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The guy running the snake down our sewer looks matter-of-fact. Our sewage has been backing up. Right next to the pipe connecting our house to the sewer line running down our street stands a 70-year-old willow oak, and I worry the tree's roots have found their way, during the droughty past year, into our line. He shrugs: Maybe it's tree roots, maybe it's a collapsed pipe, maybe it's a yo-yo. The snake went in only a dozen feet or so and found a clog, and now the little claw at the end is spinning. Once he pulls it out we'll know better what's going on. I leave him to his business, though I cast an annoyed glance at the oak. Sewer pipes fit together simply, with a bell joint, and tiny root hairs find their way to the nutrient-rich flow, then grow larger, eventually growing large enough to shatter the vitreous clay pipe that forms so many service lines or dislodge a joint if the pipes are cast iron. Nobody knows what our pipes, 70 years old, are made of, but I fear we're about to find out.
Fifteen minutes later he's winding the snake back up, writing a bill, and exonerating the oak.
"Do you have a baby?" he asks. We do.
"Do you use those flushable wipes?" We do.
"Don't," he says. The entire paper industry in recent years has worked to develop more and more flushable items: baby wipes, moist adult wipes, antibacterial bathroom scrubbers, diaper liners, diapers. He shakes his head: If it doesn't come apart in your hands, don't flush it. All it has to do is hold its form for an hour or so and it can find a place to catch: a joint, a root, a pimple on the inside of the pipe, one of the little mounds of rust buildup called tubercules. Then, like a snag in a river, it starts catching other stuff and you've got yourself a situation, either for you or for your whole neighborhood. We're like a nation of 1-year-olds, throwing everything in the toilet. "Toilet paper and what comes out of you," he says. "That's what should go in the toilet." Take the goldfish outside and bury it; otherwise the best case is it's just going to get caught in a screen at the treatment plant. It won't biodegrade on the way down, and it might cause trouble. And let's not even bring up those garbage disposals--we had had another guy out 6 months before and he excavated enough of a neatly processed carrot that with sufficient patience we could have reconstructed it. The sewer, person after person tells me, is for sewage.
Your favorite pop culture reference to sewage may involve Art Carney, in character as Ed Norton, singing, "Together we stand, with shovel in hand, to keep things rolling along." Or maybe it's one of those scenes from Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis, with all kinds of French high drama occurring amid the atmospheric flow. I prefer Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, cackling while creating plastic explosive animals against a backdrop of sacks of the common golf-course fertilizer Milorganite. You scarcely notice it, but I'll decode that: Milorganite is short for MILwaukee ORGAnic NITrogEn, a soil treatment produced by the city of Milwaukee's wastewater treatment plant since 1925 and now used on lawns all over the country. It's the end result of their sewage treatment, and they ship thousands of tons of it each year.
The point isn't so much that what happens to our sewage reaches into every crevice of our culture. The point is that once you're managing it instead of wishing it away, sewage turns out to be a pretty good thing.
In the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, just hanging around atop some cabinets lies an extra set of 4-foot-square planning maps made in 1922--the first planning documents in Raleigh's history. They make great idle-time study: "Locations of Fires in Buildings: One of a Series of Preliminary Zoning Studies," says one. Another shows the water distribution system, a 16-inch and a 14-inch line coming from the pumping station down by Walnut Creek to the city water tower; another shows hard-surface paving; a fourth demonstrates "Barriers to Street Extensions and Residential and Commercial Growth."