On Tuesday night around 10pm, the heavens opened up and rain poured down for almost 24 hours. Rain in the desert is unlike the temperamental Eastern storms. The streets flood, the ever-present sun is disconcertingly absent, the air tastes vastly different and dry riverbeds run with brown water. Flowers open up, and swarms of enervated insects crowd the air.
Wednesday was my first full day of work at Community Home Repair. Heeding my new coworkers’ warnings, I took the bus to avoid getting soaked and damaging my bike in the thigh-high puddles. At 6am, when I got on the bus, the sky barely had any light to it. Despite the gloomy morning, I found a friendly environment in the office. I received two CHRPA shirts and a hat, gloves, and a pocketknife. My teammate Dustin and I set out in Daedalus, one of the official trucks, a little after 7 for the first job of the day. I had very little idea what to expect, and it’s a good thing because if someone had warned me I probably would have stayed behind.
The first job was a clogged kitchen sink in a mobile home. I’ve unclogged a sink or two before, I thought. You just get a plunger or poke around with a coat hanger or dump Draino in it until something happens, right?
But CHRPA doesn’t not get paid to unclog sinks with plungers. I made two new friends that day. First, the Snake. An electric and air powered machine with a body vaguely reminiscent of a shop vacuum cleaner, a long neck, and a metal extension with a swirly tip that reaches unknowable lengths out of the neck and swirled around when turned on.
Then there was the Drain King. A rubber bladder that attaches to the end of a hose, which fills up until it can’t handle the pressure anymore and spits high-powered bursts of water down a pipe to dislodge whatever dares stand in its way. You know in cartoons when someone pinches a running hose, it swells up to ridiculous size, and they shoot it at their unwitting friend? It’s that, but bent to good purpose.
After testing the water and noting that the sink indeed did not drain, we carefully sidestepped a skeletal house cat with matted fur that periodically sneezed huge chunks of green mucus on the floor to get back out the door and look under the house. We needed to see where the drain pipes led because there was a strange puddle growing right under the kitchen. Good news: it was dry under the house. Bad news: about five feral cats were living under the home, and judging by the weathered skull of one of their ancestors, they had been living there quite some time. And feral cats do not need litterboxes because they live in one.
The smell was apparent even from outside. I looked down at my new, soft blue CHRPA shirt and recently bought pants. I shrugged and crawled under that house, shoving aside piles of dried excrement. Rain dripped down the walls outside. Dustin pointed at the underside of the house. “See the problem?”
I am not a plumbing expert (yet), but even my untrained eyes recognized the fact that pipes should not have a huge, dripping gap between them.
I said that it was dry under the house. It was not dry after we ran the Snake. Fetid brown water poured out of the gap, and then we were crawling in mud made of desert sand, sink offal, and cat filth. We ran the Drain King from above and flooded the kitchen with backwash, providing me with the opportunity to scream “TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!!!” on my very first day. We ran the Snake from below again, lying in the leftovers from the Drain King. Betty, the homeowner, took pity and offered us Pepsi. We ran the Drain King, the Snake, and the Drain King and finally the kitchen sink drained and did not overflow. Dustin bravely reconnected the pipe while I provided moral support from the driest position I could find.
“Please get sink catchers,” we pleaded with Betty, crying and covered in mud and unmentionable other substances in her flooded kitchen. “Please get them. They are cheap.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, relatively nonchalant about the state of her kitchen for a 78-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis. I know this because she wouldn’t let me mop, boasting that she did all her own chores. She showed off a party favor from her twin great-grandsons’ birthday party, and pointed out how nice her new kitchen windows were until I agreed with her. She asked us to mail her donation to PCOA, the society that had connected her with CHRPA. Meeting her was the best part of that morning; she was cheerful and chatty and kept me sane and helped me remember why I was going through this. It wasn’t just a sink. It was water, the source of life, the gift of God to the desert.
We cleaned up the tools. We drank our Pepsi. And we got in the truck and went to our next job.