Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All hail Joe the Plumber. Not what you think.

It's the kind of story you only hear around the holidays, a story of hardship and heartache, of unexpected expenses that threaten to sap much of the magic of Christmas...

I went upstairs yesterday around 3 p.m. to take a shower. It was only three hours after I'd woken up following my last work shift (in the office) for the year. I turned on the hot water faucet and ... nothing. No noise, no trickle, no nothing. The cold water worked fine, but the hot gave us nothing.

It was late enough in the day already (I'd already wasted enough time in front of the computer), so I put on some deodorant and clothes and a hat and went out to take care of the errands I'd already planned on doing yesterday. (Note to self: The Clifton Target shopping center is a madhouse as Christmas draws closer, even on weekdays. Home Depot? Less so.) When I got home, I triumphantly replaced the fill valve in the upstairs toilet and stopped the hissing it had been making for a couple of days.

But the hot water refused to flow. A few phone calls established what I'd feared: frozen pipes. How it was the hot side only was confusing the amateur plumbers (read: my father and, to a lesser extent, his friend Steve, who once worked as a plumber's apprentice), but there was little we could do. I tried Steve's suggestion of turning off the cold water into the hot water heater, draining a few gallons from the heater, then going upstairs and opening the taps before turning on the cold water again. The hope was it would create a vacuum that might loosen the ice blockage. No such luck; there was no change in the taps. We gave up and called it a night. I'd give it another shot in the morning -- by calling a plumber.

I watched Monday Night Football to ensure that Green Bay's Greg Jennings and Mason Crosby did not outscore Chicago's Matt Forte by 38 points (not that I expected it), thereby securing me my second fantasy football championship in three years. But even that victory could not prevent a fitfull night's sleep brought on by thoughts of a catastrophic problem, a discovery of frozen and burst pipes and of opening walls in order to repair and replace them. I figured my winnings would have to go directly to some plumber, and I hoped that they'd cover at least half the cost.

This morning, I dug up the number of a plumber we'd used to disconnect our gas range in the basement, and he said he'd call around 3:30, when he had a better idea of how his day was going. Clearly unable to wait that long, I turned to Google. "Clifton plumbers" produced enough results that I narrowed it down to those near the house. The closest one with two reviews sounded good enough -- and then he surpassed any expectations.

If you live in Bergen County, Passaic County or Essex County, New Jersey, I can't recommend Yosef Gove -- Joseph Gove -- and Gove Plumbing enough. Yes, Joe the Plumber was way better than his Ohio namesake (who doesn't have the license, of course).

Here's the deal: I called Joe and explained the lack of hot water. He suggested I open the hot water taps fully, then turn the cold water just a little, thereby allowing the cold water to trickle into where the freeze might be. I could hear the air hiccuping in the pipes and saw the stream from the tub waver in the drafts. I had hope.

I came back downstairs and busied myself for a couple of hours, including a call to the insulation company that, both Steve and Joe suspected, likely had caused the freeze by not plugging the holes carefully enough. Later that afternoon, I got back online while watching ER. ("The last ER Christmas!" Yes, I'm still watching. Figured I might as well finish out the run.) About halfway through, I began fast-forwarding during a commercial, and that's when I heard it. It was like stopping along a path in the woods and noticing sound of the waterfall cascading over the cliff up around the bend. It came from behind the closed bathroom door upstairs -- water thundering into the bath. Success!

The water was hot, and 48 hours after my last shower, I was ready to lose my clothes and jump in right then. But I turned it off first and then made several triumphant phone calls -- to my parents, to Steve, to Joe the Plumber, to the one who had three other stops to make before he could give me an idea of when he might make it over. And then came the shower I'd waited two days for -- truly one day of waiting that felt like two on account of the uncertainty of the situation. It was everything I'd hoped it might be, and I probably stood there a bit longer than I otherwise would have.

Afterward, I stepped outside to check that no water had emerged from beneath the siding (indicating burst pipes), but there was no such cascade. It may have still been cold, but the sun felt soft and warm. The air was crisp and clear. Christmas is just two days away. The weather's supposed to warm up for the next five days, with only two nights barely dipping below freezing. Any recurrence of the frozen pipes shouldn't happen before we leave for New Year's -- when we'll turn off the water supply anyway -- and by then, I expect to have spoken with the insulation company.

Joe the Plumber -- a nice, personable man in a profession not necessarily known for such people -- was this year's Christmas Miracle. Here's hoping that getting the insulation company to come back and double-check its work becomes next week's New Year's miracle.

Happy freakin' holidays!

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