It had rained on Brooklyn, a week or two of incessant wet. Such constant precipitation might have been expected of Somerset Maugham’s South Seas—but not of the brownstones, apartment buildings, Victorians, semi-attached, and bungalows one finds down Bedford or Nostrand through Bed-Sty, Crown Heights, Midwood, Marine Park, and Sheepshead Bay. Normally, a storm came and went, always passing through, never making itself at home.
But this one had stayed. Day after day of downpour then drizzle then downpour again.
A friend, Diane Tolles, who looked disturbingly like Joan Crawford in her role as Maugham’s Sophie Thompson in Rain, called several times during the second week of it. She wanted my advice: Water was leaking into her kitchen, down both walls; drips were beginning to appear in her bedroom and living room.
“Why don’t you call your landlord?”
“That’s just it. I can’t. I don’t want him coming into my apartment.”
“I’ve hardly unpacked since I moved in. The place is a mess.”
“But you’ve been there six months!”
Diane was what once was called a pack rat, now a disposophobiac. She’d lost her last apartment because the landlord had claimed her stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines were a fire hazard—and had proved it in court. Other than that, she was a stylish and pleasant woman in her 40s with a penchant for exotic silk scarves.
“…do you have any idea what’s going on?”
“Diane, it’s raining. When it rains, water gets in.”
She called again a few days after the rain had stopped. Water, she told me, was still dripping down her walls.
“Can you go up on my roof for me and see what the problem is?”
“I guess so, but I don’t know what the problem could be.” I hesitated. “Diane, is there an apartment above yours?” The idea that water was dripping when it was dry out perplexed me.
“No. The building has only one floor in my part. The rest of it has two, one half a flight up from me, one half a flight down.”
“Easy to get to the roof?”
About nine the next evening, I rang the bell at the entrance to her building. She met me there, ushering me quickly past the door to her apartment and up onto the roof.
The roof we emerged onto was that of the other part of the building. A short metal ladder with a top that rounded over the ledge peeked up from her own roof. I walked to it and looked down.
“Uh, I think I see what the problem is.”
She stopped beside me and looked down, too. “Yes, I guess so.”
“But I don’t think I can fix it right now.”
But you can fix it, right?”
Below us, on her roof, was close to three feet of water, almost to the top of the waist-high walls on the other three sides. The drain, wherever it was, must have clogged. It was probably a three or four inch pipe, so I couldn’t imagine that the clog was in the pipe itself. But, looking around at the roof in the dim light reflected from the street, I couldn’t tell where it was.
“Look, I’ve a pair of fireman’s boots, waders, back at my place. I really don’t want to go down there without them.”
“Will it take you long to get them?”
“No.” Less than an hour, it turned out. She let me in again, and again stood guard against unauthorized entry to her apartment. I climbed the stairs, slipped out of my shoes and into the boots, and handed her the shoes.
Once I was wading on the roof, I was able to determine the slope, telling me which side the drain had to be on. I kicked along the wall on the low side, hoping to dislodge the clog or otherwise locate the drain.
After a time, I did find it, and quickly got it clear. A roar from below told me that water was cascading down into the street. I stayed where I was, clearing away debris that tried to clog it up again, listening to the sound from below.
From the distance, I heard sirens. They approached, stopping below the building. Diane whispered to me from above, on the higher roof. “Aaron, we’ve got to leave. Hurry.”
Perplexed, I climbed up just as the last of the water was gliding towards the drain. She shoved my shoes at me. I changed, carrying the boots down into the building and turning towards the entrance.
“No,” she said, “this way.” And led me to a back entrance. “Don’t let anyone see those boots.”
My car was close by, so that wasn’t a problem. Boots stowed, she led me around to the front of the building where a crowd had gathered, people talking to the firemen whose truck was pulsing red light up and down the block.
“The water was coming from there,” one resident pointed to a locked driveway gate at the side of Diane’s building, “just flooding, but now it has stopped.” Perplexed, but with a good grasp of the obvious. “It must have been a burst water line, but how did it stop?”
Diane and I walked quietly by. She invited me for coffee in a shop a few blocks away.