Connections: Winter Thaw

Peering down the cellar steps, I saw a flood

    On Sunday morning, I awoke to the sound of running water. Actually, I had noticed a soft flowing noise Saturday night, but decided I was imagining things. After all, a plumber had been to our house to fix the furnace and one of the toilets that very day, so surely nothing could be amiss with our pipes. By Sunday breakfast time, however, I realized I needed to investigate. Peering down the cellar steps, I saw a flood. I put on my cracked old boat boots, crept down, and found half the concrete cellar floor covered with water. It was five or six inches deep in one area.

    The standing joke between my husband and me, when I prove to have a woefully inadequate grasp of something mechanical or electrical, is that his “father was an engineer” (and therefore I should step aside and leave it to him). Nevertheless, it fell on me that morning to take action about the water in the cellar. I waded around trying to figure out whether I could somehow stop the water from getting into any of the fuel-burning elements down there. But I gave that up rather quickly, came upstairs, and called the answering service of the plumbing company that had repaired the toilet and furnace — which burns oil to heat water that feeds our old-fashioned radiators — the day before. I was told a “technician” would call back and let us know when to expect a visit.

    Now, this company had been extremely accommodating on Saturday, and the plumber they had sent then had gone so far as to drive to Bridgehampton, halfway to the company’s headquarters, to meet another employee, who brought him parts we needed to fix a corroded valve or some such. But despite that good service, I was impatient and growing a bit alarmed on Sunday. When no one called back within an hour, I phoned again . . . two, three, four times.

    I was about to call in a different plumber — even if it meant paying someone to fix something that was someone else’s fault, as I speculated it was — when, a little more than four hours after my S.O.S. went out, the nice fellow from the day before arrived at the door.

    He, too, seemed to assume he was at fault. I heard him ask himself, “Where on Earth is the leak?”

    Truth will out. Five or 10 minutes later, he surfaced. The truth was that a garden hose on one side of the house, which had been inadvertently left on months earlier, had frozen and burst, then started flowing when the weather moderated. Water had saturated the foundation and a steady stream was entering the basement. He was relieved; I, abashed and exceedingly grateful when he offered to pump the basement out.

    As he wrote up the bill, he told me that he had been on call throughout the long, deep freeze of the first half of January. We kibitzed a bit. He told me that he used to enjoy deep-sea diving in Florida (quite a plumber-ish activity, I thought), but that he got tired of swimming with sharks and alligators.

    He told me he lived in the Mastic- Shirley area. What was most aggravating, he said, was that sometimes he would be on the highway after a long day, within striking distance of home, when a new urgent call would come in and he would have to turn around and drive back east again.

    “This is nothing,” he said. He had been at work till midnight over the weekend, coping with burst pipes and cellars with water as deep as swimming pools. One East Hampton house had water in the basement up to the ceiling, which was coming down, he said.

    I had been ready to assume the worst and curse the company for which he worked (a company, by the by, that had taken over a local business some time ago), but it turned out to be a lesson in the dangers of hasty judgment, not to mention New-York-minute impatience in general.

    The plumber had been employed with his company for many years and was dedicated, skilled, and willing to go the extra mile in difficult circumstances. It turned out that ours was his eighth emergency call on Sunday.

    They say a good man is hard to find, but I imagine there are many of them in the trade parade that plies the highway every morning and evening. I wonder: These days, when few skilled workers can afford to live east of the Shinnecock Canal, how many good people like him have been priced out of the neighborhood? (And how many sharks and alligators have come to take their place?)