Commentary 24 Apr 2009 07:14 am

Commode conundrum (a.k.a. toilet trouble)

This is my print column from April 23, 2009, as seen in The Alliance Review:

“Today I am a man!” shouts Harvey Pekar, plunger over his head, kneeling before the porcelain god he has successfully unclogged.

In American Splendor: Another Day, a collection of vignettes presented as comic-book stories, Pekar compares fixing a toilet to a bar mitzvah, how he was reluctant at age 13 to utter the five words that signal the change from childhood to adulthood because he was a “klutz” who “couldn’t do mechanical stuff … couldn’t fix anything.”*

I know exactly how he feels about the agony and ecstasy of being all thumbs at home repairs.

This week, the sole toilet at Casa Schillig started to work overtime, gurgling water long after it should have. Luckily, it didn’t overflow, but for a few days, gallons were wasted, driving up the water bill and making us poster children for “Conspicuous Consumption.”

The solution, I found, was to jiggle the handle. If that didn’t work, removing the lid from the tank and pulling the lever on the filler valve did the trick.

Being the adaptable sort, this fix could have lasted me indefinitely. My wife and daughter, however, accustomed to the luxury of fully operational indoor plumbing, demanded more. Apparently, waiting around while the tank refills to see if one must manually stop the water flow isn’t convenient. Some people have no patience.

This left me with a conundrum. Behind door number one, as Monty Hall says, was the professional plumber, who would charge a fortune and look at me askance for not fixing such a simple problem myself.

Behind door number two were helpful family members who know full well that I can handle nothing more complex than changing a light bulb (if that) and who would make smart comments while handling the problem for me.

Door Number Three was the most frightening: Fix it myself.

A few years ago, I invested in the greatest do-it-yourself book ever, “The Stanley Complete Step-by-Step Book of Home Repair and Improvement.” It’s not great because it shows you how to fix lots of things (to be honest, I’ve never gotten past the table of contents), but because in the introduction, people like me are told to take a hike.

The book “warns you away from potentially dangerous or difficult jobs and suggests when to hire professionals for the tasks you don’t feel qualified to tackle or ones where you know you will need help to meet codes,” writes the author.

I’ve quoted the line many times when the subject of home improvements comes up. Repaper the dining room? Potentially dangerous. Paint the ceiling? Not qualified to tackle. Hang a picture? It won’t meet code.

Yet I knew something would have to be done. I was spending too many nights worrying about the toilet, jerking out of a sound sleep because I feared somebody had forgotten to jiggle the handle after flushing. (The dog is particularly bad at this.) When I compared the cost of fixing the toilet to sleepless nights or the other alternative — selling the house — I decided to follow the path of least resistance.

For 12 bucks, I bought a toilet repair kit. The box shows a simple three-step method: Take out old guts, drop in new guts, start sleeping again.

Once I got it home and opened it, the three-step plan became the 13-step plan, with A, B, and C subsets illustrated with lots of pictures and filled with warnings about how the new unit would devour the bathroom if not properly installed.

My daughter saw me with the kit and promptly ran into her bedroom and shut the door. “This measly door won’t keep you safe from a solid wall of water,” I shouted.

“I know,” she answered. “But I just feel safer in here.”

Within 10 minutes, I had a minor flood (they aren’t kidding when they say to drain the tank before starting), a stripped nut (on the toilet, ye of dirty mind) and a repair job that was going south fast.

Ten minutes later, things got better. I tightened everything up, pushed down on the flush button, and ran into the closet to hide. Nothing bad happened. Water went out, water came in, water stopped running.

Success!

I’ve learned not to get too excited when I fix something, because usually in a week or two it needs fixed again, this time by a professional who undoes whatever mess I made the first time.

But for right now, today, I refuse to think about that. Tomorrow I may well come home to find the toilet has fallen through the floor into the kitchen, but for now, I am joining Harvey Pekar and poet Walt Whitman in sounding my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world:

Today I am a man!

*This is another reason why Pekar should be considered as a future One Book One Community author. He’s funny and thought-provoking, and he writes about things regular people relate to.

One Response to “Commode conundrum (a.k.a. toilet trouble)”

  1. on 24 Apr 2009 at 1.Neva Vizzuso said …

    I am not man! Same problem in our second bathroom - but I do stand guard whenever it is used to make sure that it shuts off…..one day a few weeks ago, I used the other bathroom and washed my hands and turned the hot water tap off and alas - it continued to turn - now we have to make sure that that tap is off whenever an unsuspecting uses it…..when asked, Nick says, “I think I turned it too hard” - Yea, ya think…..many men fall into your category….lol..Neva

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