There’s nothing quite like wrestling with not one but two leaky toilets for nearly seven hours to get you in touch with your inner Trump. I mean, Donald Trump is a builder, a big one, a really, really big one, and to the extent that I’m a builder at all, I’m a very small one. But I’ve built a few places. Back in 1971, just before his daddy gave Trump a loan getting him started on renovating the old Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central, a friend and I took an old covered wooden Pennsylvania Railroad barge on the Hudson River and divided it in half and built two loft-apartments on either end. After two freezing winters hauling coal for the potbellied stove, I moved to a loft on Houston Street in lower Manhattan and built that place pretty much from scratch. Most recently, I built two chicken houses in Tennessee — one resembling a gypsy wagon atop a trailer, and the other sitting on the ground, constructed largely of reclaimed lumber.
But despite being capable of pulling off rudimentary plumbing, wiring, rough carpentry, Sheetrocking, plastering and even some basic tiling, I’m not a builder like Trump is a builder. I’m a writer with some tools. But one of the things I can do that I’m pretty sure Trump farms out to subcontractors is repairing leaky toilets. Now, I’m not looking for a metaphor here, but being able to repair leaky toilets is a good thing to know how to do. It also saves you a ton of money. And being able to install a toilet is an even better thing because a toilet isn’t a convenience. You need a toilet like you need food and water. You can bundle up in blankets and quilts and do without heat, and you can even do without electricity for surprising periods of time. Check with anyone who lived through Sandy if you doubt me. But a toilet you really can’t do without.
The thing about toilets is how much we take them for granted. They are very loyal. They just sit there silently, waiting for you. They make a little noise when they flush, then they go back to sitting there. But every so once in a while, you need to repair or replace a toilet, and you can do one of two things. You can call a plumber. A friend recently had a broken toilet emergency and had to pay a plumber upwards of $500 to get a new one installed. Or you can do it yourself. Recently, I have been renovating two bathrooms in the place I rent here in Sag Harbor — one in the main house, a saltbox built in 1703; and one in the cottage in the back, a garage that looks like it was converted sometime in the ’80s or ’90s.
The renovation in the main house is actually a total deconstruction and rebuild of the bathroom: Its rotted floor needed replacing. It needed a new window, a new exterior wall, new framing, new interior walls, a new toilet, a new bathtub, a new sink, new plumbing, a new GFI plug, new switches, a new light fixture and wiring. The other day as I watched my friend Bob — an actual builder as well as a talented musician and a few other things — screw down two-by-fours to build a frame for the new drop-in tub, he turned and said, “You know, if a hurricane hits, it might blow away the rest of the house, but this bathroom will still be standing here.”
Later while my friend Dirk floated the new Sheetrock he had installed, I took on the toilet in the cottage. You don’t want to know about this toilet. Well, maybe you do, because you need to hear about this toilet to understand how it helped me understand Trump’s problem with leaks. The cottage toilet was sitting on a rotting floor atop a slab plumbed horizontally with a rear drain. I use the term “plumbed” loosely because it was just sitting there held in place only by the weight of the toilet — no mounting bolts, no caulking, nothing. So it leaked steadily, all day, every day, kind of like Trump’s White House.
Dirk finished floating the walls in the bathroom in the main house and came back to help me. He cut some WonderBoard and glued it down on the slab, while I had the toilet out on the grass in the backyard, chipping away old dried caulk with a razor knife, my face smack up in the the guts of the dirty, stinking, hellish thing. When I finally got it cleaned up, I carried it back into the bathroom and put it in place on Dirk’s new floor. No way was it working the way it was “plumbed.” We had to cut the drain pipe and then I had to make about five trips downtown to Emporium Hardware describing this indescribable “plumbing” situation to the store’s very capable staff. Then I drove back and picked up the toilet and put it in place and tried the new stuff, at least half of which wasn’t right, then I drove back down to Emporium Hardware and tried something else. This is what you do when you want to fix a leaking toilet. You stick your face in a dirty, stinking, leaking thing and you do it yourself.
I did that for several hours, and I’m very, very sore. My lower back feels like somebody took a two-by-four and pounded on it for about an hour. My thighs ache from picking up two toilets and carrying them and putting them down and picking them up again repeatedly to make sure everything fit. Because when you install a toilet, you don’t want to just plop it down and hook it up and hope it flushes and doesn’t leak. You don’t want to have to do what Trump did with James Comey and his Cabinet and ask a toilet for loyalty. You want to get it right the first time, so it doesn’t leak.
Most of all, you don’t want to have to unhook the water, and loosen the nuts and move the gaskets and have to go down to Emporium Hardware in town and buy another wax doughnut. Which I did today — twice, for a total of three wax doughnuts. Then I had to go back to Emporium to get longer bolts to secure the toilet to the drain pipe — twice. Finally I picked up the toilet one last time and put it down and lay down on my side and wrenched the nuts on the bolts until they were tight and the wax doughnut had sealed the drain. Then I hooked up the water and turned it on and Dirk flushed the toilet, and it worked. I gave Dirk a ride down to the Legion hall on Bay Street, came back to the cottage and flushed the toilet again. No leaks. A goddamn miracle. I glanced up and saw myself in the mirror. I had a big wide smile on my face.
I’m still smiling because that’s what you do when you don’t want leaks. You do things right. You note the hours Bob and Dirk put in, and you pay them on time and in full when the job is finished. And as sore as you are, you feel good that the work was done right, that the job had integrity, that nothing will leak.
No wonder Trump’s White House is leaking. He wasn’t installed properly.