Clearing The Plumbing Pipes

In this normally most-wonderful time of the year—the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day—I found myself dashing down the cellar steps for some bird seed. I stopped short in front of my washing machine; water was spilling out of a century-old pipe behind the decades-old appliance, the puddle creeping over the drainless cement floor. This didn’t look good.

The freakishly warm weather had finally decided to become seasonally appropriate. Snow and sleet had arrived overnight and apparently my pipes were revolting, both figuratively and literally, with a slight smell of sewage punctuating the assault.

Now I had a time-sensitive addition to my year’s end “to do” list, asserting itself at the top. Despite the odor, it seemed to be just water. The rest was unknown, as I waited for the plumber. His estimated time of arrival was three hours away. All I had to do was maintain some levelheaded calm.

And keep an eye on the bucket that was rapidly filling, catching the steady, overflowing stream. Every twenty minutes I hauled it up the stairs and dragged it through my house, out the door, tipping it into the yard, back to the water table.

The tentative bubble of satisfaction derived from starting to save a little bit of cash in a kitty jar each week was just as quickly punctured by this curveball from the cosmos. An online crash course in waste pipe blockage announced TREE ROOTS. Of course! That Charlie Brown eastern redbud—a decade ago, a spindly, twisted $6 discard rescued from a Lowe’s bargain bin—had turned against me! Strangling my pipe before it hooked into the city system (with an estimate of thousands of my dollars in repair costs), scoffing at my city-girl incompetence, it had somehow heard through the grapevine that I had managed to kill my lone philodendron while vacating Brooklyn for the Hudson Valley.

“Stop it,” I told myself. Turning away from the computer screen, I put on my meditative yoga CD and tried to focus on other things. Or nothing. Unsuccessfully.

The plumber arrived, cloaked in prerequisite warnings of possible causes and results. Again, the mention of tree roots. Also, the prospect of an immense gush of standing water from the pipe, once uncapped to insert the snake.

Would I be in watery sewage up to my calves? Why was he painting this worst-case scenario, yet so nonplussed about how to handle it? Should we establish a two-person bucket brigade? Would I need a sump pump? I gathered waste baskets and struggled to separate the stacked five-gallon buckets he had brought in. All the while, he was wrenching the cap off with no plan in sight.

When he let it blow, the only real preparation I had mustered was to replace my shoes with knee-high