In December of 1930, E. B. White wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the garbageman. “They have the town by the tail and they know it,” White concluded, after a brief study of the can collector’s habits. We like to watch the trashman too, the descendants of White’s subjects, wrestling now with new regulations, recycling, knowledge of toxic waste, but still masters of noise and dust, their barking trucks heard for blocks, avalanches of glass announcing last call for trash. But while today’s garbageman may still have the city by the tail, surely it’s the plumber has it by the nose.
My father was a plumber, and asked us to join him in the trade; shucks, I wanted to continue school. But I worked with him summers and accompanied him on enough evening calls to achieve a kind of apprentice status. A neighbor would knock, a friend would call, a parishioner, a friend of a friend – a brief diagnosis on the phone and I was told which tools to grab from the garage and we were off, a doctor making a house call. Dad almost never accepted money for these evening jobs. He would accept a beer, sit, and talk.
No job was too awful, foul, or hard. With his bare hands he swept away monstrous crawl space spiders, reached into cold plugged up toilet bowls, chiseled oakum into cast iron joints – which I sometimes got to pour the molten lead into with the long handled ladle from the boiling pot. Our antagonists were usually stripped threads, worn washers, busted pipes, and all manner of backened slop. Dad did not relish repair work; by day he was a new construction plumber, working with new parts, not used. What he did relish was the opportunity to get out of the house and talk to people. He was the James Joyce of the plumbing trade. He could talk to anyone, for he had them, and he knew it, by the nose.
Time passing and enter George, the veteran plumber we now call when wet to the knees and elbows but I still can’t fix it. We called George recently to help us with a pipe cracked during the big freeze and snows. After the job we sat with George in the living room; he did most of the talking, and we listened. Before the pipe broke, I had been reading E. B. White, but after George left, I let E. B. sit, and I paused to think of my father, the plumber, and my decision to continue school.