Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Brief Visit to the Nineteenth Century

I have collected in emptied Gatorade bottles and other assorted plastic containers what must be six or seven gallons of water; enough to flush the toilet several times, wash my hands, maybe a few dishes. Who knows. Maybe even “shower” if the water department doesn’t have the water back on by 2:00 p.m. as they promised. It will be cold. But I can pour water over my head. I know I can do that because I’ve seen it done in a gazillion westerns. The day of the big showdown what does the handsome gunslinger do? He goes to a pitcher and bowl in the window of his hotel room overlooking Main Street and sloshes himself with water so that he can smell of lavender when he puts on his Colt .45 and strides out the door to his victory or his doom.
That’s correct. I’m about to go on a journey back in time to the Nineteenth Century. To Jesse James and outhouses and women in Victorian dress baking bread and stuffing poetry in drawers with lacy underthings and sachet bags. To muddy main streets dotted with horse dung. To creaky windmills, player pianos, enticing lounges, inviting easy chairs, jolly prostitutes and antimacassars. To stubborn mules and gold nuggets and babbling brooks. To the hand-cranked pump on my grandmother’s prairie farm. To squeaky brass beds and horse blankets and chickens everywhere. To player pianos and hot air balloons and P.T. Barnum and the Pony Express.
And to what or to whom do I owe this voyage back into time? Sir Richard Branson? Bill Gates? Larry Page? Sergey Brin? The ghost of Steve Jobs?
Nope: the Seattle City Water Department.
The main water valve to our building is shutting off at 8:30 a.m. in order to prevent any debris or impurities into our water system. The water department is shutting the water off at 9:00 a.m. to repair a main water valve for our neighborhood. Water will be shut off for X number of households within an area of approximately ten city blocks.
This is a first. First time that I’ve lived in a modern U.S. city in which the water was turned off for an entire neighborhood. And remember, this is Seattle, not Detroit. This is the city of Amazon and Boeing and Starbucks and Microsoft.
This is not, admittedly, the first time I’ve had my water turned off. That happened forty-five years ago, the same year in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left boot prints in the lunar dust.
I’d been living for two weeks in a small trailer in Arcata, California in back of a Mexican restaurant. I was renting the trailer from an old man named Rocco who was forever digging and planting potatoes in a small vacant lot, wearing a welder’s cap and maintaining a small drop of snot on the tip of his nose that never seemed to gain quite enough mass to go ahead and drip to the ground.  He was illegally tapped into the Mexican restaurant’s water supply. Whether they were privy to this use or complicit in the malfeasance, I don’t know. What I do know is that my water one day disappeared and I had to walk to the water department before attending classes at Humboldt State to find out what was going on. I walked into a spacious office where a number of clerks and water officials looked up at me. I explained the situation. They told me the water was shut off because it was illegal to obtain water that way. But what am I supposed to do? No answer. A shrug of the shoulders. That’s your problem, buddy.
But an entire neighborhood? This is a first. Something, the guy at the Water Department explained (after a solid twenty minutes of listening to Irish dance music on the telephone and being bounced from one official to another), to do with a main water valve requiring urgent renewal.
Which leads one to wonder how it managed to find itself in such drastic condition in the first place. I mean, check me if I’m wrong, but we did put a man on the moon forty-five years ago, right?
Right. So what was that again? A bad water main. Which (according to the aforementioned official who fielded my cranky call) would be very bad if it weren’t replaced. Meaning everyone’s furniture will be floating in muddy water all the way to the ceiling if it breaks.
So at 8:30 this morning it’s goodbye, 21st Century. Hello, Nineteenth Century.
Meanwhile, as if in blatant mockery of the situation, it’s raining. Hard. I can hear it. The trickle trickle pitter pattery shhh shhh sound of rain pelting leaves and soil. It’s a chill November day. Except it’s not. November, that is. It’s late July.
Seriously: late July. And it’s like frigging November outside. Goodbye planet earth, it was good knowin’ ya. Hello whatever planet this is. The planet in which Florida, the Florida Keys and the Maldives disappear. The planet in which tornados and hurricanes of enormous freakish power become the norm. In which mass extinction occurs. In which the water department shuts off the water supply to the households of a major city. To repair the valve to the rickety water main. Which dates from the Nineteenth Century, I’m guessing.
I get some breakfast made and the dishes cleaned before the water disappears. Scrambled eggs, toast with strawberry jam, grape juice. I’m ready now. Ready for the Nineteenth Century. Ready for Regency Dress, candlelight dinners, hay rides, cattle drives, Winchester repeating rifles, Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, stovepipe hats and gunslingers. Ready for rowdy saloons, swinging chandeliers, frilly hoop skirts, ballroom dances and Walt Whitman. Good old Walt. It’ll be great to see the old guy again. Thank you Seattle City Water Department. Thank you for this brief visit to the Nineteenth Century. Thank you for helping me to appreciate the miracle of running water. It is, truly, a miracle. Thank you for this miracle. I mean, once you get everything running again.

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