We assumed it was going to be a pretty ordinary, dark and rainy November night in Portland, Oregon. We just moved into the Retro Ranch 10 days earlier, and were excited to finally begin some simple interior painting projects. Easy stuff.
It was late, and I was edging the final corner of the room that I had claimed for my design office. David was washing out the rest of the paint rollers in our stationary tub in the back bathroom. We were both exhausted and looking forward to getting to bed before midnight, as the last few evenings had been nothing but a paint roller-derby so we could finally move furniture into that room.
I brought my last brush to the sink and mindlessly stood next to him watching the teal colored water swirl effortlessly down the drain. As I turned to leave, I noticed that same lovely color was coming back up the toilet behind me.
“Hey David- are you seeing this? David.. David.. Turn around and look at this!”
“Wait a sec, I’m almost done here.” He replied, scrubbing at the rollers and not really interested in whatever miracle marvel I was trying to point out. (And just to be clear, I have been known to randomly point out some really dumb shit that usually only I can see, so I certainly don’t fault him for not turning right around to see my potential Jesus-in-a-toaster-strudel or old-man-in-the-peanut for the thousandth time.)
“The color of the water in the toilet is the same as the color of the water in the sink!” I yelled, getting more freaked out as the water was rising. “Shut the faucet off!”
“Well that can’t be right….” he calmly replied, shutting the faucet off. I don’t know much about toilets, but I know they shouldn’t be directly connected to the sink. What about if we just try and flush it?”
“Oh hell no. I’m not touching this thing.” I snapped back. “It’s 50 years old and who knows what’s going on under the floors right now. I’m twisting that shut-off valve and going to bed. I’ll call a plumber in the morning.”
“Well we can’t just leave it. We need to see if it rises or flushes.”
“Ok then. Well I am putting my hand ON the shut-off valve while YOU flush, and if that water rises so much as an inch I’m shutting it off completely and we are going to bed.”
This would probably be a good time to mention that ever since I was a kid I have had a crippling fear of overflowing toilets. I’d rather ride my Huffy bike a mile home than go to the bathroom at friends’ houses, because I was always terrified that the toilet would somehow break when I flushed it and then overflow all over their pretty, shag-carpeted, seashell-themed bathrooms. And when it did, I pictured myself riding the toilet tank lid out the front door on a wave to escape the wrath of their angry parents.
So what I was about to do here at the Retro Ranch was clearly against every fiber of my being. But I was a new homeowner, so I guess it’s time to face my demons, right?
“Ok, ready? I’m flushing it.” David said, slowly pressing the tank handle. “It’s swirling… It’s swirling…. Uh-oh…. It’s rising! It’s rising! Shut the valve! Jamie, shut the valve!”
I was twisting that rusty, frozen, 50 year old valve with all my strength and wouldn’t you know, it finally turned like a merry-go-round. Then it broke off into my hand.
“Shit shit shit! The valve is broken! Oh my god! It’s happening! It’s happening! My worst nightmare is coming true!” I screamed, as the teal water hit the rim of the bowl and started to overflow on to our bathroom floor next to my feet.
“Get the bucket!” David yelled, pushing me out the bathroom door so he could grab it from under the sink and start bailing. I stood there frozen, just watching him dunk the bucket into the rapidly rising toilet, and then run it out the back door over and over. “What are you doing? Get some towels! Call someone! Do something!”
“Who?! Who should I call?!” I was practically hysterical as David sloshed his way back and forth from bathroom to back door, like he was trying to stop the Titanic from sinking with a single two-gallon mop bucket.
“I don’t know! Call anyone! I think this thing is starting to rise faster and we need someone to tell us how to shut the main water valve off! I can’t do this forever!”
So I dialed the only number I could actually think of: 911.
“Hello, 911, please state your emergency.”
“Yes, hi, um, we just moved into a new house and our toilet is overflowing and the valve broke off and it won’t stop and there’s water everywhere and my husband is bailing it out right now and I don’t know what to do and-” I rambled.
“Ma’am, just calm down, let me get the fire department. What’s your address?” I gave her the information and within 10 minutes a fire truck came roaring down our street. Lights and sirens blazing, as if to say to everyone “Hey! Wake up people! These are your new neighbors!” What a fantastic introduction at 11:30pm on a Tuesday night.
Nothing Lasts Forever, Except Cold November Rain
The fire department attempted to turn the water off at the street main in front of our house, but guess what? That was flooded too! Of course! So they had to send for a SECOND fire truck (yep, more lights, more sirens- you’re welcome, new neighbors!) to bring the proper gear to pump all the flood water out so they could actually crank the main valve closed.
That part was not as quick. And by this time we had assembled a crowd of sleepy looking neighbor people in pajamas and rain boots, milling around at the end of their driveways in the glow of the flashing fire engine lights, wondering who the new assholes in the old house were, and what exactly did they manage to burn down in less than two weeks.
And poor David was still bailing… Bailing… Bailing… Bailing… It was a good hour before the fire department was able to access the water main. I had also managed to find the moving box with our beach towels to mop up some of the water, and also call a 24-hr. emergency plumbing service (because those are cheap!). The dispatcher had just called me back to say a plumber was finally on his way, and from what I described, it sounded like a blockage in a main pipe. Oh goody.
In the last few minutes before the water was finally shut off, one of the firefighters went into the back room to check on David and say “Don’t worry man, we’re working on it and we’re almost there, so we’ll get you some relief real soon.” To which David, completely soaked and exhausted, but who had apparently come to terms with his new lot in life over the past 65 minutes, calmly replied “It’s fine. This is one of the nine circles of hell. This is just what I do now.” and continued sloshing his way out the back door, past a very puzzled firefighter until the water was shut off.