Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How the World's Best Ballroom Dancer Picked My Kitchen Sink

Note: In response to a conversation I was having about the joys of home ownership, I wrote this account of the tragic winter of 2008-09 when we replaced a sewer pipe.  While not strictly a sustainability issue, I thought you all might enjoy laughing at our misfortune.  It's OK; really, we don't mind!

Mr. and Mrs. FC&G Replace a Sewer Pipe: A Tragedy in Four Acts
How the World’s Best Ballroom Dancer Picked My Kitchen Sink

Act I

It all started when we thought we’d gotten lazy about the compost.

Like a lot of DIY sustainability types, we have a compost pile, and that means we have a compost bucket. Now, one really needs to empty that bucket every day, especially during high gardening season, but sometimes you get lazy. So, when we started to smell rotted food in the fall of 2008, we immediately blamed the compost.

We started being vigilant about emptying the bucket every day. Then, it was every time we put a scrap of food in it. Then, it was a thorough washing outside before the empty bucket dared to come back in the house. By the end, we were pretty much carrying individual tomato peels and cores out to the compost pile as soon as they were cut, then sterilizing the compost bucket and sunning it for extra measure. But the smell continued.

Mr. FC&G insisted that the smell wasn’t a clogged drain pipe (spoiler: he was right), but I was unconvinced. So, one day I bought a bottle of Draino and dumped it down the non-disposal side of the kitchen sink. I was quickly rewarded with the fresh, chemical smell of Draino wafting through the house every time the AC kicked on.

“See, I fixed it!” I crowed! “Now you can just smell how clean that pipe is.”

Mr. FC&G didn’t so much react as wilt, visibly, on the spot. “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of,” he said.

I will always remember this moment of my life as the last time I was truly innocent about the horrors of home ownership. “Whatever do you mean, my darling husband?” I asked. (I may be remembering that moment a bit better than it actually was.)

“You didn’t clean the pipe. The sewer pipe from the kitchen sits on top of the ductwork that returns to the HVAC system. We have a pipe that is leaking, and you just leaked Draino into the air ducts.”

After a bit calm discussion (or else I’m intentionally misremembering that part too), two things became clear: First, if the heat had been on instead of the AC, I could have sent a stream of Draino into the heater, and, second, our sewer pipe was located in our slab.

“What do you mean, ‘in the slab?’ Is there a crawl space?”

“No,” Mr. FC&G said defeatedly.

“Then how do you get to it?”

“Exactly how you think. You jackhammer up the slab.”

The rest of the day is pretty much a blur. I don’t have any desire to remember anything else about that day.

Act II

Well, all was not lost, because first we needed confirmation that the sewer pipe was indeed broken. For that, we just needed someone with a flexible camera that could be threaded down a pipe. I had no idea there was such a thing, but there is. Apparently, it’s kind of like a colonoscopy, except no one offers you anesthesia and you have to be awake for the entire invasive procedure.

Not that we would know this first hand, mind you. As it turns out, there was precisely one plumbing company in town with such a camera, and they would not, for any amount of money, consent to come to our house to scope our sewer pipe because – are you ready? – if they stuck their camera designed to view the inside of pipes down our sewer pipe, it might break. No appeals to logic, or, indeed, offers to just buy them a whole new camera that they could throw away if it broke, would change their minds.

So, after approval by our insurance, we found a company that would handle the whole deal. With their help, we moved the entire back half of our house into the front living room. Every cabinet, every picture on the wall, every piece of furniture, all of it moved into the living room or up into the spare bedroom. Then, our workers sealed off the living room and various entrances with plastic and tape, and they prepared to jackhammer up our slab.

At the time, I was working part-time as an instructor at a local college, and I left that day thinking that this wasn’t going to be too bad.

I returned from work and, hand to heart, it looked like someone had been re-enacting The Grapes of Wrath in my house. Dust clouds hung in the air, swirling and obscuring your vision. And, once I made it through the dust and into the kitchen, there it was.

There was a three-foot deep, 15 foot long trench through my house, running from the kitchen, through the pantry, across the downstairs hallway, and into the guest bathroom.

To their credit, the workers had done an impressively neat job of the work, once you took into account that they were wielding a jackhammer in places a jackhammer was never intended to go. But, as it turned out, they started at the bathroom end and excavated the pipe toward the kitchen until they found the break: at the joint where the sewer pipe met the drain pipe from the sink.

Let me let you think about that for a minute. Had they started in the kitchen – or, had we had someone with a flexible camera willing to shove it two feet down our kitchen drain – we would have known that the break was essentially right within the slab under the kitchen counter. Sure, there would have been some destruction, and I probably would have freaked out anyway, but it would have been a problem that required relatively little in the way of jackhammering and pouring of concrete. But now the damage had been done, and we had to live with the repair.


The problem with not having a sewer pipe hooked up in your kitchen, in addition to a gaping trench in there, is that you lose the use of your water, your disposal, and, until they haul it back in from its temporary spot in the dining room, your stove. This makes eating a little difficult because, while you can still microwave, cleaning up the dishes requires washing them in a dishpan and then taking the dirty water outside and throwing it in the yard. Since it was now December, this was no one’s favorite job. We spent part of the subsequent May rescuing flatware from the yard before we started mowing that year.

Our workers proceeded with, well, absolutely no speed at all. Part of this was because it was now Christmas. I had to call them and ask nicely if they would hook up my stove so that I could make us something more than reservations over the holiday.

Part of it was because my tile shop was mad at me. I wanted to replace the vinyl, Formica, and nasty carpet that were originally in the kitchen, on the island countertop, and in the hallway, but I wouldn’t opt for any of the expensive choices and complex layouts that would make this a good before-and-after story for their design portfolios. So, since I didn’t want granite and mosaic tiles laid on the diagonal, they were going to make me wait.

In the meantime, Mr. FC&G started having to go out of town for work, and I was left home to manage this. I was only going to be out of class for a couple more weeks of Christmas break, and I pushed to get the big parts of the job done while I was home, but of course the project dragged into the beginning of the semester.

“Oh, ma’am, we’re bonded! Just leave the house unlocked and we’ll let ourselves in!”

Like hell. Pardon my French.

So, I spent the next two months giving the workers set hours that they could be in the house and shooing them out when I had to leave. This made for some interesting schedules. For one thing, it necessarily made me the first stop on their route each day, so I was getting up at about 5:30 to let workers in the house so they could do a little bit of work and leave by lunch time.

I tried to disguise the fact that I was home alone without my husband, but I was running out of places he could possibly be at 7:00 every morning. At a certain point, I resigned myself to the fact that my life had turned into a situation in which every day I waited for a panel van to show up in my driveway, and I would let two or three strangers into my house to do heaven knows what while I tried to write. One day, I went downstairs to get something and found my tile guy rummaging through my cabinets looking for a coffee mug. When he grabbed one of my good ones (mostly I only have printed coffee mugs that people give me as speaker gifts; no one ever thinks to give the guest speaker a bag of coffee beans), I offered to make a pot of coffee.

“No need,” he said. It turned out that he just wanted to use my good mug to measure the water so that he could mix a batch of mortar. I just sighed and went back upstairs.

Act IV

As I mentioned, Mr. FC&G was doing some travelling for business and was on a per diem (read: paid restaurant meals), but I was home alone. And, since my kitchen facilities were limited for most of this endeavor, I had pretty much stopped eating. There were a good three months that I subsisted on granola bars, cashews, and cookies – anything that wouldn’t require me to do dishes and throw flatware into the yard.

So, when May arrived, the project was nearly done, and I was literally on my last nerve. I was having panic attacks and was basically shaking all the time. And that was when a man I’ll call BK came to town.

BK is the world’s best ballroom dancer, or at least he was. A professional ballroom dancer and body builder, BK has won championships in every ballroom discipline available when he was competing. BK doesn’t walk across the floor; he floats while the angels sing and small birds come and light on his shoulders. And he is an absolutely ruthless ballroom coach, but he is not one that you dare miss if you have the slightest opportunity to take a lesson from him

When our project was nearly complete, BK was in town, and we booked lessons knowing full well we didn’t have the time or the mental stability for the usual dressing-down one gets from him. But go to our lessons we did.

BK, who had relentlessly critiqued us and our sub-par cha-cha the previous visit to town, apparently figured out that we were not at our best, and he asked us what was up. We told him a highly abbreviated version of this story, ending with, “and that’s why, once we finish up here tonight, we still have to go to Lowe’s and pick out a kitchen sink.”

He leveled his gaze at us and said, “stainless?”

I agreed and said that I had my eye on one of those three-basin sinks with the vegetable sink in the middle, but BK said no.

“Nope. What you want is a single basin sink. The whole thing, one basin. You won’t ever use the others, but if you get a single large basin, you can defrost a turkey or wash your puppy.”

We left the dance studio that night and drove to Lowe’s and said, “BK wants us to get a single basin stainless steel kitchen sink” and handed the guy the measurements. And that’s what we got.

I’ve never yet defrosted a turkey in that thing, and I don’t have a puppy. I don’t care. At least I know the world’s best ballroom dancer picked my kitchen sink.

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