Friday, December 12, 2008

My Plumber, Yury Zhivago

For the past several weeks, the shower in my apartment has only delivered hot water. This is a problem because the water is scalding hot…much too hot to shower with.

I’ve handled the problem by running the water full blast until the hot water runs out. If I time it right, by the time I’ve shaved and soaped up, the hot water has almost run out. I will have about two minutes of lukewarm water to rinse myself off, before the water gets too cold to bear. It’s rather like a Navy shower-in-reverse: instead of conserving water, I’m using as much as possible.

My landlord finally got a plumber to stop by yesterday. I stayed home all day, waiting for him. The plumber got to work on my shower about 4 pm. He had to rip out a painted-over panel to access the pipes, covering my bedroom with drywall dust and paint chips. By 4:45 he had replaced a small plastic shunt that should have fixed the problem…but didn’t. He said he’s come back the next day if I’d be home.

Today I stayed home again, waiting. He got here earlier this time, around 3:30 pm, with a circular valve in hand. And hour later the valve was installed…and I still had no cold water.

Now he investigated the pipes themselves. He found that, in the basement, the galvanized cold water pipe leading to my shower was clogged up. So he will have to replace a length of pipe. But not today, because it was quitting time. In fact, he didn’t know when he’d get back.

Whenever I’m frustrated dealing with tradesmen, I remember my favorite passage from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. If you’ve only seen the movie, you haven’t encountered this scene. Both the David Lean film and the recent BBC version basically end at the scene where Yury Zhivago sends his lover Lara away. Then they skip ahead to Yury’s death.

In the book, there is a long conclusion detailing Zhivago’s decline after he breaks with Lara. During this period, he takes a third ‘wife,’ Marina, the daughter of a porter. (You can see why this is always cut out of the film versions.) Zhivago isn’t allowed to practice medicine, so he works odd jobs. In one sequence:
One day Yury and Marina (Zhivago’s third wife), stepping carefully in their felt boots, so as not to dirty the carpet with sawdust, were carrying wood into the study of a tenant who remained insultingly engrossed in something he was reading and did not honor them with so much as a glance. It was his wife who gave the orders and who settled up with them.

‘What has the pig got his nose into?’ Yury wondered. The scholar was scribbling furiously in the margins of his book. As he passed him with a bundle of logs, Yury glanced over his shoulder. On the desk lay an early edition of one of the booklets which he had written….
Aside from the scene’s Chauvinism (why is it an insult to be paid by a woman?), I’ve always taken two lessons from this sequence.
First, even though I’ve co-written nine books, there’s no guarantee that I won’t end up doing menial work to support myself.

And second, you never know: the guy who can’t seem to fix your plumbing may have other admirable qualities.

But I still wish I could find someone who could get the cold water working in my shower.

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