay pipes, so some sloppy surgery was in order. We cut off the bell end using the diamond blade on the sawzall. We did it right in place. We stuffed a rag in the pipe in the usual way, and I showed my son how smart people cut pipe. In a ditch, smart people look lazy. If you’ve ever driven past a crew of construction workers and excoriated them for leaning on their shovels, you’ve probably mistaken being smart for being lazy. You also probably did all that excoriating with the windows rolled up.

It’s not possible to work flat out all day, every day, when you work in the manual arts. You have to work smart or you won’t last. And don’t give me any horsehockey about going to the gym, either. I once employed an ex-Marine bodybuilder. I was building my own house at the same time, and sent him to help my uncle build the chimney. My uncle was getting along in years, and had a bad heart. My bodybuilding minion was somewhat cavalier about picking up measly 35-pound blocks instead of the giant useless metal disks in the gym. My uncle wore him out in about four hours. He refused to go back the next day.

I held the sawzall in place with the blade on the pipe, and I instructed my son to get a length of wormy 2×4 from the pile of wood I keep around for lever emergencies. He stood the 2×4 on end in the hole and pushed against the frame of the saw, which put pressure on the blade as I held the trigger. It took a minute or two to get through the pipe, but we were both fresh as a daisy when we made it to the other side. Just like a daisy, we were covered in fertilizer, but we weren’t exhausted from the effort. That’s what I mean about working smart. Work smart, and you really can work all day, every day.

We put together the pipe like a tinkertoy. Working back from the clay pipe, we put on a Fernco fitting, a short length of straight 4″ pipe, a sweep, which is a term for an elbow with a longer radius, a tall piece of pipe, a wye to match the angle of the pipe descending from the floors upstairs, and then a cleanout plug on the other opening on the wye. We put it together dry to make sure it fit, and then cemented all the pieces together and installed it in two tranches in one trenches. The only thing left was to join the new pipe to the old cast iron monstrosity, using the wrong Fernco fitting.

I know it’s the wrong fitting. You can not tell me in the comments it’s not the not the right fitting, thanks. Officially, Ferncos that are installed above ground are supposed to have a metal halo that resembles Messala’s braclets wrapped around them. Don’t ask me why. All the ones that are buried in the ground are just rubber with a clamp on each end. I was thinking of re-using the correct one that was already in place on the old setup, but it was such a mess I decided to use the wrong thing instead. Sometimes the wrong thing is the right thing to do. You know, like prom night.
[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks go out to my PayPal-averse friend Sam from Oregon for his generous gift via the regular mail. It is very much appreciated]

The Cork Shows Through

SHE CALLED IT the piazza. I’d been to the library and it isn’t a piazza at all, but she says
it just the same.
    I didn’t say that, but it’s not like I know what to call it anyway. I wouldn’t say it to her face if I did know because she is so fierce. The doctors, like bad farmers, pulled babies and other things you’d think were vital out of her and all sorts of bits off of her as the calendars repeated themselves, and father says when they bury her there will be an echo inside. She carries on like the turning of the earth, and everyone loves her and fears her no matter how much of her is left.
    She never went leathery; she got adamantine. She was a basilisk to a stranger and a pitted madonna to her own. We make a pilgrimage, no less, to visit her. Which one are you again is the name she uses to prove she loves us all the same amount. She presses a quarter in my hand like a card trick when we leave.
    The piazza is just a rotten porch that leans drunkenly off the building and she sends me to get the food that cooled out there. It’s thirty rickety feet above the jetsam of a thousand lives gone bad, surrounded by chainlink and crime. She’s like a one-woman congress, overruling all sorts of laws of man and nature, but you can’t help feeling she can’t keep a lookout for gravity forever on your behalf, can she? Everything is only a matter of time in this world.
    It’s always hot and close when you return, breathless from fear and hurry and the whip of the wind, and you notice she has only two colors: grey and the pink of her cheek. There are always things I don’t understand, boiling. Everything on the plates is grey and pink, too.
    The rooms are in a parade. The triptych of the parlor windows shows the sack of a forgotten Rome through the tattered lace. No running in the hall! Her daughter lives down stairs so there was no one to bother but… the very idea!
    But how could any child linger in that tunnel of a hall? You had to get past it to the kitchen table. The bedrooms branched off, dim caves that smelled of perfume bought in stores forty years closed by men thirty years dead. The indistinct whorls on the wallpaper reached out to touch your hand like a leper.
    At the table, the lyre-back chair groans and shifts under even my little weight, and you sit transfixed while she spoons the sugar and dumps the milk into the tea until the saucer is a puddle, and you wondered in your head how many times the bag could take it. There’s cinnamon and laughter now and then and blessed sunlight that turned the battered battleship linoleum into a limpid pool. The cork shines through the scrim of the coating, a million footfalls revealing more and more of it over time.
    And Catherine? The Cork shows through there, too.


Interestingly, ‘Sewer Pipe Diamonds’ Is the Name of My Brewer and Shipley Tribute Band. But I Digress

Cover me; I’m going in.

So we had this plumbing thing on the run once it went Sploosh. We were all jazzed up on Ferncos and plastic plumbing and fumes. Ferncos require you to give them a clean end to attach to. Don’t misunderstand. Clean is just an expression. Even if you bought everything brand new, by the time you’re done mucking around in the ground, it’s all dirty. Like an HBO series, our only obligation is to make sure it remains a certain kind of dirty.

We can’t allow the pipes to get filled with dirt, or rocks, or anything else the sewer won’t like. Our problem begins with the fact that our plumbing predecessors busted up the pipes pretty good to work their micturating magic and poopy prestidigitation. The cleanout featured in this picture was sheared off at a very funny angle. Ferncos don’t do funny. The pipe would have to be cut off squarely.

I rented a pipe breaker along with the drain auger. The moment I asked for it at the rental place I knew I was making a mistake. If the pipe is out and about, you can wrap the chain around it and perform the required lever action with its big handle. The chances of all that being possible in a ditch are vanishingly small. Home Depot had my Plan B on hand, however: Sewer pipe diamonds.

I have a sawzall. It’s a lower-case Sawzall. A real Sawzall is made by Milwaukee Tools. I have a Porter Cable version because it was ten cents cheaper or something. The blades are interchangeable, and so is the tool, really. It’s a reciprocating saw that’s perfect for demolition, and for deboning large prey and unwary door-to-door salesmen. I bought a blade with no teeth. It had a frosting of industrial diamonds on the business edge. It’s great for cutting through glazed clay sewer pipe. The pipe is really tough, like baked concrete, so you don’t want any teeth. You want to abrade your way through it. It’s like dinner at a nursing home.

The sheared-off end of the cleanout pipe would be buried more than a foot deep if we didn’t extend it. We needed to cut it off square so the Fernco would slip over the end and transition to a length of 4″ plastic pipe. We had a Fernco end cap to finish it off for now. I’ll put a fitting with a cleanout on it later.

I took a piece of twine left from the packaging of the drain pipe and tied it to a rag. I stuffed it in the pipe and stepped on the loose end of the twine. Then I sliced off the clay pipe cleanly. If this had been any of the jobs I’ve ever supervised, the plumber would have explained to me that he had broken the pipe, the shards of pipe went down the drain, followed by the rag, trailed by the twine, and could he have his check please, it’s almost four in the afternoon. Because I am totally unqualified to be a plumber, the pipe was cut cleanly, we threw the cutoff pieces aside, and we pulled the rag out and threw it away. Very far away.

The Fernco went on the clay pipe without any fuss, and the plastic pipe was easy to cut with a metal-cutting blade chucked into the lower-case sawzall. Top it off with the rubber cap, and throw the soil back in the hole to support the pipe. Done deal.

The other end was going to be interesting. That’s the end where the main, vertical house drain went down into the floor and took a ninety-degree turn towards the opposite wall. This transition had been made with a “Tee” fitting instead of what’s called a “sweep.’ A sweep is just an elbow with a longer radius. The idea is that the, ahem, solids would get to the bottom of the pipe and get a head start on heading down the horizontal run of sewer pipe under the floor. I can never see a picture of the tubular slide at a water park and not think of a plumbing sweep. You know what that makes the swimmers. In case you’re wondering, I don’t go to water parks.

The extract of a drunkard’s nightmare plumbing setup couldn’t be salvaged. That made things easier, really. From about eye level to two feet below the floor, we nuked everything. We pulled out the busted Tee fitting. That’s when the craziness of my plumbing predecessors really came into focus. A Tee makes a crummy sweep. Everything lands at the bottom of the pipe, and it can cause a logjam, if you will. It was bound to cause trouble, and it obviously did as the decades rolled by. Everyone tried everything but something smart to deal with it.

Whoever dug it up back in the mists of antiquity must have broken the bell on the Tee, rendering it leaky forevermore. The Nobody’s Looking Plumbing Company, Inc, then proceeded to break or lose the plug that fits into the end of the pipe to turn the Tee into a crummy sweep. The Nobody’s Looking Plumbing Company then checked to see that nobody was looking, and fashioned a circular plug out of a piece of a 3/4″ pine board, and stuck it on the end of the clay pipe. Brilliant.

[to be continued]

You May Not Believe This, But ‘Weapons-Grade Nuts’ Is the Name of My Psychedelic Furs Tribute Band. But I Digress

I like modularity. I feel like I’m pretty much alone in that nowadays.

Everyone seems to be dreaming of some kind of unitary system for everything. The best example of this phenomenon I’ve seen lately is the quixotic quest to automate light switches using phones. To a person like me, that idea lives 167 miles past stupid in the land of Moron. I’ve installed every kind of light switch in a house. The house I currently live in still had some rotary switches hooked up to knob and tube wiring. I think Edison installed it when he was still moonlighting on the weekends trying to make a few bucks. Those are interesting, but they’re honestly lousy light switches. They arc like you’re turning on the lights in Dr. Frankenstein’s parlor, and if you turn them counter-clockwise they do everything except turn the lights on. Some of the switches in my house have two buttons. Top one on, bottom one off. That was an improvement on rotary switches. I’ve replaced most everything with single-pole switches at this point. To turn lights on and off, the design cannot be improved upon. Period.

A box of switches like that costs maybe five bucks. You can take an aborigine from the Amazon and plop him in your living room (this is the current immigration policy of the United States, by the way) and tell him to turn on the light and he’ll be able to figure it out with no prompting. A toddler only needs to see you turn the lights on once to understand it forevermore. I’ll go further. A person that has never seen a light switch can be taught to install one in less than a minute:

  • Turn off electricity in the house
  • Find the “hot” wire, which is black
  • Interrupt this black wire on its trip from service panel to fixture
  • Attach black wire coming into the switch box to one gold screw
  • Attach the black wire leaving the switch box to the other gold screw
  • The green screw is for the bare copper wire. It’s the ground. The switch works even if you forget this step, but you might get a tingle now and then
  • The only other wire is white and passes right through the box to the fixture
  • Turn the power back on

That’s it. Flick the switch up, the light goes on. Flip the switch down, the light goes off.

Controlling your lights with your phone is one of those ideas that seems futuristic, but it’s not. It’s a futile attempt to make unitary systems from things that work better as modular components. It’s like building a supercomputer to play chess against Gary Kasparov. After seventeen billion dollars is invested, it finally beats him once. Now tell Gary to turn off the lights on the way out of the room. He does it. Tell the supercomputer to turn off the lights, and you’re in for another seventeen billion in startup costs. Humans can keep track of tens of thousands of things like operating light switches without much fuss. A computer is dumb, dumb, dumb, and no matter how smart you make it, it will always be dumb. Every woman who has sat in the dark in a public bathroom stall, waving her hands wildly over her head to reactivate the motion detector light, can testify to this.

I was able to repair my sewer system because everything in it was modular. The pipe leading out of the house was made up of identical sections of fired clay pipe put together like legos. They were made of durable stuff, and they were installed to work using gravity alone. They worked for over one hundred years despite the efforts of dozens of people to screw them up in the interim. If they were a unitary system of some sort, and they failed, I would have been forced to replace them as a unitary system. To translate, that would have meant moving into a cardboard box behind a strip mall dumpster.

I could fix the broken components, and leave the others alone. Don’t underestimate the importance of this concept. In housing, everyone desires everything to be unitary, and wants it to be brand new forever. I can’t fix a modern house. I’m a dolt, but that’s not why I can’t fix it. In general, everything to do with a modern house can be replaced, but it can’t be fixed. If your hardwood strip flooring is worn, you can sand it and refinish it and get another fifty years out of it. If someone puts a coal out on your Pergo floor, you can lump it, or you can replace it. It’s sold as permanent. In real life, “permanent” really means “disposable.” The word “sustainable” is similar. It really means “in need of massive, permanent subsidy.”

When I traveled to the faraway Home Depot to buy things, I had a very limited budget, and no exact idea of what I would find underground, and what I would do when I found it. I bought a bizarre assortment of modular things that would give me the best chance to solve the problems as I found them. Don’t get me wrong; the assortment wasn’t bizarre to my eye. The clerk in the aisle and the lady in the orange smock at the register thought I was weapons-grade nuts, however.

[to be continued]

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[Further Update: Many thanks to (Sloop) Jon B. in Colorado for his generous contribution via the PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Continuing update: Many thanks to the Pope of the Internet, Gerard at American Digest, for his unrelenting support of this blog, and his very generous contribution to our tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Yet More Updated: Many thanks to Fred Z. from Calgary for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]

It’s Funny, But ‘Increasingly Gargantuan Tranches’ Is the Name of My Ellery Bop Tribute Band. But I Digress

Sippican: Excuse me.
The Internet: Hello Mr. Sippican.
Sippican: Come on with me for a minute. I want to talk to you. I just want to say one word to you, just one word.
The Internet: Yes, sir.             
Sippican: Are you listening?
The Internet: Yes I am.               
Sippican: Fernco.        
The Internet: Exactly how do you mean?             
Sippican: There is a great future in Fernco. Think about it. Will you think about it? 
The Internet: Yes, I will.
Sippican: Enough said. That’s a deal.

That’s a bit of a strained metaphor, I know. It lacks verisimilitude, which is a writing term for plagiarizing people who have actually visited the place you’re writing about. Anyway, as you know, I have never uttered the phrase, “Enough said,” and I’m not starting now. When I lay my head on my pillow at night, I look at my wife and say, “But enough about me. What do you think about me?”

Let’s move on and talk about what to do with your sewer line after you’ve given it a proper cleanse. Or more to the point, what I did with mine. I fixed it, lickety split. That’s because I know about Fernco fittings.

Let’s have a show of hands here. Name the important company: Apple or Fernco. It’s a trick question, I realize that. One company was briefly the largest in the world by market capitalization. The other one is important.

If Apple was wiped off the face of the Earth tomorrow by a meteor strike or a Chinese slave labor strike, take your pick, I wouldn’t notice. They don’t make anything useful to me. Don’t get me wrong, a computer is a useful thing, but Apple doesn’t make computers. Apple makes Apple computers. Not the same thing. They manufacture the vinyl siding of the tech world as far as I’m concerned. I like clapboards and paint.

I would certainly notice if Fernco wasn’t there tomorrow. If it wasn’t for Fernco, I’d be pooping in a bucket right now and dumping it in the nearby river every night when no one was looking, like a wild animal, or the Dave Matthews Band. I was introduced to Fernco twenty years ago or so. People who hang out in trenches call every flexible coupling “a fernco.” It’s become the equivalent of calling any brand of facial tissue a “kleenex” or every refrigerator a “frigidaire.” Of course, everyone calls every MP3 player an “iPod,” but I call them a “Walkman” just to piss them off. When I call their iPhone a Palm Pilot, they come at me like a kamikaze.

I don’t know how big a company Fernco is. It’s a privately held company. A privately held company is this weird type of business that makes useful things and turns a profit. That’s why you never hear a word about privately held companies on the business pages. Today’s average business plan is to borrow money in increasingly gargantuan tranches without ever even trying to turn a profit, and then selling out to Marissa Mayer for a billion dollars before you run out of Ramen noodles and she runs out of board members who think she’s cute. Then you read about it on Marketwatch on your Speak N Spell. Whoops, I meant iPad.

In the misty halls of antiquity, you had to seek out a commercial plumbing supply house if you wanted to speak Fernco with a fellow Ferncomaniac. Only hardcore plumbers go there. You could end up in a leper colony just by shaking hands with everyone waiting at the counter. That type of supply house used to scare me, because I was just dabbling in plumbing. True plumbing believers could spot a plumbing dilettante like me a mile off.

There was a counter with one giant, filthy catalog on it, and a gruff face glowering at you across the Formica. They’d ask you, “What do you want,” and if you didn’t immediately answer, “Gimme tree-four of the one-tousand-tooz dash fordyfors if ya got ’em,” they’d know you were a civilian and give you directions to the nearest Ace Hardware. Oh, the walk of shame to the truck is seared, seared in my memory.

Fernco is now a multinational business and you can buy their fabulous doothingies in any Home Despot. My life is improved by this, but somehow made modestly more ignoble, too. When everyone knows about your secret weapon, you’ve lost the ability to dazzle people with your inside information. I can no longer casually drop a mention of Ferncos at swanky dinner parties, and expect everyone to give me the John Houseman treatment. Oh, Ferncos. They have those at Lowe’s. The conversation drifts back to Mr. Darcy’s linen shirt supplier, and I’m left out in the cold.

When I regaled you earlier with the tale of desecrating the men’s room in the Home Depot, and desolating the stock in the plumbing aisle, I could have saved time and simply reported that I’d bought every permutation of a Fernco I could find. It’s more or less what I did. Fernco makes this fabulous rubber boot with two compression rings on it that’s used to connect the spigot end of a 4″ clay pipe to a piece of 4″ hubless PVC pipe. What, you’ve never heard of it? Jesucristo, errybody knows they’re one-tousand-tooz dash fordyfors.

[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks go out to Barry B. from Adkins, Texas for his generous and thoughtful donation to our PayPal tip button. It is very much appreciated]

You’d Never Guess as Much, But ‘Stopples From the Silurian’ Is the Name of My Plasmatics Tribute Band. But I Digress

I was no longer speaking to my son.

We hadn’t had any sort of disagreement or anything. I like him a lot. If I didn’t know he was my son, and I met him, I’d probably like him even more than I do. Because I know he’s my son, I can espy resemblances to me, and that makes me discount his good nature a little, I’m afraid. I don’t like myself as much as I like him.

No, it was simple weariness that had set in. It gets boring saying, “Go. Stop. Go. Stop.” It’s tiresome to say. It’s tiresome to consider how tiresome it must be to hear. I slowly began to simply grunt, and after a while I just jerked my thumb this way and that to get the message across. He’s perceptive, and he anticipated things once we got going, so even my thumb got a rest.

Most of construction is logistics. Shelter shows demonstrate very little construction. They show a host that’s not a real worker pounding the last nail. They never mention that getting to that point is the real work. It’s easy to nail off a sheet of plywood on a roof. Get that thing up there in a 10-MPH breeze, by yourself, and I’ll be impressed. If you’ve ever done real construction, you quickly learn how to arrange your surroundings to make the work go easier.

Well, I know a little about construction, but that just added to my annoyance. I was in no position to bring ergonomic calm to my construction chaos. I was working below my feet, the absolute worst way to get things done. I knew enough to sit instead of crouch, but my back was screaming at me. Reversing the cable feed in the sewer auger was a kind of relief. I could sit up straight a bit.

Of course that relief comes at a price. The cable was going to come out of the pipe, and it was going to bring things out with it. You don’t visit Beelzebub’s Disneyland without exiting through the gift shop. Over one hundred years of other people’s foolishness could appear from that pipe. I jerked my thumb to indicate REVERSE, held on to the whipping cable to avoid a proper drenching, and prepared to be surprised.

Out they came. The feminine pennants snapped in the breeze from the yardarm stay of my drain augur cable. Dracula’s teabags. The things no man is supposed to buy at the Rite Aid. Tampons emerged like an army on the march.

Now, it’s not up to me to decide exactly how tough a tampon should be. Smarter men than I have determined that feminine hygiene products should be able to withstand a shotgun blast and an acid bath at the same time. It’s a given that they should be more durable than space shuttle tiles. Fall protection harnesses and parachute cord should be made from the little strings, if you want them to last. Kevlar? Pfffffftt. That’s OK for stopping a high powered round and all, but if you need real protection, head to Walgreens and sew a vest out of these babies.

Every length of the sewer cable is ten feet long, and each one appeared from the poop soup with twenty-five or so little Tampax ornaments whipping around from it. I took a pliers and grabbed each one as it emerged from the pipe, but they held on like grim death. Some were tangled four or five in a bundle. I was required to return the machine as clean as I’d found it, so they all had to be yanked from the cables. They fought like Japanese army holdouts in a cave.

We pulled out fifty feet of cable, and the little devils made a substantial pile at my feet. I shoveled them aside, and we sent the cable back down the pipe. The second round brought out more than the first trip down the pipe. I could have stuffed a futon with them. I’ve slept on a futon, if you can call that sleeping. I just assumed that’s what a futon is stuffed with. I could be wrong. It could be dead cats. 

I quickly realized I wasn’t playing Current Events. The little pillows were ancient history. They didn’t say Johnson and Johnson on them. They just said Johnson, talk to the Old Man. These were bungs from the Baroque, Always from the Jazz Age, postwar Playtex, Tampax from the Tang Dynasty, Ottoman Empire occlusions, Seleucid sanitary napkins, and stopples from the Silurian. This was a museum, not a sewer system. I wondered if I could get some kind of grant to look them over and catalog them.

I began to suspect that hunter-gatherer societies had been flushing these things down my toilet. The former residents of my house must have invited people over to join in the fun. They probably ran ads in the Grover Cleveland Craiglist to come on over and flush your troubles away. It seemed like a determined effort to my eye.

My son and I went back and forth, fifty to sixty feet of cable at a stretch. I don’t remember how many times it took. When we were properly lulled by exhaustion and repetition, it finally came. The magic sound. It was the sound a nurse hears while walking down the hall in the nursing home late at night. A horrible gurgle, as the whole organism lets go and slides away to a better world. The poop in the pipe was gone.

[I’ll tell you how I put Humpty Dumpty back together again tomorrow]

[Update: Many thanks to Henry S. from Ontario, Canada for his generous contribution via our PayPal button. It is very much appreciated]
[Additonal Update: Many thanks to Jonathan C. from Shrewsbury, Mass. for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Still more Updates: Many thanks go out to Andrew C. from Blacksburg, Virginia for his generous donation to our tipjar. We are very grateful]

In a Fascinating Development, ‘Promise of a Perpendicular Rebirth’ Is the Name of My Gentle Giant Tribute Band. But I Digress

Why yes, I use an overturned rowboat as my workbench. Doesn’t everyone?

It is an odd feeling to push all your chips into the middle of the table. Sitting in that frozen pit, holding on to a squirrelly cable while watching it spin in the pipe, I realized that everything that had come before meant nothing if this was as far as I got. I was to be judged solely on the outcome. There was no extra credit. No make-up tests. An “Incomplete” grade would be a notice to move out of my house or dig up the sewer line using money I don’t have and couldn’t get. The ground  was frozen solid anyway. Money can’t cure that. The whole thing had been win or walk the whole time.

I don’t know what my son thinks about me. I am not my son’s friend. I am his father. I know what that means. It’s fatherly malpractice to be your son’s friend. It’s an abdication of responsibility and an imposition. You can’t be king and hail fellow well met at the same time.

He helped me without a murmur of complaint. He was really helpful, too, like a real man. I stopped thinking of him as a kid, my kid. I was in charge because I was Stanley Baker and he was Michael Caine and I had a few days of seniority in an arbitrary system that decides who’s who and what’s what. We’ll both get exactly the same pincushion treatment if we don’t fight and win.

I said nothing about my doubts. I pictured the crazy iron flail grinding dumbly round and round in the dead end of one pipe, with the promise of a perpendicular rebirth in a world just beyond its reach. My life is like that a lot. Grinding blindly around and covered in excrement is no way to go through life, son.

By some miracle, it made the turn. Now, I know luck when I see it. Well, I would know luck if I saw it. I guess I would. How would I know? At any rate,this was just like luck, so I didn’t push it. There was no power on Earth that would make me pull that cable out of the pipe until I’d gone all the way to Glory Land.

When the snake gets going, it basically pulls itself into the hole. My son advanced with the machine, we’d stop, unhook the end, back up the machine ten feet, hook on another length of cable, and let it rip again. It went fast. We had eight, ten-foot lengths of cable.

I knew that high-level analysis wasn’t necessary. We were boring a hole (and my readers) right through the center of the clog. If I made it to the end of the clog, the level of the ooze in the cleanout pipe would get lower. The slop made noises like an endomorph at a Sizzler, but it hung in there. We kept adding cable until we had seventy feet in the pipe. I was already twenty feet past my meager estimate. If the clerk in the tool rental crib hadn’t thrown some in for free, I would have held a busted flush, and I mean that every which way.

My son advanced on the hole with the auger, and I looked longingly at my pis aller, or piss aller, I guess — the last bent, dirty, rusty, nasty length of cable lying on the floor. When I turned back, the poop sauce in the pipe was two feet lower.

I know you’re expecting huzzahs and hosannahs, but we weren’t home yet, and I knew it. The head of the cable must have found air at the other end, and the thinnest part of the gruel made it through. It could close back up and I’d be back at it again. We needed to back the cable up, then perform the back and forth action over and over until water ran free through the pipe. When we put it in reverse, I discovered what was plugging the pipe.

[to be continued]

[Update: Many thanks to Chapman G. from Virginny for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]
[Up-Update: Many thanks to Russell D. in the Land of Mary for his very generous gift along with an uplifting sentiment. It is much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to Victor P. from the Nutmeg State for his generous contribution to the PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]

Month: March 2016

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