In the realm of plumbing, there’s no outrunning the shadow of ancient defeats.
By Sebastian Stockman
Everyone doubted me.
I’d posted a photo on Instagram of my cluttered kitchen counter. Featured prominently were two obscure plastic contraptions with wires trailing out of them. I explained myself in the caption: “Repairing fridge’s icemaker with guidance from YouTube, what could go wrong.”
Sure, some of the comments seemed positive: “You’re a brave man!” “I applaud your initiative.” But the subtext of each one was unmissable: “Can’t wait to see this idiot fail and/or mildly electrocute himself.”
Everyone, I knew, was thinking what my old roommate finally said. “Dude, you BREAK things,” he texted me after he saw the post. “You dont (sic) fix them. Stick to what you know….”
Man, you partially flood one two-bedroom dorm suite, and then for the next 20 years you’re “the guy who breaks things.”
Junior year. We’d just moved into our double in Harrison College House when I took an unlikely fall, stumbling on the raised threshold between our hallway and the bathroom. I reeled forward at an angle, landing hard against the toilet. A straight, near-perfect crack appeared along one corner of the tank. In the same instant, water began cascading in an unceasing flat sheet. I stared for a beat, processing.
Startled, slightly bemused, I went to Brent’s room.
“Uh, Brent?” I said, half-incredulous, half-embarrassed. “I think I broke the toilet.”
“Are you serious?”
We’d known each other since freshman year, but we’d been roommates for fewer than 18 hours.
If you know even a little about a toilet’s plumbing, you know the tank refills immediately upon emptying, preparing for the next flush. If there’s a hole in the tank, the water will continually gush.
I know this now. I didn’t know it then.
In the time it took me to alert Brent, the bathroom floor had flooded with a half-inch of water, breached the threshold, and begun soaking into the common-room carpet.
Brent slapped me on the arm. “Get a f***ing bucket!”
We used two small trash cans. By swapping in an empty one whenever it was time to dump a full one into the bathtub, we managed to stem the flooding.
I called maintenance, but the operator failed to understand the urgency. She thought our toilet was out of order and that one of us, y’know, had to go.
“No, the toilet’s broken, but still filling up with water,” I said. “Our room’s flooding.”
She assured me a plumber would check in as soon as one was available. It was move-in weekend, after all.
I returned to the bathroom where Brent was bucketing away. I took the lid off the tank. Grasping at the residue of some plumbing lesson my father had once tried to impart, I recognized the ball float—the mechanical doohickey that tracks the tank’s water level.
“I think, if I just pull this up…”
I grabbed it. The water slowed—then stopped. Brent emptied the final bucket, and looked in the tank, as if to make sure the nightmare was really over. He looked at me. I smiled. Only as I smiled, my happiness sparked an inadvertent twitch of my wrist. And the ball float snapped off in my hand. The valve roared back to life. This time, water also spurted straight up—out of the joint where I’d snapped off the arm.
Brent turned, walked into his room, and closed the door.
The next 35 minutes might as well have been three hours. If I held the busted arm in just the right spot, I could keep the water from running. But I had to fight the water pressure to hold it on, so any time I exceeded the millimeter margin I squirted myself.
Finally, a plumber arrived.
“Toilet problems?” he asked from the doorway.
“Yeah,” I said. I started to explain, but he just slipped past me, reached down behind the toilet and gave the water shut-off valve three firm half-turns. Speechless with embarrassment, I offered him the ball float (in case he wanted it for what, evidence?).
“Uh, just leave it here,” he said.
OK, so Brent—whom I haven’t seen in at least 15 years—had earned his skepticism of my repair project. But we didn’t have YouTube back then.
My father had just left, and I’d managed to keep the icemaker off his fix-it list. I’d already done the research. This particular icemaker trouble was a “known issue” for our Samsung model. I’d watched a YouTube video on how to repair it and purchased the required replacement part—a simple plastic rectangle.
The reason I didn’t want Dad helping is because I wanted to follow the video step by step, and I knew he would just eyeball the situation and start taking stuff apart. My wife Katie agreed but had her own well-earned doubts about my ability to tackle this job.
We’d just started dating, and Katie was visiting my one-bedroom Delaware apartment for the first time. This was a place I’d lived for more than a year before discovering that the stove didn’t work, and where my furnishings amounted to a single chair, a desk made by laying an old door across two filing cabinets, and a mattress on the bedroom floor.
I’d tidied up as well as I could, but there were some … oversights.
Katie wanted a quick shower after her flight from Boston. But her first step into the bathroom triggered a disgusted cry.
I stuck my head in: “What’s wrong?”
“I am not showering in this.” The steely calm of her voice did not blind me to her facial expression, which mixed disgust and disappointment with what I read as an instinctive desire to flee.
So, yeah. I’d been taking showers in ankle-deep water for about a month. Maybe more like two, if I’m being honest.
Disgusting? That was one way to look at it. But I’d been figuring it differently: the water level had remained constant despite daily showers, so the drain couldn’t technically be clogged. There was some movement, otherwise my bathroom would have flooded many times—and I knew from flooded bathrooms.
“OK, OK,” I said, trying to play it off. “Soooo, you wanna just shower later, after we get some dinner?”
“No. Sub. You have to fix this. I am not staying here if I can’t use the shower.”
I was not going to charm my way out. Nor, it seemed, was I going to be able to convince her that it was mostly clean ankle-deep water. But no worries. I grabbed the plunger and started to pump away.
Yet that didn’t work. I emerged from the bathroom and looked at Katie. She sat on the floor pondering her options—most of which, I assumed, were local motels.
I sped over to the Food Lion. Fifteen minutes later I was dumping half a bottle of Liquid-Plumr into the tub.
There was nothing to do now but wait. We went out to dinner and a movie—Will Ferrell’s Elf. We laughed, and things started to feel a little calmer. I relaxed a little. What could possibly be in the drain that Liquid-Plumr’s toxic chemicals wouldn’t eat through? By the time we rolled back home, that tub would be bone dry.
But then we returned. And the water level seemed utterly unchanged.
My heart sank. Katie’s face fell. What impermeable sludge could have possibly sloughed off my body? I pulled on latex gloves, fetched a screwdriver, and closed the door behind me to find out.
I unscrewed the drain, reached in and pulled out a bit of hair. I was finished almost immediately, but now was even more confused. The water wasn’t budging. Was there some sort of rock in the pipes? An animal?
“How’s it going in there?” Katie called, hopeful.
My face flushed with burgeoning rage. I didn’t know what to do. Soon I would be too frustrated to think. I started banging the drain with the screwdriver: “God … damn … it!”
Over and over.
On one downward stroke, my knuckle caught the bathtub’s trip lever. Time stopped, then started—an otherworldly hiccup as a single giant bubble appeared above the drain and GLURG: in 20 seconds, the tub was empty.
For more than a month, I’d been using a tub whose drain was all but fully closed.
It’s funny how your defeats just cling to you, silver linings be damned. After all, at least I proved that I wasn’t so disgusting that my showers precipitated the Clog that Confounded Modern Plumbing. And as for mechanical know-how, isn’t every mistake a learning opportunity? Yet it’s as though my witnesses refuse to see the bright side. Did I expose something about the level of squalor in which I was willing to live? Yes, I did—at age 24. Is Katie within her rights to be skeptical whenever I say, “Oh, I can fix that”? Well, life is long and so is the answer to that question.
But now I’m out of space and my drink is warm. Excuse me while I fetch some ice from my fridge.
Sebastian Stockman C’01 is a Teaching Professor in the English Department at Northeastern University. This essay is adapted from a post on his Substack channel, “A Saturday Letter” (sebastianstockman.substack.com).