The Zen of home repair

The faucet in the utility tub in the basement had been dripping for some unknown reason for about two weeks. I'd even begun to hear some low rumblings around the house to the effect of: "I'm tired of wasting all that water. If something doesn't happen soon, I'm going to call some-body. And you know what plumbers are getting paid these days."

I recognized a threat to my innate macho "fix-it" genes when I heard that one.

After all, my grandfather owned and ran a garage back in the Model A Ford era, and my father could fix anything. I must have learned something during all those years I passed tools and sat watching as those two wrenched on various projects.

"I looked at that faucet downstairs," I announced one day last week. "I think I might be able to fix it myself." With a little luck, I thought, I might be able to string this little project into about four days' worth of "work around the house" credits.

There are two different ways to go about any home-repair job. One, you assemble everything you'd be likely to need before you start and then mentally walk through each expected step. Or two, just tear right into the job, and if it's all that important, well, that just guarantees you'll finish it.

I started off by tracing the water pipes back to their main shut-off valve, then turning the leaky faucet to on to make sure the main valve did shut off. I remember watching my father chop down into a wire that he thought led to a plug that he'd plugged a lamp into; the resulting shock threw him up against the opposite wall and burned a notch into his wire cutters. I didn't want to take any unexpected showers.

Next, I went looking for all the tools I'd need. There is a cliché that gets repeated before almost every job is begun: "Use the right tool - or you'll just mess up the job." Its inverse is, as a dead car in the middle of the desert was brought back to life with only a dime for a screwdriver, a straightened-out paperclip and a length of Scotch tape: "Anybody can work with tools - it takes a mechanic to work without tools." I collected the right tools.

I found my trick interchangeable-head screwdriver (because you almost always need a screwdriver to do any job) and a large, adjustable-jaw, open-end wrench that fit the nuts on the faucet pipes. (Simple pliers don't have parallel jaws, and if the nut is on any tighter than finger-tight, they'll round off its corners, and then you'll never get a grip on it.)

The one thing I couldn't find was my jar of collected washers. I found a jar full of wood screws, and out in the garage I found collections of both nuts and bolts. But not the washers.

I'd have to fall back on Plan B and just tear right into the job. After I'd disassembled the hot-water faucet to its smallest pieces, I divined that the leak was occurring around one of two possible washers. A trip to the hardware store was the next order of business.

"I need a washer that will fit into this seat," I told the guy behind the counter as I held up my faucet pieces. "And then I need to replace this other washer, too."

He took my dismantled faucet and walked back to the aisle and section where they stored their rubber washers. I followed along and paused in front of only two merchandise displays. (Want to see a man dawdle? Follow him as he walks through a hardware store.)

"Before you start carving on this washer trying to get it out," the clerk said, "was it conical or flat?"

"I don't know," I answered. "I think it had a groove in it. How much are the washers?"

"Eleven cents."

"Give me both styles - I'm not going to make a second trip for 22 cents."

On the way back home I was delayed by only two garage sales that I had to investigate. Neither one had any goodies I couldn't live without.

Back home, I replaced the one washer on the hot-water side and then went through the "disassembly - cut out the old washer and clean everything - and reassembly" routine with the cold-water side. Then I stood back when the main shut-off valve was turned back to on. I mean, it might have been shower time.

Not a drop.

I picked up my tools, and as I put them away, I looked for an empty jar next to my toolbox to stick my two extra washers in. The first jar I picked up was almost empty, except that when I unscrewed the lid and looked inside, there were about 10 various-sized black rubber washers. When I dumped them out on the workbench, there were four identical to the two I'd just put in the faucet.

Oh well.

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