The Magazine

The Drain Brain

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By DAVID SKINNER
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There ought to be a school, maybe a chain of schools, offering classes for practically-challenged adults. Courses would include basic car maintenance, financial planning, how to throw a dinner party, that kind of thing. The first class I'd take is elementary plumbing.

I do have, as it happens, a plumbing tutor. That would be my older brother, a licensed master plumber in New York City with his own company. When he was an apprentice, he'd come home from work, stomp into the kitchen, flex both his arms like a body builder, and yell "Super Plumber!" Fifteen years later, if you mention anything relating to pipes, he grows quiet and his eyes start to drift, like he's worried you're going to ask him to check the water heater. Still, he takes my calls. Usually.

A few weeks ago, I noticed the grout around the tiles under our downstairs toilet was wet. This was bad news. It meant I also had to fix the running-water problem: For a couple weeks, while I tried to ignore it, the tank had been constantly refilling. Advice was only a phone call away, but I was scared. I felt like a dyslexic forced to take a spelling test.

Adding to my anxiety was the fact that my wife, Cynthia, expects me to be able to manage basic household repairs without too much fuss. Something about losing her husband for a whole weekend while he replaces a flapper--a task the Super Plumber would complete in ten minutes--taxes her forbearance. In my imagined school of household repair, she is the dean of students, and she's always giving me this look, known by academic underachievers the world round--the Are-you-ever-going-to-graduate? look.

I've sometimes tried to fix plumbing without expert guidance. When the stopper in the upstairs bathroom sink jammed, I removed it. When stuff began falling into the open drain, I stuck a wire down to pull the stuff out. When the drain got totally clogged, I took a long wooden spoon and taped a wad of toilet paper to the end to make, essentially, a large Q-tip. Then I put some Krazy Glue on the toilet-paper tip and put the tip down the drain and waited for the lost toothbrushes and whatnot to become affixed to the glue--and then pulled them out.

I told my brother about it. The Super Plumber asked me, next time I tell this story, not to mention that my brother is a plumber.

The conversation went like this, if you want to know how guys from Queens talk.

He was like Whatchoo don't have tools? You can't open the trap underneath? And I'm like No, I got tools, four or five of them. But I don't have whatchoo call the big wrench you open pipes with? And he's like A pipe wrench.

For the record, I now own so many tools I don't know where to put them. They're stowed in a wicker basket that originally came to us, filled with gourmet treats, as a housewarming gift. When my brother, during a visit, spotted the tool-stuffed basket, he was like David, you never heard of a toolbox?

This time when I call, he gives me some instructions on replacing the connector that supplies water to the tank. We also talk about the running-water problem. Seems I need to replace the flapper again.

After shopping around for the connector and a flapper, I get to work. The water needs to be shut off and the tank needs to be emptied. After I replace everything, water is leaking out through the bolts. So I have to start over.

First I call my brother. He's like Want me to send a couple of my guys down? And I'm like Would that be too much trouble? And he's like Yes, David, that would definitely be too much trouble.

The next day I get back to work while Cynthia is outside on the sidewalk playing with some kids. A second look reveals they are my own kids, whom I haven't seen all weekend.

Several hours and one trip to the hardware store later, I'm done. The bathroom works again, though frankly not so well. Still, I declare victory.

My wife wants to know why it always takes the whole weekend for me to fix anything. I try to explain to her that my memory simply doesn't retain the details of these little fix-it jobs, so it's as if I'm always starting from scratch.

I tell her, "If I don't think a particular piece of information is necessary to my becoming a better writer or a better person, it's like my brain lets go of it to make room for information that does serve one of these purposes."

I don't remember what she said in reply.

DAVID SKINNER