Not many 17-year-old girls know how to solder two copper pipes together or light the pilot light on a water heater. I venture that most people would struggle to tell the difference between a regular 90-degree PVC elbow and a street 90.
These are skills and distinctions I have learned over the past five years as an assistant to my dad in his one-man plumbing business. My summer job involves messes that constantly elicit physical and mental discomfort, and the work demands an attitude of grittiness and grace that I frequently struggle to adopt. Nevertheless, I persist. I am the plumber’s daughter and the plumber’s helper.
Each humid morning, I wrestle myself into a pair of used men’s jeans from Goodwill that most of my peers would refuse to be seen wearing in public. I slip my tape measure onto my belt, tie my hair back as I run out the door, and climb into the passenger seat of the plumber truck, which is really an aged white minivan with two kinds of pipes strapped to the top.
As my peers begin their shifts nannying, lifeguarding or checking out groceries, my dad and I haul unwieldy toolboxes and heavy-duty saws into the depths of people’s houses. Although at times we work in the gold-plated master bathrooms of mansions with lake views, we usually end up in dank, mildewed basements where I get lost in mazes of storage boxes looking for the water meter.
Five summers navigating the pipes of Milwaukee have taught me that the messy parts of people’s houses reflect the messy parts of their lives. My dad and I make plenty of our own messes too. When his rugged Sawzall blade slices through walls, clouds of plaster permeate the air. Sometimes there are no walls at all, and we work in primordial jungles of fiberglass insulation, floor joists and rusted cast iron stacks.
I constantly leap over tangled piles of wrenches and extension cords. My mouth and nose are covered by a dust mask; my jeans are smudged with pipe dope, and my hands are blackened with the grime of a hard day’s work. As I observe the chaos around me, chaos rises within me. Nothing is beautiful or tidy; everything I see is ugly. I feel powerless, frustrated and unable to think clearly.
Plumbing work is a microcosm of the messes of the world, and sometimes I despise it. I question why I endure the dust and sweat when I could be in my air-conditioned house, vacuuming my bedroom, making avocado toast for breakfast and finishing my summer homework early. I could even find another job, a normal one that more closely resembles the work of my peers.
Yet as much as I despise the mess of plumbing, I despise myself for becoming affected by such trivial qualms and for being so easily aggravated by disorder. After all, the world was built by people willing to get their hands dirty.
And when I think about it, I cope with messes all the time. The uncertainties and contradictions of my teenage brain are far more tangled than any extension cord, but I keep trying to sort them out. Life is a process of accepting the messes and learning to clean them up, and plumbing work is no different.
As much as my dad and I create chaos, we create order, and if I look carefully I can find it in each newly soldered array of copper pipes or in the way my dad’s toolboxes all fit together in the back of his van. Moreover, when customers express gratitude for our work, I understand that, in a small way, we bring order to their lives. The physical and mental discomforts of plumbing are worth it.
“I got the usual looks from people fresh out of bars or parties, either because of the stench of a hard night’s work on my clothes or because I was muttering to myself while feverishly flipping flashcards.”
—Mark Isai Garcia
“No more broken plates, you understand?”
I could make little sense of the broken English that spat from his mouth but his scrunched-up face spoke a universal language. It was a Friday night in Little Tokyo, and while families were eating five-star meals in the front dining room, a 14-year-old boy was in the back washing their dishes.
Wash the plates by hand, dump them into the sanitizer, place the plates into the machine, dry the plates off, return the plates to their designated spot and repeat — hopefully without damaging any. On this night though, a porcelain plate slipped through my soapy fingers and shattered onto the floor in five pieces. My face flushed even as I tried to keep my composure, but inside I was screaming, “Why me!?” as if my scream would make the plate whole again.
The shattered plate was only one of the many worries fighting relentlessly inside my head for attention — there was the Advanced Placement United States history midterm, a low grade in calculus, the eviction notice, a little brother getting into trouble and a dozen other smaller but pressing concerns.
For me, there was no calling in sick to clear my head, getting some much needed rest or carving out study time before an upcoming exam. I had to contribute to the necessities. I shut up, got back to work and pushed with all the energy I had left. I knew all too well the symptoms of bottling up my emotions — the bitter taste of salt in each drop of sweat, losing myself in the background music and the muscle aches were nothing new to me.
It was 12 a.m. when my shift finally ended. I boarded the bus home and took out my notes to study. I got the usual looks from people fresh out of bars or parties, either because of the stench of a hard night’s work on my clothes or because I was muttering to myself while feverishly flipping flashcards on a bus in the middle of the night.
Their stares didn’t bother me at all. I was used to those too, and they were nothing more than another set of speed bumps in the way of achieving my goals. I was tired of seeing childhood friends flashing gang signs, relatives glued to the beer bottle or my dad coming home late at night with burn scars from work. Something had to change and I knew it fell to me to initiate that change.
Fortunately, I also knew I had dedication, desire and grit in my blood. My grandfather was part of the first wave of Mexican immigrants that settled in Los Angeles. He returned home to a small village in rural Oaxaca, with his savings and tales of the land of opportunity.
Both of my parents left Oaxaca in their early teenage years and began working long hours in Los Angeles, as a cook and a maid. The work ethic was passed down generations; from the cornfields in Oaxaca, to the restaurants in Los Angeles, to the classroom, which helped me thrive both in school and work.
On this particular night, as I walked through the front door at home, I saw an uplifting surprise: My mother had fallen asleep waiting up for me despite her own long day. I tucked the cash tips I made that night into her purse and turned off the TV.
I peered into our bedroom where my brothers and cousins were lost in their blissful dreams. Watching my siblings snore and breathe slowly sparked a yawn that cued the rest of my body’s delayed exhaustion. However, it would be a while before I could join them in sleep. I had an essay due early the next morning, and Ms. DePaolo doesn’t accept late work.