Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Plumber's Butt

Yesterday was a very busy day. At one point I had Juan’s crew, a guy from BDM Heating and Air Conditioning (giving me a bid on ducting), two electricians and three plumber’s assistants. I also learned about a new aspect of construction I had not yet experienced, inter-crew rivalry. At first Juan said that he didn’t want the plumbers until next Tuesday or Wednesday (I don’t know why), but it worked out that the plumber had set a schedule that brought him here sooner. When I told Juan that the plumber was going to be here working while his crew was still installing the flooring joists he jokingly said that it was OK and if the plumber got in his way he’d “drop a hammer on his head”.

So, Juan’s guys got in about a half day on their work Friday before the Westside Plumbing and Heating Crew arrived. Now, when the plumber’s crew arrived they hit the site like noisy weasels and this as much as anything can serve to symbolize the differences in approach. Juan’s crew are scruffy gentlemen: they don’t shout, play loud music, smoke, curse in English, run or make more noise than is absolutely necessary. The plumber’s crew is quite different. Bill, the boss, – he’s the one who laughs like Elmer Fudd – undoubtedly works with the same guys all the time, probably the same guys he drinks with, hangs out with and goes to see WWF Wrestling with on weekends. Their boisterous bonhomie forms a striking contrast to Juan’s workers’ quiet dedication to task. When these guys rushed in from the back of the property it looked more like a raid than an entrance. And once they’d thrown down a few dozen feet of copper tubing and dirty cardboard boxes of fittings, angles and caps there was no doubting their presence. To further complicate matters, once they arrived Juan just sort of disappeared. He left behind a small contingent of stucco-demolishers who spoke no English at all and it took me a while to figure out who was a plumber and who wasn’t.

Just prior to the arrival of the plumbing crew the electrician had been here. He showed up by surprise; I hadn’t really known he was coming. He wanted to set up for work he was doing early next week. Essential to his plan was a short section of wall framing he wanted in place right away so he could mount his main panel. He called me later and said he was told by Juan that the wall would not be ready by then. I wondered, was Juan just asserting his droit de seigneur or was there really a reason why that little short section of framing couldn’t be done on time?

The plumbers worked fast. I was expecting a two-person job, (All of the plumbers I have seen before work in pairs) but after Elmer dropped off his guys it appeared that there were three or four of them working away in what will eventually be our master bathroom. One guy is fastening pipes to the underside of joists, another is running lengths of pipe from one source to another, while a third is soldering and cutting short pieces for angles, risers, etc. It doesn’t seem cost effective to me, but it is pretty fast work. Within a couple of hours they had removed the old plumbing from what had been our daughter’s old bathroom and installed new hot and cold lines to the shower, toilet, dual sinks and tub of the future master-bath.

Bill, the head plumber, wasn’t around much. He said he had to go buy some supplies, but I think the real reason is that he can’t go more than a few minutes without a smoke. He seems to know that most people don’t want him smoking on the job, but every time I see him getting out of his truck he is, like Mephistopheles, accompanied by a grey, billowing haze. The windows of his cab are yellowed. Even when he isn’t smoking he has a fresh one between his lips awaiting ignition.

He has, however, done me some real favors. After he moved the main gas line to a new position he showed me how to reset the automatic earthquake shut-off valve. If someone were to hit, jar or kick the mechanism the gas would automatically be shut off, and since someone at least once a day bangs up against the gas line knowing how to reset it has been invaluable. But it also requires re-lighting the pilot on the water heater, otherwise we wake up in the morning with nothing but tepid shower water at best.

I got my Takagi tankless water heaters this week. There are two, so we should always have plenty of hot water when we need it. One will be closer to the kitchen and one will be back by the master bathroom. Both of them are gas-powered and outdoors mounted which saves the trouble of venting them. Yesterday Mr. Plumber told me that he’d need valves for all of the faucets soon, so I went to work ordering a bunch of faucets, showers, tub-fillers, etc. That’s fun. I’d done a lot of research in advance so I pretty much knew what I was getting. I do all of this buying on line so it saves me the trouble of driving all over comparing prices, etc. And then there is the added advantage of frequently
Bill, of the thudding, staccato laugh, has turned out to be quite a Dickensian fellow. As I learn more about him I find him oddly sympathetic for all his rough edges, and he is nearly ALL rough edges. We were passing in the yard the other day and he, out of nowhere, asked, “So, do the _______’s know the _______s?” (referring to a local family with a similar last name). I thought he was heading towards some kind of geneological observation. I answered, “no”. “Oh,” he says, “I thought you might know them”. They live over on Grant near 14th Street. I know them from when I went to ________ High School.
My ears perked up. I had taught at that particular school for about 16 years. “You went to _______?” I asked.
“Yeah. Well, just for one year. I was really bad. I made a lot of trouble. They hated me there. After that I went to Phoenix (a Continuation School).”

Well, for a lot of kids the relaxed, less regimented approach at Olympic is a much more positive experience so I asked, “Really? So how’d you like it at Olympic?”

“Oh, I wasn’t there very long either. I think I was there three or four months. I got in a lot of trouble in those days. I hated that place. Alls I could say was !*&#@ this &*%#@ I want to join the Navy.”

Now the only dates Bill can give me for his one year at ________ High School are 1984/85. That was almost 23 years ago. Bill is probably thirty-eight, but he has a young face; the kind of face that can just as easily show old hurts as malice. I’m sure when he wasn’t terrorizing classrooms, rolling drunks or breaking and entering he was an angry, neglected (and somewhat sympathetic) little guy. I’m sure that if he and I had been at Samohi at the same time – and we were not – I’d have both felt sorry for him and wanted to assassinate him.

So, Bill went to the nearest recruiter. By then he’d got his GED somehow – most likely beat someone up for one – but the irony was that it wasn’t enough for the Navy. “They’d a took me in with the GED if I didn’t have a (criminal) record, but since I had a record they said I had to get a real high school diploma before they’d take me. So I *%#@ had to go to *%#@ Redondo Beach night school to get my *%#@ diploma and then they let me in.” (Perhaps night school was less onerous than day school as it didn’t interfere with stealing cars (flex-time), holding up liquor stores (graveyard shift) or sleeping all day.)

Last week Bill went to use the tall, yellow portable toilet I have parked out back behind my wife’s educational materials shed. It gets serviced every week and as a consequence has never emitted a bad smell. It is kept pretty clean considering there are up to a dozen different people using it. I was working in the garage nearby at the time, but I don’t think Bill saw me. Everyone else was working at the front end of the house, or under it. He just left the house and rushed to the back where the outhouse is talking to himself. “Oh, I’m gonna wreck this place,” he muttered. He goes in and slams the door behind. “Oh!,” (more a shout than a moan), “Oh”, he calls to no one at all. “Aw, ^*#%@ this place ain’t gonna smell like cinnamon any more!” Pause. “Oh, dude, everybody stay away!” Perhaps he thought his dog was sitting outside patiently waiting. He came out the way he went in, waving his arms and talking to himself. “Oh, God,” he grumbled, Let’s get out of here before the thing explodes and we get blamed for it!”

Bill was treated rudely by the inspector this morning and I felt sorry for him. I had called for an inspection on the foundation framing/joists, and really needed to get an OK quickly so Juan could get on with laying sub-flooring and framing walls. While I was running for the permit sign-off card and my plans Bill started asking the inspector a question about installation of a recess box for my Takagi water heating unit. For whatever reason the inspector was being unusually testy. It seems he was there for framing and wasn’t about to put on his plumbing hat just to answer an off-topic question. He was nice enough to me, but he imperiously told Bill to go away and stop bothering him. I knew just how hard it must have been for a character of Bill’s historic impulsivity to tolerate that kind of cruel and arbitrary exercise of authority. A few minutes later I saw him off to one side, alone, smoking up a tornado, waiting out the inspector’s stay.

I made a point of going up to him later. I wanted him to know I felt he’d been “disrespected”. (Among the underclass and dangerous types “disrespected” is just about the worst thing that can happen. Even worse than somebody “talkin’ trash” about your mom.) He seemed to have weathered it all well enough and even waxed philosophical on the incident. “You know,” he said, “when the dude gets all hard like that you just got to %#@ step back and let him go. He was all cool last Friday when he checked my pipes; I don’t know what the ^%&# got into him today.”

“Of course,” I say, “if you hassle with the guy you’re not going to win.”

“Oh, I you can fight if you want,” he counters. “Call out his supervisor and all that *%#@, but that takes time and I don’t want to waste my time.” Then, with plumbing crews busily working two locations at this site, Bill and his dog Smoky jumped back into the nicotine-yellow cab of their black Ford F-10 and took off for some other thing entirely.

(At the end of the day he returned to warn me: “You know we’ve left about 50 feet of new copper exposed in that trench across your front yard. If you hear any noise in the night, call the cops.”)