Here at xoJane, it is quite common for very odd things to end up on the editorial email list. I don't want to name any names, but someone was talking about butts rather a lot last week, and I memorably signed off on a reply to all on Friday morning with “...it may take me a few hours to file [this story] because I'll be busy EXORCISING A TOILET.” This being xoJane, Emily said “Hey, you should write about that.”
Toilets and I have what might be called an uneasy relationship. Unlike a friend who is mortally terrified of toilets1, I don’t fear them -- but I do view them with deep suspicion and loathing. And they seem to return the feeling in kind -- if I were one to anthropomorphize household plumbing, I would say that toilets and I are caught in a feedback loop, each of us expecting the worst of each other.
My first negative toilet incident occurred at a very tender age during our years in Greece, in a story that has passed, rightly so, into family lore. It all started when my school friend Anna and I needed to use the toilets at school, and bravely voyaged into the stalls that most of the students avoided if at all possible. We duly did our business and I pulled the chain to flush, delighted by the chance to use a flush toilet since we had an outhouse at home, but Anna was afraid.
“I don’t want to flush it,” she said, clearly having more experience with Greek toilets than I did.
“Just flush it so we can go,” I said.
There was silence from the stall next to mine, so finally I went over myself to do what she wouldn’t do, and tugged the chain decisively. Just as I opened my mouth to say smugly that this hadn’t been so terrible and maybe she could be less of a baby next time, the toilet exploded.
When I say “exploded,” I mean that a geyser of human waste erupted from the toilet bowl. In my memory, I have a vision of it splattering everywhere, covering us in scratchy toilet paper and effluvium, but more probably, it just overflowed from the bowl and got on our shoes. Everything seems bigger when you’re a kid, you know?
Ever after, I was wary of toilets. Give me a good outhouse any day. A big hole in the ground doesn’t fight back when you take a dump in it. It understands its purpose in life, and has resigned itself to it.
My list of toilet incidents between then and now is long and illustrious, but some of you may want to eat at some point today, so I’ll just mention the recent highlights; the time at my old house that the city sewer backed up because one of my friends flushed a tampon down the toilet2 and I had to have a long and awkward conversation with the landlord about how I don’t menstruate so it was most definitely not my fault, for example. #Sewagepocalypse2011, in which a root grew through the inflow line leading into my septic tank, leading to poo in the shower.
And now, #Sewagepocalypse2012, coming to viewers live from my bathroom for a few precious hours last week.
At first I thought it was just the toilet seal3 and made a note to tell my landlord about it in the next few days. There were some signs of moisture around the base of the toilet, which weren’t traceable to a leaking water supply or condensation on the tank. There was also a wee bit of an aroma. You know, the usual signs. You don’t know the usual signs? Well, clearly you haven’t spent as much time around obstreperous plumbing as I have.
Then I went to flush the toilet and the leak became a gently undulating wave creeping across the bathroom floor, edging across the linoleum around the toilet and shower and heading directly for the carpet4. I grabbed the closest thing to hand, which unfortunately turned out to be one of my nice hand towels, to stop the tide.
This is my shower. With poop in it. Lest you accuse me of slopdolly housekeeping, we have really hard water, which leaves scum on pretty much everything.
“Hrm,” I said. “Errr,” I added. “Ergh,” I said.
The flow showed no signs of stopping and I leaped up to stop inflow into the tank and turn the water supply off. Unfortunately, the water supply was frozen open so I had to make a mad dash for the side of the house to turn off the water to the whole house5. When I returned, the flow of water had at least stopped and I could turn to mopping it up.
This was more, I knew, than a broken toilet seal. This was a clog of epic proportions, and given my history with plumbing, there was a 50/50 chance it would be my fault. Of course, I live in terror that everything is my fault, and even though I adore my landlords and they like me, I have an irrational fear that they will decide I’m too much trouble after yet another haphazard incident with the plumbing/gas/termites/back door. I mean, yes, I pay my rent on time, but I also do things like running into key plumbing with the lawnmower.
I prayed for an errant root.
And then waited for the plumber to show up.
Plumber number one “didn’t do stoppages.” In his defense, my landlord had contacted him back when we thought it was just the toilet seal. Luckily, I have an old house, so we found something for him to do to make his trip out worth it. Unluckily, he left his flashlight behind, perhaps embittered by the waste of his plumbing skills. I for one was saddened to miss out on the chance to see a toilet truck in action.
My knight in shining plumber's truck.
Plumber number two was a bit of a stoppage expert. In fact, he couldn’t come out until almost 24 hours after The Incident because the main line snake was in such high demand. I watched him avidly as he lunged below the house, clearly in rhapsodies of delight at the opportunity to be able to ream my pipes.
“We’re screwed,” he said gloomily about thirty seconds later.
This is not what you want to hear from a plumber.
“Can’t reach the cleanout,” he said, gesturing at the snake, which was clearly and categorically too large to fit under the house to the cleanout’s current location. It was a pretty massive snake, I’ll give you that.
See, it's a big snake.
At my crestfallen expression, imagining a lifetime of traipsing across the lawn to my landlord’s guestroom to pee, lugging a bucket of dishes with me so I could do them in their sink, and giving myself periodic whore’s baths to stay fresh, he went back to his truck and rifled around a bit, emerging with a mysterious length of pipe and a shovel. He homed in on the outflow line like the finest of tracking dogs and started shoveling, uncovering a length of ominously black pipe.
“We’ll just add a cleanout here,” he said, cheerfully sawing through the pipe and creating, to my horror and his evident satisfaction, a geyser of raw sewage, which drained rapidly into the thirsty soil. He proceeded to set up the new cleanout in about the length of time it takes me to brew a cup of tea, using some nifty gadgets along the way, and then he hauled out the snake to go to town in search of the errant blockage.
This is kind of like bobbing for apples, I thought, while leaning out of the window to watch him, except grosser. He caught me taking a picture of the snake and I said “It’s okay, I’m a journalist,” and oddly enough, he seemed to accept that excuse. I held my breath, fearing that any minute, he was going to surface with a tampon, mat of cat hair, or some other peculiar item, but instead he just kept feeding the snake into the line, periodically stopping to grind it back and forth, and then he had me flush the toilet, and then, bam, he was done.
"It's okay, I'm a journalist."
We could watch the water rippling smoothly by the open cleanout, and he started winding the snake up. Boom. Problem solved.
“Roots,” he said, as my landlord showed up to investigate. Amazingly enough, a comparatively small root can act like a catcher’s mitt to grab...things...that travel along the outflow line, and eventually enough...things...catch on it that the line backs up. He’d used a cutting attachment on the snake to cut through the cluster of roots, but suggested that the septic tank was probably leaking and attracting root growth.
Which means there’s another sewagepocalypse in my future, because we need to go a-diggin' to replace the tank seal.
Catch the next #Sewagepocalypse live as it happens by following s.e. smith on Twitter, if you dare!
1. I’m not kidding, but that’s her story to tell so I’ll let her tell it if she wants to. Return
2. Seriously, people, don’t do this! Return
3. The toilet seal is a (usually) wax gasket laid between the base of your toilet and the floor plumbing. It fits snugly against everything to prevent leaks, which a.) protects your subflooring and b.) limits, uhm, odors. Return
4. I think carpet in bathrooms is weird. I also rent. So. Return
5. As you may recall, this isn’t the first time that particular valve and I have had a little dance together. Return