| The Plumber's Radio Show
I had been writing commercials for a talk-radio station located on the beach in South Florida. Money-wise, the best thing about working at the station was the view of the beach. But I had been clawing my way up from a complete psychological and financial wipe-out as a result of a thorough divorce, so writing one-voicers (with music under) for used furniture stores and emergency septic-tank service was the next rung up for me.
But the day finally came when I was ready to move further up the ladder. Any ladder.
I asked the general manager to consider ways we might more greatly reward my efforts for the company. In order to be helpful, I offered a number of suggestions, ranging from augmenting my pay to giving me use of our trade-out arrangements with some of our restaurant accounts (meaning we gave them radio advertising and they gave us culinary delights). One of the suggestions I made was that I be promoted to radio star. Since that was the cheapest way to buy me off, the manager assented my stardom was okay with him. He wrote me a hall pass to the broadcast room and wished me luck. As I left his office, he also advised me that I would need the Program Director's approval for a promotion of that magnitude.
When he heard my request, the Program Director looked at me with pity. He didn't say so, but I gleaned that, in his estimation, my star-potential was similar to the condition of many actual celestial bodies: remote, dim, and invisible to the naked eye.
I suggested he let me develop my radio muscles broadcasting late at night when only security guards are still awake (a few of them, anyway), but he objected that he would rather not jeopardize such an important segment of our audience. Nonetheless, he admitted he did have a slot in mind for me; he needed a host for the new "plumber's call-in talk-show" that would debut on the station tomorrow night. He grinned malevolently and suggested this show might be the first rung on the ladder to my towering stardom. So I took the job.
From the moment I woke up on the day of the show, I was in the grip of broadcast fear. The show was to be a whole hour long. I wondered if I could last that long without succumbing to heart-failure. Or running out of things to say.
I tried to call the plumber who would be the show's expert so we could get together and plan what we were going to do, but couldn't reach him.
Went to the library, but none of the books on plumbing seemed to hit the right slant for a radio show. I tried to compensate for all the years I had neglected this vital subject by skimming through three fat plumbing encyclopedias while I sweated out the last few hours remaining before show time.
Figured the plumber would be prepared for the show. Maybe I could coast. And the producer who put the show together said the plumber was a very outgoing, talkative type who made even sink traps seem interesting. I relaxed. After all, how bad could it be?
But that night, when I arrived at the station, I found waiting for me a scared, taciturn plumber. He meekly confided to me that he had never been on the radio before. He took some comfort in the fact that I was a seasoned professional.
I thought it might help him take heart to know that I was just as scared as he was, so I told him I was a beginner, too. He went pale and lost the power of speech.
During the countdown to air time, I reflected glumly that facing a firing squad had its advantages over being a radio personality. At least you weren't expected to entertain your executioners with intelligent conversation about pipe-fitting.
On the air! The hairs on my neck stood up, but I got a grip on myself. I forced air through my vocal chords and moved my mouth at the same time. To my surprise, words came out. I was able to talk! I was actually making sense! I was even aware of where I was and, to a degree, what was going on around me.
But the plumber was in danger of collapse! I introduced him by name, hoping that would jump-start him. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. And 59 minutes left in the show!
I went through all my prepared questions and tried to answer them myself the best I could. The plumber had managed to get his vocal chords going and was making low, bovine groans. It wasn't the kind of witty dialogue the Program Manager craved, but
it would have to do.
I launched into an epic free-association stream-of-consciousness more or less anchored to the subject of plumbing. After a heroic stint of digressing and blabbing, I sneaked a peek at the clock and discovered the show was only ten minutes old! I passionately reminded the listening audience that this was a "call-in" show, and no time like the present!
But the minutes dragged by like a dull knife bogged down in living bone.
The plumber's unformed cow sounds were now occasionally making simple words by accident. "How" was uttered, as well as "bound, hound, own, ohm, owe, hoe," and, I think, "fabliaux." Even basic sentences were beginning to evolve. While I was feverishly generating radio verbiage, I thought I heard him mumble, "Spoons knock quarter boulevard." Strange to say, at the time this made sense to me, and I made a mental note that he was about ready to field questions from the phones, if anyone ever called in.
At this point, I got the plumber to respond, somewhat, to my own sentences. The process was beginning to approach the rudiments of actual conversation. The exact content of this particular segment of repartee eludes memory, but it was very general and open ended, at best. Rather like confirming ontological basics. For example, "I am, you are," would be much more sophisticated than the tenor of our exchange at that point. But it was developing. What's more, our linguistic wanderings were coming closer and closer to the suburbs of the city of the subject of the show!
Emboldened by this encouraging development, I reminisced about leaks I had had in the past, then speculated about a few that might be coming up. I confessed I had doubts about a few of my pipes. I wondered aloud whether galvanizing was really the big deal it was cracked up to be. I waxed sentimental about lead solder, noting that it had been around since before the Roman Empire, and had a certain romance about it, even if it was deadly poison. I opined that faucets whose handles turned inward were superior to those that turned outward--superior because easier on the wrists. I chastised the plumbing industry at large for not offering consumers a toilet whose flushing sound wouldn't carry on the telephone. In short, I palavered non-stop over a vast range of quasi-plumbing lore in a desperate attempt to forestall the inevitable, monolithic silence that was hovering over us ready to fall like a giant, soundless, smothering pillow. In reply to my frantic confabulation, the plumber rejoined once in a while with monosyllabic vocables that sounded sympathetic and even sincere.
The dire nature of my circumstances must have gone out through the air waves, because an old friend of mine called to help out. I had to choke back tears of gratitude. By lucky accident, he asked the plumber a question about PVC pipe. It turned out that PVC pipe was a subject the plumber felt very strongly about. So much so that he forgot how frightened he had been of the microphone and began a long, vitriolic tirade deriding the reactionary building codes that frowned on the use of this miraculous product. The good side of this was that five minutes zipped by while the plumber castigated the plumbing-establishment for their lack of vision. The bad side was that this diatribe threw him into a sulk, and by the time he ran out of bile he was in a black mood, and disinclined to talk shop.
Miracle of miracles, another line lit up on the telephone! We had received another phone call. A genuine, unsolicited, unrelated stranger had taken an interest in our show!
I punched up the call live on the radio and a drunk with an almost unintelligible slur spilled onto the air waves to relate a horrible experience he had had with a plumber. It seemed that he had once had a problem that required the skills of an electrician, but he had called a plumber instead for mysterious reasons that he alluded to in a protracted series of mouth sounds that might have seemed like words to the drunk, but to the rest of us bore more resemblance to the swishy slurping of a thirsty drain.
The drunk vehemently denounced the plumber who had showed up to fix his electrical problem. "He knew what I really needed was an electrician," the drunk declared, "but would he say so? Eh? Would he? Yer darn tootin' he wouldn't! Then he stole my cat!"
I wasn't sure if I should dump this caller or let him rake the cat-snatching plumber over the coals to kill time. There were no other calls waiting. I decided on the coals.
The drunk wept a fair amount. He had really loved the cat, and had taken it on a trip to Scotland.
I had to cut the drunk off mid-sob because we had made it to the top of the hour and it was news time.
The plumber and I were treated to five minutes of relief while the network newsman brightly chirped about crimes and catastrophes going on outside our studio in the so-called real world.
During the news, the plumber came to life. Suddenly, he was a chatterbox! He said being on the radio wasn't so tough. There was nothing to it. He said he was having a great time!
I was shocked. I was annoyed. To myself I wondered where had he been during my herculean struggles to keep the show going? I asked him point blank what on earth he imagined we were going to talk about during the 25 minutes of the show remaining.
He said, "Let's tell them I give away a free can of drain cleaner with every house call."
We shared this revelation with the audience right after the news. But they seemed not to grasp the relevance a can of drain cleaner might have for their sad, pointless lives, though no one called to say so. Twenty-four minutes left in the show!
I reached to the very bottom of my imagination to find something to talk about, and came up with the universal problem of rust. I started with small spots of rust, then expanded the phenomenon to a philosophical concept.
In fairness, I must admit the plumber was a little more help now. He found a topic that was somewhat interesting and that he liked to talk about: globs of hair that he had coaxed from drains over the years and how slimy they were. He had a surprising amount to say on this topic. He held me and the audience spellbound recounting how, during a vacation ten years ago, he had wrestled a fifteen-foot slather of mucus-drenched fuzz out of a wash-basin in a half-bathroom belonging to an heiress in Paris. He said it was just his dumb good luck that he had been at the right place at the right time.
The big hand on the clock moved glacier-like through the last few minutes of the show, but even torture comes to an end sometime. At last, the show was over!
I was elated. I had managed to survive an hour on the radio making conversation with a mum plumber. I knew now there was no limit to what I could do!
The next day the general manager stopped me in the hall and said he had listened to the plumber's show and I had been good. He said he hadn't realized I had such beautiful "pipes." At first I thought this was an inscrutable reference to the plumber's trade, then realized it was radio hip-talk for "voice." The GM also said he was very impressed with my knowledge of plumbing.
Riding the crest of this wave of praise, I gave voice to my hope that I would get more time on the air. A lot more time.
"You will," the GM allowed. "You will."
"Meanwhile," he smiled, "I wonder if I might ask you to take a look at the commode in the ladies room and figure out why it won't stop running?"
It was not hard to fix. The problem was that the ballcock valve needed adjustment. I corrected it in just a few minutes.
So I should be getting my own radio-show any day now. And my stardom will be right behind.
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