Old Boilers and Old Men

by

01/20/2003

1 Journal Sq, Jersey City, NJ 07306

Neighborhood: All Over, Letter From Abroad

P> My boiler broke in February, after the pedestal sink on the second floor of my home gave way and tipped over, thanks to an aging sixpenny nail. The upstairs bathroom quickly filled with water and began seeping through the gaps in the floor’s tile grout. The ceiling of my kitchen, on the first floor, starting leaking in spots where spackled-up dry wall gave way. Once in the kitchen, the water swirled across the room and down into the basement, thanks to the holes in the floor where the water pipes stand. We quickly turned off the house feed, righted the sink and mopped up. When I turned the main valve back on, cold water hit my fifty-year old cast iron steam boiler with a standing pilot light, which, thanks to it being February, had been running at 100+ degrees. The cheap silvery paint job the previous owner had applied was flaking off and the iron chambers inside cracked when room temperature water hit red hot iron. Isaac Newton was right when he said, after the apple landed on his head, “Physics is a bitch!”

So is getting a new boiler. Cast-iron boilers, the kind one needs when one’s home is heated with those big accordion-style radiators, are different in two crucial respects from the boilers of homes with baseboards. They cost twice as much, and are three times as heavy. I’m a child of the Internet Age, I make my living writing term papers for stupid college kids and business obituaries for magazines nobody reads. I can’t fix a boiler, and I couldn’t afford new one. So I did what anybody in my situation did, I called on old men for help the next morning.

The first old man I called was Azad. He was the previous owner of the house, and my former landlord in Jersey City. Azad owns about nine buildings and has perfected the black art of slumlordery. When I lived in one of his other apartments, I saw garden hose in the place of piping in bathrooms, pennies jammed into fuse boxes, entire closet walls made of caulking and spackle tape, electric lights powered by inserting loose wires into outlets, and, in the backyard, a small mountain of Army surplus typewriters, stacked up against the window of my living room and exposed to the elements. He tried to sell me one when I asked about them. “Just like new, except for the leaves,” he said.

I wasn’t stupid enough to buy a used typewriter from this man – I own a computer, after all – but I was stupid enough to buy a house. Anyway, in the cosmic algebra of Jersey City real estate, Azad owed me.

He brought me to another old man, a man named Moe. Moe was very old, about 117, if wrinkles can be believed, and he worked in a hardware store on Duncan Avenue. Moe knows. He was on a ladder in the plumbing aisle when we approached him, and glared at us with basset hound eyes. Azad called him “Mister Moe.” Mister Moe didn’t acknowledge my existence, since I was obviously too young to have any worthwhile information or questions. Mister Moe must have known he was coming, since he was on a ladder doing nothing but waiting by the sealant can I needed to buy; I imagined that when my boiler went SPUNG at 2AM the previous morning , Mister Moe sat up in bed across town and screamed, “A boiler! In danger!”

Moe wasn’t confident the sealant would work. In fact, he said “He’ll need a new boiler” to Azad. Azad shrugged. Moe was right. We poured in the sealant and turned on the water, and I had a metal box full of rain. “It’s leaking too much” Azad said about twenty times. When the water drowned our ankles, he turned off the water, but too hard, breaking the switch. We went to Home Depot. There, we were approached by a plumber named Sam. Same instantly diagnosed our problem: we needed a new boiler, there was nothing the orange-smocked man-ape we were drawing diagrams for could do for us. He’d give us a new boiler and install it, in one day, for $1800. He’d even, Sam The Plumber said, find us the same exact boiler, so that we wouldn’t need to buy any new fittings. Finally, Sam The Plumber shook both our hands and announced, “I am Arabic!” perhaps hoping to capitalize on some secret industrial stereotype I wasn’t familiar with. Italians are all in the mob, Greeks make the best greaseburgers, Jews are great with money, when you want a bitch of a boiler installed, call upon an Arab.

Azad is an Arab too, a Pakistani. As Sam walked off, he leaned in and explained, “That man isn’t a real Arab. He’s an Egyptian. Always watch out for an Egyptian.” Another set of stereotypes only old men know. Never buy a baby from a gypsy, it’ll be defective. Don’t stare at a Finn’s shoes, you’ll make him imperceptibly more self-conscious. Never buy a boiler from an Egyptian, they don’t really know what they’re doing. It doesn’t even get cold in Egypt.

We never found the switch at Home Depot. I spent the rest of the afternoon mopping up flood after flood. I needed a better quality of old man. I needed to let the genie out of his bottle, no matter what the consequences. I needed to call my father.

My father is a child of the industrial age, and is entirely perplexed by my lifestyle, as his own father was by his. My father was raised on the cliffs of Ikaria in Greece, and was expected to do nothing more than strangle goats, go to church and press olives. But my father was always mechanically inclined, and mechanically inclined is an unfortunate thing to be on the poorest island in the poorest country in post-war Europe. No phones, no toilets, no internal combustion engines, no electricity, no precision instruments, no watches, no factories, no paved roads, nothing but boats, and old men didn’t let strange kids near their boats. My grandfather, the blacksmith, was the most technologically advanced person in the area. His son wanted more. And eventually he got it. Drafted into the Navy by the military junta, trained to fix diesel engines, weld steel plates while at sea and repair factory systems, my father is living in his own little space age. Physics became his bitch. Tv commercials like to amaze us by explaining that the Internet can send images and information to our door at the speed of light. That isn’t hard. Hard would be getting those bundles of electrons to move much slower than the speed of light. We’re just along for the bitch’s ride. Hard would be, hard is, getting natural gas, water, waste water, steam and exhaust to mix and trade places on demand without leaving behind a wayward drop of water, a telltale sooty smell, or without blowing up the goddamn house. Installing a boiler is hard. Installing a boiler is a bitch, said my father, paraphrasing Isaac Newton. But he could do it. There’s almost nothing that can be done with two hands that he can’t do.

Installing a boiler is a bitch for one simple reason. Boilers are standardized. Houses are not. Boilers are designed to be moved once. The doorways through which we have to are designed for people, not boilers, to move through. More often than not, the upper floors of a house don’t even go up these days until the boiler is already there, in the basement.

So, my old man had to remove the old boiler, piece by piece, and I had to help. I bought a wrench and unscrewed what I could, usually having to rescrew something else back in first, or to knock off a nut with a hammer. My father noticed my wrecnh. Did I buy it just for this, he wanted to know. Yeah, I did. It’s a piece of shit, he told me. Go get the wrench from the car. The wrench covered in grease. The wrench that smells like an oil spill. The wrench that has actually been used before.

Father: 1, Nick:0.

I can’t help but keep score when working with my father. He knows how to do everything that requires physical labor and heavy tools. He’s the gawky computer nerd of the 19th century. He built his own home and still likes to drive by banks and point and laugh at them, because he didn’t need to take a mortgage, unlike those 20th century suckers and their cash economies. When a contractor built a home behind his backyard, my father quickly bought the lot between the two houses, and poured two and a half tons of compost on the property, just to teach the guy a lesson about trying to develop in his small town. He knows everything, and he lets you know that you know nothing.

We peeled the tin off the sides of the boiler, and found cardboard and brown powder covering the works. “Don’t put any in you mouth,” he told me, “it’s asbestos.” Like I had a tablespoon standing by. While cutting away at the fittings, I banged my head against a wayward pipe hanging from the ceiling twice. My fault for not watching. My father, who is all of five foot two banged his head against the same pipe seven times (I counted, of course). That was the pipe’s fault. Father: 1, Nick: 1.

We pulled apart the cast iron chambers of the boiler and discovered something interesting. Part of the job, the removal of the pilot light, is actually easy. Turns out my fifty year old cast-iron steam boiler with the standing pilot is actually a conversion job. It was a 110 year-old manual coal fed steam boiler, retrofitted to work with all this fancy natural gas and running water. All the old men lose a point for not recognizing this! I wanted to call Sam The Plumber, and demand he mount an expedition to raise the Titanic so he could install the exact boiler, an American Radiator Company model CL – 003, right now. Father: 0, Nick: 1.

My father speaks the language of old men, so he was incredibly useful. I ordered a new boiler and got a price quote for $2000. He calls the same place a moment later and got a quote of $1650. The difference boiled down to a simple nonsense syllable. In response to “So, you wanna standing pilot Mclean?” I answered, “Uhm…yes.” My father just answered “Yes.” At the store, Sanitary Plumbing Supplies, a large warehouse with every possible permutation of pipe, but without a working cash register, the old men rule. While we were there, a middle-aged man showed up, looking for a part for his toilet. What was the model of toilet? He didn’t know. Did he want a rubber or plastic flapper? Dunno. Is your toilet, asked the suddenly very bored old man behind the counter, one piece or two? He didn’t know. Even I know that my toilet is a two piece job. Sheesh. The middle-aged man rubbed his bald head and announced he was just going to go to Home Depot.

That man was a fool. I had already tried Home Depot, with Azad, and then again, with my father. Some eleven year-old employee tried to sell us galvanized pipe settings, the sort very useful for putting up a fence, but only useful for boilers if you want to kill yourself and your neighbors, all at once, in a terrible explosion. There are no old men there. Home Depot is the exclusive province of the young man, of the stupid man. No wonder it’s so popular.

A young man’s skills do come in handy though. My father had to map out a Rube Goldbergesque pathway of black steel and copper pipe fittings. Twenty five elbow joints, four and a half feet of 2 inch pipe. Seven 2 to 1 _ inch reducers. Seven six inch copper nipples. My father wasn’t sure how to spell the word nipple. I was there, ready with my immense bank of knowledge, gleaned from writing 5000 crooked term papers, enough papers to buy this bitch of a house. En eye double pee el ee. Father: 0, Nick: 2.

At the end of the day, after pulling out three quarters of a ton of cast iron and dumping it in my driveway, my father went home. I stayed home, shivering with my dog. My girlfriend and roommate spent the night elsewhere. Father: 1, Nick: 2.

He was back the next night, Monday, after work. My father works in Brooklyn, on the docks, and reports to work at 7AM. That means getting up at 5, squeezing into an ancient Volkswagen Jetta, and driving from lovely Port Jefferson to shithole Red Hook. He spends most of the day on the crane, 400 feet in the air, whipped by freezing wind coming off the bay, fixing the crane. He works on those huge cranes most people only see in silhouette when crossing the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridges. Few people know that they are designed to lift 60-ton containers from tanker ships, but that they spend most of their time lifting 80-ton containers. Most people don’t know, even those people who depend on these cranes, which includes everyone who likes…things, that these cranes break down multiple times a day. Most people don’t know that workers have been crushed by these cranes as they roll across the piers. And only my father knows what it is like to hose the corpse meat off the huge steel wheels of one of these cranes after it runs over one of his friends. That day, everyone else was given the afternoon off, but my father, who had the most seniority – who was the oldest of the old men there – had to stay behind for two hours, with a hose and a shovel, helping the police put his pal into a garbage bag. So after work on Monday, my Father showed up again to work on the boiler. He left at 1AM and went back to the docks to sleep on a bench. He didn’t want to embarrass my roommate or my girlfriend with his overnight presence. And on Tuesday, he did the same. Wednesday as well. Also Thursday. It takes a long time for one man to fit a standard boiler into a 110-ten year old house.

I’m not quite sure how to score that. I get free labor, but I regret it. I want to be able to do something for my father, but there is nothing I can do that he can’t, that he wants. I can make money with a computer, and this amazes him. Back when I lived at home, I’d write term papers in the living room, typing 100 words per minute with only two fingers, and my father and his cousins and his uncles, old men even more capable than he, would just stare. I didn’t have to leave the house. I didn’t have to bend my back and work twice as fast because some fat foreman with mob connections wants to get home while mama’s tomato sauce is still warm. I didn’t have to comb my hair. Of course, neither does my father, but he feels bad about it. The only job worth having, he’d tell me as a kid, is one where you walk in with combed hair and a pressed shirt, and walk out at the end of the day the same way. Even though I’ve never had to hose the corpse meat off a crane, I feel bad that I’m not able to get a job like that, for him.

Father: 2, Nick: 2.

Finally it is Friday again, and my boiler works, sort of. I have to go downstairs to the basement, connect two wires together, get a little shock from the 24 volt switching mechanism, and then go back upstairs to enjoy the heat. My roommate lives down there, and whenever I go into the boiler room, he asks me, “Gonna turn the boiler on?” The old man answer would be, “Of course not. I’m just going to give her – boilers are female, like ships and other bitches – a massage. What are you, stupid?” Forty minutes later, when I go back to the basement to turn off the boiler, my roommate asks me, “Gonna turn the boiler on?” The old man answer to that stupid question would consist of a 6 inch copper nipple to the head. This I know from experience. Luckily for my roommate, I’m still a young man, and we have a new boiler, one guaranteed for ten, rather than 110 years.

It’s next Tuesday when my thermostat is installed. I haven’t spent even five minutes with my lovely new boiler since then. I also haven’t spent even five minutes with my father either, who lives in lovely Port Jefferson. He built a greenhouse last week, after work. I wrote a term paper on NAFTA, for work. He fixed a fifty year-old tractor he bought at auction from an old bankrupt man and used it to move four tons of compost around the lot between him and his young man enemy. I wrote a little something on the thrilling topic, “self-published books tends to suck” for the Village Voice. His own boiler broke, during the storm of the century. He fixed it himself, for free, in one day.

Father: 3, Nick: 2.

Then I realized something. Lots of immigrants’ sons have these imaginary competitions with their highly skilled 19th century fathers. We can never measure up, never fully be on our own, never navigate the planet without the help of an old man. Our own fathers were much smarter when they were young men, they didn’t have these ridiculous hangups. They knew how to win. They left the continent their fathers were on behind them, and dove into a crazy new world without money, family or even the ability to spell the word nipple, and grew old here on their own terms. Meanwhile, I can’t even consider moving further from my parents than Jersey City, what if my boiler breaks again?

Final score: Father: 4, Nick: 2.

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