They use a sledgehammer. Almost every time, they drive it too deep. Could be they think it’s pure ugly, that they don’t want the valve cap poking out of their lawn. It might be that they don’t want their lawnmowers running over the damned thing. The steel is hard—it can break a mower blade right in half.
Sometimes, they don’t want us city workers to find it.
There’s a handful of mouth-breathers in this town who would rather buy pornography than pay their water bills. When it comes to that, one of us at city hall will give them a call. A lot of the time, we don’t get an answer. So we’ll leave a message, ask them, “Why haven’t you been paying up?” Almost always, the bills continue to go unpaid. They think the city’s too chicken- shit to shut off their water. Everyone needs potable water, right?
That right there’s a false assumption.
We’ll dry those freeloaders out in an instant. And when we go knocking at their door to give the twenty-four hour warning, the first thing they do when we leave is try to hide that water valve.
As I said, it’s not always on purpose, but what the cheats and the plain ignorant have in common is that they hammer the valve cap down into the ground. In the nice neighbourhoods, up in Kingswood or Heritage Lakes, they might even lay new sod over top, making that piece of steel real hard to find. We’ll bring in the metal detector, though. We always find it.
What they don’t know is that, if they call the city, someone’ll be by that day to lower the cap for them, free of charge. You’ve got to be gentle, real delicate. Because, bashing it down like a goddamn ogre, there’s a good chance the valve will snap right off the copper pipe. Then you’ve got a water break.
That copper piping—all the miles of it—it’s the guts of this city. It brings freshwater to everyone’s mouths. Our pump-houses distribute to their showers and their shitters, and still, some of these people seem hell-bent on ending the entire operation.
At first, we thought this guy might be one of them.
We got a call from his neighbour a couple days back, said there’s a sinkhole the size of his Ford Ranger forming in the backyard next door, said he’s worried there might be some kind of water leak. Apparently, the guy who owns the house wasn’t overly concerned about his sinking lawn, considering he wasn’t the one who called. In fact, he looks like he’s more worried about the fact that we showed up to check things out.
After I see this guy squirming, talking to me with the front door open just a crack and the chain lock pulled tight, I radio public works to find out if he’s been skipping on his payments. Turns out, he hasn’t. Never missed a payment in his thirteen years of tenancy. So I get off the radio and ask him, “Mind if I take a look?”
He says, “Be my guest.”
There isn’t much around the back—a twelve-by-twelve deck and an empty plot of grass. At one end of the yard, I can see the sinkhole forming around where the valve is supposed to be. It looks like fresh sod on top. At the other end is another fairly large spot of crisp green grass that I’m guessing he used to replace a dead patch. I poke around with the metal detector over the spongy ground that’s sloping in, and off it goes, wailing. I dig a couple inches down and hit the valve cap—ting—right on the head. No problem. It’s pretty clear to me what’s happened here.
So we get the dig crew in and we break ground. In an hour or so, we’re down to the copper, and there’s a big cavity where the water’s washed away the dirt. I lower in the ladder to go clean it up and take a closer look. As I’m getting on that first rung, I see the homeowner watching me through his window. He’s a weird-looking mouth-breather, this one.
The first thing I notice when I’m down there is that our leak isn’t from the valve at all. That valve is in perfect working condition. Where the water is coming from is a little patch job about a couple feet off of it. Copper isn’t hard to bend or break—especially with an older piece of pipe. All it takes is a shovel.
On closer inspection, it looks like someone’s taken some plumber’s tape and tried to cover up the compromised pipe. That someone didn’t do a great job at it, either. It could have been another city worker—a lazy one—but I checked our job log. No one’s been to this property for a couple years, and this patchwork looks fresh.
So coming back out of the hole, I see the property owner is standing with some of the other city guys. He says to me, “That thing being uncooperative?”
I tell him, “Yeah, sure is.”
Then he says, “They’re supposed to be down thirteen feet, the water lines.”
“Yeah, but sometimes with landscaping, and with plain old time, the surface height will change and the depth of the copper will change with it.”
Then he says a strange thing. “Maybe that’s why this one’s only down about nine feet.”
I don’t ask him how he knows that, because I think it’s clear he’s been doing some digging—what with the other patch of fresh sod a dozen feet over. That’s a long way to go without a machine, and you need to locate power, gas and cable lines before you go down that deep. Plus, there isn’t much down there but tree roots and clay. At least, there isn’t supposed to be.
So I ask him, “You been doing some digging?”
And all he says is, “Hope you fix that water break.”