Sunday, February 7, 2010


Last Christmas Day we hosted a few family members for dinner. The menu was fairly simple: porcupine balls, mashed potatoes, and green beans. I know what you’re thinking. Nothing says “season’s greetings” like porcupine balls.

And no, the main dish had nothing to do with roadkill. It’s actually meatballs with rice mixed in, like quills. Get it?

We often make mashed potatoes at home without peeling the tubers. Something about many of the nutrients being stored in the skin, and the texture it provides in the final product, and . . . oh, yeah . . . I am a really lazy man. Not having to spend time peeling the potatoes is a step in the right direction, at least in my cookbook.

“Sure, I’ll help with dinner,” I say. I grab a bunch of potatoes, and rinse, rinse, rinse. “Here ya go!” Mashed potatoes ready to make. They just need boiling, mashing, and whatever else is required to get them on my plate. I’ll leave all that hard work to others.

Kristin wanted to make the mashed potatoes for our visitors in the more traditional style, and so I volunteered to help peel. It was the least I could do, seeing as how I hadn’t helped with the shopping, gift wrapping, decorating, or holiday cheer in any other way. I pulled the peeler from the kitchen drawer that stores all rarely used implements and began hacking away.

It felt like I was on KP duty in an old war movie. Standing over the sink, trying to finish each spud in just a few seconds so that I could go on to the rest of the pile. Five hundred pounds of potatoes in the movie in my mind; more like four pounds for our assembled guests.

When it came time to clean out the sink, I knew my newly installed disposer could handle the mess, so I turned on the water and flipped the switch. Hungry chewing sounds emanated from the hole as I shoved down the potato peels. It was over almost before it began, no muss, no fuss.

Two minutes later the sink backed up.

We made it through the holiday without our guests knowing of the problem, and the next morning the sink was draining better. I figured the peel pile had moved on down the pipes.

It had. About two feet, from my best estimate. The next time we washed a load of laundry the garage sink backed up.

We hung an “out of order” sign on the washing machine and told the kids they would just have to wait to wash their favorite outfits. Every day I would take the plunger out to the garage and see if I could fix the situation externally. Of course, as any respectable plumber will tell you, plungers are mostly just a joke tool that can’t accomplish any sort of significant repair. Yet two days later the garage sink was draining again!

Score one for the amateur handyman and his plunger.

“Dad!” Kelsey screamed from the house. I ran inside and found her gagging in the hall bathroom. She was covering her mouth and plugging her nose with one hand and pointing at the bathtub with the other. Water was coming up from the drain, in what can only be described as the wrong direction. And the wrong color as well. It was, more or less, black.

Clearly the potato peels were still wreaking havoc on my pipes. I crawled under the house and did some quick analysis. The sludge was slowly making its way through the system, and I could figure out where it currently sat based on where the pipes joined from the kitchen sink, the garage sink, and the bathroom tub. There was a short connecting joint in the vicinity, the result of an old repair job, so I removed that and brought down some muscle.

The plunger wasn’t going to cut it. I needed power, force, an unwillingness to ever, ever give up. I needed the garden hose.

Kristin wasn’t home so she couldn’t complain about the hose being brought in through the front door and down into the narrow crawl space. I shoved it in the opening in the pipe, as bits of dark, gooey matter plopped onto my hands and arms. The water on the ground, having exited the pipe as soon as I opened it and splashed into a nice little puddle, was slowly reaching for my shirt.

Back outside—with a lot of crawl space dirt dropped on the tile in the foyer—I cranked open the spigot as fast as I could. I heard the water rushing through the hose and crossed my fingers. Either the blast of water would clear the blockage, or I would have just added about five gallons to my under-house puddle.

I let it run for a minute and then shut it off. Back inside, I peered down into the crawl space, afraid I had added an underground swimming pool to our home’s amenities. The puddle was no larger, though. As I extracted the hose I got even more sludge on me, but with the pipes back together I was able to run water down all the problem sinks without a backup.

The cheap-o plumber had achieved victory, and celebrated by taking a long, hot shower in the grime leftover in Kelsey’s tub. Cleaning the body only took a few minutes.

Scouring the sludge marks off the porcelain took considerably longer.

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