Just look at that thing. It used to be a conveyance for wastewater out of a bathroom lavatory and into the sewer. Now it’s an obscene rusted mess that had to be hammered out of another pipe like a piece of raw material to be sculpted. One would think it unwise to use paper-thin and rust-hungry steel to move water from place to place, but this is the plumbing from yesteryear, when our country had emerged from World War II and couldn’t build homes fast enough so were taking former machine gun and aircraft factories and turning out P-traps and drains instead. This old-style plumbing requires heavy wrenches, lots of room to work, and an alarming myopia for future cleaning or maintenance.
Fast forward to 2012 when I attempt to clean out gunk from the P-trap under the sink and end up causing a very small leak. Aha! It must be the crumbling rubber gaskets which date to the Eisenhower era! I buy new gaskets, tighten them in with a flourish and…drip…drip…drip. No. Can’t be. Now there’s no logical reason for the pipe to be leaking so I begin the impossible task of chasing the problem downstream, from junction to junction, each more arthritic and rusted than the last. Imagine you’re a doctor doing a checkup on a hundred year-old chronic smoker. You point out his dry cracked lips and prescribe some lip balm. Then he opens his mouth and you see brown crooked teeth that look like standing stones from Scotland. Okay, some tooth work too. But wait, that tongue has some awful growths on it, so better work on those. And that esophagus is in bad shape. Ditto the voice box, and down to the lungs…you can see where it goes. You think you’re dealing with dry lips when in fact it’s an entire system on the brink of failure.
But at least a doctor gets to work in an office with room to swing his arms freely. I was working in a sink cabinet with an aperture of less than 12”, into which I shoved my head, arms, and upper body. When that didn’t work I sat cross-legged outside the cabinet and hunched down my head like the bellkeeper at Notre Dame, or lay on my back with my legs up in the air like a dead cockroach. For some span of time measured in apocalyptic cursing and shrieking pain in my head, I tried to loosen a brass fitting that had bonded with a galvanized pipe. The threads were interlocked like young lovers and nothing would pry them apart. Three wrenches, a massive cold chisel, brute force that threw out my back and neck, and two hammers and yet it wouldn’t budge. So I cobbled together a hybrid system of ABS and galvanized that is sure to start leaking in another few weeks. It took all of Sunday and by the end my hands looked like I’d been punching my way through windows and my joints felt as if I’d jumped from a moving car into highway traffic.
If I called in a professional to do the job he’d look at the existing plumbing, rub his chin, then write up a five-figure estimate that would involve starting at the street and yanking on the main sewer connection to pull all the old plumbing out of the house, like a magician pulling the tablecloth from a fully-set table. Anything less than complete system replacement would be folly. Which is why I do this myself every few month and tell myself, “Never again.” Until the next leak.