Monday, December 17, 2012

The Russians Are Plumbing! The Russians Are Plumbing!

The Russians are Plumbing!
The Russians are Plumbing!

It started with a drip from the bottom of my toilet tank. “No problem,” I thought. I turned to the classified ads in the local newspaper and found one that read, Plumb, Electric, Cabinet, Sprinkler, Tile, Anything. Fast. 24/7. Guarantee.
Although it was 9PM, I decided to call the listed number and make an appointment for the following morning.
I punched in the number. I anticipated speaking to an answering machine. Instead, a deep, heavily accented, voice answered.
“Yes. You want what, please?”
The voice was familiar. “Where have I heard this man?” I asked myself. After a moment it struck me. It was Borat!
I wondered if the ad was a joke and I was being set up. I’d read the autobiography the founder of one of Silicon Valley’s most celebrated companies. It was not an easy read. Like nearly all the chronicles of the region’s successful digerati, his style was somewhere between Tom Swift and Zodiac. Early in the book he revealed with glee that he was a prankster. One of his most gratifying professional endeavors had been setting up a dial-a-joke line from his apartment. He provided a daily “Polish” joke to callers. When he was home at night, the whiz yukked, he answered the phone himself and feigned a Polish accent and told a joke live – at no extra cost to the caller.
I thought perhaps I’d been duped into a dial-Borat line. But I wasn’t sure and I didn’t know how to ask. Finally, curiosity got the best of me. I asked politely, “You aren’t from Kazakhstan are you?” and I waited for a punch line.
There was no response for several seconds. Finally, softly and with a curious tone that mocked my own, the man answered, “No. Are you?”
“Is ok? Maybe you want Kazakh to fix your problem?”
“No, no, nothing like that, not at all.”
“Yes, sure.” And then, “Your are not Borat?”
A pause. “My name not being Borat? Is this being your name?”
“No,” I answered. “I thought you sounded like him. I thought this was a dial-Borat line.”
I changed the subject quickly. “I read your ad in the newspaper. I need your services, I think.”
“You want what, please?”
“My toilet is leaking. I need a water line connection repaired or replaced.”
Silence again. Muffled voices in the background, in a language I could neither understand or place.
“We do that,” finally, came the replay. “When you want?”
“Tomorrow if you can.”
“You are where?”
“I am at my home.”
“And where is my home?”
“Right here, in San Jose.”
“And you are being at my home?”
“Yes, I am here.”
Silence again. First just the sound of breathing and in the background whispering. Then the man asked, “Exact address you are having, please.”
I gave him my address. The line was silent for several seconds after that. Finally there was chorus of voices in the background but it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Apparently a disagreement had been settled.
“Exact phone number please, Mr.”
I gave him the phone number.
“Name please.”
“Not Borat?
“No, not Borat. Larry.”
“OK,” he said. “We are not being far right now. We come tonight,”
“But,” I blurted out, “it’s nearly 10PM.”
“We are not far. We can come tonight and fix my toilet.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow we are being busy. We come to my home tonight.”
“What time?”
“Before maybe two hours.”
“You’re going to fix my toilet at midnight
“This is being true.”
“What is the charge for night work?” I asked.
“You will be paying me 100 American dollars.”
His price was reasonable. I responded, “Well, if you can fix it, that sounds ok.”
“Please to pay before working is done.”
“Guarantee satisfy.”
“Yes, that’s what your ad says.”
“Nobody complaining. We are having number one reputations.”
“Well, I’m happy to hear that.” A pause and then, “May I pay with a check.”
Voices muffled in the background once more. “US bank?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
Another pause, more voices. Then, “Check is maybe ok. If not,very big trouble.”
“The check is good.”
After another prolonged silence I said, “I’ll leave the light on.”
The line clicked and the dial tone came on. I hung up.
I put the phone down, wondering if I’d done the right thing. Hiring a plumber or handyman this late at night? I had to go ahead with this arrangement, although I felt uneasy. I wondered if I should ask a neighbor to come over and wait with me while the work was done. Just in case. But when I looked out the window I saw that the lights were out in all the houses up and down the block. My neighbors were asleep. I’d have to go through this alone. I convinced myself in the next minutes that my fears were unreasonable. So what if a handyman worked at night? He was in the neighborhood. That seemed not unreasonable. I turned on the porch light and waited.
Several times I watched the headlights approaching cars. I got out of my chair and stood at the front door waiting to let the handyman in. But each car passed. Finally, at half past 11, I saw car approaching very slowly. Someone inside the car pointed a flashlight at the street numbers on the curb. The car paused in front of half a dozen homes until it arrived at my house. Several flashlights came on inside the car, illuminating the number on the curb, the front of the house, the driveway and the front door. The car pulled into my drive. The engine stopped. The lights went off. A moment later my phone rang.
“Mr. Larry.”
“This is Alexei.”
“We are at my home. You will kindly let us all in.”
“Yes, well, just come to the door.”
The line clicked. I stood inside the door watching through the peephole. I counted the dark figures as they approached. There were six men. The first was the tallest. He had a thick jet-black thick mustache. He was dressed all in black --a squat leather cap, a leather jacket, black pants and black boots. The others five, each about six inches shorter than the first, wore the same outfit. Black caps, jackets, trousers and boots. All but one had a thick black mustache. This one was all in black too but had a grey goatee.
Except for the prominent mustache, none of the men looked like Borat. They were too short, too thick. On the other hand, five of them were duplicates of Joseph Stalin. And it seemed as if they were even dressed like the Soviet dictator. The sixth did not look like Stalin. He was the spitting image of Leon Trotsky.
There was no knock on the door, the bell did not ring. The men huddled outside the door and waited for me. All of them glowered at me from the opposite side of the fish-eye peephole.
I stepped back and pulled the door open. “Come in, I said. I’m lucky to get you at this time.”
The tall man greeted me, “I am Alexei,” he said. “You can call me Alexei.”
“Yes, I recognize your voice.”
“And these are my comrades,” he said, sweeping his hand in the direction of the others. They all stepped inside but stayed close to each other in a tight little circle. All stared at me.
“So,” I said nervously, “you should get to work, it’s late.”
“Yes, you are correct,” Alexei agreed. He said something to the others, in a low monotone and they voiced agreement. The language sounded vaguely like Russian.
Before leading the men upstairs I asked, “So, you are Russian plumbers?”
“Yes, we are Russian plumbers,” Alexei said. He repeated the phrase to the others who mumbled something back to him.
I began to climb the stairs. The men followed in a bunch.
“Excusing me,” said Alexei when we reached to top of the stairs. “I must tell you. We are not Russian plumbers as you say, please.”
“Oh,” I said. “My mistake. What are you then?”
“We are not Russian.” After a pause he pointed to Trotsky and said, “This one is Russian. We are not.”
“What are you?”
“We are,” he said with a pride in his voice, “Georgian.”
“Interesting, I said. Well, I’ve never had Georgian plumbers work on my house. Or Russian for that matter.”
Trying to make conversation and, perhaps, to show off my semi-mastery of geography, I asked, “Are you from Tbilisi?”
Alexei repeated my question in Georgian. The men smiled politely at me. Alexei said, “No, we are not being from Tbilisi.” A pause, and then, “We are from Gori. You know Gori?”
“You should know Gori, very famous.”
“Really, why?”
“Dzugashvili born in Gori. Very famous place?”
“Dzugashvili? I don’t know the name? Was he a dancer?”
The men mumbled back and forth in Georgian. “Great man. Great man,” Alexei said. “Joseph Stalin to you. You know this man?”
“Oh, yes, I know that name.”
“Great man,” Alexei insisted and the others all nodded and watched my expression.
“In America, nobody know about him really. He is being a great great man.”
“Well, if you say so.”
“You know,” I said, carefully weighing my words, “All of you – and for a moment I glanced at Trotsky – all of you except him, you look a bit like Stalin?”
“You think so?” Alexei asked with something like astonishment. “You are thinking this?”
“Yes, don’t you? I mean aren’t you trying to look like Stalin? – except for him,” again nodding to Trotsky.
He looked at his five companions. His eyes moved from one to the next. He concluded, “We are looking like Georgians. Except this one, he said nodding to Trotsky. “He is not Georgian. Maybe all men from Gori look like Stalin.”
“Well, that’s unusual. I mean the mustaches and the leather jackets and the caps. All black.”
“This is how we dress. This is how we are being. Stalin is form Gori.”
“Yes, I know, you said that. I just thought…well, I don’t know.”
“He is great man,” Alexei said, in the present tense. He translated for the others. They nodded enthusiastically.
“Yes, he must have been.”
“Greater than George Bush.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” I said, not wishing to disagree with anything he said.
“A very great man, Stalin,” he repeated.
I smiled. I had a leaky toilet. I didn’t want to talk politics.
“You know Khrushchev?” Alexei asked and repeated the question in Georgian. The men stared at me, intently awaiting my answer. I was badly outnumbered and I wanted to give what I felt was the right answer and get on with fixing the leaking toilet.
“Yes, I said, everyone knows Khrushchev. He was a great man, too?” I asked turning my statement into a question, just to be safe.
“No, he is not a great man. He is great shit.”
“I see, I see. He was Ukrainian, wasn’t he?”
“No, Trotsky is Ukrainian. Khrushchev is Russian. Big Russian shit.” The statement was translated the others smiled and nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
“He is shit like Gorbachev is a shit too. Yeltsin is Russian shit, also. But Stalin. He is Gori man. He is great man. Not shit.”
“I see,” I said, glancing at my watch.
“You know Zaza Pachulia?”
“No, I don’t. Is she an actress?”
“He is playing basketball for Georgia.”
“Sorry, I don’t know him.” Where is this going, I asked myself. “Well, can we get to work now?”
“And one more thing, excusing us, Mr. Larry. We are not Russian. We are also not plumbers, too.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “My mistake. You are handymen.”
“No, we are not handyman. We are poets.”
“Poets. Georgia is land of poets. Poetry Mountains even. But when we are not make poetry we are making plumbing.”
“Interesting,” I said, not knowing how to respond properly.
“We are very good poets. Many Georgians here in Silicon Valley, they write poetry. We are meeting every week and we are reading and writing our poetry.”
“I hope you are good plumbers too,” I said. He translated without a smile. The other Stalins and Trostsky glowered at me.
“Satisfaction guarantee,” Alexei said.
“I pointed to the doorway to the bathroom at the end of the hall. The light in the room was off. “There is its,” I said. “Well, the leaky toilet is in there. You’ll see. I have a bucket under it and the new parts I bought at Home Deport, the replacement parts, are on the counter. I just could not put them on.”
“Excusing me,” Alexei said without moving. “We will have my check now?”
I’d written out a check for one hundred dollars but left the name line blank. “Whom should I make this out to?” I asked.
“This is good, “he said, closely examining the check. I couldn’t tell if he was asking a question of making a simple statement of fact. He held it up to the light as if looking for evidence of an erased signature or amount. “I will put company name here,” he said. “Not to worry.” He held it to the four little Stalins and Trotsky. When all seemed satisfied he folded it twice and stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
The five Georgians and a Russian filed past me and into the bathroom. Alexei led the way and Trotsky brought up the rear.
“You have no tools,” I observed. “Won’t you need your plumbing tools?”
A voice echoed from the bathroom. “We are Georgian. We don’t need tool for this. Little job. We are working with our hands.”
“Ok,” I said, with a mixture of surprise and skeptcism while trying to betray neither. “But, if you should need something call me. I’ll wait downstairs.” I returned to the living room and sat down and waited. I felt my anxiety level rising.
I listened to boots shuffling back and forth overhead in the bathroom. There were half a dozen loud clunks sounding like a fist striking porcelain. Voices rose and fell, quickened and slowed. Silence. Laughter. Again silence. More clunking and moving about and after several minutes silence.
Alexei materialized at the top of the stairs and called down, “Excuse me, Mr. Larry. We do need one tool please.”
“Sure, what can I get for you?
“Are you having one large knife, please?”
“A knife?”
“Yes, like a butcher knife, you have one of these things?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “But why do you need a butcher knife?”
“For the fixing of the leaking toilet,” he said.
“I took a large butcher knife from a drawer in the kitchen and carried it to the top of the stairs. As I handed it to Alexei I noticed that the bathroom was dark.
“Let me see something,” I said, resisting with all my might an urge to run for the front door and escape. I walked to the bathroom ahead of Alexei. I peeked inside. The Georgians – rather the four Stalins and Trotsky – were on their knees around the toilet, each holding a flashlight aimed at the work area. I reached inside and switched on the overhead light. The men were startled, clearly and jumped and blinked their eyes. They looked up, staring at me, and then at the recessed light in the ceiling. They began chattering away happily, making noises of delight and amazement.
“You have light in bathroom!” Alexei said.
“Yes,” I said. “I thought you knew.”
“How can we know,” Alexei said. “This is modern. High tech. Very good.”
He said something to the other men and they all gazed up at the light for a moment and broke into laughter. I was not sure if they were mocking me or if they preferred to work in the dark with flashlights. Alexei stood behind me, holding the large butcher knife. He held it aloft and showed it over my shoulder to the other poets and they nodded and seemed satisfied.
I slipped past the knife wielding Georgian and hurried downstairs. My apprehension increased as I listened to the men hitting the pipes and the porcelain with what must have been the knife. They continued working perhaps ten minutes. Then it was quiet again. A low hum of voices and Alexei came to the top of the stairs.
“Excusing me, “he said, almost apologetically. “Almost finish. We are needing one thing, Mr. Larry.”
“Yes, of course, what is that?”
“Having old newspapers perhaps?”
“Old newspapers?” I wondered why but didn’t ask.
“Yes, maybe three or four old newspaper?”
“Yes, of course”, I said. I retrieved the newspapers from a recycling bin outside my back door and ran up the stairs to give them to Alexei. He took them from me without expression.
I sat and waited and listened. I heard the newspapers being torn. Patting on the floor, the hum of voices speaking Georgian or Russian. Alexei again at the top of the stairs.
“Ok, finish now, boss,” he said.
I climbed the stairs to inspect the work. The poets had gathered just outside the door of the bathroom, carefully watching me. I went into the bathroom. The floor had been carpeted with newspapers. Some had been torn to make them fit tightly against the walls. Beneath the water line joining the toilet the paper was already soaked gray.
“But,” I said, looking up at Alexei, who stood over me still holding the butcher knife in one hand and a newspaper in the other, “it’s still leaking.”
“Not leaking, Boss,” he assured me. The others nodded when he repeated his words to them. “ This is condensation.”
“Yes, when you put on new part, there is condensation, always. It will stop in a few hours.”
“Ok,” I responded, attempting at the same time to make my doubt.. “Ok. Then I suppose you are finished.”
“Are finish,” he said and translated to the others. I left the room and returned downstairs. The men followed me in a tight line. I walked to the front door and opened it. Without pausing or looking up at me the men passed proceeded out into the darkness. Alexei was the last.
“Good to work for you, Mr. Larry,” he said. “We do other thing too.”
“Ok, good,” I said, feeling happy to be alive. “Do you have a card?”
He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and withdrew a business card. In middle of the card, in bold semi-Cyrillic lettering was RUSSIA PLUMMING ETC. across a semi-transparent photograph of the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. But every item on the card – including the company name, onion domes, address, and phone number, had been crossed out and new information written in. The new company name was GEORGIA PLUMMING ETC. The first handwritten phone number was also crossed out and replaced by a third number written above it. “Just call us if condensation continues,” he said. “Call us here,” he said pointing to the newest phone number.
“One more thing, Mr. Larry.”
“Yes what is that?”
I see cabinet in kitchen is being old. We make cabinet for kitchen. So please be calling us.”
“Yes, I will, when I replace them,” I assured him.
He nodded, smiled and walked out the door. I closed the door behind him and flipped the bolt lock.
I listened to his footsteps. Tthe doors of the car opened and closed. Then silence. I turned off the outside light and then switched off the lights in the house. Still no sound outside. . I sat down near a window. I watched the car. No movement. Nothing. I noticed the glow of cigarettes inside. A wisp of smoke streamed from an open window.
After ten minutes, the engine kicked in and the car backed out the driveway. It turned and slowly passed down the street to the first intersection. The driver had not yet switched on the lights.
I rechecked to make sure all the doors were locked. I checked the bathroom. A larger wet spot was now beneath the water line connection. Condensation was increasing. I put a bucket beneath the pipe.
The next morning the bucket was nearly full. The drip from the pipe was steady. I went to the classified ads in the morning newspaper and found an ad for a local bonded plumbing company. One of their men was at my house within an hour. He carried a large red toolbox. I showed him to the bathroom and the leaky toilet. I’d already picked up the wet newspapers and taken them to the garbage.
The plumber was finished in about ten minutes. I handed him a check for $200. I examined his work. Everything was dry and tight.
“Let me ask you one thing,” he said. “Did you try to fix this before I came?”
“No, I had someone else do it, “I said, sheepishly.
“Did you pay them or was it a friend?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well,” he said, “everything was put on backwards and upside down. And they sliced all the rubber washers in two. If you paid someone to do this and they are licensed, you should file a complaint. You really should get your money back. They had no idea what they were doing.”
“They were poets,” I said.
“I figured as much,” he responded, and smiled. “I hope they’re better poets than they are plumbers.”
He handed me his company card and left.
Everything was fine. No leaks
I thought about the audacious Georgian handyman in the following days. I live in San Jose in the very heart of Silicon Valley. Chronicles of this place emphasize and laud the men behind the startups and the IPOs and the young engineers working in their garages or laboring endlessly in their cubicles hoping for the Big Score.
Yet, Silicon Valley like the rest of the country holds out a promise not merely to the engineering elite, fast-talking MBAs, composers of code and gaming gurus. The American promise here and throughout the country has always been far more than that. Here there is still a chance to invent yourself without the burden of the past or the strictures of some present oppressive bureaucracy of the banal defining who you are and telling you what you must do and who you must be. Millions of people still come here embracing big dreams nurtured from childhood. In their hearts they are actors and writers and poets and artists. They do what they must day by day to make a living. And if it means fixing water pipes, they fix water pipes – learning while doing. Still they are dreamers.
I still hope some night I’ll come upon a restaurant or club in this valley and I’ll hear the sound of Georgian music spilling out into the night. I’ll stop and go inside and, I expect, sit and listen to the poetry of Georgians (and Russians) who earn their living by fixing things with their bare hands while refusing to surrender their singular self image and their uncompromising faith in inventing a transcendent poetic self.

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