A Piece of String
IT was an indifferent length of string, scarcely more than a yard. Rather ordinary string. To my untutored vision it was not unlike some string that I had at that very moment in the pantry cabinet. But the string of my title was not in my pantry cabinet at the crucial minute. It had remained in a plumbing shop five blocks away.
Five blocks! In most cases not a formidable distance, but if it happens to stretch between your lavatory which needs repairing and the shop where the journeyman plumber has inevitably left something vital to the mending, it is at once an impressive space.
You have an uncanny presentiment of the unbelievable length of time it will take for the mender to get that particular piece of string which he declares is necessary, and you hasten to offer him every substitute in your ménage — from dental floss to the clothesline. Candlewick! How about that? You ‘ve heard somewhere that it was wont to figure in plumbing. At once, and in accents of slithering scorn, you are set right. Candlewick is used in fitting a slip joint, but what has that to do with setting a bowl? Nothing. See?
Um! There is the hard wiry string that came around the new dishpan. What? Not limber enough? Then what about this fuzzy hemp that secured the lately laundered curtains? Too linty! Well, maybe it is. But here is a limber one, without lint, which bound the last purchase of sheets. Not just hardly it! W-well! The clothesline is too thick, the grocery cord too thin. La la!
After all, what did he need with string? The journeyman plumber stiffens with hauteur. You would n’t understand if he told you. This is a pertic’lar job, and to go on with it he must have a string, the nearest specimen of which reposes in the boss’s shop. And now, with things tore up and all, why, you’d want the job finished, would n’t you? Anyways, he’d had to loosen that bowl a lot worse ‘n it was so’s to make it tight later. See? Left like this, it ‘d always be leaking, and mebbe run through to the ceiling of the apartment below and stir up a row with the folks down there. It’d be too bad to have all that happen when all that was needed was a piece of string.
He talks fervently. On your time. Two dollars and a quarter an hour. Heavens! Fifteen minutes gone in talk! One quarter of two-twenty-five is — let’s see. But even as you calculate the minutes tick off at the rate of 3¾ cents apiece. (You compute that later when the plumber-meter is n’t counting against you.)
‘I know!’ You beam with inspiration born of desperation. ‘I’ll send William on his bicycle for it so you won’t have to stop work.’
The journeyman treats you to a startled glance, but at once regains his poise. ‘Now, lady, I gotta go for that string myself. See? The boss might send the wrong kind and hold up the job longer ‘n ever. Anyways, I can’t do nothin’ till I get it.’
He goes. You look at the clock and fatuously hope his car will not suffer any untoward accident at your expense. He ought to be back in ten minutes, but your psychic antennæ gather that he will not.
And he is not. But how’d he know he was goin’ to have a blow-out and the spare tire back at the shop? (What tenaciously home-staying creatures plumbers’ possessions are!) It took him only twenty-five minutes to fix that tire O.K., while anybody but a plumber’d had to spend three quarters of an hour.
One dollar and eight cents’ worth of alleged puncture and seventy-five cents’ worth of trip. You calculate it while you sort of hang around to find out what on earth he is going to do with that string.
But you never know. The telephone rings and, during the two minutes you are silencing it, the string does its part, if ever. For on your return to the scene of damage, there it lies—just an ordinary piece of string; as like that piece that came around the laundered curtains as one pea is like his brother. There it lies in the litter of plaster of Paris where the master-mender flung it, feebly coiled, trying to look important and expensive.
I may be accounted bitter about that string. (For I have been using the more intimate ‘you’ to indicate the universality of the episode.) Perhaps I am. It hurt my pride and swept away my confidence. For, before that string happened to me, I thought I had acquired, by experience with the same slight mishap to the same lavatory, sufficient data anent the eccentricities of plumbing supplies in being ‘left at the shop’ to forestall any possible hitch by any such phenomena.
To begin with, the bowl was only slightly loose at one side, a screw having fallen out underneath, carrying with it a lump of hard white substance. A laboratory test, consisting of scraping the white substance over the kitchen sink with a knife, analyzed the lump as plaster of Paris. There! I’d do one plumber the unheard-of good turn of apprising him of just exactly what he would need to bring, saving him that invariable trip back to the shop which I had heard my friends deplore. How expensive the poor plumbers must find these trips!
So, on generosity bent, I called one of the first names in the part of the telephone directory devoted to the plumber persuasion. Later I came to choose plumbers by their proximity to the job in question. This first one held sway thirty-seven blocks away. I told him the nature and material of the bowl, and the extent of the accident; that I had the screw, but he would have to bring the plaster of Paris.
‘I’ll be right out, madam,’ came promptly over the wire.
He came, but he brought no plaster of Paris.
‘And you ‘ll have to go all the way back for it? That will be expensive for you,’ I sympathized with reservations.
‘For me! We don’t do nothin’ on our own time onst we leave the shop. Our pay begins when we start to go on a job and it keeps right up till the work’s finished.’
‘At what rate? ‘ I managed weakly.
‘Two dollars and a quarter an hour,’ grimly.
‘I asked you to bring that plaster of Paris with you.’
‘I had to come look at the job first.’
‘Did n’t you know exactly what had to be done? ‘
‘Yes’m, but I hadda come look first,’ doggedly.
‘Do you ever fasten marble bowls up without plaster of Paris?’
‘No’m, but I hadda come look at it,’ more doggedly.
‘Well, go on back to the shop and — stay!’ I flipped cattishly. And he did.
The next plumber held court twelve blocks distant — the five-blocks one could not be roused. He would fly at once to my aid, but I held him dangling until I minutely described to him my needs. Sternly I declared that if he did not bring plaster of Paris we could not deal.
He brought it. But failed to bring a certain highly specialized tool. I offered him everything from the screwdriver to the meat-grinder, but he had to go back to the shop. Our adieus were final, and it was here that the five-blocks man and the string came into my life.
I sat up late that night. Taking the number of go-back-and-getters shown in the directory and dividing them into the town’s population, I was able to estimate the plumber census of the whole country.
I computed that the number of highly remarkable tools left behind at the shop in a single year would equip every Ford turned out at the Detroit factory since 1921, including trucks. And that pieces of string fetched by special trip, if laid end to end, would reach from Bangor, Maine, to Bozeman, Montana.
I took these figures to a neighbor who declared the tool estimate conservative enough, but the string computation somewhat high. It was only in extreme cases that it factored. But take wire, he said. Why, the wire which had to be used to open stopped drains, and which was always left in the shop, in a single year would bale the nation’s hay crop from Syracuse to Sacramento.
As for my case, it was just a piece of string. But it has tripped my optimism about democracy and disturbed my faith in liberty, equality, and fraternity. America harbors at least one highly favored class.