Post 73: Retrenchment

Weeds were growing everywhere now, and starting to turn brown. I always checked the water meter box in the alley to make sure it was clear of them; otherwise I might get another reprimand from the city. This time it was clear of weeds. But the ground around it was wet, and the concrete box was full of water, with little bubbles bubbling up from below. Well, I wasn’t worried. The city was responsible for problems with the meter. I called Tucson Water.

The guy came promptly, and I showed him the puddle. It wasn’t long before he uttered the dreaded words: “I’m afraid the leak is on your side of the meter.” He must have said “I’m sorry” ten times. I’d give him the Sympathy Award for sure, but it didn’t change the fact that I was now the responsible party.

Still, I was hopeful. It might not be much; the bubbles were tiny, and the leak seemed slow. I called a plumber whom two friends had used and liked. After some suctioning and digging, he gave me his verdict.

“Your whole line needs replacing,” he said cheerfully. (No award for this guy.) “It’s galvanized, and rusting through. I could fix it, but the water pressure would just find another weak spot and bust through. You’d be calling me all the time. You’d hate me.”

“So give me the bad news.”

He went back to his truck and sat scribbling for a while. I took the time to tell myself I was much better at accepting financial shocks than I used to be. I live in a different economy from most Americans. For almost two decades, I’ve gotten by on rent from my tenants and housemates, which usually averaged $400 to $500 a month (after expenses). But my extreme thrift, my new-stuff-sucks life, existed within the larger, developed-world wealth — sometimes I had to come face to face with it.

The plumber came back with some scribbles on an envelope. He’d written his name and number on the flap, and underneath he’d written both $1,000 and $100,000. Huh?

“I could do it for ten thousand.” I guess he was visualizing the number in between.

I hadn’t a clue what water-line replacement cost these days, but I wasn’t going to pay that much. I’d find another option.

“What if I dug the trench myself? You just lay the pipe?”

He scribbled more numbers on the envelope—none of which was $350, but that’s the discount he said he’d give me.

Well, the greed behind that was obvious. Digging the trench was at least half the work, I figured, and probably more.

“Thanks,” I said. He did come out and get his hands dirty, and he seemed like a perfectly nice man. “I’m gonna get another estimate or two. I have your number.”

He wasn’t quite done, though. “I could finish the job in two days. No more worries.”

“Well, that’s impressive. Thanks again.”

After he left, I filled a few containers and turned the water off. Terry was due home that night from a grueling three-day hike into the Grand Canyon. “Rough trip,” he’d texted me. He arrived home exhausted and in pain, a victim of unseasonably-cold and sleet, dangerous slippery trails, and a sleep-deprived climb back to the rim.

“All I want now is a shower,” he said.

It wasn’t our finest moment, the two sob stories colliding. But after recovering from it, we both adapted to the water-container life. We could turn the flow back on briefly, once a day or every other day, allowing the leak to run freely for a half hour or so while we filled containers and showered. We were already getting filtered water from a vending machine for drinking; nothing new there. I had no less than five push-spigot dispensers, mostly in use outdoors, to set over our sinks like faucets. Outside I filled our little “kiddie” pond with fresh water. We even had two cisterns completely independent of the city supply. I filled three five-gallon buckets and placed them in the bathtub for flushing the water toilet. Funny thing, though: Terry started using my composting toilet regularly.

View of earth wall with shelf holding pottery and trinkets
His view form the loo.

“I’ve been using your loo now and then since I met you,” he said. “But I didn’t fully appreciate it until now. What you’ve done there. And why.”

It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

And then he made another astute comment:

“The container life isn’t too bad, once you get used to it.”

When I thought about what other people in other parts of the world have to do to get clean water, I agreed with him.

But we lived in the United States, a modern country, and probably needed to be normal. Terry remembered that we had a personal connection to a highly recommended plumber. The mutual friend who had introduced us to each other had recently acquired a new cousin-in-law in the profession, a personable man, she said, with excellent skills.

I called him, and he came out the next morning. He reminded me of the sandy-haired guy on This Old House, which didn’t hurt his personable, professional aura. But best of all, he’d charge me seven to eight thousand bucks less than the first estimate—though I would have to dig the trench myself, of course. (A minor detail, ja?) What a relief. This man had respect for the physical work involved and was letting me claim my wages. I could trust him to be fair in claiming his.

I didn’t need another estimate.

So now we’re digging. Both Terry and my daughter have been helping, quite voluntarily. Another friend has offered, too. (Thanks, Shay. Scheduling is sometimes the hard part.) The weather is still miraculously cool.

View of backyard with trees and a garden, with a large trench dung through the middle of it
Why is our trench glowing from within?

I could have just paid the $10,000. Get it done; go with the system, raid the savings account—you’re busy. I did have the money saved up, but not for this! How did I manage to have funds in my savings? Having only worked full time for less than ten percent of my three-plus decades of employment? Having made less than $24 thousand in my peak-salary year?

In part it was luck, privilege, and my parents that enabled me to be happily frugal. A stable childhood with plenty of nature all around to feed my soul. Being a white girl in a good school system. Growing up before things got as crazy as they are now. (A separate essay.) Later, it was in-laws who helped with the down payment on this 800-square-foot house. The nice Shriner who smashed my leg with his front bumper (see intro to this blog) and graciously provided a settlement in the amount of my remaining mortgage after fifteen years of payments.

            I learned to like things that didn’t cost money: Shopping alleys and yard sales, making art from found materials, tending vegetable gardens and harvesting food from the landscape, collecting used paint and hardware for home maintenance, eating out only as a special treat, wearing used (mostly gifted) clothing—all the habits this blog has covered. My life has never needed much money, and even now I live on less than $500 a month on average. My Social Security check (do not tell the feds!) goes into my savings account and just sits there.

Inside of a dirt trench, with a root in the middle
Hoping the pipe can go under this root.

Yeah, I could have written a check to that first plumber. But when it comes to sums like that, I think it pays to challenge the first, perhaps outlandish, proposal. Even if it means more work on my part. This guiding principle may not involve a rejection of new stuff, but it’s definitely part of the lifestyle: Try to get by without shelling out lots of cash.

            The plan is to give you part two of this story in my next post, two weeks from now. I don’t know the ending yet. Anything can happen with backyard plumbing—geysers, puddles, mud, even floods. I’m sure the last half of this project, like the first half, will be an adventure—only different. Tune in on Monday, May 8 for the second episode. Thanks for visiting today and every second week!

Where we left off yesterday. Gotta keep digging.

Rebel Hack

When you worked hard and you’re wiped out, what do you make for dinner?

This is one of Terry’s quick solutions:

Left: Mélange a la Owen. Recipe: Sauté what you have in olive oil.

Right: Embellished Tomatoes. Recipe: Cut tomatoes (hard pink ones from the store—like these—or garden fresh, to drool for). Top with cheese slices, mustard, and half-olives. Basil is the bomb on these, but summer’s the season for that. Grow it this summer!

3 thoughts on “Post 73: Retrenchment

  1. I loved this and can’t wait to see how you do! Good luck! I also know that living under the poverty line doesn’t have to feel like deprivation. Yet, I feel so strange and people are constantly trying to give me stuff. You are made of tough stuff, Ms. K!!! And will you tell us that you’ve found some sort of treasure in your trench? What is glowing down there?

    Liked by 1 person

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