The Great Drain Debacle


In Purgatory, there probably aren’t any garbage disposals. People there will have to scrape all food remains into the trash, and if so much as an onion bit gets into the drain, it will have to be carefully fished out before the water is turned on, lest the drain clog.

And also it will be as in many cities on the East and West coast: the garbage will have to be separated into plastic, glass, cans, and food muck. So there will be no peace after dinner, no shoving all leftovers down a hole in the sink and flipping the switch to grind it up. No, we will have to think really hard about all our trash, let bottles soak to remove labels, put the foil from the potato in a separate bag from the potato itself.

But so long as we are on earth, the garbage disposal and the unified trash system seem perks of life itself. For years, I’ve reveled in it. They still don’t have them in Europe, where things seem to have regressed since the Middle Ages when sewage systems became more common. Nowadays, the Euro-people commonly toss their trash in their own yards, and try to cover up for this primitive reality by calling it “composting.” If you were a New Yorker before 1997, you were guilty of a crime if you used a garbage disposal. But the state finally relented and granted the freedom to grind.

When my last garbage disposal wore out, the search for a replacement was a joy. You can get a normal household disposal with 1/2 horsepower or you can step it up with a 3/4 horsepower engine. Or you can dare to step into the future with X-treme disposals with 1 horsepower engines, capable of grinding up a whole pineapple or a sack of potatoes or set of glass tumblers you are tired of.

And so of course there was no choice for me. With my new unit, there was nothing that wouldn’t go down. That crab leg dinner left piles and piles of orange crustaceans on plates, but in they went. Thanksgiving turkey remains: in goes the corpse! My double batch of muffins overcooked, but no problem: down the grinding machine go 24 muffins. Chickens, pork chop bones, and even the much-dreaded banana peel.

It all worked so well. Where’s the downside? I couldn’t see any. The next step of course is grease. Everyone knows, or so we are told: never ever put grease down the drain. But hey, this the modern age! Why take household appliance advice from people who are still living in the 50s?

So it started with bacon grease. Zoom! Then I pushed the envelope further and further. In the most outrageous act of disposal extremism ever, I dumped a full gallon of hot grease straight into the sink and watched with pride as it slid lazily and effortlessly down. Again, where’s the downside?

For a time, it seemed that I could get away with these “sink sins” forever. Then one day, I noticed a certain bogginess. The disposal side didn’t seem quite as robust. Water would back up sometimes before flowing out again. Then one day — and now it seemed inevitable — it stopped. A bit of plunge pushed it right through again, and I figured that all was well. But then the plunging became more frequent.

I must have slipped into some state of denial as my plunging became weekly, then daily, and then several times daily. I had to have the plunger very nearby if I was to work in kitchen at all. My conscience was telling me the truth: all my abuse of the system was finally catching up to me. But I ignored that quiet inner voice, and figured I could live this way. I was living an illusion. My dream of grinding a mountain of trash came to an end.

Finally one day I gave in and called a plumber. He came and went, announcing that all was well. Fine, I thought: back to my old ways. But of course all was not well. Then it finally happened this past weekend: a stoppage that would not be broken. As if to confirm the persistence of natural law, it began following another bacon-grease dump. The water wouldn’t move.

I plunged and plunged until my back muscles were sore. Sometimes if I put the plunger in the wrong spot, water would splash up and I would taste the muck, that combination of old garbage with the overriding smell of bacon, a tepid and thick gray-brown oily muck. The more it splashed in my face, the more I didn’t care. The muck soared high in the air, dropping on countertops far and wide, landing in my hair, soaking my clothes. The sweat mixed with the bacon muck and dripped all over my face. Blisters on my hands began to appear. But the pain was not an issue: I had to beat this clog!

No progress.

It was time to break out the chemicals. Liquid Plumber Gel. Baking Soda. Lye. Boiling Water. Vinegar. Anything! Nothing worked.

Should I call a plumber? Heck, I thought, what does a plumber have but the right tools? So it was off to Wal-Mart to acquire them myself, and I ended up with a dazzling little addition to my do-it-yourself toolkit: a 15-foot drain snake. This would surely to it! I put that snake down, a free passage for 15h feet until I reached the end. No blockage. But still the sink did not drain.

Despair set in. I imagined the crews from the city arriving the next day, with city officials and even the city planner. They would have to dig up my yard with huge tractors. The sidewalks would be ripped up. Specialists would have to be brought it to assess the damage I had caused. There are probably 15 different agencies that oversee the water supply and they would all be allied against me.

I would be sitting there in my kitchen alone, vulnerable, guilty, and they would be writing citations, wagging their fingers at me, fining me — maybe even hauling me off to jail for failing to abide by sink regulations. My neighbors will hate me. My life will fall apart. I would sit in prison and rethink my life. This is the price I would pay for ignoring my conscience.

Another day passed, another day of tepid sink muck. And then something struck me. The left side of the sink works fine. Only the garbage disposal side is struck. But both the garbage disposal and the other sink flow down the same tube, so how does this make any sense? And I’ve already snaked out the garbage disposal, so that can’t be it.

Then, finally, a revelation. There are two tubes coming from the disposal unit. One goes to the main drainage and one goes to the dishwasher. I had snaked out the wrong one! But then another problem arose. I could not get the snake down the right one, because the entry point was hidden beneath the choppers on the disposal unit. How will I get in?

At long last, I opened the counter door. The pipes were plastic PVC. They all fit together nicely with large bolts that can be twisted by hand. I twisted the one that led from the disposal to the main pipe and gently moved it to the side.

And there was the offending glob. It was just sticking there, sort of lifelike. With a fork I removed it. It was an accumulation of six months of grindings. But tangled up at the very front of the glob was the most marvelous thing. It was a big piece of green plastic, something shaped sort of like a washer. It could have been from anything. No one had ever seen it before. It might have been there for years. It had evidently fallen down the sink, managed to slip through the grinding and then rammed into the pipes were it stayed lodged and began to accumulate muck. It might have been there for many years, for all I knew.

Once having removed this, I screwed the pipe back together, and voila: everything worked perfectly again. Better than ever! Three days of hell were over, after an operation that took maybe 90 seconds. Unbelievable!

But here was the real triumph. This little green plastic thing had expiated my sins. It turned out that none of my supposedly bad habits had done anything to clog my disposal. In fact, to the extent that some of those bones and grease finally caused a choking, that was a good thing because it led me to the fundamental source of the problem. I was guilt free! I could again walk with an upright heart.

Every civic culture in human history has attempted to distort our moral sense. They want us to believe that right and wrong consist in obeying social and civic priorities. But there is no moral norm involved in such issues as whether we own disposal units or what we put in them. Those are merely issues of technology that change with the times; our only restriction is not to impose on others’ person or property.

Morals do not come from the state and society. Morality deals with weightier matters that measure our thoughts, words, and deeds against universals that are true regardless of time and place. And in this time and this place, we can grind our garbage to our hearts’ content.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of

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