The following is the sequel to a story about first-time homeownership that ran in The Nervous Breakdown a few months ago.
Of all the contractors we met I liked the snake charmer the most. He came, snaked the sewer and left. Straightforward as that sounds, the experience was far from the norm. Most contractors said they would come but never came. Some contractors came and never left.
When my husband and I bought an old, landmarked house in Sunnyside, Queens we were catapulted back to infancy. Before we knew it, we were crying uncontrollably and shitting our pants. The house was an unknown world, equally exciting and terrifying. Within seconds we would go from giggling hysterically to crying for mommy.
The latter happened when, one morning after taking a shower, the bathroom tiles started to come off the wall. We called Igor, a licensed contractor with a crew of three who owned a house down the street. It was reassuring to have someone close by who allegedly knew how to fix things. Unlike several other contractors we had called who showed up two days late or not at all, Igor and his men arrived within a two-hour timeframe. This was more than we had come to expect.
Before Igor sent anyone to us to fix the tiles, he insisted on having my husband and me over for homemade wine in his basement bar. He spent the first fifteen minutes showing us the lighting system he had installed. The lights were hidden and had dimmers, which Igor manipulated with a tiny remote control. It seemed as if he had conquered the sun. The wine, he proudly explained, was made from a kit he had ordered online: You mix the powder with water and pour the concoction into bottles branded with your own individual label. Voilà! Igor’s Vineyard. When I mentioned that the wine tasted sweet, Igor growled, “But of courrrse! It’s desserrrt wine.”
To call Igor and his Eastern European crew sensitive would be an understatement. The men always sounded as if they were about to jump off a ledge. But you don’t want a Home Depot vanity sink in your bathroom? They choked with Dostoevskian despair. But you don’t want to paint the hallway bright yellow? Their anguish was Kafkaesque. Despite the melancholy our decisions inspired in them, they somehow fixed the bathroom without any casualties. We moved on to the kitchen. But you want a cast-iron sink? Igor lamented. Solzhenitsyn’s cellmate couldn’t have sounded more hopeless.
Yet the next morning Igor—pale and depressed as ever—showed up again. While I was out sweeping the sidewalk, he confided in me that his wife had “lost her ovaries.” Before I could ask where she had last seen them, he told me about his digestive problems. Apparently the desserrrt wine was a little rrrrough on his stomach.
Igor drove me in his new car to buy tiles for the backsplash. He talked about SUVs and I listened. Whenever I tried to change the subject, Igor rapidly reined me in. “But back to the karrr,” he would continue. I learned that it was mainly the vomit-beige color that had attracted his wife, and that this model was the only one in which Igor, a hulking man over six feet tall, could sit up straight.
When I explained that I wanted the blue backsplash in the kitchen to swerve out and onto the wall like a wave, he reacted as if I had slapped him. His eyes narrowed. He demanded his money upfront, in cash and at once. For the bathroom job my husband had been allowed to drop off the money in person “at his convenience,” and he was even rewarded with a plate of homemade cheese cookies. But for this particular request, a trip to the bank was required before work could begin. And I had to do the tile wave myself. After I finished, Markus, a devout Catholic and the most cheerful of Igor’s crew, asked me if I could help him install the cabinet doors. He screwed while I held door and level. After each door—and there were many—he said, eyes glistening, “You arrre a verrry nice lady!”
“And you, Markus, are a very nice man. Hand me the next door.”
Three months later winter arrived and the heat failed to come on. We decided not to call Bob, our first plumber, who had fixed a leaking pipe Mr. and Mrs. Lau, the previous owners, had tried to keep from us. Bob was boiling mad. “MY TIME IS AS VALUABLE AS YOURS,” he screamed whenever I asked him a question. Our relationship didn’t last long. (It was Bob who recommended Bruno, the electrician. We quickly discovered that he shared Bob’s hostile attitude. After I complained that $2,400 for two days of work seemed exorbitant, Bruno said flatly, “My work is much more difficult than yours.” When I stared at him perplexed, he asked, “What is it that you do again?”)
Igor suggested we contact Dimitri for our plumbing needs instead. This should have been warning enough, but we were easy prey. When Dimitri’s crew finally managed to turn the heat back on—apparently Mr. Lau had snipped an electricity line that led to the boiler—we looked to him with trust. He told us that the company that made our boiler had gone bankrupt 30 years ago and our model was about to kick the bucket as well. $5,000 later we had a new boiler. That night we were awakened by loud hammering from inside the pipes and radiators. Our pets ran in circles in terror. The noise was followed by fountains of water spurting from the vents. My husband ran in circles in terror. Additionally, the boiler’s gauge glass filled past the safe level. Dimitri mulled over many fascinating theories about what might be causing the problem, and I spent hours with him on the phone, dutifully jotting down his suggestions. My husband should unscrew this top over there and pour some acid down the hole. When this didn’t work, Dimitri suggested he drain and refill and drain the boiler for eight hours straight. Eventually my husband began to resent Dimitri’s inhuman experiments.
This is when we began to buy books on plumbing. A Pocket Full of Steam Problems advised us to pitch the radiators with wooden shims and exchange the valves. The cover of We Got Steam Heat—A Homeowner’s Guide to Peaceful Coexistence featured the millionaire from Monopoly punching a radiator in a fit of fury. I would now sometimes find my husband, normally hidden behind a book about the history of color field painting, punching metal things in fits of fury. All of a sudden our relationship hinged on one big, cracked, leaking structure. It cracked and developed leaks of its own.
We decided to call a plumber recommended by a neighbor. (Bear with me, I’m only seconds from giving this one the boot.) After installing all the safety features that Dimitri had failed to install, Joe the plumber put a level on one of the pipes and concluded that it wasn’t pitched properly, which was causing steam and condensing water to collide. I noticed that he was holding the level upside down, and questioned his logic. “These people don’t want to spend any fucking money,” he barked at his co-worker. So long, Joe!
It took Billharz Plumbing, located two blocks from us, two hours to get to our house. A plumber who looked like Stone Cold Steve Austin charged us $150 for a 30-minute speech about “the science of plumbing.” Stone Cold had his secretary write up an estimate of $1,500, and when I called to have the estimate broken down into hours of labor and parts, I was told, “A lawyer doesn’t do that either.” Tell it to the judge, Steve!
We were desperate. Upon the advice of a madwoman we met at a party, we called another local outfit. An hour after the agreed upon time, Larry arrived wearing a T-shirt that read The Fastest Wrench in the East!!! He chewed gum, had muscles and a mullet. He ooh’ed and ahh’ed at every single pipe, as if each were a rare species he’d just discovered. What made me trust him was that he admitted his helplessness. If he had to take an educated guess, he said—emphasizing the word educated—it was the way this thing over here connected to that thing over there. He could give it a try and, to make it worth my money, his people would also exchange the radiators valves that had begun leaking.
A few days later Larry’s crew arrived. Within seconds, one of the guys had disconnected the living room radiator and dragged it halfway across the hardwood floor, leaving a long, deep scratch. “Wait!” I cried. “How about protecting the floor?” The helper growled something and disappeared. When I came back into the living room, the floor was protected with assorted pieces from an infant’s wardrobe: onesies, baby hats, little socks, an embroidered jacket and tiny dresses with pastel flower prints. I hoped that wherever the baby was, it was warm.
When Larry came by to check on the work, I snapped. He growled back quietly, and it was this clammed up growl that made me understand his trials and tribulations. It’s hard work to mediate between a gang of brutes who are fast with their wrenches but drag radiators across newly finished hardwood floors and hysterical first-time homeowners who are desperate to keep their new roof from collapsing. In that sense, Larry was not only a plumber, but also a marriage counselor. His strategy was to tackle the problems as they appeared. Don’t wallow in resentment because of previous mistakes. Perfection doesn’t exist. There will always be complications, just remain flexible and keep working on them.
Miraculously, Larry’s “educated guess” proved correct. After his crew replaced “this thing with that thing,” the banging stopped. The house became warm and quiet again. Our bond was sealed.
Because things keep breaking and leaking, my husband and I continue to see Larry on a regular basis. The most recent crisis occurred when heavy rains forced sewer water to shoot out of the basement toilet like a geyser. The situation was so dire that I called 911. When the firefighters arrived they found my husband kneeling in the basement bathroom with one fist in the toilet and the other one on top of the bathtub drain. His lower legs were submerged in water and his glasses were foggy.
“There’s nothing we can do but wait,” the firefighters said serenely.
“Don’t you have pumps?” I asked and, referring to my home country, I added, “In Germany, the firefighters pump out the basements when it floods.” While I’ve lost most of my faith in Germany, I still believe in anything relating to its golden standards of plumbing or, as it’s known colloquially, Gaswasserschweisse: gas-water-shit.
The firemen laughed at my suggestion as they cheerfully inspected the disaster of our basement while loping through the water in their knee-high boots.
When Larry came by the next business day to discuss possible methods of preventing future floods, he didn’t make fun of us for pouring cement down the toilet to stop a second Poseidon Adventure. If anything, he seemed to think it was a reasonable response.
I think I’ve become calmer with each crisis because Larry becomes more generous with his time. He also satisfies my writerly needs. His “characters” are irreplaceable. After I wailed about the absurdity of the previous owners using the basement as a living room, Larry told me that his Italian grandmother had also served breakfast, lunch and dinner in her basement.
“You know Italians,” he continued. “The upstairs like a morgue! Furniture that no one ever sits on.”
“Plastic covered couches?” I asked.
“Plastic covered couches.”
“I never saw plastic covered couches in Europe,” I said.
“When you come to America things change,” Larry continued, his voice carrying some deep knowledge of immigrant life.
The morning after I emailed Larry’s secretary Irene to ask for the estimate to have the basement toilet removed, I received a frantic phone call.
“I need your email address so I can email you back,” Irene said breathlessly.
Why didn’t she just hit reply?
“I’d have to go to the other computer,” she said, annoyed at my stupidity.
I had to spell my email address three times before Irene got it right. But as Larry taught us, there will always be complications. Just remain flexible and keep working on them.
The names of the contractors and plumbers have been changed. Reluctantly.