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Thanksgiving: the most plumber-ful time of the year

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Because of this, the nation's biggest day for food, travel, and togetherness is also a day that lights up switchboards coast to coast. Many say it has become so predictable that they plan for and even look forward to it. They come away with more money - at least double the usual fee, on average - and nearly all have an overflowing grab bag of stories to tell.

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Bill Cummings has worked in sales at Portland Pipe & Fitting, a Boston plumbing-supply company, for two decades; last year, his son, who's a plumber, "got called out on Thanksgiving to light a water heater, just as he was pouring the gravy."

But the interruptions please him. "He loves it," says Mr. Cummings. "He gets time and a half, so gets paid $70 to $80 for just walking through the door.... Most people who call you on a holiday have known you for a long time, so you are dealing with someone you know."

Mr. Tibets of the flaming turkey is a veteran of phone calls at gravy-pouring moments. "I'm always interrupted at holiday meals," he says, as he puts in an order for plastic fittings. "On the holidays, everybody needs [pipe clearing] done that day. Everything you can think of happening, happens."

And for David Decoteau, waiting for his order at Portland Pipe & Fitting, peaceful holidays are, well, a pipe dream. "I never get my holidays," he chimes in. "I made plans for this Thanksgiving, but I know I'll be called." He usually eats his holiday meals long after his family has digested theirs. Mostly, he says, it's kitchen pipes. "People throw too much food down there, they think you can put anything down the sink."

Potty humor, toilet treasures

The huge amount of visitation at Thanksgiving strains other plumbing facilities as well, say plumbers - sewer pipes stressed from abnormally high usage.

And unusual usage, too - like conspiracies at the children's table, when little ones try to make it look as if they have finished their creamed spinach, but sneak to the bathroom and scrape it into the toilet instead.

Of course, that's the polite version of the situation. Some of the plumbers' potty humor is incommodious enough to make your face flush.

The funniest thing Mr. Decoteau ever saw: "Some kid flushed underwear down the toilet one Thanksgiving," he says. A large family had gathered to eat together when the toilet stopped working. "It was the father's underwear down the drain. Tommy Hilfiger briefs. He was mad."

Being away from home makes guests more adventurous in the bathroom, say plumbers. "For some reason, guests ... do stupid things that they would never do at home," says plumber Elian Saado of Saado construction in southern California. "It's not fun to have to come clean up the mess."

One of Mr. Saado's favorite pastimes is to log how many times things turn up in the plumbing that no one in the house will admit to flushing. He remembers digging a cellphone out of the toilet at a Thanksgiving party. Nobody - nobody - was willing to claim it.

Giving thanks for septic tanks

But it isn't all missed meals and shirked blame. Two upsides to holiday emergency calls, plumbers say, are customers' increased gratitude and greater generosity.

"When you've got a plumbing problem with 15 guests in your house, you are willing to do practically anything to end it," says McDonald. "They are so happy to see us at the door that they usually invite us in for food or send us home with more desserts than we can carry. And of course, we can charge more."

Not every caller embraces the holiday plumber, however.

Frank Bangs, a plumber in Boston, tells the story of his boss which has become the stuff of Boston plumbers' legend.

"Four years ago," begins Mr. Bangs, as a group of plumbers and store workers sits around listening, "[he] was sent to fix a water heater. You had to go through the kitchen to get to the cellar. The guests were on the other side of the house."

And as he walked through the kitchen, he noticed a nice, plump turkey sitting on the kitchen counter, yet to be carved or eaten.

"I guess he was hungry," continues Bangs. "I guess he hadn't eaten yet. He tried to pull a wing off, rip it off. He got caught right there. He hadn't even done the job yet, but they kicked him out and called another plumber. He tried to keep the story quiet, but they called a month later, complaining that he was ripping apart their turkey."