*Warning: Descriptions herein may disgust. Lord knows I was disgusted writing them. I tell this Tale in the hope that should you find yourself faced with a similar situation, you'll be saved considerable aggravation.
Also, in a slight departure from my usual practice, I have allowed the odd medium-strength curse word to remain in the story. Had you faced the same thing, you'd curse too. I hope I don't offend anyone, but I felt I needed to maintain my integrity and tell the truth. I toned down the worst of the event so as not to repulse you, my dear reader. You may proceed.
Those of you who've read previous tales know I've had trouble with toilets. What happened last night makes the other difficulties pale by comparison. The only thing the toilet didn't do is explode.
It began after I returned home from the gym. I wanted to take a shower, but needed to void my bladder of the water I'd taken in during my workout.
I never got the chance.
17.30: I lifted the lid to the toilet to find it filled to the rim's edge with dark green raw sewage, bits of toilet paper floating about in it. It stank to high Heaven, and what freaked me out most was that the water was rising. It reminded me of the scene in the movie Dogma, where a demon forms from excrement spilling from an never-ending overflowing toilet bowl. Desperate, I grabbed the plunger and began pumping, hoping to dislodge whatever was blocking the pipes.
That only made things worse. The more I rammed the handle down, the higher the water level rose. I withdrew the plunger, but it was too late. Up came the sewage, which rolled over the edge and splashed all over the floor. I quickly yanked everything from a rack under the sink and then the rack itself, so it wouldn't be contaminated. I then flipped on the fan to vent the room and opened the door to the flat to let in fresh air.
A sound emanated from the toilet that could strike fear into the hearts of mortal men:
Blorp! Blorp Blorp, Blooorp Blurp... Blorp!
I turned to my mother-in-law, who'd been looking on in horror. She then fled the flat to fetch the building supervisor. Meanwhile, I grabbed the plunger and tried again to clear the pipes. The water level receded a little and didn't come back up.
A few minutes later, she returned with the plumber. He thought we'd clogged it, but I explained there was no way in Hell that we caused this kind of blockage. The toilet had been in perfect working order when I'd left and this was no run-of-the-mill clog, but something far more insidious.
Back-pressure. Uh oh.
I remembered hearing workmen around the exterior plumbing over the past two days, and I suspected they must have bollixed up the works. Cursing them blackly in my heart, I vowed to find the guilty party and have his head on a platter. I called my wife, described the problem and asked her to inform our landlord. I knew Mabel was working late, which was just as well. I didn't want her to see that disgusting mess.
18.00: The plumber worked with his heavy-duty plunger for well over 30 minutes, to no avail. He succeeded in splashing muck all over the walls and the floor. There was one moment when he thought he might have solved the problem. He refilled and flushed the tank to see if the toilet would flush through. It didn't. Instead, dark blue water from the disinfectant cake in the tank overflowed onto the floor.
"Oh well," I said. "At least it'll help kill some of the bacteria."
To his credit, when he realised he couldn't clear the line, he spent time scooping water off the floor into a bucket my mother-in-law had produced. His normal emergency fee was $300, but as he was unsuccessful, he only asked for $200. I paid him and thanked him for his efforts. I was back where I'd started.
20.00: On the suggestion of my brother-in-law, who'd come over for dinner, I took off in a dead sprint for a nearby plumbing shop. I picked up two 900ml bottles of powerful plumbing acid designed to dissolve whatever was blocking the pipes and made a swift beeline back home. Donning rubber gloves, I jammed a hose into the toilet and poured one bottle of acid into the bowl.
Blorp! Blurp! Blorp! Sssssss... the acid went to work.
The directions said to let it stand for 10 minutes, then flush with cold water. I let it stand 15. Before attempting a flush, I grabbed the plunger to see if anything had loosened, but nothing moved.
Instead the water level rose. Damnation! I grabbed the second bottle and poured it down the hose. This time the reaction was more pronounced. A bud of hope bloomed in my chest.
"God, I hope this works."
I let it stand for another 15 minutes and then went to work with the plunger. No dice. Then I called the landlord, telling him the situation was dire and that I was trying the chemical route. If that failed, I said I'd call him back to get someone over to check the building's sewage system. It wasn't just me that had to use the washroom, and with the toilet out of commission, the shower was off limits. If I couldn't solve this problem, neither my wife nor my mother-in-law would be able to shower, let alone relieve themselves. The only option was a disgusting bathroom on the ground floor that the building watchmen use.
21.00: I ran back to the plumbing shop and purchased two more bottles of acid; I was determined to burn out whatever was stopping the flow. This time I poured in the full contents of both bottles and waited more than 30 minutes for it to eat away at the clog. In the meantime, I set about cleaning up the sewage. I kept as far away from the bowl as possible, fearing an eruption from the back-pressure would shower me in acid and filth.
When I checked the bowl half an hour later, the water level hadn't gone down, it had come back up. I was exasperated, and the cliché whine leapt out of my mouth before I could stop it.
"God, what have I done to deserve this?"
I looked up to Heaven, but no answer was forthcoming. I tried the plunger again, but it became clear that whatever was in the pipes would not go gentle into that good night. I called the landlord to apprise him of my lack of progress, but only got his message service. Had I not been succinct, or was his English so poor he didn't understand I had a bona fide emergency on my hands? It was almost 10.00pm, and I was in deep yogurt. I left a message and hoped he'd call right back.
I never heard from him.
22.00: Blorp! Blorp!! Gurgle gurgle gurgle...
Sewage gushed into the bowl and cascaded over the edge, submerging the floor in foul-smelling liquid. More toilet paper and bits of feces came with it. Enraged, well past the limits of my patience and beyond desperate, I realised I no longer had a choice. I grabbed the bucket and swiftly (but carefully) bailed the toilet bowl, dumping the contents into the shower. Thank God that drain was still working. I asked my mother-in-law to call her son, who'd since returned home, to get him to call in someone. No sooner had I turned around than the toilet filled again.
Blorp!! Gurgle gurgle. Bloomp!!
"Oh dear Jesus, no..."
The unmistakable sound of water rushing down the pipes on the other side of the bathroom wall told me all I needed to know. Each time someone above us flushed, part of it backwashed into our toilet, and there was no stopping it. For the next three-and-a-half hours, the toilet continuously overflowed, most times with less than two minutes elapsed between fillings. I stood guard with the bucket, bailing with one hand and using the shower hose to rinse with the other, stopping from time-to-time to fish toilet paper off the shower grill so the swill could drain away. I kept dumping Drano™ into the hole in order to keep the drain from clogging, because if that had happened I would have been in a world of hurt: the only place left for the sewage to go would have been into the rest of the flat.
I had already been tired from my workout, but the non-stop bailing, coupled with a lack of nourishment — not that I had an appetite — drained my energy levels even further. At about 11.30pm Mabel returned home to witness the grim scene. I'd failed to solve the problem, and though I didn't want her to deal with it, I was glad she was there, because she could help me communicate. The other good news was a plumber was on the way.
He couldn't arrive soon enough.
00.00: When the plumber arrived, he took a cursory look in the bathroom and knew he couldn't rectify the problem from inside; he needed access to the main sewage lines. But the building supervisor had left for the night and the entrance was locked. I grew despondent as I wasn't looking forward to bailing all night long. I had nightmare visions of what morning would bring when everyone upstairs got up for work.
I resumed bailing while the plumber, Mabel and her mother ran around looking for a way into the back. Then the plumber hit upon an idea. He went into the kitchen and looked up near the ceiling where the exhaust fan sat. He asked Mabel to locate a flashlight while he went downstairs to talk to the night-watchmen in the hope of borrowing a stepladder.
01.30: By the time he'd returned with the ladder and Mabel had secured a flashlight, inspiration in the form of exhaustion struck. Why hadn't I thought of it before? Mentally kicking myself, I picked up the old towel from the floor and jammed it into the toilet.
"If a clog is making the water back up here," I reasoned, "then I should be able to clog this end to prevent the waste from filling the bowl."
With sarcasm I congratulated myself for my quick thinking while I peeled off the rubber gloves I'd been wearing for hours. I went to the sink and scrubbed my arms from fingertips to elbows with anti-bacterial soap.
When I went into the kitchen I found that the tenacious plumber had removed the fan and wriggled through the tiny 14-inch-square hole to the outside. I was thankful he was a little guy. Before long he called for his tool bag and parts of the snake he'd brought.
Ten minutes later he called out he'd found the problem and directed me to fill the tank to test-flush the toilet. I pulled the rubber gloves back on and removed the towel, then pressed down the toilet handle and said a silent prayer. In an utter miracle, the toilet flushed. Relief washed over me, but still wary I let the tank refill and then tested it again.
Trust me when I say there are fewer sublime pleasures in life than a properly operating commode. It's a nasty business when that which we take for granted suddenly fails.
The devil is in the details, so it is said. In this case it was true more than once, for not only did the plumber go to extraordinary lengths to find the source of our difficulties, I faced the cleanup.
And what had created the monumental headache?
Oh... the irony.
The same thing I'd thought to use to block the overflow was the root of our misery. What I wanted to know was how the Hell a large towel got into the pipe. It couldn't have been flushed; I could only deduce that a workman had either accidentally or deliberately discarded the towel into the system while effecting service. No wonder the acid had been ineffective.
02.30: I scrubbed myself clean and went to a nearby ATM with the plumber to get his payment. I thanked him and gave him a tip, for he went above and beyond the call of duty. Were it not for him I would have been dealing with the hassle well into the next day.
When I returned home to the waiting bio-hazard I began coordinating the cleanup: I asked Mabel to wipe down the kitchen with a powerful disinfectant, especially the counter and the sink, where the plumber had been standing in his filthy flip-flops.
While she did that, I mopped up the excess sewage in the bathroom, followed by pulling the shower curtain off the rings and throwing it into the washing machine with detergent and disinfectant. Once the mopping was done, I sterilised the mop handle and changed out the head to a new one so that Mabel could mop the main room with a fresh bucket of disinfectant in hot water. Meanwhile I scrubbed the bathroom top to bottom, spraying cleanser onto the shower walls, coating the toilet with disinfectant, and adding a fresh antiseptic cake to the toilet tank.
After wiping down all the walls, I attacked the toilet, scrubbing the surface with disinfectant and scraping the bowl with the toilet brush. I scrubbed the exterior as well, right down to the toilet's base. Then I went after the shower, scouring the walls and the floor to get every nook and cranny. I wasn't about to let anyone stand in there until I was satisfied it was clean. I rinsed the shower with scalding hot water, after which I cleaned and rinsed a second time. Once completed, I went to work on the floor, washing it by hand instead of using the mop, to ensure everything was slathered in disinfectant.
Afterward I threw out the rubber bath mat and the hose I'd used for the acid, along with the other garbage. My old cross-trainers went with them. Call me crazy, but I couldn't imagine wearing them again. I gave the bathroom floor a second cleaning and dried it, and by then the shower curtain was clean so I clipped it back into place. I then washed the sink and wiped down the shower head, taps, light switches and door handles.
That bathroom had never been cleaner, not even when it was new. Mabel and her mother used it to get ready for bed, and it was 3.30am when they retired.
03.30: I was exhausted, hot, sweaty and not yet finished. Using more disinfectant, I wiped down the handles of both doors at the main entrance, the handles of the kitchen door and the light switches for both rooms. I cleaned every surface I could think of in case some of the sewage had been tracked or spread elsewhere, which I felt certain must have occurred. After completing those jobs to my satisfaction, I put the racks back into the bathroom and restocked the shelves. When I was finished, not trace of evidence existed that the bathroom had been a cesspool just hours earlier.
04.30: My final cleaning task was easy: I took a long, hot shower and scrubbed myself raw to get that oogey feeling to disappear. I'd battled the onslaught of human waste for 11 hours, and I wanted to be able to handle food. Despite the revolting, sickening siege, I was hungry.
I hadn't eaten for half a day.
05.30: After eating I crawled into bed, utterly exhausted. I rested easy, knowing all was well and that I wouldn't wake up to another mess. The trauma was over.
I'd been furious while dealing with everything late into the night, but in the light of day I grew philosophical. The bottom line is: Shit happens.
If anything positive could be gleaned from this episode, it's that the bathroom is spotless. With Lunar New Year just around the corner, we would have had to give it a thorough cleaning anyway. Better for this nightmare to take place now than during the holiday, when getting a plumber would have been impossible.
Above all, we've learned from the experience. We'll recognise the severity of the problem in the event it happens again, but I'm not about to wait to see if it does.
Come Hell or high water, we're moving.
January 24, 2003
For more hilarity, read these follow-up posts:
Next Tale: Misty Mountain Hop