Trouble In The Water Closet

Spontaneous dialog recorded by Tim, transcribed by Frances — January 2012, San Juan Bautista, California.

“This is a true story, so you may as well believe it.”

Tim: This happened about three weeks ago but it’s still vivid. Let’s see, we were sick.

Frances: We both had bronchitis. It was during the four-weekend run of the big Christmas show in the mission church.

T: We weren’t eating nearly as much as usual. The refrigerator started smelling bad. We rolled up our sleeves and started rooting around in there, going, “Well maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that, maybe it’s the chopped cabbage…” But pretty soon we came to a little plastic tub of Frances’s lovely refried beans, and oh boy, for sure it had turned.

F: I said, “Tim, go put it in the garbage can.”

T: But it was Saturday and it would sit out in the garbage can on the patio for almost a week before it was picked up, smelling to high heaven for six days.

F: You could have put it in a plastic bag!

T: So I said, “Why don’t I put it down the toilet. It’s just refried beans, right? We know it’s a really good toilet, flushes like the dickens.  A Toto brand for Pete’s sake, a four hundred and fifty dollar toilet, not even a year old. It can handle a cup of refried beans!” So in they went, I flushed, it all went down, and we went on with our life.

F: You took care of that problem!

T: We had put lots of kitchen stuff down there; that was not the first time. But a few hours later you come into the studio, going…

F: …”Tim, the toilet’s stopped up.”

T: What? It couldn’t be the beans, I saw the beans go down. I don’t think that’s it. Imagining, Oh well, she probably used too much toilet paper or something. So I get the plunger and I’m going plunge, plunge…

F: What? I did the plunging first before I even called you!

T: But I’m thinking, Here I am, the grandson of a real plumber, a career journeyman plumber, so I should really know how to plunge a toilet! Slowly, slowly the water went down, but it was nothing like a proper flush. We tried this, we tried that…

F: I said, “Why don’t we try hot water?”

T: Yes. I went online looking for clues, and sure enough, one of the go-to techniques is to use hot water. So Frances got a big cooking pot of really hot water from the tap. I poured and plunged and poured and plunged and it wasn’t going down. But I also read about using dish washing detergent. You use a lot, like a cup of it, to make it so slippery that whatever is in there will slip out. It’s like oil but it enhances wetting. So she got some detergent and I put a whole bunch in there and then put in more hot water and resumed plunging. Now it’s suds, tons of suds, it’s getting clean, squeaky clean, hospital clean, cleanroom clean! Whatever was in the toilet, there’s no sanitation question anymore. Suds suds suds, pumpety pumpety, pump pump pump, suds all over the place, flowing over the edge of the toilet bowl, onto the floor. And the water level is slowly slowly going down.

F: I said, “Get the hose.”

T: So we open the window, I get the hose, stick it through…

F: …I stick the hose into the toilet and you turn it on. Within seconds I’m yelling, “Turn it off quick, it’s not going anywhere, it’s going to flood!”

T: I shut it off, go into the garage, rummage around in the hardware department, which spills over its hypothetical boundaries, threatening the sound equipment, the bulk-foods pantry, the garden supplies, Frances’s library of second-hand books…

F: …even my special secret reading cove!

T: Yes. And, amazingly, I find what I’m looking for: one of those little rubber blimp things you attach to a garden hose and use for clearing a plugged up drain pipe. It has a spring valve at the end that only lets the water through if the pressure gets high, so if you stick it into a pipe and turn on the hose, it waits until the rubber has expanded and sealed against the inside walls of the pipe before it starts gushing. This was the ace up my sleeve, I had high hopes. But it didn’t work. The toilet bowl just filled up again. My good nature was being strained and I had to actually use the bathroom. So I jogged in a huff across the street to the one at the Little League baseball field.

F: I went in the yard.

T: You can’t put that in!

F: It’s in.

T: OK. The next morning, Sunday, with a Christmas show to perform in the afternoon and another one  that night, we had to solve this and it had to be now.

F: And I was sick, I was still really sick.

T: Yeah, you even missed one of the performances, for only the second time in 12 years. Actually we were both sick; I was not recovered yet. But I drove to Hollister, ten miles, went to Ace Hardware, and asked if they had a…

F: …snake.

T: Yes. I had read online about toilet snakes, how they’re snakier than a regular snake, to go around those tight bends in the trap…how they have plastic to prevent scratching the part of the bowl you can see. So I got one, only about twelve bucks, brought it home, going, “OK, were gonna solve it now. No problem.” So here we go, push crank push crank, grunt grunt, do the snake, do the snake, in it goes, around and around, forcing forcing, getting it in, getting it in. Sure enough it went what seemed like about the right distance before it stopped and wouldn’t go in any more. I’m explaining to Frances how a Toto toilet is a little different, the way the water goes down is not quite the same as a regular toilet. It has a husky plastic adapter that finishes the trap between the porcelain and the waste flange in the floor. We had become intimate with it the year before when we installed it during the “big fix” of the bathroom that started when we realized that the subfloor was so rotten the only thing holding the wobbly toilet up was the big cast iron sewer pipe. The Toto adapter has a ninety degree turn at one point which both redirects the waste and probably stops big odd shaped things from going down and plugging up the pipe farther down stream. I figured the snake probably bumped into that sharp turn. Well that’s okay, it should be alright now. So I pour hot water and continue to crank the snake, crank the snake, crank the… Unbelievable, it is just as stopped up as before! No improvement. Nada. Oh boy. Tim has to take the toilet clear off. Out. Completely. And then I remember an extra bonus inconvenience. I glued it down when I installed it, caulked all the way around because I wanted to make extra sure the toilet didn’t wobble, the Toto being normal in regard to having only two bolts holding it to the floor. Put on your crummiest clothes, dude, get the utility knife, the chisel, all that stuff, get down with it in new degrees of intimacy!

F: You had to be really careful not to wreck the linoleum.

T: That’s right. I didn’t wanna cut the linoleum, I didn’t wanna scratch the toilet, and I’m on my side, my back, digging and slicing on the caulk. Plenty of time to think. I remember thinking, maybe the caulk could help if the gas seal went funky and bad smells tried to escape into the room. Now I realized it would have been no help at all, the whole back end was wide open, there had been no place to caulk in the back.

F: It was overkill.

T: Normal, routine overkill.

F: No, Tim’s overkill.

T: So there I am, slice and dig and slice and dig, the blades and all this stuff, and the toilet so heavy I have to use a big screwdriver for a jack to lift it up a few millimeters so I can cut under it, dig and wiggle, dig and wiggle. Finally I get the glue loose. Now what? I open the tank on the back, it is flushed but not empty enough. I get the turkey baster from the kitchen, it’s clean water after all, and I’m going suck squirt suck squirt suck squirt, getting out as much as I can. But the bowl down below still has water in it of course…how am I gonna get that out? I don’t want to use the turkey baster on toilet water even if it has had suds galore in the last 24 hours. We used a kitchen ladle that was easy to wash thoroughly afterward. But there was still residual water.

F: So I get a whole bunch of towels.

T: This could be messy, because I have to tip it up to move it. I straddle it facing the tank and squat like a weight-lifter psyching up for an Olympic snatch. 105 pounds of porcelain, here he goes, sick Tim, coughing his head off, lifting it up inch by inch from the back end, until…ta-tah! The ceramic exit pipe comes out of the adapter’s rubber seal and he is able to set the toilet down gently to one side. The mighty plumber straightens up slowly, decides his back feels OK, and looks to see what is now revealed. There is the gray plastic adapter, just as we remembered it. We look at the 3-inch-or-so hole in it. We peer in with a flashlight. There’s nothing to be seen. I get a pan and pour some water in, it goes right down. We get the hose, Frances outside this time. I yell, “Turn on the hose.” The water gushes down the sewer just fine, there’s nothing in there.

F: It has to be in the toilet.

T: How could it be in the toilet? How complicated can this be? Didn’t the snake go all the way through to the adapter? I sigh in resignation and slouch off to the garage for the hand truck. Performance coming up in a few hours, Frances on violin if she’s up to it, me on cello. But the toilet must come out of the house. Now. It is going to drip all the way to the back porch. Hand truck here we go, tip it up, turn it around, water sloshing out the porcelain exit pipe.

F: I got a dozen towels ready. I’m mopping as you go, all the towels I could find.

T: Tipity tip, backing and backing, step by step, through the pantry, through the kitchen, through the dining room, bumping and jolting over the threshold and out the back door to the porch, turning the whole thing around so the exit pipe is hanging out over the top step. OK. Taking a little breather. Now what do we do? I fetch the snake we used before and put it into the bowl. Push and crank, push and crank. But it won’t go all the way through. Strange. Is it being caught on the curve of the trap or is there something in there. The next disgusting step dawns on Tim slowly and he tries to worm out of it. But no. He is going have to put his hand up the ass of the toilet, reach yet another level of intimacy with it. Sergent Tim takes command and articulates the direct combat order, “Role up your sleeves, soldier, you are going in.” I remember my father’s story, how his farmer friend had to un-constipate a horse, put his hand into a bucket of lard and go up the horse’s ass with his hand, he actually did it, and it worked! So here I am, something’s up there, and we are going to find out what. Make my hand as small as possible and reach up into the exit pipe, push and twist, push and twist, barely managing to get a little handle on something but not quite a grip. My fingertips are scratching something not entirely hard. I can’t get it loose, it won’t come out, but I manage to get some lodged under my fingernail. Pull it out and look closely. Damned if it doesn’t look like cabbage.

F: Go backwards. Push it up this way.

T: You said it first. So I ran the snake up the ass of the toilet and pop! There it was in the toilet bowl.

T: There it was, the core of a head of cabbage. We looked at each other amazed. But why would it not go through the hole? I felt up in the porcelain pipe again and realized that it gets smaller toward the exit.

F: That doesn’t make sense.

T: It’s slightly tapered. If we reverse engineer it, the toilet exit has to fit into that rubber gasket on the adapter. As it goes on, it has to start a little bit smaller and the farther down it seats the bigger it gets until it makes an gas-tight seal. It does make sense… So here we have this big organic obstruction that just happens to be the perfect size so it will start going down through the trap but gets stuck in the constriction. What an unlikely piece of bad luck!

F: And then you said it had to be in the beans, and I said, “No it can’t be the beans because I make the refried beans alone, it has nothing to do with cabbage.”

T: I thought it was probably buried in the beans because I flushed the beans just before the problem came up. In fact I had to spoon them out of the container…I should have seen the cabbage.

F: No.

T: If it was hiding in there just right it would have taken up half of that whole bean container.

F: Tim, it’s impossible!

T: Nobody’s gonna put that down a toilet. Then I thought about the kids. We had the kids over.

F: No we didn’t.

T: Maybe someone was trying to help out, cleaning up the kitchen, a cooking thing was going on. Belle was over, Paris was over, Belle’s friend was over.

F: We didn’t have any kids. I think what happened was we had some left over soup and you put it down or something like that.

T: Who?!

F: You.

T: Not me! The only thing I put down there was the beans.

F: You put other things down there.

T: Well sure, in the past.

F: It happened the same day you put the beans in there.

T: Back to the story. So now, of course, the toilet is out on the back porch. I might as well clean the hell out of it. So I wash it in and out till it gleams. Then get the hand truck, and sure enough it drips all the way back into the bathroom.

F: I had all those towels and mopped as we went.

T: I set it in place, installed the whole thing, no glue this time, hooked up the fresh water fitting, put it all back together, tested it with a perfect swooshing flush. Not until then did it occur to me, I’m missing my opportunity, my chance to set things right. Every time I peed in this toilet I stood there in disapproval. When I put it in — you know I can be meticulous at times, a picture straightener — but I had originally set the toilet crooked!! It was tweaked counterclockwise a few degrees. I guess I had been tired at the time. We had done the whole floor: measured, cut, glued and rolled the linoleum down, with a lot of help from Paris. Belle was there too. So when I set the toilet, I just wanted it over with and I didn’t measure. This time…

F: “Get the tape measure.”

T: Y’ durn tootin’, measured the width, divided by 2, got the centerline parallel to the centerline of the water closet. Now when I stand there it’s a joy. It flushes.

F: And it’s straight.

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