Willy Loman Plugged the John

When the plumbing backs up, men often expect that we should know how to make the repair.

Recently, I have had a frozen pipe. The wind snuck in under the house, infected an exposed sewer pipe, and froze it. When we returned to our home, we found a sink and a toilet that wouldn’t drain. The bathroom presented itself to me like a calculus problem at the end of the test. I stared at it and waited for the solution to arise from the murk. But nothing unexpected floated up, other than a few bubbles and some hot water from the sink.

A male comedy commenced. I used Drano, I used a snake, I used a bucket, and I became intimately connected to the nether regions of my home. Advice arrived, solicited and unsolicited. Apparently, I must have flushed something down that blocked the pipe. Or perhaps a previous tenant had. Or an animal died in the bowl while we were away and, in his last gasp at civility and cleanliness, flushed himself.

Mostly, however, I was alone with my toilet. I stared deep into the water and looked for a conclusion. I plunged hopefully. I ran hot water into the system. I explored the wrong part of the basement. Then I sat, thought outside the box, and considered my predicament. I was almost fifty years old; I had become a good father, a faithful partner, and a professional colleague. Yet, I remained an inadequate plumber.

My father did not induct me into the fraternity of tools. My mother bought the hammers, screwdrivers, and plungers of my childhood, but they lounged about on a shelf in our basement. The nails co-habitated with the screws, the tools escaped to drawers and bedrooms around the house, and the kitchen collected pliers and wire. Routine repairs brought on a family argument, until, eventually, my grandfather, with a weathered, ancient, and well tended toolbox, appeared. When the solution became too thorny for him, my father sent handymen to fix the problem in exchange for drunk driving legal work. Mostly, we lived with flickering lights, leaky faucets, and water marks on a few ceilings.

Nonetheless, a man grows up with the expectation that he can fix what is wrong. Elbow grease, know-how, and duct tape should come with an expanding waist line and gray hair. I have picked up some paltry skills over the years, useful in a pinch, and helpful. I have fixed a few minor headaches when necessary. A younger version of me might have consulted a few books, bought some ominous tools, and set to work. But that younger version would have made the problem worse; he did that several times and have the broken parts to show for it. As I approach age fifty, my handy man education remains far too thin. Willy Loman barks at me from outside the bathroom: “A man who cannot handle tools is not a man.”

On this cold January evening, Willy Loman mocked my pipe and my problem. Truth be told, I knew of another way of handling this problem. Were I alone in the house, it could have been ignored. We had a bathroom upstairs and plenty of clean clothes. Unfortunately, I share the house with a gentle spirit and a potential witness to my male mutiny. She enjoyed the benefits of indoor plumbing and I could not deny her those sweet fruits. I had an image to uphold and an expectation to keep, even if it was just my own.

After a day of staring, poking, and plunging, I called Ralph the plumber. When I was thirty, I would have considered this surrender as treason and court-martialled my manhood on the spot. With the approach of age fifty, however, the captain of my soul has gone a little easy on the lash and the drumhead. He, like the gentle household spirit, values clean underwear and the timely flush. So, Ralph promised to come at eight in the evening and I waited.

He drove into the driveway precisely on time. Ralph exuded confidence and competence. He stomped out his boots on the mat, smiled at the two of us, and went about his work. His work resembled mine; he stared at the bowl, poked and plunged, visited the basement, and then returned to the bathroom. Finally, he confessed to being as perplexed as I was, but he suggested that the pipe had frozen over the bitterly cold weekend and could warm up on its own. Or more extreme steps could be taken. Three hours later, in the warming rain of a freak April storm mis-scheduled into January, the toilet gurgled, bubbled, and drained.

So much of getting older isn’t about who you are, but who you aren’t. I don’t have time to get angry or frustrated about the skills I never picked up. I wish I could clean a carburetor or kick a field goal, but I was doing something else when those classes met. I am not Willy Loman, nor would I want to be. Knowing what you can’t do helps you focus on what you can. My skill set, like everyone else’s, is limited. I have to focus on what I can do rather than obsess about what I can’t.

The great American myth that killed Willy Loman wasn’t about getting rich; it was about doing it alone. Willy kept seeing his brother walk into the jungle and come out a millionaire. In Willy’s mind, self-sufficiency and isolation brought about his brother’s wealth. Yet, we don’t live in that world. We live woven into each others lives and careers. The carpenter needs the sandwich maker who needs the trucker who needs the ferryman. You can’t do it alone. Eventually, everyone has to call the plumber.


Read more: Seven Things I Learned Being a Plumber’s Son

Image credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr

About Robert Barsanti

Robert Barsanti teaches in the Berkshires and is the father of two boys. You can follow his Twitter feed here.


  1. There is something wrong with your system- water should not be standing in a drain line….suggest you check the pitch ( the angle at which your drain runs) & if that is downhill make sure the vents aren’t clogged ( the lengths of pipe sticking out of your roof). Take a straw dip it in your iced tea, place a finger over the end and lift a column of water when you pull the straw up- that is how the vent works…

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