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San Diego's Steve Garber – a thinking man's plumber

Never in the history of the world has man moved such volumes of water such distances

Jamila, the office manager/dispatcher/bookkeeper, invites me to leave my car in the garage, nosed up to a wall of plumbing supplies. I love this stuff, probably because I don’t understand it: the mystery, the rugged fist-sized handiness of the parts, like adult Lego.
Jamila, the office manager/dispatcher/bookkeeper, invites me to leave my car in the garage, nosed up to a wall of plumbing supplies. I love this stuff, probably because I don’t understand it: the mystery, the rugged fist-sized handiness of the parts, like adult Lego.

I was 35 before I first owned a house and first started thinking about water—but then, the important discoveries in life come to us remarkably late. Thirty-five is the age when the first of our friends dies of a heart attack impossibly young, and we hurriedly schedule cholesterol counts and EKGs.

Garber on sauna job. A good day would be one spent “working on steam,” that is, installing or repairing an electric sauna, which would be clean work, requiring less running around.

The basement seemed dry as we moved in, and I directed the furniture movers to put three-quarters of our boxes down there. When the first water appeared, almost at once, it dripped down from the house and seemed to be caused by a lack of attention. A faucet had been leaking into the bathroom wall for years, the plumber said; the wood and insulation were sodden, and after every shower or bath the wall dripped down into the basement like a sponge. Two puddles on the basement floor were simply valves that needed repacking — 15 minutes’ work — and a mysterious wet line across the boxes was just condensation dripping off a cold pipe on muggy days.

Steve Garber fixing a slab. If a building is to be sold, the toilet, installed in 1988, must be replaced with a 1.6-gallon model and the faucet in the bathtub must be above the floodline of the bath to prevent “gray” water being siphoned back into the potable water supply.

But water was teasing. Two days later a far bigger puddle claimed suitcases, books, the storm windows, several boxes of clothing, and a mattress. This time the problem was in the basement itself. The water heater, 20 years old, had chosen to give up the ghost as soon as I moved in. Now I realized that water was neither friend nor foe but the agent of universal fertility: its rich stink was that of ripeness, of growth — wood started swelling and bending, remembering its old osmotic habits and passing water on like a secret into cardboard and sheetrock, where almost at once molds sprang up like sooty stains, preparing to discharge spores, to which I am allergic, by the million. I pulled out a bookcase to find two colonies of sow bugs crawling three deep over each other, a dozen spiders of two different species, a three-inch centipede.

Garber at class. Last December, feeling rundown and sick of plumbing, he went to Seattle for Zen training. At one point he found himself thinking about his stockroom, which hadn’t been reorganized in years and was full to the ceiling with myriad useful-some-day parts.

The basement had lost its dry reserve; from now on it was part of natures free-for-all.

My assumptions about what we can control were still false: I had made the mistake of thinking that solid concrete was solid. After eight days of rain, the basement was wet again, this time under my workbench where I kept the cat litter, which I found floating around in my electrical supplies. Now the water was coming from out of reach, from a dark unknown that I couldn’t fathom by anything less than picking up and moving the whole house. A wet-basement expert looked at the floor and the lay of the land and said that as the last house on a downhill slope, the building was sitting on a small underground creek. When it rained, enormous hydrostatic pressure built up around the footing and forced the water up between the poured concrete floor and the wall. Fixing it would cost $5300, he said—my jaw dropped—and involved digging up some of the basement floor and installing a pump. Another expert shook his head: this method would actually attract water. One way or another, our basement floor was no more than a confidence trick. The house was rooted in uncertainty.

Ever since, I’ve been looking for a good plumber. Everyone wants to know a good plumber. A good plumber is like a big brother, a domestic demigod, competent, reassuringly handy, a hardware guy in an age of software wimps like me.

I’ve also been thinking about water as something more than a substance — a force, perhaps, or an element in the classic sense that everything is composed of four elements, water being one. After all, the basic requirement for a planet to support life is the presence of water in its liquid state; we live at water’s behest, in the margin between too little and too much.

Perhaps a good plumber would have some thoughts on this too; anyone who works with water must develop an elemental sense of how the world is put together. And where better to look for the philosopher-plumber than San Diego? After all, the whole of Southern California as we know it is the product of a gigantic act of plumbing.

And when I asked, people said, “You should call Steve Garber.”

Breaking the Wall

The headquarters of B. Garber Plumbing, founded by Steve Garber’s father Bernie in 1949, consists of a garage, an office, and a stockroom off an alley behind the North Park Jack In The Box on Upas Street.

Jamila, the office manager/dispatcher/bookkeeper, invites me to leave my car in the garage, nosed up to a wall of plumbing supplies: 1 1/2" x 1 1/4" TRAP ADPT, 2" ST 1/16 C/O PLUG, the arcane litany of professional hardware. I love this stuff, probably because I don’t understand it: the mystery, the rugged fist-sized handiness of the parts, like adult Lego.

One of the three white B. Garber vans arrives, and Steve gets out: tall, with sloping shoulders, slim, well built, dark brown hair thrown back from a high forehead, sensitive eyes, strong eyebrows and nose. He’s wearing jeans with the working man’s cluster of keys on his belt and a pager and a black T-shirt that reads “Giving Voice/California Poetry in the Schools.”

Jamila, who is clearly in control here, talks Steve through his day, an awkward one as his daughter is home sick, he is supposed to hear some students give a poetry presentation at 12:20, and one customer wants him to do a job at 11:00 a.m. that will take considerably more than an hour. Oh well. Jamila hands him a couple of service slips, we climb into his van, laden with pipe on the roof and parts in the back, and lurch down the alley.

First call of the day: an elderly lady in Golden Hill who wants an estimate for putting in a gas line to run a clothes dryer in her garage. She has bought an electric dryer, but the household wiring, it turns out, won’t take such a heavy electrical load. The options are to rewire the house or use gas instead, and she wants to go with gas and try to return the brand-new electric dryer, some of its parts still wrapped in plastic, by the garage door.

I didn’t even know plumbers worked with gas, but I suppose it makes sense; after all, gas, too, involves containing a flow, directing it, ensuring a good seal.

Steve is already in the garage, picking his way between desks, chairs, tables, shelves, and boxes, working out which pipe is water, which gas, and of the gas lines, which one runs to her apartment.

Steve finds the line and finds also a spot against the garage wall where the dryer could stand close to the washer, but there’s some question as to venting. “If you put it here you can just break this wall and go out there,” Steve suggests, and at once the lady looks uneasy.

She suspects the landlord might not like a hole in the wall, suggests using an existing vent beside the washer, but that would mean a longer gas line to the dryer and more wiring complications in moving the washer — but her real fear, if my own sudden sympathetic shudder is any indication, is that idea of breaking the wall. If you’ve been a handyman since as early as you can remember, you’ll never know the anxiety of the untooled. Breaking a wall? The plumber, saying this, sees a nice round vent pipe running out, blowing hot air and lint away, a circular chrome flange on either side covering the hole, just as things ought to be. I see (and I suspect the customer sees) a jagged gap with wind and rain blowing in between the splinters, a steady procession of insects and mice. The essential, fundamental integrity of the house is breached and she has no idea how to mend it.

Steve offers a sort of parable about losing his fear of breaking a hole in a wall. If there was a water leak inside a wall cavity, he used to make the smallest hole possible and then tinker around for ages with mirrors and lights trying to find the leak, not allowing himself to think that the wall had to be rebuilt anyway, so a larger hole made far more sense. “I used to go and stare under a sink for 20 minutes, thinking, ‘If I touch that, that’ll break, and if I break that, that’ll break....’ I remember, when I first started out years ago, sitting in front of machines close to tears because I had no idea what was wrong.”

Somewhere along the pipeline he read a passage in Robert Firsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which the narrator, needing to work on the engine of his bike, snaps the engine-cover screw and starts to panic — but then realizes that if he can’t extract the broken screw, he can’t fix the problem with the engine anyway, so he shuts out the what-if anxiety, focuses solely on the immediate problem, and eventually extracts the broken screw.

“Now I try to focus on what needs to be fixed; and if that breaks then 1 move on to what needs to be done next.” Focus eradicates fear, the what-if, the mental dam bursting, disasters gushing everywhere.

The estimate is complete: $425. Steve offers to close the overhead garage door for her, asks if she needs help getting back up the stairs.

Groping for Terminology

Steve started plumbing for his father at 13 but then spent much of the next 25 years trying to get out of the business. At first he wanted to be a veterinarian, then changed his mind and graduated from UC Santa Cruz as a biology major with a hefty subspecialty in reading literature and writing poetry. Almost at once his father gave him an ultimatum: take over the family business or I’ll sell it.

He took it over in 1980 but for several years tried to have it both ways, plumbing during the day and performing “poetic theatrical vignettes” (“basically indoor guerrilla theater,” he chuckled) at night. This range of activities broadened when he began editing a poetry magazine and working for California Poets in the Schools. Somewhere in there he married Margaret Darden, whom he had met in precalculus at UC Santa Cruz — she helped him out with his computer homework — and who had recently been producing his performances. All in all, he was being pulled in too many directions, and the plumbing business, which had once had ten employees, was suffering. By the early ’90s it seemed to him that he had spent all his life trying to

One day he found himself putting in a sink for an eighth dan aikido martial arts sensei, or master. The sensei was struck by Steve’s calm competence, and said so. Steve shrugged it off — Well, it's just plumbing, you know. Then it came out that the sensei had been practicing aikido exactly as long as Steve had been plumbing. Subsequently, 3 when Steve took up aikido, he began to see that he might think of himself as a master plumber, worth as much self-respect as an aikido master. “All the things I hated about plumbing — changing faucets, putting in garbage disposals — were a kind of practice. I’d been doing it over and over and over again like doing a basic aikido move. That made it easier to do plumbing.” If there is a Zen of plumbing, he had stumbled onto it.

We go over a bump, and all the equipment in the van crashes. It must take that Zen clarity of mind to organize all this stuff so it’s both handy and secure. I think of Pirsig again and his respect for tools. Steve laughs and tells me another story, another aikido-plumbing-life parable. Last December, feeling rundown and sick of plumbing, he went to Seattle for an eight-day sit, a Zen training in which one sits motionless and silent for long periods, looking inward. At one point during the sit he found himself thinking about his stockroom, which hadn’t been reorganized in years and was full to the ceiling with myriad useful-some-day parts, many of which he had inherited from his father, who had hung on to everything like a true Depression-era pack rat. Steve realized that he had been afraid to take on such a big job, with its heavy undertones of outgrowing his father’s imprint on the business and assuming his own identity, but that he had labeled those fears as “burnout.” When he returned to San Diego he brought in some help and sorted out everything. “Now I can stock my shelves with stuff we can use, rather than stuff my father kept. We’re having a sizable garage sale.”

By now we’ve arrived at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, where either the first or the second toilet down the corridor is apparently blocked and/or dripping. After a certain confusion, as one toilet is marked Out of Order but neither is blocked, we address the fact that the misbehaving lavatory is running a constant trickle of water into the bowl. Steve removes the lid and peers into the tank.

In 1991, San Diego, facing the alternative of a $2.5 million fine for violations of the Clean Water Act, passed an ordinance requiring that whenever a building was sold or altered the owner had to install low-flow showerheads and faucets and low-use urinals and toilets: no more than 1.6 gallons a flush, as opposed to as many as 6 gallons in older toilets. (Now, under state law, only 1.6-gallon toilets maybe sold in California.) The trouble is, 1.6 gallons may not, um, clean as thoroughly as 6 gallons, so in the great American tradition of fixing a technological problem by inventing a new technology, many owners, especially institutions, have inserted $l00-plus high-pressure devices into the tank to shoot the 1.6 gallons out fast enough to remove what the commercials call “the most stubborn stains.”

The drawback is, of course, that while the old toilet was something that even a dunce like me could understand and perhaps repair, the new Sloan Flushmate looks like the inside of an aircraft engine. Steve is temporarily baffled. He goes out to the van and comes back with a white plastic bag labeled Sloan Flushmate Cartridge Kit and, more importantly, his mobile phone. “This is my single most valuable piece of equipment,” he says grinning, but serious, and I can see why: we are moving past the era of practical knowledge and into the era of Information. Nobody can know everything anymore, and the phone puts him in contact with the manufacturer’s 800 number, which in turn becomes the Plumber of the Future.

The trickle seems to be caused by the round chrome doohickey on top of the tank pressing very slightly on the protruding plastic plunger whats it on top of the pressurizing device. Yes, dear reader, we’re involved in issues of language, and what a potent subject that is. The homeowner, finding a problem that she can’t fix or even understand, calls the plumber. What’s wrong, he asks, and at once she’s groping for the right terminology, not only words that will adequately describe what has gone wrong, but words that will make her sound like something less than a total idiot. You hear this happening with doctors all the time. If you have the term “urinary tract infection” at your command, you can carry on an adult exchange with your physician and emerge with antibiotics and an intact ego. If not, you’re a groveling dolt, or a child muttering about wee-wee.

But technology has left Steve groping for language too, and for once he is at a loss for words. In the old days the tank was flushed by a lever on the side called a trip lever, he says. He tends to call the new chrome thing on top a push button, but even the white plastic bag from Sloan with the diagram gives no clear name to the plunger thing on the cartridge. We are reduced to just trying to fix it, and luckily this involves simply rotating it slightly clockwise or counterclockwise so the plunger sits slightly less high, and the push button is no longer touching it. The toilet stops trickling, Steve pauses at Reception to announce success, and we’re (in our way again.

Examining Normal

Steve can’t remember where the next job is, so he calls Jamila on the mobile phone, and within a couple of moments he’s getting the directions in text form on his pager. He hired Jamila when she came to him straight out of high school, with a child. The gist of the interview went like this:

Steve: What are your hobbies?

Jamila: I like to read literature and write poetry.

Steve: You’re hired.

It’s noticeable how respectfully he talks to her, and in fact his crew in general lacks the macho sexism that is common among plumbers and has made its way into the language of plumbing, which includes the ballcock, male and female nipples and fittings, the fact that you put lubricant on male threads but not female.

Jamila directs us to Normal Heights, where Steve has been asked to inspect the plumbing at a house-plus-two-rental-units-out-back owned by an elderly lady, now in a convalescent home. Her nephew is arranging to put the place on the market and wants an evaluation of what needs to be done and how much it will cost to bring the place up to California code.

The house is small, modest, and has the neat but tired air of a home that has not been lived in for some time and has not been energetically tended for decades. The owner had been living on social security since she retired, and though she also had some income from the apartments, it can’t have stretched to many home improvements.

More significantly, America has spent the last decade or two entering more or less unwillingly an era of conservation and safety, and the California building codes are a perfect manifestation of The New Responsibility. If the building is to be sold, the toilet, installed in 1988, must be replaced with a 1.6-gallon model and the faucet in the bathtub must be above the floodline of the bath to prevent the admittedly remote possibility of “gray” water being siphoned back into the potable water supply. The nephew — short, trim, intelligent, probably in his late 50s himself — takes this stoically, though with each piece of bad news he seems to wilt a little. The water heater needs earthquake straps and some asbestos must be removed, the basket strainer in the kitchen sink is cracked and leaking.... So much needs to be done here and in the lower rental unit, which is in even sadder shape, that after a while I stop taking notes. I once lived in an old wooden house in Vermont, watching the pitch of the roof sag and the timbers inch gradually away from the vertical, and wrote, “A wooden house is a slow shipwreck.” This place, I suppose, is a slow earthquake. I’m relieved when the nephew quite properly asks me not to accompany Steve into the upper apartment, which is still occupied, to keep the intrusion to a minimum, and I sit on the steps looking out over the yard.

The yard is a pleasant surprise: close-clipped grass, dwarf trees, well-tended shrubs, some of the flowers in bloom despite the January chill. I find myself thinking of the water in the house, stagnant and rusty, and then the water in every cell of the plants, imbuing them with motion and color and that quality we call beauty. The plumbing hardware, deliberately inert so as not to react with water and corrode, has no movement or change. It’s dead. The water in these pipes is like the water in the L.A. River or the Tijuana River, diverted, polluted from contact with endless piping — what the water department calls “developed” water, as opposed to the irresponsible, undeveloped kind that runs frivolously from the mountains to the ocean, supporting fish, bird, and plant life, and so on. Mark Stadler, of the San Diego County Water Authority Public Affairs Department, argues that developed water in channels and reservoirs also supports fish, bird, and plant life, but this is true only incidentally: developed water has essentially been stolen from its own ecosystem, which, without it, is crippled.

The ancient Greeks, with their penchant for seeing divinity everywhere, had the right idea about water. Springs, bringing life from barren rock, were often considered sacred, and shrines were built around them — many with oracles, as if the providential water were a sign that this was where the gods chose to speak. The Encyclopedia Britannica adds, lyrically blending the language of plumbing into poetry, “Greek fountains were utilitarian as well, being provided with ample draw basins and reservoir supply, and often shaded by a portico.” It’s difficult to imagine the hard little outdoor garden-hose-type faucet, against which I nearly skinned my ankle, as a fountain, or this house as a shrine. The miracle is that this stagnant water could still, if emptied out into the garden, promote life, or could pull off its magical self-cleaning act and evaporate back to the Great Reservoir in the Sky, fresh and ready to return elsewhere.

A few days previously another plumber, Bob Sunbury, quoted Isaac Asimov to the effect that when we evolved out of the ocean we still needed it, so we took it with us, the salinity of blood being similar to that of seawater. After I left Sunbury’s office down by the harbor, the water was blue, brown, gray, constantly moving and changing, the trees shimmering and alive in reflection, the low waves swelling and falling like a slow pulse. Is this simply anthropomorphism— seeing the human in the inanimate — or is it the other way ’round: do we, as humans, imitate water? I watched two joggers, envying them their knees. Mine are in bad shape, the fluid in the joint full of small chips of bone, small shreds of cartilage, water with impurities. If I had spent my active years swimming instead of running around on hardwood floors and asphalt, my knees would still be fine. One of the joggers stumbled slightly, and it occurred to me that if he fell he would graze knees, elbows, the heels of his hands; if he fell into water, though, he would only get wet. We are imperfectly adapted to land, a walking container for water within which microorganisms flourish in an organized fashion, like an ambitious sponge.

My second daughter was born in the bathtub, slipping easily from fluid to fluid.

Steve and the nephew emerge from the upstairs apartment, and now it’s time for the dirtiest part of the job: Steve has to get a flashlight, pull on navy blue overalls and aging black Reeboks, and go under the house to inspect the sewer pipes and water lines, to look for signs of leakage from above. The nephew kneels down gingerly on the flagstone path around the side of the house and pulls off a grating that seems impossibly small, but with a few wriggles Steve gets his head and shoulders in and slowly vanishes into the crawlspace like a worm being eaten by a toad. Apart from the small patch of light flickering here and there, I can’t see a thing.

Well, we have reached the absolute earthy heart of plumbing now; as the Hungarian saying goes, Steve is under the frog’s ass at the bottom of the coal mine. This is where the phrase “blue-collar job” came from; it was always the working stiff who got stuck with the dirty job that required tough clothing of a color that wouldn’t show dirt. This is a profession of getting dirty, wet, smelly, and sweaty, of skinning knuckles against hardware. Not to mention the wildlife: the nephew candidly admits that he can’t stand getting into the crawlspace under his own house, with the creepy-crawlies all over you in the darkness, and I’m starting to think that paying someone else $45 an hour to do it is a pretty good deal.

At least this crawlspace isn’t awash with sewage. “I’ve been on disgusting jobs that only plumbers do,” Steve says later. “Just think if we lived in a society that still had open trenches running down the middle of the street” And he’s right: 19th-century plumbing took sewage off the streets, beginning a revolution not only in cleanliness but in public health, and the public effectively has turned its shit over to plumbers ever since. Don’t expect gratitude, though. Even when its hands are clean (and I can tell you now that Steve uses a hand cleanser called Really Works), the profession is stained by association.

He eventually wriggles back out, his front covered with dirt and his back with cobwebs, writes up his report, accepts a check, jumps into the van, and races off to teach poetry in the schools.

Except that, as it turns out, I don’t get to see this side of his life. He is supposed to be injecting the poetry ingredient into a science/poetry/music project by seniors at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, but the other elements haven’t progressed as far as they should, and there’s nothing for him to do, and he has changed into a cool light green shirt in vain. As he sets up a future meeting with the teacher, I notice a colored poster entitled “The Ladder of Life: Five Kingdoms” that shows Animalia, Plantae, Protista, Monera, and Fungi as branches sprouting from a double helix that twists up from a splashing drop of water.

Wishful Thinking

Over lunch at Bread & Cie, I explain my suspicion that our problems with water began when we humans ceased to be nomadic.

Nomads have no reason to fear spring flooding, for example. Wait on high ground until the waters recede, move down onto the floodplain, farm the rich alluvial soil. “The first [people] to apply the abundant waters of the Owens Valley to the growing of food,” writes William

Kahrl in Water and Power, “were the Paiute Indians, who migrated to the valley each spring and summer to gather seeds, nuts, and grasses. To increase their harvest, the Indians applied techniques they had learned at Fort Tejon near Bakersfield to flood the fields around Bishop Creek. In the spring, they would dam the creek, turning its flows into a ditch that ran to two fields of natural vegetation which they harvested alternately each year. The women would then gather the fish stranded in the dry streambed, as well as the plants that flourished through the summer. In the fall the dam was taken down and the waters allowed to return to their natural course. The Indians would then gather the fish left in the fields and head south for the winter.”

Moreover, nomadic people discharge waste on the move, like animals, thereby fertilizing a wide area rather than accumulating wastes in one site, a habit that forced settlement dwellers to found their communities on rivers that they Could use as sewers, a shortsighted and disgusting solution that still exists.

Major water problems arise as soon as nomads settle down . and try to have water come to them. Controlling water involves not only enormous expenditures of time, effort, and money and major environmental damage but also massively raises the potential for disaster. Building homes on floodplains is asking for trouble on a vast scale, as this spring’s floods in California and the upper Midwest showed only too vividly. Dams and levees may be introduced as flood-control measures, but when they fail, as Marc Reisner points out in his scathing book Cadillac Desert, the result is not the steady rise of rainwater, which allows a certain amount of time for evacuation, but what amounts to a tidal wave. When the St. Francis Dam, built by William Mulholland in the Owens Valley as part of the Los Angeles water system, collapsed in 1928, the result was a roaring, racing wall of water 200 feet high, and “thousand-ton blocks of concrete rode the crest like rafts.” When the surge hit Castaic Junction, ten miles down the valley, it was still 78 feet high, not just water but mud, pieces of homes, telephone poles, wagons, corpses, and cars. Around 450 people were killed, more than in the San Francisco earthquake, 1200 homes demolished, 8000 acres of topsoil stripped. Several days later, bodies and debris from Castaic Junction showed up on the beaches near San Diego.

Steve agrees that controlling water is inevitably temporary (“If there’s an imperfection anywhere, water will find it. It sets up a current around that imperfection, and it will wear a hole in that pipe”) but adds, philosophically, “If you want to have a big city, you have to control the water.” Which is undoubtedly true; in that sense, California’s water-importing cities (and even more so, Las Vegas) are extremes, perhaps, but not exceptions.

“All of Mission Valley is built on a river. When I was a kid I used to go fishing in Mission Valley for perch, bluegill, freshwater bass.” When the river rose, the overflow washed out into the Fashion Valley and Mission Valley shopping centers. “You’d find an inch of water all across the parking lots in Fashion Valley. I used to drive out there in my car and do doughnuts.”

Now San Diego’s rivers are under control. There’s a building in downtown San Diego, he said, careful to mention no names, that sits over a huge sump, a pit the size of two rooms, that contains an enormous pump. Under the building runs a river, and whenever the water rises, it runs into the pit, is pumped up two stories to street level and into a drain, the river as nuisance taken care of by technology. Once Steve was called in because a pipe broke and the water was being pumped up from the sump, running out of the broken pipe into an air shaft and then falling back into the sump again. “We had to lower a guy on a rope while he put the pipe back together so the river could flow back into the ocean.” (This reminds me of the sad fate of the River Fleet, the major tributary of the Thames in London: once a clear stream, then an open sewer, it is now the perfect example of controlled and developed water: it runs almost its entire course down a culvert, never seeing the light of day, existing solely as an inconvenience, doing no good to man or beast, except perhaps the sewer rats.)

Seeing water merely as a substance results in our not only misunderstanding and abusing water but misunderstanding and abusing life itself. Bringing water to Southern California by aqueduct, for example, mean; that once it arrives it needs to be cleaned and filtered. “By the time it gets here it’s so polluted because it’s been sitting in that pipe,” Steve says. If, on the other hand, rainfall and snowmelt are allowed to seep into the ground-water or run through a beaver swamp, the water undergoes a natural filtering process. “It g always amazes me,” he says, y “that if water runs through dirt s it comes out clean.” Hence the e weird paradox that San Diego actually adds calcium to its water to reduce the pH — that is, the acidity—because high pH will corrode metal pipe. “You go down to the filter plant and you can see them adding lime,” Bob Sunbury said. “So the funny thing is they add lime, then people put in softeners to get rid of it, and magnesium.”

Another effect of “controlling” water is that silt, which a river normally carries down to the ocean, gets trapped upstream of a dam. This not only ensures that all the great dams of the West will eventually become useless — the Hoover Dam, in fact, will probably silt up before it falls apart — but it prevents the silt from being deposited at the river’s mouth. In extreme cases, like the Colorado, this means that the river starts eating its way back upstream, pulling its estuary with it; here in San Diego it means that the beaches are vanishing, as longshore drift washes sand along the coast and it is not replaced by river silt.

In this respect, plumbing is like roads: we have based our great cities on both commodities, so what do we do when both start to seem unexpectedly expensive and environmentally catastrophic? San Diegans, living in a climate that can’t naturally support such extensive habitation (not to mention Southern California’s subsidized farmland), can look forward to a permanent state of water crisis.

And this is true even in the face of California’s apparent glut of water, thanks to the recent flooding in the northern half of the state. It takes a long, long time for rainfall to trickle down to the aquifer. Some underground water is thousands of years old. Using it is like cutting down old-growth forest — it’s old-growth water, except that new, quick-growing trees grow a lot faster than rainfall refills an aquifer.

Life Reeks of Death

Back in the van. Not long ago, Steve tells me, he took a toilet into his daughter’s third grade class to show them how it works, to demystify it, to get beyond the unease and the lavatory jokes — though he decided to call the ballcock a “fill valve.” This kind of nuts-and-bolts education seems to make sense: surely we would want to know how to live in a mechanical world, surely we would take pride in an ability to fix things, or at least an interest in it? Yet we don’t. Moreover, I discovered that of four other plumbers I interviewed for this article, three were hoping to get out of plumbing and one was mostly into the administrative side of the business.

Steve is frowning now. Have I noticed how often a plumber is the point of the parable, the butt of the joke? He likes people who talk to him, he likes to find out who they are, but often when he goes to ritzy areas such as Rancho Santa Fe the customer won’t give him the time of day. He’ll try to strike up a conversation and they’ll say “Yeah, the bathroom’s over there.” “When I’m at a party,” Steve says, “I will introduce myself first as a poet, a teacher, or an aikidoist, and only then will I say that I own a plumbing business. Plumbing always comes last, even though it’s my primary source of income.”

It’s odd that a country so proud of its historical self-reliance and its hands-on mechanical aptitude should despise such a practical application of that spirit. When did Americans start disliking plumbers? I ask, but Steve is not sure. Those with a leftist perspective might look back to the Taft-Hardey Act and the destruction of the American labor movement, I suspect, or to America’s hatred of poverty, once you’re no longer poor you can pay someone else to do the dirty work for you. Or the schools, where the highbrows take physics and the lowbrows take shop. Or to our faith in science: far better to believe that technology will one day invent the perfect faucet, and things will simply never go wrong again.

For Steve, the plumber is inescapably associated with the central symbol of the toilet. “We don’t want to admit we’re getting old and breaking down. Everything that reeks of life reeks of death. Fecal matter reminds us of mortality. Nobody goes through life without looking at their stool to see if there’s something wrong with their body.

“The plumber metaphorically is representative of everything people are fighting against:

chaos, lack of control, the fact that water makes its way out of the pipe and into the house, ruining the carpet. Plumbing is the inability to control plumbing, to control water.”

What about my hero, the hardware demigod, the domestic savior in times of watery crisis?

“I charge them,” he says shortly. “They might think of me [as the hardware demigod] if I did it for nothing. People hate being at someone else’s mercy.” He feels the same way about a car mechanic, he says. “How do I know if he knows what he’s doing? How do I know if I’m being overcharged?”

By now we had pulled up to the next port of call, a pleasant little house in Golden Hill with, suitably, a faulty toilet. I think of the last plumber who had been to my house and left dirty footprints up and down the stairway carpet and am immediately embarrassed to go in with my big boots on. Everywhere we go, Steve and I seem to take up half a room. As Steve unpacks new wax seals, I imagine I’d feel more at ease in a sewer trench than in that neat house, that spotless bathroom with the pills and medicines lined up by the sink, the room where people are naked. The place is thrown open to us, vulnerable: the mother in bed sick, the seventh grade son practicing his bassoon....

Afterward, driving back to the office-in-the-alley, Steve says to my surprise that he hadn’t felt like that at all. “When I’m working, I’m at home,” he says. “I’m fixing my toilet. When a customer alienates you, you lose that [ease]. And that begins from the very beginning, from the moment someone makes that first phone call, even if someone’s rude to Jamila because she’s just the secretary. I can’t stand that. They don’t know how dependent on her I am.”

This thought reminds me of observations I heard from Mark Sommer, a sort of philosopher-surfer-plumber in tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans whom I met at his trailer two blocks from the ocean in Encinitas, his surfboard set up as a table, his wet suit drying on the line, a book by Carlos Castaneda on the floor. He sees in his work a different kind of mechanics, a deeper kind of fluidity.

“The jobs I do now go only one way for only one reason,” he said. “If people have faith in me and don’t have any negative suggestion that goes along with their personality, which they take with every mechanic they hire, the job goes exactly along those lines. So I have some people who have some horrendous problems, and every time I go up to their house, [the work] goes perfectly. It’s not the problems that are bad, it’s that their faith in me allows me to flow. The hardware is the medium [for expression] of the two energies. Everything we come to in life is a piece of hardware. Before I knew that, I would get involved with all kinds of people with crap energy and good energy and I’d just be pulling my hair out because I was ignorant of the fact that there’s no such thing as a job whatsoever, it’s only the energies of humans flowing here.

“I have one customer who just recently screwed me,” Sommer says. “He hasn’t paid me twice, after he really nicely told me that he was going to pay me this time.... This person is physically ill and grotesquely fat and always complaining that everything [bad] is always happening to them. He took a big dump in the toilet, clogged it up, flushed it once, flushed it twice, and it went everywhere. Ruined the carpet. The plumbing’s fucked up because the person’s fucked up. He wouldn’t be eating grotesque amounts of food and then dumping whatever he dumped in there that made the toilet overflow. His energy contacted his toilet. And he’d moved into a crappy building. His whole life culminates in our plumbing problem together and our mixing of energies.”

Jamila gives us one final call, a customer living nearby who has repeatedly smelled something suspicious near her hot-water heater. It’s a classic case of a little knowledge being a frightening thing: she’s read in her manual that the anode rod— whatever that is — can, under certain circumstances, produce a rotten egg smell, and she has put two and two together. Who can blame her? She doesn’t have what Steve calls the “tacit knowledge” that goes with a lifetime in the business, the stuff not in the manual that enables him to know that the anode rod can’t possibly be the cause, the knowledge that he could easily flaunt in her face without meaning to, again, like a doctor. Instead, he puts in the extra effort to try to clarify. The smell remains a mystery, that most disturbing of conditions, and Steve departs with the injunction to call the office the moment she smells it again.

It’s 4:45. Steve has a paper to write (a reflection on why he does aikido), a sick daughter to visit, and then aikido, where the sensei will not be pleased if he is late. It has been what he calls a fairly typical light day, at least he wasn’t called out in the middle of the night. A good day would be one spent “working on steam,” that is, installing or repairing an electric sauna, which would be clean work, requiring less running around. It would also be a lot more lucrative, though of course the customer might not give him the time of day.

The Faucet and the Water

The following day, what I remember most vividly is the outside faucet on the house-to-be-sold, which Steve opened up to test its shutoff valve. The dull iron tap is no temple; there is no divinity to this spring. If anything, this is more Roman than Greek. It was the Romans, basing civil engineering on military principles, who perfected the idea that water was a commodity that could be owned and put to work. (The phrase reminds us that theirs was an empire built on slavery, as well as engineering.) The Romans were as efficient at plumbing as they were at building roads, bringing water through terra cotta or lead pipes (“plumber” comes from the Latin word for leadworker) down from the hills into Rome, and used an astonishing 300 gallons per person per day, more than twice what even Californians use. In a sense they used water to celebrate not their gods but themselves, the greatness of their achievement, their divinity as demonstrated in conquering nature.

After the collapse of Rome, it is said that the world went unwashed for a thousand years, but enough of the aqueducts and baths of Rome survived intact to serve as a model for later societies. The Greek notion of respecting water and going to get it where it arises naturally now seems quaint, almost ridiculous. The same Encyclopedia Britannica, after describing at length the various phases of the California Water Plan (a torrent of words bearing a thick silt of statistics about canals, conduits, reservoirs, and pipelines), concludes in Churchillian style: “.. .a description of the aqueduct empire”—an interesting choice of words — “of California is one of superlatives. Never in the history of the world has man moved such volumes of water such distances, and the end is not in sight.”

Plumbing, then, is in an odd, contradictory position: it tries to make sense out of nonsense. Steve is as aware as anyone that San Diego is an absurdity from the viewpoint of water conservation and wise land use, but when all is said and done, the city is here, and it is his job to keep it watertight Even though that, too, is an illusion, and controlling water will always be at best a very, very expensive temporary measure, a quixotic gesture of human ingenuity and bravado in the face of inevitable collapse.

“We’ve got these houses up the coast falling into the ocean,” said Bob Sunbury. “The engineers have been trying to stop the ocean from washing down this cliff for years. They can’t do it because water has time on its side. It’s got all the time it wants. We don’t. And that’s why it always beats us. Always will beat us too.”

Plumbing seems to be missing something; or perhaps water exists in dimensions that plumbing doesn’t even recognize. If I were more Buddhist, I suppose I could see the faucet and the water as a constant dialectic between the hardware and the software, the fluid and the static yin and yang. But I can’t help thinking that even the hardest surfaces, natural or artificial, will inevitably be worn down by water, imagining continents rising out of the ocean and sub-siding over millions of years, the rough surfaces worn smooth, then worn away, everything circulating back sooner or later into water. So there are two kinds of substance, then: those that water erodes, and those that it inhabits, rising and falling like the tide, expressing in their form and movement the fluidity of their watery origin and their watery content. I pinch the flesh on my arm and feel the water in my cells, my tissues, my blood. Makes the California Water Plan seem a clumsy, clanking operation, a suit of armor masquerading as a person.

Once I had a fluoroscopy for a suspected ulcer. I drank a barium milkshake while we all stared expectantly at the monitor, watching the whiteness run down my esophagus into my stomach, looking for it to fill a small pit that would indicate trouble. But the thing that amazed me was that every time I swallowed, each organ in the vicinity, clearly outlined on the monitor, shuddered with the movement, keeping its general outline and sense of purpose, yet responding to its neighboring tissues, demonstrating what I came to think of as a soft geometry. If there is plumbing here it is soft plumbing, itself largely made out of water, as pliable as the esophagus or the throbbing arteries, constructed so as to be able to react to constant change.

“The environment is endlessly trying to hint to us how to take care of ourselves,” Mark Sommer said, and when I think of plumbing now I think about water in the harbor, water in the fronds of the palms, hinting about change and renewal, while a few yards away the cars pour by on the dead concrete.

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Twelve Haiku by Andrew Hamlin

Jamila, the office manager/dispatcher/bookkeeper, invites me to leave my car in the garage, nosed up to a wall of plumbing supplies. I love this stuff, probably because I don’t understand it: the mystery, the rugged fist-sized handiness of the parts, like adult Lego.
Jamila, the office manager/dispatcher/bookkeeper, invites me to leave my car in the garage, nosed up to a wall of plumbing supplies. I love this stuff, probably because I don’t understand it: the mystery, the rugged fist-sized handiness of the parts, like adult Lego.

I was 35 before I first owned a house and first started thinking about water—but then, the important discoveries in life come to us remarkably late. Thirty-five is the age when the first of our friends dies of a heart attack impossibly young, and we hurriedly schedule cholesterol counts and EKGs.

Garber on sauna job. A good day would be one spent “working on steam,” that is, installing or repairing an electric sauna, which would be clean work, requiring less running around.

The basement seemed dry as we moved in, and I directed the furniture movers to put three-quarters of our boxes down there. When the first water appeared, almost at once, it dripped down from the house and seemed to be caused by a lack of attention. A faucet had been leaking into the bathroom wall for years, the plumber said; the wood and insulation were sodden, and after every shower or bath the wall dripped down into the basement like a sponge. Two puddles on the basement floor were simply valves that needed repacking — 15 minutes’ work — and a mysterious wet line across the boxes was just condensation dripping off a cold pipe on muggy days.

Steve Garber fixing a slab. If a building is to be sold, the toilet, installed in 1988, must be replaced with a 1.6-gallon model and the faucet in the bathtub must be above the floodline of the bath to prevent “gray” water being siphoned back into the potable water supply.

But water was teasing. Two days later a far bigger puddle claimed suitcases, books, the storm windows, several boxes of clothing, and a mattress. This time the problem was in the basement itself. The water heater, 20 years old, had chosen to give up the ghost as soon as I moved in. Now I realized that water was neither friend nor foe but the agent of universal fertility: its rich stink was that of ripeness, of growth — wood started swelling and bending, remembering its old osmotic habits and passing water on like a secret into cardboard and sheetrock, where almost at once molds sprang up like sooty stains, preparing to discharge spores, to which I am allergic, by the million. I pulled out a bookcase to find two colonies of sow bugs crawling three deep over each other, a dozen spiders of two different species, a three-inch centipede.

Garber at class. Last December, feeling rundown and sick of plumbing, he went to Seattle for Zen training. At one point he found himself thinking about his stockroom, which hadn’t been reorganized in years and was full to the ceiling with myriad useful-some-day parts.

The basement had lost its dry reserve; from now on it was part of natures free-for-all.

My assumptions about what we can control were still false: I had made the mistake of thinking that solid concrete was solid. After eight days of rain, the basement was wet again, this time under my workbench where I kept the cat litter, which I found floating around in my electrical supplies. Now the water was coming from out of reach, from a dark unknown that I couldn’t fathom by anything less than picking up and moving the whole house. A wet-basement expert looked at the floor and the lay of the land and said that as the last house on a downhill slope, the building was sitting on a small underground creek. When it rained, enormous hydrostatic pressure built up around the footing and forced the water up between the poured concrete floor and the wall. Fixing it would cost $5300, he said—my jaw dropped—and involved digging up some of the basement floor and installing a pump. Another expert shook his head: this method would actually attract water. One way or another, our basement floor was no more than a confidence trick. The house was rooted in uncertainty.

Ever since, I’ve been looking for a good plumber. Everyone wants to know a good plumber. A good plumber is like a big brother, a domestic demigod, competent, reassuringly handy, a hardware guy in an age of software wimps like me.

I’ve also been thinking about water as something more than a substance — a force, perhaps, or an element in the classic sense that everything is composed of four elements, water being one. After all, the basic requirement for a planet to support life is the presence of water in its liquid state; we live at water’s behest, in the margin between too little and too much.

Perhaps a good plumber would have some thoughts on this too; anyone who works with water must develop an elemental sense of how the world is put together. And where better to look for the philosopher-plumber than San Diego? After all, the whole of Southern California as we know it is the product of a gigantic act of plumbing.

And when I asked, people said, “You should call Steve Garber.”

Breaking the Wall

The headquarters of B. Garber Plumbing, founded by Steve Garber’s father Bernie in 1949, consists of a garage, an office, and a stockroom off an alley behind the North Park Jack In The Box on Upas Street.

Jamila, the office manager/dispatcher/bookkeeper, invites me to leave my car in the garage, nosed up to a wall of plumbing supplies: 1 1/2" x 1 1/4" TRAP ADPT, 2" ST 1/16 C/O PLUG, the arcane litany of professional hardware. I love this stuff, probably because I don’t understand it: the mystery, the rugged fist-sized handiness of the parts, like adult Lego.

One of the three white B. Garber vans arrives, and Steve gets out: tall, with sloping shoulders, slim, well built, dark brown hair thrown back from a high forehead, sensitive eyes, strong eyebrows and nose. He’s wearing jeans with the working man’s cluster of keys on his belt and a pager and a black T-shirt that reads “Giving Voice/California Poetry in the Schools.”

Jamila, who is clearly in control here, talks Steve through his day, an awkward one as his daughter is home sick, he is supposed to hear some students give a poetry presentation at 12:20, and one customer wants him to do a job at 11:00 a.m. that will take considerably more than an hour. Oh well. Jamila hands him a couple of service slips, we climb into his van, laden with pipe on the roof and parts in the back, and lurch down the alley.

First call of the day: an elderly lady in Golden Hill who wants an estimate for putting in a gas line to run a clothes dryer in her garage. She has bought an electric dryer, but the household wiring, it turns out, won’t take such a heavy electrical load. The options are to rewire the house or use gas instead, and she wants to go with gas and try to return the brand-new electric dryer, some of its parts still wrapped in plastic, by the garage door.

I didn’t even know plumbers worked with gas, but I suppose it makes sense; after all, gas, too, involves containing a flow, directing it, ensuring a good seal.

Steve is already in the garage, picking his way between desks, chairs, tables, shelves, and boxes, working out which pipe is water, which gas, and of the gas lines, which one runs to her apartment.

Steve finds the line and finds also a spot against the garage wall where the dryer could stand close to the washer, but there’s some question as to venting. “If you put it here you can just break this wall and go out there,” Steve suggests, and at once the lady looks uneasy.

She suspects the landlord might not like a hole in the wall, suggests using an existing vent beside the washer, but that would mean a longer gas line to the dryer and more wiring complications in moving the washer — but her real fear, if my own sudden sympathetic shudder is any indication, is that idea of breaking the wall. If you’ve been a handyman since as early as you can remember, you’ll never know the anxiety of the untooled. Breaking a wall? The plumber, saying this, sees a nice round vent pipe running out, blowing hot air and lint away, a circular chrome flange on either side covering the hole, just as things ought to be. I see (and I suspect the customer sees) a jagged gap with wind and rain blowing in between the splinters, a steady procession of insects and mice. The essential, fundamental integrity of the house is breached and she has no idea how to mend it.

Steve offers a sort of parable about losing his fear of breaking a hole in a wall. If there was a water leak inside a wall cavity, he used to make the smallest hole possible and then tinker around for ages with mirrors and lights trying to find the leak, not allowing himself to think that the wall had to be rebuilt anyway, so a larger hole made far more sense. “I used to go and stare under a sink for 20 minutes, thinking, ‘If I touch that, that’ll break, and if I break that, that’ll break....’ I remember, when I first started out years ago, sitting in front of machines close to tears because I had no idea what was wrong.”

Somewhere along the pipeline he read a passage in Robert Firsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which the narrator, needing to work on the engine of his bike, snaps the engine-cover screw and starts to panic — but then realizes that if he can’t extract the broken screw, he can’t fix the problem with the engine anyway, so he shuts out the what-if anxiety, focuses solely on the immediate problem, and eventually extracts the broken screw.

“Now I try to focus on what needs to be fixed; and if that breaks then 1 move on to what needs to be done next.” Focus eradicates fear, the what-if, the mental dam bursting, disasters gushing everywhere.

The estimate is complete: $425. Steve offers to close the overhead garage door for her, asks if she needs help getting back up the stairs.

Groping for Terminology

Steve started plumbing for his father at 13 but then spent much of the next 25 years trying to get out of the business. At first he wanted to be a veterinarian, then changed his mind and graduated from UC Santa Cruz as a biology major with a hefty subspecialty in reading literature and writing poetry. Almost at once his father gave him an ultimatum: take over the family business or I’ll sell it.

He took it over in 1980 but for several years tried to have it both ways, plumbing during the day and performing “poetic theatrical vignettes” (“basically indoor guerrilla theater,” he chuckled) at night. This range of activities broadened when he began editing a poetry magazine and working for California Poets in the Schools. Somewhere in there he married Margaret Darden, whom he had met in precalculus at UC Santa Cruz — she helped him out with his computer homework — and who had recently been producing his performances. All in all, he was being pulled in too many directions, and the plumbing business, which had once had ten employees, was suffering. By the early ’90s it seemed to him that he had spent all his life trying to

One day he found himself putting in a sink for an eighth dan aikido martial arts sensei, or master. The sensei was struck by Steve’s calm competence, and said so. Steve shrugged it off — Well, it's just plumbing, you know. Then it came out that the sensei had been practicing aikido exactly as long as Steve had been plumbing. Subsequently, 3 when Steve took up aikido, he began to see that he might think of himself as a master plumber, worth as much self-respect as an aikido master. “All the things I hated about plumbing — changing faucets, putting in garbage disposals — were a kind of practice. I’d been doing it over and over and over again like doing a basic aikido move. That made it easier to do plumbing.” If there is a Zen of plumbing, he had stumbled onto it.

We go over a bump, and all the equipment in the van crashes. It must take that Zen clarity of mind to organize all this stuff so it’s both handy and secure. I think of Pirsig again and his respect for tools. Steve laughs and tells me another story, another aikido-plumbing-life parable. Last December, feeling rundown and sick of plumbing, he went to Seattle for an eight-day sit, a Zen training in which one sits motionless and silent for long periods, looking inward. At one point during the sit he found himself thinking about his stockroom, which hadn’t been reorganized in years and was full to the ceiling with myriad useful-some-day parts, many of which he had inherited from his father, who had hung on to everything like a true Depression-era pack rat. Steve realized that he had been afraid to take on such a big job, with its heavy undertones of outgrowing his father’s imprint on the business and assuming his own identity, but that he had labeled those fears as “burnout.” When he returned to San Diego he brought in some help and sorted out everything. “Now I can stock my shelves with stuff we can use, rather than stuff my father kept. We’re having a sizable garage sale.”

By now we’ve arrived at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, where either the first or the second toilet down the corridor is apparently blocked and/or dripping. After a certain confusion, as one toilet is marked Out of Order but neither is blocked, we address the fact that the misbehaving lavatory is running a constant trickle of water into the bowl. Steve removes the lid and peers into the tank.

In 1991, San Diego, facing the alternative of a $2.5 million fine for violations of the Clean Water Act, passed an ordinance requiring that whenever a building was sold or altered the owner had to install low-flow showerheads and faucets and low-use urinals and toilets: no more than 1.6 gallons a flush, as opposed to as many as 6 gallons in older toilets. (Now, under state law, only 1.6-gallon toilets maybe sold in California.) The trouble is, 1.6 gallons may not, um, clean as thoroughly as 6 gallons, so in the great American tradition of fixing a technological problem by inventing a new technology, many owners, especially institutions, have inserted $l00-plus high-pressure devices into the tank to shoot the 1.6 gallons out fast enough to remove what the commercials call “the most stubborn stains.”

The drawback is, of course, that while the old toilet was something that even a dunce like me could understand and perhaps repair, the new Sloan Flushmate looks like the inside of an aircraft engine. Steve is temporarily baffled. He goes out to the van and comes back with a white plastic bag labeled Sloan Flushmate Cartridge Kit and, more importantly, his mobile phone. “This is my single most valuable piece of equipment,” he says grinning, but serious, and I can see why: we are moving past the era of practical knowledge and into the era of Information. Nobody can know everything anymore, and the phone puts him in contact with the manufacturer’s 800 number, which in turn becomes the Plumber of the Future.

The trickle seems to be caused by the round chrome doohickey on top of the tank pressing very slightly on the protruding plastic plunger whats it on top of the pressurizing device. Yes, dear reader, we’re involved in issues of language, and what a potent subject that is. The homeowner, finding a problem that she can’t fix or even understand, calls the plumber. What’s wrong, he asks, and at once she’s groping for the right terminology, not only words that will adequately describe what has gone wrong, but words that will make her sound like something less than a total idiot. You hear this happening with doctors all the time. If you have the term “urinary tract infection” at your command, you can carry on an adult exchange with your physician and emerge with antibiotics and an intact ego. If not, you’re a groveling dolt, or a child muttering about wee-wee.

But technology has left Steve groping for language too, and for once he is at a loss for words. In the old days the tank was flushed by a lever on the side called a trip lever, he says. He tends to call the new chrome thing on top a push button, but even the white plastic bag from Sloan with the diagram gives no clear name to the plunger thing on the cartridge. We are reduced to just trying to fix it, and luckily this involves simply rotating it slightly clockwise or counterclockwise so the plunger sits slightly less high, and the push button is no longer touching it. The toilet stops trickling, Steve pauses at Reception to announce success, and we’re (in our way again.

Examining Normal

Steve can’t remember where the next job is, so he calls Jamila on the mobile phone, and within a couple of moments he’s getting the directions in text form on his pager. He hired Jamila when she came to him straight out of high school, with a child. The gist of the interview went like this:

Steve: What are your hobbies?

Jamila: I like to read literature and write poetry.

Steve: You’re hired.

It’s noticeable how respectfully he talks to her, and in fact his crew in general lacks the macho sexism that is common among plumbers and has made its way into the language of plumbing, which includes the ballcock, male and female nipples and fittings, the fact that you put lubricant on male threads but not female.

Jamila directs us to Normal Heights, where Steve has been asked to inspect the plumbing at a house-plus-two-rental-units-out-back owned by an elderly lady, now in a convalescent home. Her nephew is arranging to put the place on the market and wants an evaluation of what needs to be done and how much it will cost to bring the place up to California code.

The house is small, modest, and has the neat but tired air of a home that has not been lived in for some time and has not been energetically tended for decades. The owner had been living on social security since she retired, and though she also had some income from the apartments, it can’t have stretched to many home improvements.

More significantly, America has spent the last decade or two entering more or less unwillingly an era of conservation and safety, and the California building codes are a perfect manifestation of The New Responsibility. If the building is to be sold, the toilet, installed in 1988, must be replaced with a 1.6-gallon model and the faucet in the bathtub must be above the floodline of the bath to prevent the admittedly remote possibility of “gray” water being siphoned back into the potable water supply. The nephew — short, trim, intelligent, probably in his late 50s himself — takes this stoically, though with each piece of bad news he seems to wilt a little. The water heater needs earthquake straps and some asbestos must be removed, the basket strainer in the kitchen sink is cracked and leaking.... So much needs to be done here and in the lower rental unit, which is in even sadder shape, that after a while I stop taking notes. I once lived in an old wooden house in Vermont, watching the pitch of the roof sag and the timbers inch gradually away from the vertical, and wrote, “A wooden house is a slow shipwreck.” This place, I suppose, is a slow earthquake. I’m relieved when the nephew quite properly asks me not to accompany Steve into the upper apartment, which is still occupied, to keep the intrusion to a minimum, and I sit on the steps looking out over the yard.

The yard is a pleasant surprise: close-clipped grass, dwarf trees, well-tended shrubs, some of the flowers in bloom despite the January chill. I find myself thinking of the water in the house, stagnant and rusty, and then the water in every cell of the plants, imbuing them with motion and color and that quality we call beauty. The plumbing hardware, deliberately inert so as not to react with water and corrode, has no movement or change. It’s dead. The water in these pipes is like the water in the L.A. River or the Tijuana River, diverted, polluted from contact with endless piping — what the water department calls “developed” water, as opposed to the irresponsible, undeveloped kind that runs frivolously from the mountains to the ocean, supporting fish, bird, and plant life, and so on. Mark Stadler, of the San Diego County Water Authority Public Affairs Department, argues that developed water in channels and reservoirs also supports fish, bird, and plant life, but this is true only incidentally: developed water has essentially been stolen from its own ecosystem, which, without it, is crippled.

The ancient Greeks, with their penchant for seeing divinity everywhere, had the right idea about water. Springs, bringing life from barren rock, were often considered sacred, and shrines were built around them — many with oracles, as if the providential water were a sign that this was where the gods chose to speak. The Encyclopedia Britannica adds, lyrically blending the language of plumbing into poetry, “Greek fountains were utilitarian as well, being provided with ample draw basins and reservoir supply, and often shaded by a portico.” It’s difficult to imagine the hard little outdoor garden-hose-type faucet, against which I nearly skinned my ankle, as a fountain, or this house as a shrine. The miracle is that this stagnant water could still, if emptied out into the garden, promote life, or could pull off its magical self-cleaning act and evaporate back to the Great Reservoir in the Sky, fresh and ready to return elsewhere.

A few days previously another plumber, Bob Sunbury, quoted Isaac Asimov to the effect that when we evolved out of the ocean we still needed it, so we took it with us, the salinity of blood being similar to that of seawater. After I left Sunbury’s office down by the harbor, the water was blue, brown, gray, constantly moving and changing, the trees shimmering and alive in reflection, the low waves swelling and falling like a slow pulse. Is this simply anthropomorphism— seeing the human in the inanimate — or is it the other way ’round: do we, as humans, imitate water? I watched two joggers, envying them their knees. Mine are in bad shape, the fluid in the joint full of small chips of bone, small shreds of cartilage, water with impurities. If I had spent my active years swimming instead of running around on hardwood floors and asphalt, my knees would still be fine. One of the joggers stumbled slightly, and it occurred to me that if he fell he would graze knees, elbows, the heels of his hands; if he fell into water, though, he would only get wet. We are imperfectly adapted to land, a walking container for water within which microorganisms flourish in an organized fashion, like an ambitious sponge.

My second daughter was born in the bathtub, slipping easily from fluid to fluid.

Steve and the nephew emerge from the upstairs apartment, and now it’s time for the dirtiest part of the job: Steve has to get a flashlight, pull on navy blue overalls and aging black Reeboks, and go under the house to inspect the sewer pipes and water lines, to look for signs of leakage from above. The nephew kneels down gingerly on the flagstone path around the side of the house and pulls off a grating that seems impossibly small, but with a few wriggles Steve gets his head and shoulders in and slowly vanishes into the crawlspace like a worm being eaten by a toad. Apart from the small patch of light flickering here and there, I can’t see a thing.

Well, we have reached the absolute earthy heart of plumbing now; as the Hungarian saying goes, Steve is under the frog’s ass at the bottom of the coal mine. This is where the phrase “blue-collar job” came from; it was always the working stiff who got stuck with the dirty job that required tough clothing of a color that wouldn’t show dirt. This is a profession of getting dirty, wet, smelly, and sweaty, of skinning knuckles against hardware. Not to mention the wildlife: the nephew candidly admits that he can’t stand getting into the crawlspace under his own house, with the creepy-crawlies all over you in the darkness, and I’m starting to think that paying someone else $45 an hour to do it is a pretty good deal.

At least this crawlspace isn’t awash with sewage. “I’ve been on disgusting jobs that only plumbers do,” Steve says later. “Just think if we lived in a society that still had open trenches running down the middle of the street” And he’s right: 19th-century plumbing took sewage off the streets, beginning a revolution not only in cleanliness but in public health, and the public effectively has turned its shit over to plumbers ever since. Don’t expect gratitude, though. Even when its hands are clean (and I can tell you now that Steve uses a hand cleanser called Really Works), the profession is stained by association.

He eventually wriggles back out, his front covered with dirt and his back with cobwebs, writes up his report, accepts a check, jumps into the van, and races off to teach poetry in the schools.

Except that, as it turns out, I don’t get to see this side of his life. He is supposed to be injecting the poetry ingredient into a science/poetry/music project by seniors at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, but the other elements haven’t progressed as far as they should, and there’s nothing for him to do, and he has changed into a cool light green shirt in vain. As he sets up a future meeting with the teacher, I notice a colored poster entitled “The Ladder of Life: Five Kingdoms” that shows Animalia, Plantae, Protista, Monera, and Fungi as branches sprouting from a double helix that twists up from a splashing drop of water.

Wishful Thinking

Over lunch at Bread & Cie, I explain my suspicion that our problems with water began when we humans ceased to be nomadic.

Nomads have no reason to fear spring flooding, for example. Wait on high ground until the waters recede, move down onto the floodplain, farm the rich alluvial soil. “The first [people] to apply the abundant waters of the Owens Valley to the growing of food,” writes William

Kahrl in Water and Power, “were the Paiute Indians, who migrated to the valley each spring and summer to gather seeds, nuts, and grasses. To increase their harvest, the Indians applied techniques they had learned at Fort Tejon near Bakersfield to flood the fields around Bishop Creek. In the spring, they would dam the creek, turning its flows into a ditch that ran to two fields of natural vegetation which they harvested alternately each year. The women would then gather the fish stranded in the dry streambed, as well as the plants that flourished through the summer. In the fall the dam was taken down and the waters allowed to return to their natural course. The Indians would then gather the fish left in the fields and head south for the winter.”

Moreover, nomadic people discharge waste on the move, like animals, thereby fertilizing a wide area rather than accumulating wastes in one site, a habit that forced settlement dwellers to found their communities on rivers that they Could use as sewers, a shortsighted and disgusting solution that still exists.

Major water problems arise as soon as nomads settle down . and try to have water come to them. Controlling water involves not only enormous expenditures of time, effort, and money and major environmental damage but also massively raises the potential for disaster. Building homes on floodplains is asking for trouble on a vast scale, as this spring’s floods in California and the upper Midwest showed only too vividly. Dams and levees may be introduced as flood-control measures, but when they fail, as Marc Reisner points out in his scathing book Cadillac Desert, the result is not the steady rise of rainwater, which allows a certain amount of time for evacuation, but what amounts to a tidal wave. When the St. Francis Dam, built by William Mulholland in the Owens Valley as part of the Los Angeles water system, collapsed in 1928, the result was a roaring, racing wall of water 200 feet high, and “thousand-ton blocks of concrete rode the crest like rafts.” When the surge hit Castaic Junction, ten miles down the valley, it was still 78 feet high, not just water but mud, pieces of homes, telephone poles, wagons, corpses, and cars. Around 450 people were killed, more than in the San Francisco earthquake, 1200 homes demolished, 8000 acres of topsoil stripped. Several days later, bodies and debris from Castaic Junction showed up on the beaches near San Diego.

Steve agrees that controlling water is inevitably temporary (“If there’s an imperfection anywhere, water will find it. It sets up a current around that imperfection, and it will wear a hole in that pipe”) but adds, philosophically, “If you want to have a big city, you have to control the water.” Which is undoubtedly true; in that sense, California’s water-importing cities (and even more so, Las Vegas) are extremes, perhaps, but not exceptions.

“All of Mission Valley is built on a river. When I was a kid I used to go fishing in Mission Valley for perch, bluegill, freshwater bass.” When the river rose, the overflow washed out into the Fashion Valley and Mission Valley shopping centers. “You’d find an inch of water all across the parking lots in Fashion Valley. I used to drive out there in my car and do doughnuts.”

Now San Diego’s rivers are under control. There’s a building in downtown San Diego, he said, careful to mention no names, that sits over a huge sump, a pit the size of two rooms, that contains an enormous pump. Under the building runs a river, and whenever the water rises, it runs into the pit, is pumped up two stories to street level and into a drain, the river as nuisance taken care of by technology. Once Steve was called in because a pipe broke and the water was being pumped up from the sump, running out of the broken pipe into an air shaft and then falling back into the sump again. “We had to lower a guy on a rope while he put the pipe back together so the river could flow back into the ocean.” (This reminds me of the sad fate of the River Fleet, the major tributary of the Thames in London: once a clear stream, then an open sewer, it is now the perfect example of controlled and developed water: it runs almost its entire course down a culvert, never seeing the light of day, existing solely as an inconvenience, doing no good to man or beast, except perhaps the sewer rats.)

Seeing water merely as a substance results in our not only misunderstanding and abusing water but misunderstanding and abusing life itself. Bringing water to Southern California by aqueduct, for example, mean; that once it arrives it needs to be cleaned and filtered. “By the time it gets here it’s so polluted because it’s been sitting in that pipe,” Steve says. If, on the other hand, rainfall and snowmelt are allowed to seep into the ground-water or run through a beaver swamp, the water undergoes a natural filtering process. “It g always amazes me,” he says, y “that if water runs through dirt s it comes out clean.” Hence the e weird paradox that San Diego actually adds calcium to its water to reduce the pH — that is, the acidity—because high pH will corrode metal pipe. “You go down to the filter plant and you can see them adding lime,” Bob Sunbury said. “So the funny thing is they add lime, then people put in softeners to get rid of it, and magnesium.”

Another effect of “controlling” water is that silt, which a river normally carries down to the ocean, gets trapped upstream of a dam. This not only ensures that all the great dams of the West will eventually become useless — the Hoover Dam, in fact, will probably silt up before it falls apart — but it prevents the silt from being deposited at the river’s mouth. In extreme cases, like the Colorado, this means that the river starts eating its way back upstream, pulling its estuary with it; here in San Diego it means that the beaches are vanishing, as longshore drift washes sand along the coast and it is not replaced by river silt.

In this respect, plumbing is like roads: we have based our great cities on both commodities, so what do we do when both start to seem unexpectedly expensive and environmentally catastrophic? San Diegans, living in a climate that can’t naturally support such extensive habitation (not to mention Southern California’s subsidized farmland), can look forward to a permanent state of water crisis.

And this is true even in the face of California’s apparent glut of water, thanks to the recent flooding in the northern half of the state. It takes a long, long time for rainfall to trickle down to the aquifer. Some underground water is thousands of years old. Using it is like cutting down old-growth forest — it’s old-growth water, except that new, quick-growing trees grow a lot faster than rainfall refills an aquifer.

Life Reeks of Death

Back in the van. Not long ago, Steve tells me, he took a toilet into his daughter’s third grade class to show them how it works, to demystify it, to get beyond the unease and the lavatory jokes — though he decided to call the ballcock a “fill valve.” This kind of nuts-and-bolts education seems to make sense: surely we would want to know how to live in a mechanical world, surely we would take pride in an ability to fix things, or at least an interest in it? Yet we don’t. Moreover, I discovered that of four other plumbers I interviewed for this article, three were hoping to get out of plumbing and one was mostly into the administrative side of the business.

Steve is frowning now. Have I noticed how often a plumber is the point of the parable, the butt of the joke? He likes people who talk to him, he likes to find out who they are, but often when he goes to ritzy areas such as Rancho Santa Fe the customer won’t give him the time of day. He’ll try to strike up a conversation and they’ll say “Yeah, the bathroom’s over there.” “When I’m at a party,” Steve says, “I will introduce myself first as a poet, a teacher, or an aikidoist, and only then will I say that I own a plumbing business. Plumbing always comes last, even though it’s my primary source of income.”

It’s odd that a country so proud of its historical self-reliance and its hands-on mechanical aptitude should despise such a practical application of that spirit. When did Americans start disliking plumbers? I ask, but Steve is not sure. Those with a leftist perspective might look back to the Taft-Hardey Act and the destruction of the American labor movement, I suspect, or to America’s hatred of poverty, once you’re no longer poor you can pay someone else to do the dirty work for you. Or the schools, where the highbrows take physics and the lowbrows take shop. Or to our faith in science: far better to believe that technology will one day invent the perfect faucet, and things will simply never go wrong again.

For Steve, the plumber is inescapably associated with the central symbol of the toilet. “We don’t want to admit we’re getting old and breaking down. Everything that reeks of life reeks of death. Fecal matter reminds us of mortality. Nobody goes through life without looking at their stool to see if there’s something wrong with their body.

“The plumber metaphorically is representative of everything people are fighting against:

chaos, lack of control, the fact that water makes its way out of the pipe and into the house, ruining the carpet. Plumbing is the inability to control plumbing, to control water.”

What about my hero, the hardware demigod, the domestic savior in times of watery crisis?

“I charge them,” he says shortly. “They might think of me [as the hardware demigod] if I did it for nothing. People hate being at someone else’s mercy.” He feels the same way about a car mechanic, he says. “How do I know if he knows what he’s doing? How do I know if I’m being overcharged?”

By now we had pulled up to the next port of call, a pleasant little house in Golden Hill with, suitably, a faulty toilet. I think of the last plumber who had been to my house and left dirty footprints up and down the stairway carpet and am immediately embarrassed to go in with my big boots on. Everywhere we go, Steve and I seem to take up half a room. As Steve unpacks new wax seals, I imagine I’d feel more at ease in a sewer trench than in that neat house, that spotless bathroom with the pills and medicines lined up by the sink, the room where people are naked. The place is thrown open to us, vulnerable: the mother in bed sick, the seventh grade son practicing his bassoon....

Afterward, driving back to the office-in-the-alley, Steve says to my surprise that he hadn’t felt like that at all. “When I’m working, I’m at home,” he says. “I’m fixing my toilet. When a customer alienates you, you lose that [ease]. And that begins from the very beginning, from the moment someone makes that first phone call, even if someone’s rude to Jamila because she’s just the secretary. I can’t stand that. They don’t know how dependent on her I am.”

This thought reminds me of observations I heard from Mark Sommer, a sort of philosopher-surfer-plumber in tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans whom I met at his trailer two blocks from the ocean in Encinitas, his surfboard set up as a table, his wet suit drying on the line, a book by Carlos Castaneda on the floor. He sees in his work a different kind of mechanics, a deeper kind of fluidity.

“The jobs I do now go only one way for only one reason,” he said. “If people have faith in me and don’t have any negative suggestion that goes along with their personality, which they take with every mechanic they hire, the job goes exactly along those lines. So I have some people who have some horrendous problems, and every time I go up to their house, [the work] goes perfectly. It’s not the problems that are bad, it’s that their faith in me allows me to flow. The hardware is the medium [for expression] of the two energies. Everything we come to in life is a piece of hardware. Before I knew that, I would get involved with all kinds of people with crap energy and good energy and I’d just be pulling my hair out because I was ignorant of the fact that there’s no such thing as a job whatsoever, it’s only the energies of humans flowing here.

“I have one customer who just recently screwed me,” Sommer says. “He hasn’t paid me twice, after he really nicely told me that he was going to pay me this time.... This person is physically ill and grotesquely fat and always complaining that everything [bad] is always happening to them. He took a big dump in the toilet, clogged it up, flushed it once, flushed it twice, and it went everywhere. Ruined the carpet. The plumbing’s fucked up because the person’s fucked up. He wouldn’t be eating grotesque amounts of food and then dumping whatever he dumped in there that made the toilet overflow. His energy contacted his toilet. And he’d moved into a crappy building. His whole life culminates in our plumbing problem together and our mixing of energies.”

Jamila gives us one final call, a customer living nearby who has repeatedly smelled something suspicious near her hot-water heater. It’s a classic case of a little knowledge being a frightening thing: she’s read in her manual that the anode rod— whatever that is — can, under certain circumstances, produce a rotten egg smell, and she has put two and two together. Who can blame her? She doesn’t have what Steve calls the “tacit knowledge” that goes with a lifetime in the business, the stuff not in the manual that enables him to know that the anode rod can’t possibly be the cause, the knowledge that he could easily flaunt in her face without meaning to, again, like a doctor. Instead, he puts in the extra effort to try to clarify. The smell remains a mystery, that most disturbing of conditions, and Steve departs with the injunction to call the office the moment she smells it again.

It’s 4:45. Steve has a paper to write (a reflection on why he does aikido), a sick daughter to visit, and then aikido, where the sensei will not be pleased if he is late. It has been what he calls a fairly typical light day, at least he wasn’t called out in the middle of the night. A good day would be one spent “working on steam,” that is, installing or repairing an electric sauna, which would be clean work, requiring less running around. It would also be a lot more lucrative, though of course the customer might not give him the time of day.

The Faucet and the Water

The following day, what I remember most vividly is the outside faucet on the house-to-be-sold, which Steve opened up to test its shutoff valve. The dull iron tap is no temple; there is no divinity to this spring. If anything, this is more Roman than Greek. It was the Romans, basing civil engineering on military principles, who perfected the idea that water was a commodity that could be owned and put to work. (The phrase reminds us that theirs was an empire built on slavery, as well as engineering.) The Romans were as efficient at plumbing as they were at building roads, bringing water through terra cotta or lead pipes (“plumber” comes from the Latin word for leadworker) down from the hills into Rome, and used an astonishing 300 gallons per person per day, more than twice what even Californians use. In a sense they used water to celebrate not their gods but themselves, the greatness of their achievement, their divinity as demonstrated in conquering nature.

After the collapse of Rome, it is said that the world went unwashed for a thousand years, but enough of the aqueducts and baths of Rome survived intact to serve as a model for later societies. The Greek notion of respecting water and going to get it where it arises naturally now seems quaint, almost ridiculous. The same Encyclopedia Britannica, after describing at length the various phases of the California Water Plan (a torrent of words bearing a thick silt of statistics about canals, conduits, reservoirs, and pipelines), concludes in Churchillian style: “.. .a description of the aqueduct empire”—an interesting choice of words — “of California is one of superlatives. Never in the history of the world has man moved such volumes of water such distances, and the end is not in sight.”

Plumbing, then, is in an odd, contradictory position: it tries to make sense out of nonsense. Steve is as aware as anyone that San Diego is an absurdity from the viewpoint of water conservation and wise land use, but when all is said and done, the city is here, and it is his job to keep it watertight Even though that, too, is an illusion, and controlling water will always be at best a very, very expensive temporary measure, a quixotic gesture of human ingenuity and bravado in the face of inevitable collapse.

“We’ve got these houses up the coast falling into the ocean,” said Bob Sunbury. “The engineers have been trying to stop the ocean from washing down this cliff for years. They can’t do it because water has time on its side. It’s got all the time it wants. We don’t. And that’s why it always beats us. Always will beat us too.”

Plumbing seems to be missing something; or perhaps water exists in dimensions that plumbing doesn’t even recognize. If I were more Buddhist, I suppose I could see the faucet and the water as a constant dialectic between the hardware and the software, the fluid and the static yin and yang. But I can’t help thinking that even the hardest surfaces, natural or artificial, will inevitably be worn down by water, imagining continents rising out of the ocean and sub-siding over millions of years, the rough surfaces worn smooth, then worn away, everything circulating back sooner or later into water. So there are two kinds of substance, then: those that water erodes, and those that it inhabits, rising and falling like the tide, expressing in their form and movement the fluidity of their watery origin and their watery content. I pinch the flesh on my arm and feel the water in my cells, my tissues, my blood. Makes the California Water Plan seem a clumsy, clanking operation, a suit of armor masquerading as a person.

Once I had a fluoroscopy for a suspected ulcer. I drank a barium milkshake while we all stared expectantly at the monitor, watching the whiteness run down my esophagus into my stomach, looking for it to fill a small pit that would indicate trouble. But the thing that amazed me was that every time I swallowed, each organ in the vicinity, clearly outlined on the monitor, shuddered with the movement, keeping its general outline and sense of purpose, yet responding to its neighboring tissues, demonstrating what I came to think of as a soft geometry. If there is plumbing here it is soft plumbing, itself largely made out of water, as pliable as the esophagus or the throbbing arteries, constructed so as to be able to react to constant change.

“The environment is endlessly trying to hint to us how to take care of ourselves,” Mark Sommer said, and when I think of plumbing now I think about water in the harbor, water in the fronds of the palms, hinting about change and renewal, while a few yards away the cars pour by on the dead concrete.

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