Thanksgiving: the most plumber-ful time of the year

Plumber Bob of Kevin Shaw Plumbing has a pressing question for historians: Where is Squanto when we need him? The legendary native American taught Pilgrims the meaning of Thanksgiving in 1621 - but history records little of his advice on table-scrap disposal.

Thanks to that omission, the nation's day of gratitude has a growing, and humorous, dark side. Thanksgiving has become far and away the busiest time of the year for plumbers trying to take out what nature - or good sense - never intended to be put in. So as turkeys cool, plumbers grab plungers and overtime punch cards. And, sometimes, the scepters of peace.

Take Victor Gutierrez.

One November Thursday, the Redondo Beach, Calif., plumber arrived at a home where the man had bet his wife $100 that the culprit of their clogged sink was not potato peels. When the drain-clearing snake revealed that it was, indeed, potato peels, the man paid Mr. Gutierrez $100 not to tell his wife.

And from those other trenches - the bathrooms down the hall - plumbers report holiday finds of everything from "hot wheel" toy cars to toothbrushes, wigs, and false teeth dropped, and flushed, in the wrong spot.

"It's the busiest time of year for us as well as the funniest and most lucrative," says Donald McDonald, CEO for Rooter-man franchise systems with 600 outlets nationwide.

Statistics back him up. Last year, the number of plumbing calls jumped 46.4 percent the Friday after Thanksgiving, compared to a typical Friday, according to Paul Abrams, national spokesman for Roto-Rooter. That translates into 865 additional jobs for Roto-Rooter alone, worth about $235,260. Other companies report similar spikes, starting around 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving day.

And the cooking free-for-all makes plumbers Renaissance men of sorts: there are pipes and drains, sure; but also gas lines, water heaters, and the occasional flaming bird.

Patrick Tibets, a Boston-area plumber in the business for 18 years, says one disaster is seared on his mind. "A turkey caught fire," he recalls. "The flames came up over the stove. When I came in the kitchen the turkey was sitting in the sink, black and smoking. I had to turn the gas off."

Coffee grounds, potato peelings

But most plumbers pardon their patrons - a magnanimity born of experience and the holidays' time-and-a-half pay. "Hey, nobody taught anyone what's supposed to go down the drain and what's not," says Bob, a career roto-rooter in Northridge, Calif., gearing up for the year's most lucrative day. "When's the last time you saw a school curriculum on what to put and not put down the drain?"

So Bob and company brace themselves for potato-packed pipes and stuffing-stuffed sewers - thanks to well-meaning table clearers making fast work of Thanksgiving cleanup.

"Because there are so many helpers in the kitchen at once, people put things down the drain that the owner never would - and too much of everything," says Mr. McDonald of Rooter-man.

"Chicken bones, turkey bones, peelings, corn on the cob," says Chuck Wojciechowski, branch manager of Roto-Rooter in Las Vegas. "Anything that gets left on the plate goes down the disposal.... You have family over, they dump everything in the disposal. They figure it's not their house; they can go home afterwards."

Rice and coffee grounds, which expand after disposal, head a long list of clogging foodstuffs that make it part way down the drain, only to cool and harden, creating backflow into the busy kitchen and water shows that rival those at Las Vegas's Bellagio Hotel.

Though Christmas brings its share of clogged drains, too, plumbers say the two holidays don't compare. The November rush "is a once-a-year phenomenon," says John Aducci, plumbing and excavation manager of Roto-Rooter in Pittsburgh. "It must be that turkey gravy. Christmas is ham and whatever else. There is something about that turkey gravy that gets us in the home." His office staffs 20 people on most days; but the Friday after Thanksgiving, there are 28.

Meanwhile, in the sewers ...

The appearance of banana peels, orange rinds, and bones of all kinds seems to spike right around Thanksgiving cleanup as well, sewer analysts say. Such items belong in a separate garbage pail, but end up in sinks because people are focused on their guests and not on proper sanitation management.

"It's not a good thing when you have 20 people over for dinner and try to get rid of that many leftovers down the drain," says Robert Penn of Penn Plumbing Service in southern California. "No matter what kind of disposal and pipes you have, they are not designed for an overabundance of food matter."

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.

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."

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