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Inside Story: My Nine Year Leak

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There was a period in my life where my world caved in from every conceivable side: fire, sickness, career catastrophe, car accident, you name it. They all rained down on me within a relatively short period of time and left me with a healthy case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. So it was certainly hard not to think the sky was falling when a leak developed in my bedroom that turned into a gaping hole--a hole that wasn’t fixed for more than nine years.

A few years after my husband, Gary, and I had moved into a lovely co-op on Central Park West, we noticed little bubbles forming on our bedroom ceiling. They amassed in a cluster that resembled Pennsylvania. Gary thought it looked more like Indiana. That was the extent of our interest until we came home during a rainstorm a few nights later and found water gushing through a hole in our bedroom ceiling.

There was a puddle around the antique cedar chest in the corner of our room, and clumps of wet plaster everywhere. There was another, less aggressive leak in the living room. The whole place smelled like damp, mildewed towels.

We called the superintendent of our building who outfitted us with two industrial sized garbage cans to catch the water. The next day, the building’s engineers inspected our ceiling and determined that the leaks were coming from the roof.

For many nights after that, we fell asleep to the sound of water plopping into the metal can that sat right next to my side of the bed. We lined the can with old towels and stuffed our ears with Ear Stopples. We hated it, but assumed it would be temporary and the co-op would get it fixed. Gradually, our bedroom came to resemble a construction site with gaping scars on our peach-colored walls and exploratory holes cut through the ceiling. By spring, the roof of the building was repaired and we re-painted our bedroom a sunny yellow.

The following fall, the same thing happened. The bubbles re-surfaced and eventually there was water dripping down our bedroom walls. Again, the engineers diagnosed a leak in the roof, which they spent the next several months repairing. By the spring, a year and a half after the first leak, more holes in the roof were repaired and once again, our room was patched up and painted—this time, a soft mint green. That was that, we thought, happy to have weathered the storm and leave it all behind us.

When the leak returned in the fall, I’d like to say that we got more organized and aggressive about getting it fixed. But the truth is, by this time, a fog of inertia (or was it weariness?) had settled over both of us. We each hoped the other would make it go away, and neither of us had the patience to stay on it every day. We fought a lot that year, and the shambles of our bedroom became a metaphor for what I feared was happening to our lives.

Yes, we called in plumbers, architects and engineers; we wrote to the coop board; we made countless unreturned phone calls to the managing agent of the building. What we didn’t do was take the matter into our own hands. Instead, the calls were sporadic, and we ultimately let the building decide what should be done—even after our engineer and architect suggested that the leak might not be coming from the roof but from some internal plumbing leak.

Over the next three years, the roof of the apartment building was repainted and replaced; the building’s bricks were re-pointed and re-caulked; the people who lived in the penthouse had to dig up their terrace; our insurance company threatened to drop us. There were two more paint jobs (baby pink, robin’s egg blue), but nothing could keep the water back.

At night I’d lie in bed staring at the holes above my head, and envision what it would feel like when the penthouse collapsed in on top of me. Our bedroom had developed an ecosystem of its own. We called it “the swamp,” and it smelled like one, too. My asthma, triggered by humidity, worsened, and I dreamed about being trapped underwater or lost in caves.

When we’d first moved to this place, I couldn’t believe our good fortune. The park was so near that it was like our own backyard. It was where I rode my bike, walked my dog, and met my friends. And the apartment, so sunny and open, felt like my sanctuary. Now I dreaded coming home. Sometimes I felt so desperate, I wanted to move or check into a hotel. It came to represent all of the times I’d been up against fate and lost. I hated how helpless it made me feel. I hated what it was doing to our marriage. We thought of just selling it and walking away, but who would buy the Okefenokee Swamp in the middle of Manhattan?

Finally, with no response to our letters and phone calls from the coop board and the managing agent and, with the wetlands in our bedroom thriving, we lost all faith that it would ever get fixed, and we hired a real estate attorney. Four and a half years after our first watery siege, we filed a negligence suit against the co-op which is a little like suing your own mother.

That’s when our upstairs neighbors stepped in. The building had been putting pressure on them to remove their heavy planters, tear out more of their outside deck. Instead, they offered to call in their own engineers, who corroborated our engineer’s theory: that the leak was caused by an internal plumbing problem. This time, we turned the problem over to them instead of putting it in the hands of the building’s engineers.

One early spring day, two men in blue uniforms marched into our bedroom and opened up the wall from which the original leak had sprung. And there it was, a three-way steam pipe so rusted and corroded that it looked like the head of Medusa. Turns out that every fall, when they turned the heat on in the building, the steam would condense and eventually leak into our bedroom--just as had been posited years earlier.

You’d think the story would end there, but no. After another paint job (running out of colors, we went back to peach), there was another leak over our bed. It turned out to be the same sort of problem. Another pipe was replaced. So was the ceiling.

In year nine, with a settlement in sight from a lawsuit against the building, we transformed the swamp into the bedroom of our dreams. There are now built-in closets and bookshelves, and we replaced our waterlogged bed with a blonde sleigh-bed. Not surprisingly, our renovated marriage blossomed without the buckets on the bedroom floor and holes in the ceiling.

I still lie in bed at night searching for new bubbles that might have cropped up since the night before. Gary and I talk about what we would do if, God forbid, the leaking ever started again. For starters, we’d take charge faster, each assuming assigned tasks and following up every day. I had been impatient for a quick solution; Gary knew that getting anything done would require a long, entangled process.

Entrenched in our own points of view, we should have met in the middle and relied on each other to overcome our own weaknesses. Also, and maybe this should come first, we should have called in our own engineers right away and spent the money to have them do the work, not trusting it to be done through a third party.

As for now, the walls in our bedroom are a vibrant sky-blue, and we have been without a leak for a five years. And on the wall which had housed the culprit pipe, there now hangs a beautiful framed poster of a mermaid: underwater of course, just as fate would have it.


Betsy Carter is a writer. The paperback version of her latest book, The Puzzle King, will be published by Algonquin Books in November.

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