At first, there was nothing more than a puddle. It sat between the sidewalk and the curb, that patch of green, and when I asked if the hose had been on and was told yes, I thought nothing more about it. But the puddle would not go away and later it grew larger and soon it started spilling into the street. For days, I feared that I would soon be dealing with the City of Washington over my water leak. At the worst, I thought it would make a column.
I knew what to expect. I had read about the city's vaunted water department, which is called the Department of Environmental Services. I had heard stories, too, and, of course, I had written a thing or two about them in my own time. I have used the city bureaucracy, in fact, as other columnists use real people - mayors or governors or city councils - trying to raise incompetence to the dramatic level of corruption.
So the water was leaking. It was coming up from the ground near the curb and running out into the street. My neighbor came and told me about it and I said I knew, but I let it go. She came again, and again I thanked her, but again I did nothing. Then the water really started to come out of the ground. It came up like a little natural wonder. I thought maybe I could have tourists come by and my son could sell lemonade. I thought a lot of things, but I thought mostly I would have to deal with the city water department. At the very worst, I thought, it would make a column.
It is a philosophy I have - this "it will make a column" thing. If I come to a dark alley that is a short cut, I take it. If I make it through, fine, if not, it's a column. That is sort of how I thought about calling the water department. If they fix the thing, fine - if not, it's a column. This is one column I felt sure of.
I called the water department, I dialed the phone and waited for someone to answer in, say, a half hour and then transfer me to someone else who would transfer me to someone else. I was almost laughing about it all when the phone was answered on the second ring and I was transferred immediately to the right department. A man there asked me if this was an emergency. I said no. Good, he said, they would be out the next day.
And they were. They came first in one truck and then two trucks and, finally, in three trucks and a supervisor's car. I went out, this smirk on my face, smelling a column about how no one really worked any more. They all worked. They started digging and got down into the mud and slime and dug away. They took an ax and and did a Lizzie Borden on some old tree roots and they worked, I have to tell you, neatly.
The supervisor came and said they would turn on my water soon. He said they knew it was the day before Thanksgiving and there was probably company coming and so the water would soon be turned on. He told me not to worry. He had the records of all the work done on this spot and he was sure the work would be finished shortly, but in any case, there would be water for Thanksgiving. He also promised they would clean up the mess.
Now I have to tell you that there is not much more to this column. It is just that I have been meaning to write something like this for some time now. The city of Washington has this reputation as a slipshod city, as a place where city workers sit with their feet up on the desk, letting the phone ring and the radio play and the fans rotate overhead. I think there is some of this and, God knows, I have written about it and so maybe I am one of those who has given Washington its reputation.
So here is a column for the guys down at the city building on G Street who processed my construction plans in no time. Here is something for the firemen and policemen who came in what seemed like two seconds when the Volkswagen bus overturned on Wisconsin Avenue and hit the traffic signal pole. They were terrific with the injured. Here's to the city employe who got a nearby alley cleaned up and here's to the teachers, the good ones, who called me and wrote me after I wrote critically about professional development day. God, some of these people have it rough. While I'm at it I should say something about the postman. The man's a champ, and, just to finish, something more about the guys from the water department.
They came back, like they said, they would, the day after Thanksgiving. I never expected to see them. The truck pulled up and the workers got out and when they finished that day, they left it neat and clean and better than when they had found it. I was happy about that but sorry that they had robbed me of material for a column.
City employes - they always let you down.