As a city dweller, I generally ignore loud noises that go bump in the night. A banging on metal pipes means our old radiators are getting hot. Thunder slamming into the street means the grocery store dumpsters are being emptied. But on that night, as my family calls it, the sounds began softly – and were not as familiar. I was awakened by a strange gurgling sound coming from the bathroom. I soon found that thick brown glugs of our building’s sewage were burping toward the rim of our toilet bowl. Our neighbors’ waste was about to spill onto our floor, and the stream would be winding through the apartment before a plumber could arrive. It was up to us.
Unfortunately, my family’s experience with plumbing was limited to pulling hair out of the shower drain and plunging the kitchen sink. But, like Mark Watney in The Martian, we didn’t know how to stop the flood but we would do our best to slow it down until help arrived. Not the cavalry, in our case, but a 24-hour plumber whose voicemail assured me that he would get back to me ASAP – a message that gave me little comfort.
We made a quick change into our rattiest clothes, covering our hands and feet in plastic grocery bags. We then smeared globs of Vicks under our noses and began bailing the overflowing sludge with takeout soup containers that we emptied into large garbage bags. Some amazing things emerged from that toilet, including diaper wipes and doll heads.
Finally, at 3 A.M. the intercom buzzed. I might have hugged the man in green coveralls standing at my front door had I not been a walking biohazard. The plumber got right to work, but his hand-crank cable snake was no match for the colossal clog that was diverting the building’s sewage to our bathroom. He would need more muscle.“I need to get the power auger down in my truck,” he said matter-of-factly. My worst fears were realized when he returned with a machine that looked like a turbo-charged lawn mower and seemed guaranteed to wake the dead – or at least our sleeping neighbors.
“Maybe we should call and warn them before he turns it on,” I said to my husband. Ever the optimist, he suggested waiting. “The walls are pretty thick. If we call, they’ll definitely wake up. If we don’t, maybe they’ll sleep through it.” The plumber turned the auger on, and the motor quickly drowned out everything except a very faint phone ringing in the background. I answered it, and the screaming voice at the other end of the line came through quite clearly: “Do you know what time it is? You’ve woken up my entire family!”
I tried to explain the horrible situation to my neighbor, but he kept demanding we turn off the auger. When I pointed out that if that we couldn’t stop the geyser in our toilet, it would soon be seeping into his apartment, he yelled, “It better not!” and clicked off the phone. Eventually, the plumber got the toilet to flush in a downward direction.
In the following days, news of what happened that night spread throughout the co-op. A notice went out, reminding residents not to flush any doll heads down their toilets. Those who got in touch were both sympathetic and outraged. Lucy, one of our neighbors, said, “It’s like you were assaulted.” She understood.
Four weeks later, the plumber returned to make sure the lines remained clear. In daylight, without the panic and squalor of that night, I found the roar of the auger comforting. But out in the hall, the wife of the man who had phoned me that night was banging on my door screaming, “Stop! Stop! I can’t stand that noise. It’s just like that night.” She did not understand.