Some of my Plumbing Customers Drove me Fucking Crazy, While Others Became Friends...

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"How can I fix that toilet with you sitting on it?"

Even before I got my plumbing license and opened my own business, I had some crazy encounters while I was an apprentice. There was an attractive blonde woman living in a three-story tenement in Brockton who had three kids and no husband, and every time I went there she sprayed the entire bathroom with perfume and scattered a half dozen of her sexy panties all over. In order to work, I had to move 'em myself while she watched and made goo-goo eyes at me. She was busty too, and she always made sure she got in the way… I was a happily married man (still am) and I never took the bait.

My boss and I went to another three-decker in Brockton to repair a faucet for a landlord who rented to welfare recipients because he was guaranteed payment by the state. I went in while my boss waited in the van. I walked into a third-floor apartment where there were no less than 20 people, drinking. It was 9:30 in the morning… 

I walked straight into the bathroom and shut the water under an old pedestal sink and removed the faucet stems. I could smell pot and hear yelling and fighting going on in the next room. That's when I went downstairs and told my boss I needed reinforcements. I said, "This is a fucking warzone!" He laughed and then the two of us went back upstairs to finish the job. 

While we were standing in front of the sink, the door to the bathroom opened and a guy in his mid-thirties walked in. He was wasted and slurring his words, "Hope you don't mind, but I have to take a wicked piss…" He then proceeded to unzip, whip it out, and do his business right beside us. He wasn't bashful. The whole time he was moaning, enjoying himself while he drained his alcohol-filled bladder. After he finished and left the bathroom, I reached over and flushed and then locked the bathroom door. Lesson learned…

A few years later, I was licensed and running my own plumbing & heating business full-time. That's when I had a chance to meet a lot of people in their own homes where they're most comfortable. It was during those years (1987-2007) that I witnessed people having fun celebrating birthdays, graduations, and weddings, and others who were arguing, swearing, and throwing punches at each other when I arrived. Every job was an adventure, I never knew what I'd be involved in once I walked through the door, toolbox in hand.

I had my share of difficult customers, complainers, ones who made me think of that punch line in a joke told by Robert Klein where a waiter says to a disgruntled party of six, "Is anything alright?" Of course, there were others who treated me like plumbing royalty, thanking me for everything I did. Although uncommon, some even tipped me. Two of my good customers each tipped me $200 for a job well done.

In the course of my plumbing career, I was attacked by Rottweilers, bitten by an angry little Shih Tzu, and an incorrigible German Shepard who in my opinion, suffered from Schizophrenia. That dog was absolutely nuts! I was forced to work around big lizards, poisonous tarantulas, dangerous boa constrictors, and every other kind of exotic creature people kept as pets. I was once forced to find cover in a condominium where a crazy parrot was allowed to fly freely. I've been in the company of mice, rats, chipmunks, and red ants in dirt crawl spaces. The ants freaked me out the most. I once saw a reddish pile that looked like dirt, but then I noticed it was moving… As I edged closer I realized it was actually a thousand or more, red fire ants, the kind that bite/sting. I told the owner I was leaving and after she had an exterminator in and the ants were completely gone, I'd come back, but not until…

There was an elderly woman who lived alone in a nice colonial whose daughter would visit her a couple of times a week and if there were any plumbing or heating problems she'd call me. The elderly woman wasn't in bad health aside from her diminishing mental faculties. As soon as my back was turned she'd sneak up behind me and take my tools and parts and run off with 'em. I'd chase her down and tell her I needed my stuff to finish the job and she'd always hand everything back without an argument. It was a little game she played. One time she stole my razor knife and that sounded the alarm. Fortunately, I got the knife back without incident.  

At lunchtime, she would call me "Frank" and ask me if I wanted an English muffin with tuna. Not that I would've ever accepted, the kitchen was filthy, but when I saw her mixing mayonnaise with canned cat food I knew I'd made the right decision. Lunch could wait… 

She was definitely "Looney Tunes" but as long as I stayed one step ahead I was okay…

Her daughter paid quickly so I always went back but I was careful not to leave any sharp objects lying around…

I did have some incredibly interesting and funny customers I always looked forward to working for…

Nate owned a good size house on Lake Massapoag in Sharon, and at one time people vacationed there. It was a 1950's version of today's B&Bs. It was less than a 1/8 of a mile from the public beach and the front porch overlooked the lake. Long after it closed, Nate continued calling it "Wyman's Inn".

By the time I met Nate he was well into his 80s and still driving. He drove an older light blue Cadillac that he'd been driving for quite a while. Nate drove really, really slow. He maintained a PO Box in the center so he was always out and about. I had the misfortune of getting behind him a few times and he was cruising well below the posted speed limit and the line of cars behind him would start beeping their horns hoping he'd speed up a little. But, I don't think he cared, he traveled at his own pace. 

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Nate mumbled, barely moving his lips when he spoke, but if you listened closely, he was a pretty funny guy. I'm not sure what his health problems were, he had more than a few, but it seemed like every time I went there Nate had a fresh blood spot on his button-down shirt that looked eerily similar to a gunshot wound. A couple of times a week a healthcare person came in and cleaned him up… 

In the dark, moldy basement there were lots of artifacts from years gone by, and I always looked through Nate's extensive book collection and if I found one I wanted to read and asked, he'd tell me to take it.

Here are two of the books I got from Nate. It appears the joke book was taken from a high school library & never returned…

When I stopped hearing from him, I knew what that meant…

And then there was Esther, an 85-years-old woman who lived a few houses down from us in Norton. She was slight, barely weighing 80 pounds. She lived in the same house her entire life. Once, while I was working on her soapstone kitchen sink, she pointed to a very old wooden highchair and told me that her mother sat in that chair when she was a baby and that it had been her highchair as well. 

Esther turned the winding stairs leading to the second floor into shelving, stacking anything and everything on both sides of each stair tread, leaving just a narrow path in the middle. I give her credit, it was a good use of space but it also created quite an obstacle for guys like me who had to carry tools and materials up to the second floor. Stacking stuff like that is more common on basement stairs where it's always been a hazard.

There were two bathrooms in Esther's house, but only one worked. The one on the first floor had an old high tank, pull chain toilet that was beyond repair, but Esther wouldn't part with it, she considered it a family heirloom not too unlike the highchair. Although Esther had no children, she had great-nieces who came to visit once a year on Easter. That's when she'd call me to come over to fiddle with that toilet so the kids could pull the chain and make it flush. My repairs on that toilet weren't permanent, but I always got it to work on Easter. After Easter weekend I'd go back and shut it down…

The bathroom on the second floor was newer, but it had a two-piece toilet where the tank was mounted to the wall and a chrome 90-degree elbow connected it to the bowl. When it failed Esther called and I went right over to attempt a repair, knowing it was her only working toilet. It was old and the parts were hard to find and in my professional opinion, it was time to replace it with a modern toilet. When I told Esther she became very quiet, but I explained to her it was the only toilet in her house that worked, and putting in a new one would be a good move. Reluctantly, she agreed…

The rough-in measurements for those types of toilets fluctuated, but were usually 10" or less, depending on the size of the bathroom. That one was only 9 1/4" which meant it would require a 10" rough toilet and even that would be a squeeze…

Toilets had just changed from 3.5 gallons per flush to 1.6, and the newer models used a standard 12" bowl and a 10" rough tank. I was pretty sure a 12" bowl wouldn't fit, so I made calls and located an older 10" that used a 10" bowl and a standard 12" tank, the reverse of the newer ones. I drove 45 minutes into Mattapan Supply, the only place that still had one in stock.

When I removed the older toilet I was suddenly confronted with a lead closet bend, another artifact from yesteryear. I took a deep breath and decided I could leave it and screw a metal ring from a PVC flange over the lead and make it work. Thankfully, it did. 

I shut the water main and replaced the old seized threaded shutoff valve feeding the toilet with a new one. When I was done I was very happy with the way everything turned out. Esther had a new toilet, and in my opinion, she was fortunate I was willing to go to all that effort to replace it. When she came upstairs to look at it she didn't look happy…

I gave her the toilet at cost, didn't charge her for the ride into Mattapan and back, and she got the neighborhood discount on labor…

After replacing the toilet I started to hear from several neighbors that Esther was unhappy with what I had done. I walked over and asked her about it (Is anything alright?) and she denied being unhappy, but she never talked to me again… "No good deed goes unpunished", I guess… 

There's a short street up the road from us that bears her family name. There are no houses on it & for the longest time, it was unpaved…

Then there was Jack and Faith, longtime customers of my father-in-law. After my father-law passed they started calling me. They lived in a very small, older ranch with a narrow garage on one side. They were always really nice and Jack loved telling jokes. Jack was in his mid-70s then, and not much bigger than Esther. He had back issues and walked hunched over, bent at the waist like no one else. When I started telling my jokes he would laugh his ass off. He had a great sense of humor and when he was healthy, he'd follow me around the house while I worked, trading jokes. 

At one point Jack's health started to fail and when Faith couldn't take care of him anymore, off he went to a nursing home. The first time I went to their house and he wasn't there it just wasn't the same. Sure, Faith was nice enough, but she was nothing like Jack…

Occasionally, Jack would be allowed to come home for a visit and when I was there it was just like old times. His memory was fading so I could retell the same jokes and get big laughs out of him, again. Then there were other times he cried like a baby, pleading with Faith to let him stay home. At the nursing home, Jack started singing in the common area, something Faith said he had never done before. No one knew he could even sing. He was just making the most of a bad situation.

I remember when the tub/shower valve I installed years ago needed new seats and washers and I went there and Jack was home. As soon as I arrived, Faith asked me if I could get him off the floor and into the bed. I went into the master bedroom and there was Jack, lying on the floor, unable to get himself up. His eyes were closed and he was in the fetal position. I told him I was there and I wanted to help him. I lifted him up at the foot of the bed and placed him in the middle of it. He thanked me a few times before I told him I'd be back in to see him before I left, that I had to get to work…

After I finished the job, I went in and Jack hadn't moved from the spot I put him in. I got his attention and told him I had to get going, but it was nice to see him. I looked at his face, half of which was covered and he smiled and in a soft voice he said, "Thanks Vinnie"… I never saw him again. 

On the day of his funeral, his two kids were staying at the house and there were other family members there as well, and wouldn't you know it, the toilet clogged. Maybe it was Jack's final joke. Faith called me and I went right over. I cleared the stoppage (no charge) and Faith introduced me to her family as "my favorite plumber and one of Jack's favorite people"… 

When one of the local Norton plumbers retired in 1988, he started referring all his customers to me. Shortly after that, Bill Hersey called for some plumbing services. Less than a half-mile from my house is Fairlee Lane. It was named after Fairlee Hersey, Bill's wife. To say that Fairlee and Bill were eccentric would be an understatement. They were very different and in a good way.

Their single-story house was comfortably cluttered with a lifetime of stuff, but what struck me were all statues of owls scattered all over the house. Fairlee was quick to tell me she collected owls and took me around and showed me every single one of 'em. That explained why the large rock at the beginning of the street had an owl painted on it with "Fairlee Lane" under it. I spoke to people who have spent most of their lives living on Fairlee Lane and they told me Fairlee was from Fairlee, Vermont and that she was a special needs teacher and when she was younger she would take her students on hikes down Fairlee Lane, which back then, was a dirt road.

I can't remember Fairlee without a smile, she was a very upbeat person who always looked at the positive and wasn't afraid to show her joy for life. She was about five foot four, with medium-length hair and glasses, and she always wore loose-fitting comfortable clothes. Bill was about six foot two, thin, with posture that was straight as an arrow, absolutely no slouch. He spoke dynamically and had a deep, bellowing laugh.

Fairlee and Bill were in their late 70s when I met them and still full of life. Their house was in dire need of repair though. When I went downstairs to the basement for the first time I immediately noticed the vent piping for the gas water heater had become detached from the tank and was leaning sideways and not venting the dangerous carbon monoxide gasses up the chimney and out of the house. They were very lucky I caught it… 

They had one bathroom and at some point along the way, they bought a Kohler quiet flush one-piece toilet, which was very expensive in its day. It was their pride and joy. When it clogged they called me. 

I walked in with my closet auger and immediately started to work it. It wasn't long before I had something on the end of the cable… I pulled it up and there, hooked on the end, was a pair of metal frames from Fairlee's eyeglasses. I called her in to show her and she was ecstatic, "Wow Vinnie! Do you think you can find the lenses?" She was dead serious in a way that only Fairlee could be. I gave her the bad news about the lenses and she smiled even wider…

Although Fairlee demanded a lot of attention, eventually Bill told me a little bit about himself. He was a memory expert and performed at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate events. That's when I started remembering him. He was at my friend's bar mitzvah in 1969, standing at the entrance to the function hall where he introduced himself, shook everyone's hand, asked them their names, and then proceeded to repeat it out loud before going to the next person. He also had a Life Magazine and he was tearing out pages and randomly handing them to people as they entered.

Later, he was reintroduced by the band as a memory expert. Then, Bill, microphone in hand, went around the room and said hello to everyone there, well over 100 people, and called each by their full name. It was nothing short of incredible. Then he asked the people who had a page from the magazine to raise their hands and tell him what pages they had and then he proceeded to tell them exactly what was on each page. It was nothing short of mind-blowing. 

Crazy that years later, I bought a house down the street from him and became his plumber. He wrote a book on memory, and although he gave me a copy, which I read cover-to-cover, I was never able to master his technique of word association. Strangely, I went looking for the book and I can't remember where I put it… 

Bill also gave me another book he wrote, "The Constitution of the United States in Rhymes". I still have that one. It was Copywritten on March 29, 1998, by William D. Hersey… 

Years later, when Bill was in his 90s, I bumped into him at the Norton Post Office and I raced over to say hello. He looked at me like a deer in headlights, prompting me to say jokingly, "Big mister memory expert, you have no idea who I am, do you?" There was a pause, a moment of panic, and then, standing tall with absolutely no slouch, he said, "Vinnie LeVine, Sharon Plumbing and Heating, ** Burt St., 508-285-47**". All I could do was look at him and say, "Nice going Bill, the universe as we knew it, has been restored!"

The story I heard was that Fairlee and Bill passed away within months of each other. The family sold the house and all the property, which amounted to multiple acres, and now there's a bunch of new houses and pavement at the beginning of the road. 

Sadly, the rock with the owl at the entrance was removed and now there's just a generic street sign…

I recently bumped into a young couple who bought one of the new homes built on the Hersey's land and they had no idea why it was called Fairlee Lane. Of course, I filled them in…

A lot of people think the life of a plumber is labor-intensive and mundane, but because of the people I met, I always found it to be interesting, exciting, and unpredictable and that's what I miss most…