It Rolls Downhill

There was a pink disk with a hole in the middle of it on the camera screen. “What is that?” We asked. The Wife looks at the image. “Oh, that’s the bottom of the cleanout cap. It must have gotten stuck in the drain.”

I remember buying that cap when the old cap had to be drilled out. I remember thinking how cool it was to be able to screw the thing down and have the friction of the gasket hold it in place. The sewer cleanout had to have a cap, and no one made caps for the drains that ran under the patio concrete; if that had even been the purpose of the fittings that were used on those pipes and if those pipes themselves had been intended to be used as sewer drains. There really was no telling, in this house.

The addon to the house that the cleanout was part of had been built by the previous owner. A do-it-yourselfer who happily nailed wood together at any angle he could make fit, left junction boxes off of electrical connections because they were an unnecessary expense and ran plumbing hither and yon with no rhyme or reason other than that was what suited him at the time.

He had trenched the yard and tied into the existing plumbing line at some point in that distant past, putting a cleanout opening in the patio concrete that he later poured, forming a permanent tripping hazard in the pathway between the garage and the house. Whether that cleanout opening is capped or not you would trip over it if I didn’t store the rolling bins directly on it just to keep myself from tripping over it every time I made the journey to and from the garage.

“The drainage lines could have all been left-over pipe from the pool he was having built at the time. Or maybe the pool lines are plumbing lines?” I shuddered at the thought. “So how did the bottom of the cap come loose again?”

“It just fell off.” The Wife said. “The plumber went to put it back on the cleanout and it just fell down in the line and whoosh it was gone.”

Whoosh. gone. “Found it.”

“There are some other serious problems with this line.” The camera-operating plumber said. “As you can see, this isn’t PVC pipe here” gesturing at the screen. “This is probably all orangeburg. Ceramic-paper pipe. Look at this junction point.” Again gesturing at the screen. “Too thick to be PVC. There is also a belly in the line here” pulling the camera back and submerging it in whatever fluid was in the sewer line.

“Where is that at?” I ask.

“Where it goes under the garage.”

The sewer line goes under the garage. Great.

I remember back to that first plumbing problem in the house. Well, not the first one. The first one was the leaky upstairs tub that the Homeshield insurance plumber couldn’t figure out. “We got to tear out this whole wall right here and redo it from the outside.” We didn’t do that. We got a different plumber and he got it to stop leaking, at least for a few years.

No, the time I was thinking about was the time when the sewers backed up into the house and came out of the downstairs sinks. That was traumatic; as in the blob coming through your drains to eat you kind of trauma. I was working fifty to sixty hour weeks at that point. The Wife was working night shifts in a call center, six months pregnant with our second child. Neither of us had time for dealing with nightmares like shit coming up out of the kitchen sink when the upstairs toilets were flushed. So we called in that name-brand service that cleans out your drains. If there was ever a job that we needed them for, this was it.

They couldn’t clean the drains out. “This cleanout isn’t big enough.” the plumber said, pointing at the ubiquitous square-topped cap on the outside wall located under virtually every kitchen sink in the world. “This is just for the kitchen drain. We need one that’s at least three inches in diameter located on the main drain line to do the job. We’ll have to cut the line about here.” Stomping on the ground. “We’ll put in a two-way so that we can clean the line in either direction.”

“Can’t you use that cleanout?” I asked, pointing to the one on the patio that they had uncovered.

“Naw, that one would only allow us to go down that addition’s lines and out to the sewer main. We got to get in the lines above the blockage which is somewhere between where that line tees in and where the main line comes out of the house.” He gestured to the ground at his feet again. “We gotta put a new cleanout here if you want us to get the upstairs drains flowing out to the sewer again.”

We said “do that” and they did that. It was the latest in a list of catastrophes. We’d just replaced the upstairs and downstairs central air units a few months previously. We found out, in the dead of winter, that mister do-it-yourself had welded a cracked heat exchanger in the upstairs furnace. This was a rookie mistake, thinking you can just weld a leaky heat exchanger. That is how you wake up dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. It nearly killed our little family.

We got the house cheap, though. Got it cheap and didn’t ask all the questions we should have. A rookie mistake on our part, too. No wonder the previous owners couldn’t get their money fast enough. First the air conditioning and now the plumbing. I didn’t have time to ask “what else can go wrong?” because I was already late for work. Always late for work back then. Always late for work and always working late. Always. We just said “do it” and she went to bed and I went to work.

There was a new cleanout in the backyard when I got home. The drains worked, so I really didn’t care that much. The plumbers looked sheepish when I talked to them. “Bunch of orangeburg down there.” They said. “Bad stuff. Tends to collapse on itself.”

“Orange paper? For sewer lines?”

“Yeah, they used it all over the area back in the sixties when they built this place. We’re always having to replace it when we find it.”

“So you replaced it?”

“Just this section we took out. There is a little section next to the house. We couldn’t get to it. It looks to be PVC in the other direction. There is a PVC tee right over here.” Stomps on the ground again, this time nearer to the giant Arizona ash that dominates the backyard. “We replaced the orangeburg down to here.”

“There’s a tee there? Where does the line go on the other side of the tee?”

“They must have replaced all the line below it when they built that addition. The tee is there to bring the addition’s plumbing to the main.”

That didn’t answer my question. I knew why the tee was there, what I didn’t know was where the drains were in the the backyard. What I did know was that if you drew a line from where the sink drains were on the back of the house, a line that connected to where the new cleanout was in the yard, and then to the place where he said the tee was, that line went directly under the ash tree and then went under the middle of the garage. “What I want to know is, where does the main go from there? Please tell me it doesn’t go under the garage.

“Can’t be under the garage. It has to go out to the creek over that way.” Gestures over his shoulder. “There is a manhole cover in the street, it probably goes down between the properties and your line dumps in there.”

Back in the present day I say “So it goes under the garage.” instead of requesting that the plumber lie to me like I did before. Of course it goes under the garage. There’s a manhole in front of the neighbor’s house, exactly where the line would come out off my property if you drew a 45 degree angle from the cleanout on the kitchen wall. Never mind that city code enforcement would never have approved a building being built over an existing sewer line like that. The do-it-yourselfer covered the line with a slab to park his camper van on without telling anyone he did that; and then, years later, built a garage on the slab that already existed and got that building permitted even though it covered the main sewer line for the house.

“Thousands of dollars. That’s what’s in my head when the revelation soaks in. This is going to cost thousands of dollars and we don’t have thousands of dollars to spend. We don’t even have the hundreds of dollars to spend that this pink hockey puck inspired sewer nightmare has cost us already.

We’re going to have to trench the entire yard, from the house to the street. We’re going to have to trench around the garage either through the place where our children buried their pets; or trench along between the garage and the house, ripping up the concrete patio that I hate and want gone anyway but can’t afford to remove. This entire scenario is a nightmare that I want to wake up screaming from, but I’m already awake and I can’t scream at the plumbers if I want to get this dilemma solved today.

Then an idea occurs in the depths of my panic. Drowning in anxiety, depression and hopelessness. Drowning in the knowledge that nothing else is going to go right for the next month or so if we can’t solve this problem quickly right here and now. The disk moved when he tapped it before. Will it move again? “Can you just poke that plastic bit a little harder? Let’s try that.”

He runs the camera back down the line to the obstruction. He pokes at the plastic disk a few times again. It doesn’t move like it did before. “This rig isn’t stout enough. Let me get the big one out of the truck.” After a few minutes of rummaging he’s back at the good cleanout, running a larger camera snake back down the pipe a second time.

The disgusting pink lozenge heaves into view again on the camera screen. He pokes at it a few times more. We can hear it plinking through the open cleanout next to us. He gives it a good poke and, suddenly, it’s gone. Like the giant pink skittle that it resembles, the plastic disk has just gone pee-0we! Straight down the drain and out of sight. The plumber runs the camera back and forth through the entire length of the sewer line a few more times. There is no pink disk to be found in either direction.

“Hungh. It’s gone as far as I can tell.”

“That’s great,” I say, walking over and putting the top of the broken cleanout cap (the useless one that he wasn’t occupying) back over the now-running drain. “I call this project completed.” He wants to talk about replacing the orangeburg and so the Wife talks about spending the money to replace the miraculously still functional sewer line. At some future date, she tells him. We’ll get back to you.

I don’t hear it. I’ve gone back inside wishing I could afford to drink heavily right then. If ever a day begged for an excuse to get sloshing drunk, this was the day. No drinking before breakfast I think to myself.

“This is a nightmare. I might as well cancel all my plans.” The Wife moans when she finally finishes talking to the plumber. “It’s going to cost a fortune to repair all this.” She plops down on the rolling office chair permanently parked in the kitchen. “I’m so depressed. What are we going to do?”

“I could be on a beach in Portugal right now.” It’s the third time I’ve said it today. “Instead I’m here. Why are we still here? We could sell it all and just move, couldn’t we? Pick out ten books we can’t part with, grab a few changes of clothes, sell everything else and move to Portugal. Live on that.”

Why Portugal? Portugal has the climate of California without having the downside of being filled with cleanse-obsessed Californians. I so want to be somewhere surrounded by people that I can pretend are different than the average idiots that seem to fill up every other place I’ve ever lived. In Portugal everyone will speak Portuguese and I won’t have to be burdened by the idiocy that they engage in because I won’t understand what it is they are talking about. It’ll take twenty years to figure out that they aren’t any different than Californians and by that time I’ll be dead. Hopefully. If I live past eighty I’ll really wish I had taken better care of myself when I was younger.

“Why do you always go there?” the Wife demands. She’s not talking about Portugal, she’s talking about my death obsession. She wants to go to Portugal too, she just doesn’t think about dying there. She never thinks about dying, while I think about it all the time. As I said, it’s an obsession.

“Why are you still asking me that question?” I shoot back. I prepared the car as a family burial shroud on every trip we’ve ever taken over the last thirty years. Every time I get on a plane or a boat or a train it’s the last thing I’ll ever do and I make a point of settling all my accounts before doing whatever that last thing that turns out not to be the last thing, is. This is an obsession that she should know about.

“We can’t just leave everything.” The Wife says. “What about the kids?”

“Fine, they can have some of the money from the sale.”

“Be serious. We need to fix this plumbing problem.”

“Why? It’s been this way since we bought the place. The drains are running. Crisis averted, yet again.”

“Those sewer pipes are going to collapse eventually. Then what happens?”

“Then we replace the much shorter line that goes to the street instead of the much longer line that I thought went out to the creek and under our neighbor’s property. As a bonus, I don’t have to explain to them why I need to dig up their yard for my sewer problem.” A conversation I was not looking forward to.

“Well, at least we know now why that Arizona Ash got so big.” The Wife said.

“Why’s that?”

“It was feeding off that orangeburg pipe. It and the other trees have been getting fed by the seepage from that sewer line.”

I hadn’t thought of that. How much of the miracle of orange paper sewer pipe still functioning sixty years later was because of the fact that most of it was covered by the garage? That the part that failed wasn’t covered by the garage? Maybe the do-it-yourselfer had inadvertently extended the life of the kludge that had been assembled back in the sixties? Houses going up all over the country, no time to kiln-fire the traditional ceramic pipe that had been used up to that point in time. They needed pipe and they needed it yesterday. How about treating paper with bitumen like we do with rooves and then just bury that in the ground? Should work, right? At least long enough for all the pipe to be replaced with that newfangled plastic pipe that was in the works.

Sure, and then another sixty years passes and everyone forgets that they put paper pipe in the ground. Until that one homeowner figures out that it was done and never replaced, because no one remembers the past and few people think about the future. The future where the garage is built over the paper pipe that needs replacing.

Well, it will give me an excuse to remove all the concrete in this backyard that I wish had never been poured. Gotta look on the bright side, right?