Draining the swamp

Gretchen Schmid

Photo: Maureen Drennan

Photo: Maureen Drennan


A few months ago, my two roommates and I moved a mile away into a new apartment in Brooklyn, lured by the promise of a couple of major improvements: it had a private backyard and claimed to be bedbug-free. Slightly less important was a third improvement: it came with a dishwasher, a luxury we’d all thought we’d left behind in suburbia.


The novelty of the dishwasher, of course, soon wore off. Our Quiet Partner I had an odd smell to it, sort of rotting and musty, and it didn’t drain fully. You had to press the drain button three or four times in order to clear the water from the bottom. And, of course, there were also polite spats about how to load it and when to run it and who would empty it. But it was there, taking up space in a small kitchen, and it felt wasteful not to use it.


By May, the dishwasher had stopped draining altogether. The murky brownish swamp that collected in the bottom explained the weird smell—layers of grime and bacteria had probably been growing there for years.

"I'll call the landlord," I told my roommates. But he’s the sort of landlord who doesn't like to answer, the sort who believes a problem will simply go away if you just ignore it.


After a week and a half, I managed to get him on the phone. "The plumber's coming to look at the sink in another apartment tomorrow," he told me. “I’ll have him check it out then.”

“Okay, great,” I said. “None of us will be home. Can you please let him in?”

“Sure,” he agreed.


The plumber did not come. I called the landlord. "Well, he didn’t have a key to your apartment,” he explained.


I decided to fix it myself. I found a YouTube video explaining how to disassemble a dishwasher and settled cross-legged on the floor in front of it with my toolbox. An hour later, I had disemboweled the beast, its guts splayed out on the floor in front of me, sludge everywhere.

My sense of pride rivalled what I’d felt the first time I stepped into a weight room filled with men. The comments under the YouTube video suggested I was not the only one to feel this way. “Thank you!” read one. “My husband had no faith that I could fix our dishwasher. He was astonished at my success. The expression on his face: priceless!” I was proud of this woman, and also found myself hating her husband.


My roommate came home after a bad day to find me sitting on the kitchen floor. “Look at this muck!” I shouted at her, and because she is a kind person and a good friend, she came over to peer inside the machine. “Gross,” she said. “Do you want help cleaning it out?” And together we engaged in the highest form of female bonding: bailing bacteria-infested liquid out of the bottom of a dishwasher with a shot glass and scrubbing it out with bleach and Q-tips.


Despite the deep-clean, the dishwasher still refused to drain. But now, at least, the water collecting in the bottom was clear.


As the landlord was completely ignoring my texts and calls, I decided to hire someone myself and send him the bill. My father, who had just read a piece in the New York Times about Jared Kushner's predatory real estate practices, suggested I get a letter to this effect signed by the landlord and notarized. I opted for a text instead.

After a few minutes of searching, I landed on the Yelp page of a local appliance repairman, whom I will refer to as Tommy. Yelp users loved Tommy, giving him five stars without fail and praising his helpfulness and stories about old Brooklyn. I called Tommy and scheduled an appointment for 3:00 PM the following Friday.


3:00 PM came and went on the scheduled day with no sign of Tommy. I called him: no answer. Half an hour later I called again. “I’ll be there in an hour,” he promised.


At 5:00 PM, he arrived, sans apology.

“Is there still a bar downstairs?” he asked by way of greeting, launching into a long story about the illegal bar that used to be in the basement of our building. "The cops didn't care. They'd come by themselves to have a beer.” Tommy’s Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of the 70s, had been a playground for young white men like himself. Money was easy to get then, he told me. “Not like nowadays.”


But he also made it clear that he has no trouble with money nowadays. He makes a lot of money on real estate, he bragged, and so does his daughter: "She made $1500 in a day yesterday!" Then he pulled out his phone and began showing me photos of her recent wedding. “Look at this line around the block—just to enter the house!”

I just wanted him to fix my dishwasher, but nodded along politely until he started complaining about a recent sale he had made to a Pakistani man. “They just don't understand how we do business here, them and the Afghans. It's like, welcome to America. If you don’t know how we do things here, then get out.”

I didn’t know how to call him out on his casual xenophobia, so instead I asked him about the dishwasher.

“Oh, the dishwasher's fine,” he said cheerfully, and by way of demonstration he unscrewed the drain hose from where it connects to the pipe under the sink. Brackish water spurted out. “You just need a plumber to fix the clog in your pipe.”

“I don’t want to call another person,” I said. “I’ll just fix it myself. Can you tell me which is the dishwasher hose?”

“I can get you a plumber real cheap.” He looked at me skeptically. “But I guess you could do it yourself.”

“I managed to take apart the whole dishwasher on my own,” I told him. “I think I can handle unscrewing a pipe and clearing out the clog.”

“Wow!” he said. “Well, that’s a very difficult thing to do. Not many people can do that.” The way he said “people” made it clear that he meant “women.”


Finally, he pulled out a yellow receipt pad and wrote me a bill for $114. I stared at it. “You weren't able to fix the dishwasher and you were two hours late,” I told him. “Can we negotiate a discount?"


His face reddened and was suddenly very close to mine.

“Are you kidding me?” He was speaking far too loudly. “I'm not even making money on this deal. It cost me $75 to get over here. This is nothing. And there was nothing wrong with your dishwasher.”

His business is located in my neighborhood, so I'm not sure how it could have cost him $75.

“No, I'm not kidding you,” I said. “I came home from work early and waited around for two hours.” I am ordinarily horrible at instigating conflict, but he had become for me a stand-in for condescending, racist old white men everywhere, which gave me courage.


In the end he agreed to knock off $9. I was planning to send the bill to my landlord anyway, so this tiny victory felt sufficiently symbolic.


I finally herded him out the door, but he wouldn't stop talking. “You must be bright,” he decided, “and you’ve got some nerve. Maybe you should come work for me.”

I smiled, barely, willing him to leave.

“What you have to do,” he told me, “is find a way to combine your passion with helping people. See, that’s where the money comes rolling in. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. I was a cop because I wanted to help people, and now I fix appliances to help people. And when you do that, you know, the stars just align.”


I closed the door on him.


An hour later, after unscrewing the drain hose under the sink and poking around in it with a drain snake, I punctured through a block of sludge. When I re-connected the hose and pressed “Drain” on the dishwasher, the sink made a reassuring gurgling sound.


I opened the dishwasher. It was bone-dry: the swamp had been drained.


Two weeks later, I woke up to rain dripping onto my arm. The window next to the bed was closed. I looked up to find water steadily dripping through a crack in the ceiling, drowning the plant and ruining the stack of books on the windowsill.

This time, I didn’t even try to call the landlord. But as I was squeezing globs of silicone filler onto the crack with a caulking gun, it occurred to me that this must have been exactly what he’d wanted. In the end, after all, he had won.