Busted Pipes and the Search for Truth

Me in my apartment in warmer, drier days. Photo via NY Times.

Before I write the next statement, you must promise not to pity me.  I am a very happy person.  I have beautiful friends and a wonderful romantic partnership.  I enjoy great physical health.  I’ve got a full head of hair and health insurance.

But I do not have heat in my apartment.

Yup, it’s motherfucking cold.  I walk around the place looking like I’m about to scale Everest.  My fingers rarely have feeling while there.  I sleep under a flocks worth of goose down.

It’s my second winter there.  I considered the first year a spiritual test—the test was whether I chose to fight or surrender to the conditions around me.  For the most part, I surrendered.  I remember one morning waking up, the condensation-fog of my breath clearly visible.  I said to myself, “You can either choose to accept or reject the cold.  Both ways have obvious, associated states.  Which is it going to be?”  I jumped out of bed, put on a few sweaters and had a great day.

But this surrender was mitigated by a couple things.  One, I had some heating implements.  I used space heaters…until I ran up a $600 heating bill one month.  There is also a crude, oil-fueled furnace in the building.  Because there was another person living in the building last year, turning on the furnace seemed justified.  But the furnace heats all four floors of the sieve-like building or none.  This year, with only me in the building, that justification vanished.

The other thing making things more bearable was the thought that it was only going to be for one year.  I knew that the next year would bring fame and fortune, and I would get a properly heated apartment.

The fame and fortune were not forthcoming and as winter 2010 drew nigh, I knew it was either get the hell out or bundle up.

I love the place.  It’s ramshackle and cluttered by my landlord’s “antiques,” but it’s also a sprawling and beautiful 19th-century townhouse in a great neighborhood where I can live by myself for a pittance of what most people pay.  It is special enough to be featured in a (slightly misleading) NY Times feature.  And while last winter was long and hard, after a while I developed ways of coping with the cold.

I hunkered down and chose to stay.

Everything had been going smoothly this winter until last night.

It started with me noticing that the water was not running in my bathroom.  I had a vague recollection about the protocol for frozen pipes, which had more to do with what to do before they froze, i.e. leave the water trickling.  But I had little idea about what to do if they were already frozen.

I opened up the valves for the water in my bathroom.  Nothing came out.  I went a floor below and did the same thing.  Nothing there either.  I went to the ground floor.  The water ran fine there.  I screwed around with the faucets on the second and third floors for a bit, trying to induce flow before calling it quits.  I would ask my landlord what to do in the morning.  I didn’t want to exacerbate the problem with my amateur plumbing.

But as I went back to my third floor apartment, I noticed a waterfall sound coming from the walls.  Not good.  I followed the sound to the ground floor, which had until recently been a retail shop.  There were massive quantities of water flowing from the ceiling onto the floor.  I grabbed as many water-catching receptacles as possible.  I ran back up to the second floor where the edge of the waterfall seemed to be.  Water covered the bathroom floor.  I rushed back down to the ground floor, trying to limit the amount of water flowing onto the floor, water I knew was draining into the cellar that I didn’t have access to.

Finally, I put my ears to use and followed the sound of the water, which led me back to the second floor bathroom.  Fortunately, I found the guilty pipe quickly and shut off its water valve.  There was still water coming down in waves, but at least it would now be abating.  I continued to mop and drain the water from the buckets that were quickly filling up.  Keep in mind it’s about 30 degrees and midnight.  It was a complete clusterfuck, but at least the water had stopped.  My problems, I thought foolishly, would be over soon.

There was a leak landing directly on top of a 8-foot-high antique armoire on the ground floor.  I moved the armoire away from the wall, where the majority of the water was coming from, but I noticed that it was tethered to the wall to prevent tipping.  I got a chair and my chef’s knife to cut the tether.  I hacked away at the rope, freeing the armoire from the wall.  Now untethered, the whole fucking thing fell over face first.  The only good thing was that the glass mirror panes on the armoire’s doors hadn’t cracked.  I quickly summoned all my strength to get the armoire upright.  As I nudged it upright, the doors flew open, sending its contents—a bunch of new clothes a designer had been storing there—shooting out.  The armoire fell back down again, this time shattering the mirror on one of the doors (that door fell off as well, not that it mattered at this point).

So now I had water everywhere, a fallen armoire, shattered glass everywhere and new clothes to get out of harm’s way ASAP.  The one upshot was that I was warm from all the running around.

I went about doing what I could.  I mopped and drained.  I swept glass.  I moved clothes.  The worst was over.  After an hour or so, I went to bed where I slept fitfully, high on adrenaline and anxious that another pipe would burst.

Last week, I wrote a post about a rubber rat on my floor and the lessons it taught me about fear.  After that incident, I secretly wished for something unusual to happen so I could write about it.  As they say, be careful of what you wish for.

But all the while the flood was happening, I kept asking myself, “What can I learn from this experience?”  So here are some thoughts:

  1. The world is a dangerous place.  Yes, it’s a lot more dangerous when you live in a dilapidated and unheated townhouse, but unexpected shit happens all the time.  Pipe’s burst.  Cars, bodies, plans break down.  People get sick and die.  There is no safety in the world, so it’s probably best that we not rely on worldly things for our sense of security.
  2. Suffering happens in our interpretation of things, not the things themselves.  Throughout this debacle, I kept repeating to myself, “This is the building’s problem, not mine.”  If I had conflated the two, interpreting the building’s problems as mine, both of us would be fucked.  Instead, I chose to see what happened in objective terms:  an old, under-maintained, unheated building and a old, unprepared tenant created a mess that needed to be fixed.  It wasn’t anyone’s fault.  It didn’t mean anything.  It was just a situation to address.
  3. Life is easier when responded to directly.  I was reading J. Krishnamurti yesterday and he was expounding on the concept of simplicity.  In essence, he said that simplicity is the way of no conflict.  Only complexity entails conflict.  The simplest thing to do last night (and moving forward), the way that entailed the least amount of conflict, was respond to every moment directly, whatever that entailed, without commentary.  Last night, it meant cleaning up, moving stuff, etc.  Today, it might mean replacing the glass, getting the clothes cleaned, draining the cellar—I don’t know, but I’ll find out soon enough.  When I don’t respond, projected fears, conjured by my imagination, dictated by the past, fester and multiply.
  4. The thing I want more than to change my conditions, it’s to be unmoved by them.  I’ve heard this referred to as being “un-fuckable-with.”  It’s a state where no person, nor any force can mess with you.  Most of us think we want a new apartment, new job, leaner body, more money, whatever.  But wouldn’t it be preferable to be completely at peace with or without these things?  It’s not that we can’t enjoy the fruits of this world (we can and I do), but what if we weren’t dependent on them?  What if they became incidental to our happiness?  When we stop depending on a precarious world for our security, when we stop making things mean things they do not, when we respond to each moment directly, I think this state of un-fuckable-ness is possible.

That’s about all I got right now.  I have to call my landlord again as well as the designer who’s clothes got a bit mucked up.  That’s what this moment entails.  I was able to have a pretty good laugh about it this morning.  I’m seeing more and more there is no such thing as obligatory suffering.  Suffering depends on our interpretations, not the truth of a situation.  When we let go of those interpretations, when we just pick up the mop when the floor gets wet, we see that things are just as they should be (or at least just as they are).

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