One of the Seven Simple Machines

APRIL 15, 2012

I let him in through the basement door so he can park his truck nearby. I’d guess he is in his 50’s, reserved, wearing a dark blue uniform that telegraphs the message “service professional”. I remember my grandfather wearing work clothes like this, dark shirt and pants of sturdy cotton twill, forgiving of a grease stain, and fortified against wear at the elbows and knees. basement door2

In fact, one of those green work shirts still hangs on the clothes rod in my basement, brought home after his funeral, a sweet remembrance of his tinkering for years, in oilfields and shipyards and loading docks and finally, in his own small universe of garage and yard and basement. It surely is what he was wearing on that last day, when he left his work boots on the back porch, and went to bed for the last time beside his wife of nearly 70 years.

So this workman, coming to repair our washer, must see a lot of basements. I look at this space with an outsider’s eye, and wonder if he watches “Hoarders” on TV.

While we were remodeling, box after box of stuff landed down here, and only about half of it went back upstairs. Add to that the seasonal tides of holiday decorations and garden tools, leftover paint and lumber. Before he arrived, I had to thread my way through a narrow canyon of stuff to find pliers on the workbench; cleaned the cat litter; thought briefly about the cobwebs in the open rafters – but left them hanging. Nervously, I remember how I’d often invoked the dream image of a basement as a metaphor for the unconscious. Now I find I’m hoping that’s not true.

He’s a man with an economy of speech; to the point.

“So what’s wrong with it”? he asks.

“It won’t fill, The water just runs and runs but it never fills, just right down the drain. All of a sudden, just this week.”

He fiddles with one of the cycles on the dial. “Did you recently move it?” he asks. Improbably, in this cluttered space, that it could have been moved – I know he’s thinking that.

As a mental health practitioner, I recognize the diagnostic process in action. He is working his way through the appliance world equivalent of the DSM IV.

He looks around at the drain hose behind the machine, clamped to a length of PVC pipe leading to a floor drain.

“Here’s the problem,” he says. “This hose needs to hang above the water level in the tank.

” Yes, I think to myself, like it was until just last week, when we laid the hose flat on the floor to drain. And when the washer suddenly stopped filling. Uneasily, I remember a sixth grade science class about atmospheric pressure and how a siphon functions. One of those seven simple machines, from which all more complex machines are created. I can see the “J” shaped clear plastic tubing the cascading series of plastic cups, the cutaway diagram of water and air.

“That’s all it is”, he says. He shows me how to raise the drain hose and clamp it to a post near the washer. He glances at his watch. Who wears a watch any more? Doesn’t everyone check their cell phone for time these days? But here is a round moon face of a watch with a leather strap. My grandfather wore one like this at the cuff of that tough work shirt.He calculates the time he’s been here, about 3 minutes.

“Tell you what. I’ll call the office and say you cancelled the call.”

No 65.00 service fee, just a common basic science error in a hoarder’s basement.

“Thank you,” I say aloud. Silently my brain continues: “Thank you for not judging me. Or if you do, thanks for keeping it to yourself”


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