Of all the conveniences that make modern life preferable to existence in a medieval village, the flush toilet is the most important. Being able to push a lever to make your body’s least appealing by-products disappear in an instant — with a satisfying whoosh, no less — is a miracle we all too often taken for granted.
Until the miracle doesn’t work anymore, that is, in which case your house becomes a useless box of furniture.
If one’s toilets are functional and the drain clear, most civilized conversations about personal sewage end right there. But when your sewer pipe gets clogged and starts backing up into the basement through the storm drain, the repugnant evidence of your frail humanity becomes inescapable.
When this unsettling scenario happened to me recently, I did what I always do when the household plumbing acts up: I left a frantic message with Ron the Sewer Rat, the Angie’s List-approved waste warrior who has come to our rescue so many times that we’ve considered naming one of our toilets after him. Unfortunately, we only have two, so the naming rights are already taken. The Ron John will have to wait.
Where I live in St. Paul, all discharged household liquids — from the toilet, shower, sink, dishwasher, etc. — travel down a four-inch clay pipe and connect to the city’s sewer system, which runs under the street out front. In the past, when roots from nearby trees crept through the hairline cracks in our pipe, creating a thirsty clog of tangled tree tendrils, Ron the Sewer Rat attacked them with his Snake of Doom.
The S of D is a loud monster with a long twisty neck that travels down the pipe and chews the roots up with jaws of forged, razor-sharp steel. Every few years Ron comes out and slays the roots that have come to slurp our sewage since the last time he vanquished them. Normally we pay him a few hundred bucks, he leaves, and we go on as if the whole nasty mess never happened.
This time, however, Ron emerged after three hours of battle, dirty and defeated. His shoulders slumped, he hung his head, and a tear rolled down his grease-stained cheek.
“I tried as hard as I could,” he said with funereal regret.
“Destroyed three blades but couldn’t break through,” he informed us, shaking his head.
“I ran a camera down there and it looks like your pipe has collapsed about seventy feet out, near the sidewalk. I think you’re looking at a digout.”
“A digout? What’s that?” I asked.
“They dig down to where the pipe collapsed, replace the busted section, and bury it again,” Ron replied.
“How much is that going to cost?” I inquired.
Ron looked up to the sky, where the gods of plumbing irony reside, and did some rough calculations in his head. “$6,000 to $10,000, depending.”
My mind does not register dollar amounts with more than three numbers left of the decimal, so I gasped, unable to comprehend the words that had just tumbled from his lips. “Depending on what?” I asked.
Ron took a deep breath and exhaled, making a hollow whistling noise. “Oh, well, depending on if they have to rip up the sidewalk. Or if the break is under your stairs and they have to rip those out too. You’ve got a lot of stairs out front, so that might go another four or five grand. Then there’s permits, of course, and . . .”
"Stop!" I cried: Isn’t there any other way?
“Sorry. Fact is, you’ve got clay pipes that are 90 years old, and they were built to last 75, tops,” he said.
“If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one. It’s happening all over.”
Fact is, entire Twin Cities neighborhoods built in the 1920s and 1930s are succumbing to the ravages of entropic decay, an entirely predictable result of scientists not discovering the miracle of PVC tubing early enough in the 20th century.
Beneath the soil of St. Paul, miles of obsolete pipe are slowly disintegrating. Cast iron pipes last only 25 to 30 years, and clay pipes 70 to 80, if you’re lucky. At some point, this crumbling infrastructure has to be replaced, and in most cases the homeowner must foot the bill, no matter how outrageous.
Short of replacing the pipe, there is also the option of blowing a thick vinyl sleeve up the pipe to your house, essentially creating a new pipe inside the old one. The advantage of this option is that it doesn’t require digging up your entire yard with a backhoe. The disadvantage is that it costs about $100 to $150 per foot.
When they tell you it’s going to cost an extra $5,000 to go the vinyl-sleeve route, and you start whimpering like an abused puppy, they’ll console you by telling you it’d cost $10,000 to $15,000 to dig a trench through your entire yard. And that’d kill the flowers. So cheer up.
Luckily, both St. Paul and Minneapolis have a city program that allows homeowners to borrow money for hideously expensive sewer repairs and spread the pain over the next 20 years of property taxes. So, instead of getting hit with a $10,000 bill for the privilege of flushing your toilet, your property tax goes up a mere $500 to $600 a year.
Still, I am grateful. Without the city’s help, I’d be hosed in an entirely different way.
After the backhoes had ripped a hole in the earth (the sidewalk and stairs were spared), and the pipe had been repaired, the moment of truth came.
My son didn’t want to do it, and my wife was too afraid. So I manned up, rested my fingers on the toilet handle, took a deep breath, and pushed the lever down.
The toilet swirled and gurgled. The water in the bowl disappeared with a familiar swoosh, and we all cheered. Having endured for so long the indignities suffered by our ancestors, civilization had finally been restored.
Tad Simons is the author of the short-story collection "The Bleeder" and writes about arts and culture for Mpls/St.Paul magazine. Read more of his work at www.readtadsimons.com.
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