for Bart and Joe
You need plumbing parts and supplies, and we speak the trade language. That’s why you drive your service vans and trailer-pulling trucks to the back of the building and park next to the pipe racks or back up against the cement loading dock, behind the front-end offices and showroom staged with shiny fixtures and bright white vitreous China, to the will-call counter, which hasn’t changed in forty years. We’re busy throwing freight, pulling phone orders, and tracking down non-stock items, but we hear the sharp bell ding as soon as the door swings open. By the time you fill your Styrofoam cup with hot, light-bodied coffee and dump powdered creamer on top, we appear on the other side of the waist-high, wood-grain laminate counter to man one of the three computer stations. We look at your hat or striped uniform shirt for your company name, which we slam into the computer, followed by your name, which is sewn in cursive on a patch above your breast pocket. Before you finish stirring your coffee, we’re asking for a PO number. That’s when you sit down on a barstool, sip from your cup, and set a list written on a piece of cardboard or chunk of scrap wood and enter into conversation.
You want a Moen kitchen faucet—the cheap single-handle with a side-sprayer in chrome, which we know as the Chateau model, code S-67430, flexible supply lines, code C20-68-PH, quarter-turn compression angle-stops, code BR-218-CLF, spin-n-grin basket strainers, code S-157-SS, and a cock-hole cover in chrome. Two plumbers burst through the door, firing off dings. One of us has to jaunt to the far end of aisle four for the cock-hole cover, to find the code Sharpied on the box, because there are too many codes, and cock-hole covers aren’t big sellers. Then we’re all hammering keyboards, and words like cow-tongue and test-cock and shoulder-nipple get thrown around. The printer starts groaning out orders, where one of us staples the white copies on top of the yellows, then divvies up the orders. We stay with you, start to finish, throughout the transaction. K’s Rooter, Jim Clark’s old unmarked van, and Bench Mechanical tailgate into the lot. “Here comes the wave,” one of us says, while the others hunt for boxes and shopping carts.
You refill your coffee cups and turn for the back wall, where the popcorn and vending machines wait, surrounded by tagged toilets, sump pumps, floor drains, water coolers, and boxes of cast-iron fittings and shielded no-hub bands, as well as other orders, all awaiting pickup. You push two quarters down the change hatch for a Mellow Yellow, or feed two bucks into the blinking slot for a Monster Energy. The coffee hasn’t done enough. Then you’re scooping popcorn into a bag, because it’s free, and it’s nice to chew and drink and talk with other plumbers while you wait for us to zoom around the narrow aisles with shopping carts from defunct grocers, like Pay ‘n Save and Sure-Save, pulling trap-primers and loop-hangers and pints of milky glue, then finally pushing them over the countertop. “Here’s your box of fun,” one of us says. The others bullshit about college football or chukar hunting while you initial our white tickets and shove the yellows in your back pocket. “I hope I don’t see you again today,” you say as more trucks file into the lot. Phone orders from inside salesmen stack up on the printer tray. Conversations speed up, the process repeats, and time gets squeezed.
We slip off our sneakers or boots in the break room, on lunch, settling into padded chairs. It’s the first time one of us has sat down in hours, and the break feels extravagant. The counter’s still slammed, but we push you and your lists to the backs of our minds for thirty minutes, until it’s our turn. The others have to work faster and harder after one of us clocks out, but the intensity makes our wristwatches tick and turn faster than the wall-hung clocks in the offices. Time only slows down in the break room, when Gunsmoke or Wagon Train is tuned in on the flatscreen at the end of the table, Monday through Friday. We empty our lunch sacks—baloney sandwich, greasy chips, off-brand cookies, Coke—and absentmindedly eat and watch. The storylines always revolve around good and evil forces—not unlike the give and take at the counter. The exchange is the same. You need us almost as much as we need you. This need keeps us clocking in after our lunch breaks, working through food comas, keeps our inventory moving and your pipe wrenches turning.
Photo by Kyle Bilinski