In this candid travelogue, Lewis Lee describes the difficulties he faced when trying to acquire a normal-sized plunger in the UK.
The English approach plumbing with the efficiency of FEMA and a gusto matched only by their love of the Irish Republican Army. It’s an open question whether they’re better at plumbing or cooking.
Geography is the problem: Britain is an island thatched by rivers where it rains every day. Culturally, the islanders responded to the surfeit of water by dominating foreign seas but cultivating tolerance for water in the household. They think of indoor water like tsunamis—a natural phenomenon beyond the scope of man’s present tool-making. I say this because, after a year living in Leeds England, I harbor serious doubts that the English possess plungers.
There’s no polite way to begin my testimony. It all started when I took a shit. The turd tarried, and I couldn’t find the plunger that landlords customarily leave for tenants. “What an oversight!” I thought with the Yankee naïveté of a Henry James protagonist. Hours passed without the shit transmigrating, so I called the building’s ´superintendent. He knocked minutes later with a can-do attitude but no plunger. My plan had been to thank him for the plunger at the door and then apply the tool myself. His idea was to barge pass me, take a good look at my shit, and ask, “Have you tried flushing?”
The question marked a setback for the English campaign to convince Americans they’re not condescending. The fact is: when an Englishman learns an American has a shit stuck in the toilet, the Englishman can’t quite eliminate the possibility that the American doesn’t know toilets flush. There’s always that doubt with the Americans, and it’s best to just nip it in the bud. You never know what they’re incapable of.
The superintendent seemed baffled I would expect him to have a plunger. Him, the lowly superintendent of a thousand-person apartment complex? He wasn’t a professional plumber! Here was a man who would think that a bike pump could only be borrowed from the likes of Lance Armstrong.
“You just have to give it little tap,” he said. “A little push on the way.” What followed was vile and mortifying, but ended with him—against my will—using the toilet brush to smash my shit into thousands of shitlets that the pipes swallowed reluctantly after a dozen flushes.
I chalked up the whole thing as a failure of the building’s infrastructure and the superintindent’s intelligence. A mediocreintindent, really. But in my charity to the country funding my MA, I never suspected that England—birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and probably the monocle—was still mired in a pre-plunger stage of civilization.
I decided to get my own plunger. First, I tried a grocery store called Morrison’s, where the clerk walked me down the bathroom/kitchen aisle muttering, “I’m sure we got them. Sure of it!” I really believed Morrison’s was all out that day. Next I tried Poundland and Home Bargains, where the clerks seemed equally appalled at the fresh absence of plungers. I saw mirages of plungers flickering seductively down far-off aisles, hardening into black or red cereal bowls at short-range.
Every persons at the first three businesses assured me a store called Wilkinson’s would have plungers. They were right, in a sense: a middle-aged clerk-lady with pink hair pointed out a pile of an item I have since learned to call “sink plungers,” which is a plunger with a very short, horizontal handle for kitchen use. It seemed bizarre that Wilkinson’s would stock this novelty take-off on a plunger but not the real thing. Like if someone could quote Laverne and Shirley by heart but had never heard of Happy Days.
“I’m sorry but I just moved here from America yesterday,” I lied. “And this is a weird question, but what do English people use to unblock their toilets?”
She pointed gravely again at the sink plungers, like the Ghost of Christmas Future pointing at Scrooge’s headstone.
“But you’d have to stick your hand in the toilet,” I said, somehow feeling like a Kardashian for not wanting to submerge my hand in shit.
“Well, you’ve got to unblock it some way or another!” she announced impatiently, as though the shortage were one of will instead of technology.
I called my friend Tom Jones (real name) and told him he wouldn’t believe what I’d been through. He was hungover and invited me down to have a beer at a nearby pub where some of our friends were spending the afternoon. Down at the pub, I asked my friends to borrow plungers, but all of them told me that–as luck would have it–their apartments didn’t have plungers, either. Tom Jones, in fact, very well could believe what I’d been through: he told me a story of how the McDonald’s where he’d once worked didn’t have plungers, and they used a long metal rod to unblock the toilet.
This was my first intimation that maybe–just maybe–modern Britain kept calm and carried on without plungers. I suppressed the thought. English people love jokes, and it didn’t seem out of bounds that the whole of West Yorkshire would conspire to make an American believe there were no plungers in England.
Tom Jones suggested Kirkgate Market, a maze of immigrant vendors, wig shops and cell-phone-unlocking huts scattered under a corrugated roof in downtown Leeds. One corner of the expanse was dedicated to hardware stores–open but [disjoint](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disjoint_sets), like sample rooms at IKEA. The first three proprietors told me what the other had, but the third told me to walk down further–past a line of shuttered barber shops and food stalls–to the last store with lights on. I approached this last Pakistani shopkeeper with expectations well tempered. Never in recorded history has so little hope seemed too much to place in one man; has such a low bar–the possession of a plunger–seemed such an Olympian feat.
Now imagine my joy when the shopkeeper nodded to confirm that yes, my friend, he even had one with a long handle. And imagine the nauseating drop into despair he held up a stunted Pinnochio of a plunger–about four inches across at the cup and 18 inches long. Why such a design would even exist is beyond me, but I eagerly paid three quid for its lone realization.
“These are selling very well somehow,” said the unwitting plunger monopolist of Yorkshire.
On the way back to the pub, I started to feel chauvinistic—-a confidence that I would rather be gunned down in Detroit or die of Type II diabetes in the most obesity-ridden Cracker Barrel than stick my hand in a toilet for want of a plunger. Here I’d believed Britain was a first-class nation like Canada. Now, my rage vision showed only a colder, drunker Jamaica infested with ferocious, knife-wielding youth on welfare; an idle bastion of sarcasm and debauchery set to burst but for a few good Pakistanis stiching things together with kebabs and the occasional My Size Barbie plumbing accessory.
Give credit where it’s due. The UK has achieved not merely universal health coverage but universal health care: free clinics for every resident. The NHS even diagnosed me with [Gilbert’s Syndrome](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert’s_syndrome). But in America, even without government largesse, we have achieved universal plunger coverage. The dingiest Appalachian hovels, South Bronx tenements, and Lakota Reservation trailers can boast a plunger equipage that a Man U footballer could scarcely hope to acquire.
Looking back on my afternoon, I decided the most bizarre aspect of PlungeQuest 2012 was the ubiquitous insistence that there are plungers to be found. Everyone I met was downright appalled at their absence, as though England were temporarily embarrassed by a grave and sudden plunger famine. But there were never any plungers to begin with. The attitude was like that of a sincerely superstitious people who are surprised to see a sacrifice fail.
I started out writing this piece with the intention to bring it all back together in the end with a paragraph of redemption for England…something about how the plunger thing epitomizes the stalwart English spirit. I had some great times there and wouldn’t want to sound permanently embittered. Then I started searching online for “buy a plunger England” and found horrific threads like the following:
“whenever we have blocked toilets we just fill a large bucket with hot water and pour it straight down the toilet.”
I couldn’t bring myself to type anything positive after this. The truth is that, if any of you English are reading this…please get your shit together and buy some plungers. I hope you are deeply offended and that indignation compels you to rush out and hand plungers to every American who gets off the plane.