They Said It Couldn't Be Done

One man's success in the face of long odds and towering skepticism

Everyone doubted me.

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I posted this on Instagram and Facebook with the caption “Repairing fridge’s icemaker with guidance from YouTube, what could go wrong.”

Sure, some of the comments seemed positive: “You’re a brave man!” “I applaud your initiative…” but the subtext of each one was “can’t wait to see this idiot fail/experience mild electrocution.”

No, I knew everyone was thinking along the lines of my old college roommate, Brent. Who saw my post several hours later when he woke up at his home in Hawaii and sent me the following text: “Dude, you BREAK things. You dont (sic) fix them. Stick to what you know… .”

You know, you partially-flood one two-bedroom dorm suite, and then for two decades you’re the guy who breaks things…

<wavy lines and sepia tones to cue flashback scene>

We’d just moved into our double junior year, and I took an unlikely fall.

I stumbled on the threshold between our bathroom and the hallway. But instead of falling forward and bashing my skull on the sink, I fell at an angle, landing hard against the toilet. A straight, near-perfect crack appeared along the left-front corner of the toilet’s tank. In the same instant, water began to pour through the crack in an unceasing flat sheet. I stared for a minute, processing.

Startled, a little bemused, I went to Brent’s room.

“Uh, Brent?” I said, half-incredulous/half-embarrassed. “I think I broke the toilet.”

“Oh my God! Are you serious?”

We had been roommates for less than 18 hours.

If you know even a little about toilet plumbing, you’ll know that after the tank in the back of the toilet empties itself, it starts to fill back up with water, in preparation for the next flush. So, if there’s a hole in the tank, water will just continually gush. I know this now; I didn’t know it then, which is why I’d left the toilet unattended.

In the time it took me to alert Brent, the bathroom’s floor had flooded with a half-inch of water. The small lake had already breached threshold, water was beginning to soak into the carpet in our kitchen/common room area.

Brent slapped me on the arm.

“Get a f***ing bucket!”

We used two small trash cans. One of us filled the first can with a steady stream of water, then switched it out with the empty container, dumping the first into the bathtub. After establishing a rhythm, we took turns either swapping out buckets or using towels to try to pull some water out of the soaked carpet.

I called maintenance and got through to an operator, who failed to understand the urgency of our situation. She thought our toilet was out of order and that one of us, y’know, had to go

“No, the toilet’s broken, but it’s still filling up with water,” I said. “Our room’s flooding.”

She assured me a plumber would check on us as soon as one became available. It was move-in weekend, she reminded me.

I returned to the bathroom, Brent was bucketing away. I took the lid off the toilet tank. In either desperation or perhaps grasping at the residue of some plumbing lesson my father had once tried to impart, I recognized the ball float, which mechanically tracks the tank’s water level. 

“I think, if I just pull this up…”

I grabbed the ball float. As I moved it upward, the water slowed, then stopped.

Brent emptied the final bucket and then looked in the tank, as if to make sure the water had really stopped. He looked at me, and I smiled.

Unfortunately, along with the smile came an inadvertent, happy twitch of my wrist: the ball float snapped off in my hand.

The tank began to fill with water again. This time, though, water also spurted straight up out of the joint where I’d snapped off the arm. 

Brent turned, walked to his room, and closed the door.

The next 35 minutes seemed like three hours. If I held the busted arm in just the right spot, the water would keep from running. I had to fight the water pressure to hold it on. Every so often I squirted my shirt. I developed a nasty callous on my thumb. Brent watched TV.

Finally, a maintenance guy showed up. 

“Toilet problems?” he said, standing in the bathroom doorway. 

“Uh, yeah,” I said, holding the ball float in one hand and my trash can bucket under the tank’s crack with another.

The plumber crouched past me, reached behind the toilet and gave the water shut-off valve three firm half-turns. Embarrassed but thankful to be free of my Little Dutch Boy act, I offered up the ball float to the plumber.

“Uh, just leave it here,” he said.

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OK, so Brent — whom I haven’t seen in at least 15 years — had a reason for skepticism. My wife has reasons for skepticism, too — more on that below — but I’d managed to get her to let me give it a shot.

My Dad and his wife had just left, and I’d managed to keep the icemaker off the list of fix-it chores Katie had wanted Dad to try his hand at. It’s not Oedipal, exactly — that would be the other way around — but there is something emasculating about your wife’s appealing to your 70-year-old father with his duct tape and WD-40 to complete the various handyman tasks you’ve been avoiding.

The thing is, I’d already done the research. The icemaker trouble was a “known issue” on our specific Samsung refrigerator. I’d watched several YouTube videos on how to fix it, and Samsung even sold a part supposed to rectify the situation.

The reason I didn’t want Dad to help with the icemaker is because I wanted to follow the video I’d found step by step, and I knew my father well enough to know that he was going to eyeball the situation and start taking stuff apart1.

Katie let it go, but her doubts about my aptitude for and/or interest in tinkering are deep-seated and well-earned.

<wavy lines and sepia tones = another flashback>

We’d just started dating, and Katie was visiting me for the first time at my one-bedroom apartment in Delaware. This is the place where I’d lived for more than a year before discovering that the stove didn’t work. My only furniture was a single chair, a desk made out of an old door laid across two filing cabinets, and a mattress on the floor in the bedroom. I’d tidied up as well as I knew how, but there were some significant oversights.

Katie — who wanted to shower after her flight down from Boston — let out a disgusted cry from the bathroom.

I stuck my head in: “What’s wrong?”

“I am not showering in this.” Her steady, calm voice belied her face, which was a mixture of disgust, disappointment and, I’m pretty sure, fear that she had made a terrible mistake in continuing this relationship.

So, yeah. I’d been taking showers in ankle-deep water for about a month. 

Disgusting? I guess. But the way I figured it was this: the tub’s water level remained constant despite daily showers, so the drain wasn’t technically clogged. There was some movement. If there hadn’t been, my bathroom would have flooded well before this.

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“OK, OK,” I said, smiling, trying to play it down and avoid confrontation. “Want to just shower later, after we get some dinner?”

“No. Sub. You have to fixthis. I am not staying here if I can’t use the shower.”

I was not going to joke my way out of the situation. Nor was I going to convince her that it was mostly clean ankle-deep water. I sighed, grabbed the plunger and sent Katie out. I pumped away at the drain through a two-inch deep soapy murk of showers past.

That didn’t work. I emerged from the bathroom and looked at Katie, who was sitting on the floor, pondering her options — as in, I assume, local motels.

I hopped in my truck and sped to the Food Lion. Fifteen minutes later I was back, dumping half a bottle of Liquid-Plumr into my tub.

There was nothing to do now but wait.  We went out to dinner, and then took in the now-classic Will Ferrell vehicle, “Elf,” which was funny enough to thaw the freeze that had descended on our relationship. By the time we’d returned to my place things felt almost comfortable.  Of course this stuff would work. What could possibly be in the drain that Liquid-Plumr wouldn’t eat through? The chemicals had to work.

They didn’t work. The water-level in the dingy tub remained seemingly unchanged.

My heart sank. Katie’s face fell. What impermeable sludge could possibly have sloughed off my body? I pulled on latex gloves, found a screwdriver in the back of my closet, and tried to figure this out.

I unscrewed the drain, reached in with the gloves and began to pull out hairs. I was finished almost as soon as I’d begun, and now I was even more confused.  Was there a rock of some sort down in the pipes?  An animal?

“How’s it going in there?” Katie asked hopefully.

My face flushed with a burgeoning rage at the situation. I didn’t know what to do. Soon I would be too frustrated to think. I began to bang at the drain with the screwdriver: “God… damn… it!” Over and over.

On one of the downward strokes, my knuckle caught the bathtub’s trip lever — one giant bubble appeared above the drain and GLURG… in 20 seconds, all the water was gone.

For more than a month, I’d been using a tub with the drain all but fully closed.

Did this say something about the level of squalidity in which I was willing to live, and did this have implications for our relationship? Yes, and yes.

But that’s not the point of today’s letter. The point of today’s letter is: You’ve come a long way, baby:

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Not that he wouldn’t have fixed it! I believe that you might’ve fixed it, Dad!