Dear Switchback fans,
If you are living anywhere in North America, you probably are in agreement that this has to be one of the most severe winters on record. The catchphrase for this winter is “polar vortex.” Chicago has been one of the best places to fully treasure and appreciate the polar vortex at its greatest.
The fault was mine. I had left water trickling in the basement to keep the pipes from freezing during the -15° degree weather a couple of weeks before. However, in my euphoria after the show at the Woodstock Opera House, I neglected to check how cold it was to be for the rest of that weekend. The taps had been turned off in the meantime. So when I turned on the tap to prepare a bottle for our daughter at 6 a.m. Monday, there was no water. At 3 a.m. there had been water. That’s how fast the pipes froze.
I called Chicago’s non-emergency hotline to report that we had no running water. “I have a three-week-old baby here in the house,” I said.
“Congratulations,” the cheerful lady replied. “We will make sure someone gets out to you.”
And so we waited.
One thing that becomes very obvious is how much water a three-week-old baby requires. Already we had a bulging basket of baby clothes, changing covers and swaddling blankets sitting in the nursery. Then there is the water for the humidifiers to keep the air moist for the baby and then the water to make formula. I sure am glad Annie didn’t decide to start her cloth-diapering experiment that week! Other than that, it’s a piece of cake.
I put a call in to my alderman’s office. I already knew the alderman’s assistant and have found him to be a very good, hard-working guy. He assured me that he would get a truck to our house.
And so we waited.
Evening came and no word from the Water Department.
Monday evening at around 8 p.m., a truck pulled up outside our house and up the walk came three figures that easily could have been written into a Shakespearean play. One gentleman was a short figure with heavy fireman boots and a hunting hat. He was the ringleader of the group. One gentleman was portly and was wearing sweatpants along with his reflective vest. The final gentleman was a tall man with a beard. In spite of his heavy winter garments, he had an almost elegant air, like that of a poetry professor.
“Yes, I do.”
“You know there are a lot of people without water right now,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say to that.
I pulled on my coat and followed them out to the street in front of our house.
“We need to find the b-box,” the poet said.
“What’s a b-box?” I asked.
“That’s where the water comes in from the street,” the ringleader said.
Later that night, I decided to research what a b-box is. Its full name is a “Buffalo Box,” named after Buffalo, New York, and is literally a valve box that connects a home’s water system to the water main.
I happened to know where our b-box was since the gas company had redone the gas line last summer. At least I knew it was next to our big silver maple.
The heavy-set gentleman brought out a metal detector and started sweeping it along the ground.
“You sure this thing is here?” he asked.
“Positive,” I said.
I watched him sweep the ground and noticed gravity was starting to win with his sweatpants.
The poet came out with a measuring wheel and started up the street to measure the distance out from the nearest hydrant. The ringleader came back with a shovel and started clearing the two feet of snow from around the tree. Nothing.
“He says the b-box is here,” said the ringleader to no one in particular.
The poet and the ringleader went back to the truck and I stood with the heavy-set gentleman who leaned on his shovel.
“You need to make a bigger clearing,” I said. “I think I can find this thing.”
I reached for the shovel. He grabbed the shovel back from me and shot me a look. Then he started chucking a few more shovelfuls of snow. And sure enough, the b-box was discovered.
“All right,” I said to the ringleader. “What next?”
“That’s it for us. We’re just the crew to open the b-box,” he said. “You need to wait for the Thaw Truck.”
“The Thaw Truck?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s how they thaw the line, with this big electrical current.”
“Are they coming now?”
“They’ll be here later.”
I called the non-emergency line. A nice lady answered. I told her who I was and where I lived and that I had no water and a three-week-old baby. She said, “Congratulations!” I told her that the Thaw Truck did not stop at our house. She was sorry for us.
My brother-in-law has a wonderful girlfriend whose dad might be even more wonderful as he works for the Water Department on the South Side of Chicago. We are out of his jurisdiction, but he started putting in calls on our behalf. Between him and the alderman’s office, we began to lobby the Water Department for action.
Tuesday slowly went by with nothing happening. We placed more calls to the non-emergency line. We were congratulated on our baby and assured that we would be moved up the priority list.
I began to work on our snowmelt, separating the melt water from the snow and filling up the flush box of the toilet. We decided we would concentrate on just using the main floor bathroom. I ran out to the store and picked up 10 gallons of water for drinking and cleaning. I decided it was a good week to grow a beard. I began to think aloud that perhaps we could survive without running water. Áine’s crying snapped me out of my reverie.
A snow storm arrived that evening and I went out to the street to cover the b-box and place a stake with tape next to it. I figured that way we could avoid the b-box opening team and move right to the Thaw Truck. Six inches of snow fell and I felt I was doing my part to ensure that the Thaw Truck would be able to swing into action once it came to our address.
But it never came.
Our alderman succeeded in getting another team from the Water Department to visit that afternoon. The gentlemen came down into the basement and inspected where our water line came in from the street. I had recently had the line covered by sheet rock with vents, which they deemed needed to go. So I reluctantly cut open a hole in the wall. They looked at the pipe.
“Put a hair dryer on it," the one gentleman said.
So I did and the result was that there was no result.
The gentlemen hung around and realized that there wasn’t anything else they could do.
“You’re going to have to wait for the Thaw Truck,” the one gentleman said. “I wish I could do more.”
More phone calls were made and emails sent throughout Thursday. Charles Ingalls would have harnessed his team, gone to the state capitol and proceeded to haul a Thaw Truck to Walnut Grove by now. I started to resent Charles Ingalls.
At about 10:30 p.m. a crew appeared and I eagerly rushed them into to the basement to look at the water line.
“You have no union,” the Thaw Truck leader said.
“What’s a union?” I asked, and wondered why nobody told me I needed one before.
A Thaw Truck works like a big battery charger. The generator on the back of the flat bed produces a negative and a positive charge. One end gets clipped to the b-box and the other to the water line. The union acts as a ground to the house.
“No union and I could burn your house down,” the Thaw Truck leader said. “I’m sorry.”
I called my brother-in-law’s girlfriend’s dad. He saved the day by getting a plumber scheduled for the next morning to come and install the union.
At 2:30 a.m. my wife woke me up. “There’s a Thaw Truck outside,” she said.
She happened to be feeding the baby at the moment that it rolled up. And sure enough a crew hopped out and walked up to the door and rang the bell. I quickly pulled on some clothes and headed down to the door.
“We’re here to thaw your pipes,” the new Thaw Truck leader said. “No sleep until the job is done.”
“But a team was here at 10:30 last night,” I said. “I need a union installed.”
We trudged downstairs to look at the pipes.
“You need a union,” he said.
“Yes,” I said dejectedly.
Friday came with the plumber, Mike. He installed a union and did some repair work on the water line. I had to leave and drive out to Macomb for our show at Western Illinois University. I was past Galesburg when I got the text from my wife. A crew with a third Thaw Truck had arrived around noon time. And now…
I checked into the Hampton Inn and got myself into the shower. By now Charles Ingalls would have been in a warm tub and shaved with a straight razor.
I wasn’t cut out for Little House on the Prairie, anyway.