“Life is a process of accepting the messes and learning to clean them up.”
Not many 17-year-old girls know how to solder two copper pipes together or light the pilot light on a water heater. I venture that most people would struggle to tell the difference between a regular 90-degree PVC elbow and a street 90.
These are skills and distinctions I have learned over the past five years as an assistant to my dad in his one-man plumbing business. My summer job involves messes that constantly elicit physical and mental discomfort, and the work demands an attitude of grittiness and grace that I frequently struggle to adopt.
Nevertheless, I persist. I am the plumber’s daughter and the plumber’s helper.
Each humid morning, I wrestle myself into a pair of used men’s jeans from Goodwill that most of my peers would refuse to be seen wearing in public. I slip my tape measure onto my belt, tie my hair back as I run out the door, and climb into the passenger seat of the plumber truck, which is really an aged white minivan with two kinds of pipes strapped to the top.
As my peers begin their shifts nannying, lifeguarding or checking out groceries, my dad and I haul unwieldy toolboxes and heavy-duty saws into the depths of people’s houses. Although at times we work in the gold-plated master bathrooms of mansions with lake views, we usually end up in dank, mildewed basements where I get lost in mazes of storage boxes looking for the water meter.
Five summers navigating the pipes of Milwaukee have taught me that the messy parts of people’s houses reflect the messy parts of their lives. My dad and I make plenty of our own messes too. When his rugged Sawzall blade slices through walls, clouds of plaster permeate the air. Sometimes there are no walls at all, and we work in primordial jungles of fiberglass insulation, floor joists and rusted cast iron stacks.
I constantly leap over tangled piles of wrenches and extension cords. My mouth and nose are covered by a dust mask; my jeans are smudged with pipe dope, and my hands are blackened with the grime of a hard day’s work. As I observe the chaos around me, chaos rises within me. Nothing is beautiful or tidy; everything I see is ugly. I feel powerless, frustrated and unable to think clearly.
Plumbing work is a microcosm of the messes of the world, and sometimes I despise it. I question why I endure the dust and sweat when I could be in my air-conditioned house, vacuuming my bedroom, making avocado toast for breakfast and finishing my summer homework early. I could even find another job, a normal one that more closely resembles the work of my peers.
Yet as much as I despise the mess of plumbing, I despise myself for becoming affected by such trivial qualms and for being so easily aggravated by disorder. After all, the world was built by people willing to get their hands dirty.
And when I think about it, I cope with messes all the time. The uncertainties and contradictions of my teenage brain are far more tangled than any extension cord, but I keep trying to sort them out. Life is a process of accepting the messes and learning to clean them up, and plumbing work is no different.
As much as my dad and I create chaos, we create order, and if I look carefully I can find it in each newly soldered array of copper pipes or in the way my dad’s toolboxes all fit together in the back of his van.
Moreover, when customers express gratitude for our work, I understand that, in a small way, we bring order to their lives. The physical and mental discomforts of plumbing are worth it.