Great moments in building history: A towel-eating snake?
Several years ago, I managed a 12-unit apartment building in a Seattle neighborhood. As manager, I did whatever maintenance and repair jobs I could handle. Although I was a fair carpenter and painter, I trembled when faced with plumbing problems. I have yet to meet the leaky faucet or clogged drain that I could not, by my efforts, make worse.
When the couple in #103 complained about water draining slowly from their bathroom sink, I was not optimistic. Nevertheless, that morning I undid the P-trap and ran in the 15-ft. minisnake from my toolbox. After a half-hour of manly toil, the water was draining as slowly as ever—except that now, of course, some was leaking out one end of the P-trap onto the tile floor. My skills exhausted, I called the plumber.
The following Monday, I was happily painting, cutting in the corners of the bedroom in #102, when the plumber arrived. Jack was carrying a toolbox in one immense hand and a 40-ft. canister snake in the other. I let him into #103 and headed back to my painting. In the hall I ran into Eileen, the tenant in #104, who was on her way to the corner market. She had seen the plumber’s van outside the building and wanted to inform me that her bathroom-sink drain was sluggish. This was hardly surprising because her bathroom backed the one in #103. I assured her that the drain would soon be running freely and got back to the familiar task of covering off-white with off-white.
As I was rolling the bedroom ceiling, the unmistakable sound of a snake making its way through drains arose from the bathroom pipes. The whir of the crank and the slithering of the sinewy steel in the ABS plastic seemed to go on for a long time. Then, abruptly, it stopped.
I was starting on the walls when I heard a vehement, fertile outpouring of language from the next apartment. Fearing Jack had injured himself, I rushed next door. There was Jack, his feet braced against the wall, his shoulders knotted as he pulled on the snake. “Look,” he said, “the snake is stuck somewhere down the line. Will you go down to the laundry room and see if you can hear where it’s caught while I jiggle it back and forth?”
I went downstairs and listened, but finally I confessed to Jack that I didn’t have a clue about where the snake was hung up. “Now I’ll have to open the wall in the laundry room and cut the thing out of the pipes,” he said. With that, he thundered out of the apartment and soon was back with a reciprocating saw and a power cord.
I let Jack in the laundry room and almost immediately heard the saw tearing into the drywall that covered the drains. By then, Eileen was just getting back from the store.
I muttered to her, “If you could not use the plumbing for a little while, that would be good.”
“How long?” she asked.
“Not too long,” I said. “I’ll come and tell you when it’s okay.”
Because everyone else in the building was gone during the day, I went back to #102 to get on with the painting job I had thought was going to take only an hour. I had just gotten back to work when there came a furious knocking on the door of the apartment. Eileen stood in the hall. Through tightly drawn lips, she said, “I never want you to let that plumber into my apartment again.”
“Into your apartment? I don’t understand.”
“He took my best towel,” she said, “and got grease and filth all over it. Then he twisted it up and stuffed it in the bathroom sink. It was just incredibly rude of him to use my towel without permission.”
“That is rude,” I agreed, “but why would he stuff a towel down the sink? And how did he get into—”
“Come see for yourself if you don’t believe me,” she stormed. I followed her as she led me to the bathroom in her apartment.
Indeed, there was a new pink towel covered with black, greasy filth and jammed into the bathroom-sink drain. But what Eileen hadn’t mentioned was that wrapped around the towel and knotted into it and spilling over the edge of the sink were the coils of the plumber’s snake.
“Where did you leave this towel?” I ventured.
“On the towel rack next to the sink,” she said, “where I always leave it.”
Somehow, the snake had taken a wrong turn and gone into Eileen’s sink. Twisting into the air, the snake had grabbed the towel off the rack. When Jack pulled back on the other end, the towel was pulled into the drain.
Beneath our feet, Jack’s angry saw bit into another pipe. “Oh, my God,” I said just before I raced downstairs.
As it turned out, Jack had found an impenetrable mass of gunk in the pipes he’d cut out. He glued in some new pipes and got the plumbing flowing again. And Jack gave Eileen $15 for a new pink towel.
And I finally finished painting the bedroom in #102, though the discerning eye might spot the dried line of paint where I’d stopped to go see the famous towel-eating snake.
—Steve Gins, Seattle, Washington
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers